Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at Scale-up Ignite on 24 May 2022.
Mr Peter Ong,
Chairman, Enterprise Singapore
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A very good morning.
I am very happy to be with all of you here this morning, at the inaugural Scale-up Ignite.
We are gathering here today against the backdrop of an uncertain global economic environment. The COVID-19 pandemic still weighs heavily on the economic outlook, though there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Inflation has soared to multi-decade highs, exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine. The IMF has downgraded the global economic forecast, and there is an increasing risk of the global economy tipping into a recession.
Beyond the immediate challenges, I am positive about the longer-term outlook. While the pandemic has impacted livelihoods, it has also accelerated structural trends such as digitalisation, sustainability, and a stronger emphasis on resilience. These trends will open new vistas in the global economy. Within our region, Asia’s fundamentals also remain robust. We have dynamic economies, a growing middle class, and headroom for continued catch-up growth.
“Trident” of Growth
In Singapore, we have over the years developed a “trident” of growth for our economy, which puts us in a strong position to ride on new opportunities that are emerging. While the Government can play a supportive role, ultimately, it must be enterprises that are the vanguard of growth and innovation. This is true not just in Singapore, but all over the world. But Singapore has some key advantages. Tripartism is a key strength, which brings government, workers, and employers towards a common cause of improving our lives. We developed a vibrant R&D ecosystem that can help us push the innovation frontier. We have also made good progress with economic transformation, through our Industry Transformation Maps. The first phase of ITM has been completed. Building on the success of the first phase, we are now refreshing our strategies – ITM 2025 – in response to the accelerated structural shifts.
The first prong of our economic “trident” is multinationals. Since Singapore’s Independence, we have been drawing in the best companies from around the world. Foreign investments enabled our economy to grow, and multinationals are very much part of our Singapore Story. Over the decades, we have built up clusters of economic strengths – in areas such as electronics, energy, biomedical, aerospace, and several others. These foreign investments created many good jobs for our people, and uplifted local companies that were part of their supply chain. In many ways, they have been the “spear tip” of our growth trident, and a driving force for our economic development. EDB continues to bring in foreign investments every year. Last year, we attracted $11.8 billion in fixed asset investments, which are expected to create more than 17,000 jobs over the next five years.
But as our economy grew and matured, we started to develop additional prongs in our economic strategy. These are the dual prongs of what I would summarise broadly as “starting up” and “levelling up”.
Let me begin with “starting up”. I recall that just a decade ago, there was much debate over why there seemed to be a lack of entrepreneurs and start-ups in Singapore. But in recent years, our start-up ecosystem has gained real momentum. Start-ups can now tap a growing pool of over 200 accelerators, up from around 120 accelerators five years ago. The number of VCs has also increased from about 130 in 2016, to more than 220 today. This vibrant ecosystem has allowed many start-ups to grow and thrive. Some of them, such as Grab and Sea, have since grown into large companies and household names. Last year alone, there were 11 new unicorns here. Our start-ups come from different fields, including in deep-tech areas such as precision healthcare, urban solutions, and agritech. Today, instead of asking why we have a dearth of start-ups, I am glad that there are many articles in the international media highlighting the vibrant start-up scene here.
Beyond start-ups, we have equally put our efforts around “levelling” up our SMEs. SMEs are an important part of our economy. Most local enterprises fall into this category. Collectively, they employ more than two-thirds of our workforce. Leveling up and growing our SMEs is therefore a critical plank to ensure inclusive growth. From the early days of SPRING and IE Singapore, and now Enterprise Singapore, we have made a concerted effort to support our SMEs in raising their productivity, capabilities, and human capital. Increasingly, we are also seeing SMEs that want to grow even further, to become large enterprises with a global footprint. We have therefore launched the “Singapore Global Enterprises” initiative earlier this year to provide tailored support to these promising, high growth companies. For SMEs that are at this stage of growth, they face challenges growing beyond a certain size – they may not have the expertise to build new capabilities or access new markets. Often, they also struggle with hiring the right talent and retaining good employees. Some face workplace culture barriers to change and transformation. These challenges are not unique to our SMEs. All over the world, smaller companies face barriers when trying to grow. Many countries are making an effort to support their SMEs. So too in Singapore.
