Editor’s note: While covering the National Center for APEC’s executive roundtable in Atlanta March 1, we caught up with Ho Meng Kit, chief executive of the Singapore Business Federation, which advocates and builds capacity for its 26,000 members, educating them on policy changes, helping them deal with workforce challenges and teaching them about the implications of trade agreements.
Mr. Ho, who moderated a luncheon panel discussion featuring members of the APEC Business Advisory Council, spoke with Global Atlanta about the strengths of APEC and the need for companies to tackle global markets with confidence rather than fearing open economies. The conversation has been edited for clarity and flow.
Global Atlanta: We think of Singapore as such an open, developed economy attracting multinationals, but don’t often think about small businesses operating within the country. What challenges do Singapore companies face when it comes to trade?
Ho Meng Kit: Singapore’s economy is very open, so it’s really competitive. They have to learn very early that if they want to grow, they have to go internationally.
To do that you have to find some way of de-risking — you need partners and assistance. We at Singapore Business Federation spend a lot of time to make things a little easier for our business community.
Our government has done a good job with free trade agreements around the world thta give preferential access to our companies. We try to help our members, especially SMEs, know what is in these agreements so they can use them. When they’re exporting to China or somewhere else, they need to know which rules and agreements to use to get the best benefit.
Global Atlanta: Openness in our economy has been blamed for job losses. Others say technology is to blame. Either way, everyone agrees we need to skill up our workers for a new era. How does Singapore tackle this issue?
Mr. Ho: We have a retraining program: Skills Future — launched four or five years ago — that sits really on top of a good K-12 education system.
We need to get people back to school as much as possible, so we focus on lifelong learning. Really this is a collaboration between the government, the institutes for higher learning, the schools, as well as people and their employers.
The government works with the training providers to make sure they “unstack” the programs found in university settings so it’s easier for working people to go there, with modular courses and evening classes. It also works with employers to make sure that the training is relevant and incentivizes companies to send their trainees.
This is a lot of work. It’s not just that you do a policy and it’s done. It’s really about the implementation. The results are still preliminary.
Because of our demography, the retraining challenge is not so much young people. It’s the middle-aged folks, the older folks who did not have a very comprehensive, high-level university training when they were young.
We have what we call a professional conversion program, which is really to train professional managers, executives and technicians who have lost their jobs because the industry has shifted.
The oil and gas industry is an example: The capacities were built up for oil at $100; it has now since collapsed, so as a result a lot of these companies have retrenched with a lot of their technicians, so what were we going to do with them?
What we did is convert them into adjacent industries — construction and other industries. How we did it in Singapore was to match companies who need these employees, then we have to find these guys and we have to retrain them. The government actually provides an income supplement to any company that hires someone from the oil and gas sector in other sectors for six months to one year. It makes it sweeter and easier for the new employer to take that risk.
Global Atlanta: Why is APEC such an important forum for making your voice heard, especially versus blocs like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, of which Singapore is a key member?
Mr. Ho: We are right in the middle of ASEAN, which is home to our biggest trading partners, and when Singapore companies say they want to internationalize, the most popular place they want to go is to the [10-country] ASEAN region.
What we want to do in ASEAN is to make sure that ASEAN is integrated regionally, economically, so it’s easier for our businesses to do business there. At the same time, we also recognize that ASEAN has a mix of developed and developing economies, and we are a developed economy.
When we push an agenda along in ASEAN, we want to make sure that we couple this with capacity building because I think that there are things that we can not teach, but share — in terms of regulation of businesses, in the fintech area (how to talk about sandboxing), civil aviation practices and so forth.
We used to do a course for developing countries’ leaders on how to negotiate trade agreements. With developed countries, they have teams of lawyers and they’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s asymmetry. If you’re a small country, you don’t have the staff or experience. So we’re doing a little bit of that as well.
APEC is not a negotiating forum. It’s really a cooperating forum. But here in APEC I think what is interesting is that we find like-minded counties like New Zealand, Brunei, Australia and Chile, and we come together to push an agenda.
Going forward I think we need more and more of that. I think in APEC, it’s not going to be business as usual. All the tensions between the U.S. and China will be more and more real and will express themselves a lot more in the agenda. I think nimbleness and the ability to coordinate and find issues where there is middle ground to cooperate is becoming more important.
If we can continue to make APEC relevant to these two big economies (the U.S. and China) in terms of collaboration, I think we will have saved the day. We should set ourselves that objective.
Learn more about the Singapore Business Federation here. The organization welcomes collaborations with chambers in Atlanta and around Georgia.