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A clarion call for firms to go digital

Despite Covid-19 pandemic, there are many growth opportunities out there if SMEs stay nimble and embrace technology, says ESG chairman Peter Ong

Mr Ong: The Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be "the strongest and unplanned impetus" for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to go digital.


IF there is one bright spark from the chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it's the fact that more companies in Singapore have - whether by choice or having their hand forced to some extent - embraced digitalisation in a big way.

In the words of Enterprise Singapore (ESG) chairman Peter Ong, the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be "the strongest and unplanned impetus" for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to go digital.

"In Singapore, we have no choice but to be the proponent for open markets and globalisation. And a key way to do this is through digitalisation," he told The Business Times in an exclusive interview.

"With digital connectivity, you can do a lot of new things and connect in many different ways, and with greater efficiency too," he said in the interview conducted virtually over Zoom.

Mr Ong is a former head of the Civil Service from 2010 to 2017, and a former permanent secretary at various ministries, including trade and industry, finance, transport, and defence.

He is the first chairman of ESG, a statutory board that was formed in April 2018 following the merger of two agencies - International Enterprise Singapore and Spring Singapore - to better help local firms grow and go global.

Officers at ESG and other government agencies, including the Infocomm Media Development Authority, have been working hard to help thousands of companies - especially the smaller ones - get started on their digital journey, or build on the existing technologies they already have.

Schemes aplenty

Mr Ong cited a number of major initiatives that have been rolled out to drive business transformation and open up new revenue streams for companies by going online.

On April 2 this year - just five days before Singapore entered what would eventually be a two-month circuit breaker period to stem the spread of Covid-19 - ESG launched the E-Commerce Booster Package for SMEs.

This package, meant for retailers that have little or no e-commerce experience, supports their costs to get on board online platforms to grow their reach at home and abroad.

Some 600 retailers have taken up the package as of the middle of June, said Mr Ong.

To boost their domestic reach, firms get help to list their products and services on one of four major platforms - Amazon, Lazada Singapore, Qoo10 and Shopee. SMEs also get funding support to work with solution providers to list and sell their wares on overseas electronic marketplaces.

Retailers get a one-time 90 per cent support on qualifying costs for the fees charged, capped at S$9,000. The package also pays 90 per cent of the salaries for hiring up to three staff for three months.

Another scheme that has seen a strong adoption rate is the Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG), which was taken up by 6,100 enterprises in 2019 - a figure almost 2.5 times higher than the year before.

PSG, launched in April 2018, helps micro and small enterprises, as well as first-time upgraders, to improve their productivity through curated and pre-scoped solutions that are easy to adopt.

The maximum funding support level was raised from 70 per cent to 80 per cent for the period from April 1 to Dec 31 this year.

To enable enterprises to continue to operate safely in the Covid-19 environment, PSG was enhanced to include remote working, safe management and virtual collaboration tools.

Since the end of May 2020, the take-up rate for such solutions and other digital capability upgrading projects has surpassed 5,000 firms.

Companies can also tap on another key scheme called Start Digital, launched by ESG and IMDA in January. This, said Mr Ong, is like a "digital supermarket" where firms can click on the solutions they need and get the implemented.

"We wanted to make this very simple. You buy the solution, install it, and you can get it to work quickly. And these are things that businesses need - HR, accounting, digital marketing, cybersecurity, e-payments," he said.

About 24,000 SMEs have adopted Start Digital solutions to date, a high number reached in a relatively short period of time because the agencies worked with the telcos and banks to help push these solutions to their customers. Last week, ESG and IMDA launched Grow Digital, an initiative that allows SMEs to sell their products online to overseas markets, without the need for a physical presence.

Diverse community

Those that sign up to adopt eligible business-to-consumer solution packages by Sept 30 can receive grant support of up to 90 per cent. Over 500 SMEs have benefited from the programme so far.

"Singapore is a small economy. For us to grow, our SMEs need to grab at all the different opportunities out there, as much as they can. The growth must come from outside of Singapore too," said Mr Ong.

Mr Ong made the point that, no matter the size of the company or the stage of its development, there are many schemes out there to tap on, with trained officers ready to guide business-owners on their digitalisation journey if need be.

"The entrenched diversity of SMEs require both a progressive and multi-fold approach towards the adoption of technology," he said.

"There's such a great diversity to accommodate in the SME community. We are talking about 200,000 enterprises, and close to 80 per cent of them have less than S$1 million in revenue a year."

Every establishment, including hawker stalls, can jump on the technology bandwagon at a pace they are comfortable with.

Mr Ong noted that the SG Digital Office is recruiting and deploying up to 1,000 digital ambassadors, to educate and encourage all seniors, as well as stallholders in hawker centres, wet markets, coffeeshops and industrial canteens, to go digital.

"I hope this will give another big push to the hawkers and heartland retailers," he said. "Because of Covid-19, we know that many more people need to go digital in some way. So we will make it as easy as possible, and we will hand-hold those that need the help."

Despite the magnitude of the impact on the economy due to Covid-19, Mr Ong felt there was still reason to be optimistic, so long as businesses remain nimble and open to new ideas.

"Again, the pandemic is an unplanned event, but by force of circumstance, many of our companies have gone about new ways of doing business and are starting to see growth," he said.

"I'm not saying this will be an easy road ahead. It will be tough. But I think the means and enablers to help SMEs are out there. If they are prepared to step forward and be nimble, the opportunities are there for the taking."

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