But if our start-up scene has been a “visible revolution” here, attracting headlines, leveling up our SMEs has been more of a “quiet evolution”. Quiet – because unlike start-ups, many of our successful SMEs are not as high profile. This is partly because many of them are not consumer facing. Evolution – because there is less of the explosive growth associated with early stage start-ups. It is more difficult for mature companies, whether SMEs or multinationals, to grow at an explosive pace. But steady transformation over time can lead to significant impact.
The quiet evolution is taking off. But we can afford to give it much more momentum. This is why I took up the invitation to speak at this event – so that we can put more of a spotlight on the growth journey of our SMEs and on role models such as all of you here.
I spoke earlier about doing even more to support our companies through the Singapore Global Enterprises initiative. A cornerstone of this effort is the Scale-up SG programme. We launched this programme in 2019 to hothouse fast-growing, promising Singapore companies. Through a 12 to 18-month programme, participants like yourselves join a group of like-minded CEOs and founders who learn and grow alongside you, undergoing the different phases of the programme as a cohort, to help you prepare, strategise, and accelerate your business growth journey. You interact with partners, such as Stanford Graduate School of Business, McKinsey and EY-Parthenon, who challenge and stretch your ambition and support the formulation and implementation of your company’s growth strategy. Today’s Scale-up Ignite event is an excellent platform to share takeaways and ideas, find new areas of collaborations, and to celebrate the achievements of the companies who have taken part.
We are now into our fourth year of the programme, having had five runs and a total of 65 companies. The outcomes have been encouraging. To date, the 65 Scale-up companies have successfully launched over 50 new ventures, identified 32 new markets, made more than 30 merger and acquisition deals, and embarked on over 20 innovative collaborations with one another.
Beyond the numbers, I am glad that Scale-up SG has catalysed the transformation journeys of many companies. Let me cite two examples. One, take AEM, which I visited last year. AEM has built up deep expertise in semiconductor and electronics test solutions. Its products are used to manufacture hundreds of millions of chips used in countless devices worldwide. Through their participation in Scale-up SG, AEM has expanded on its China business unit, completed multiple acquisitions, and crossed the S$500 million revenue milestone. Another example is Chye Thiam, which I visited earlier this year. Chye Thiam has shown that transformation is possible in any industry. The company has transformed its cleaning and facilities management business by introducing technology like AI, smart watches and automation. It is also now looking at electrifying its cleaning fleet through a collaboration with Durapower, another Scale-up SG company. It is also entering new market segments like electronic waste, online training and has plans to expand its cleaning services to markets like Vietnam. And there are many other such examples within the Scale-up SG community here.
Just as important, Scale-up SG is not just about each company’s individual journey. It is also about the collaborations, networks and partnerships that are forged. We have a small domestic market in Singapore. Instead of competing narrowly against each other, we would all be in a better position if we work together to solve common challenges and harness new opportunities. I am glad that Scale-up SG has catalysed some of these partnerships. For example, digital security company V-Key signed a collaboration MOU with three other Scale-up companies – Evercomm, Oneberry and Ascent Solutions – to deliver a range of innovative solutions in areas such as IoT tracking, energy monitoring, and telecommunications.
I understand Enterprise Singapore will be launching two more runs of the Scale-up SG programme this year. I look forward to seeing more companies embark on this journey and benefitting from the programme. We are here to partner you, understand your needs so that we can support you in the best possible way.
For those of you who have completed the programme, this is just the start of your journey. You are now part of a growing alumni group, and my hope is that you will continue to support and collaborate with one another to break new ground
In conclusion, let me say that we are all very encouraged by the desire of many of our SMEs – including all of you in the audience – to transform and scale up. Together with our vibrant start-up scene and growing base of multinationals, levelling up and scaling up our local enterprises will further strengthen our “trident of growth” in the next phase of economic development. In so doing, we hope that Singapore can contribute to the region’s growth, as a Global-Asia node of technology, innovation, and enterprise.
I wish all of you a very fruitful time, and look forward to your next great success. Thank you very much.
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