Watching start-ups grow up

I attended my final evaluation meeting yesterday as an panel member of ACE Startup Committee. Yesterday’s session was a marathon one as some groups were re-invited back to present as the panel had queries on various aspects of their proposals in earlier sessions, and the rest were those rushing to meet the deadline for the final session before the startup funding programme is superseded by the recently announced Startup SG initiative.

It has been a fulfilling journey. I was invited to be on the then-newly convened panel in late 2011. I recall in my first speech in parliament in October 2011, I had offered to help with the government’s effort to develop entrepreneurial attitudes amongst students and youths. So I accepted the invitation readily.

The committee initially met monthly to evaluate application for startup grants from SPRING Singapore of up to $50,000 per successful application by new entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs-to-be. This was later changed to bi-monthly meetings. From time to time, as an ACE representative, I also sat in presentations at polytechnics, at ITEs and at non-government groups which were also centres where their alumni / mentees could apply for the same SPRING Singapore grants.

I must have listened to some 300 presentations through these session in these 5 and a half years as a panel member.

A lot has changed since I took the plunge to be an entrepreneur in end 1999. Back then, government support structures were lacking. It was not so cool to give up secure careers to try to realise the dream to create a new business in uncharted waters. The first wave of dotcom was just hitting Singapore. Some enthusiasm had built up due to the success of silicon valley in the 1990s and that caught on in Singapore around early 1999 with some dotcom listings on our stock exchange. It died very rapidly too with the NASDAQ crash of April 2000. The crash nearly killed our business too as we had started the business but had barely raised funds when all equity funding sources dried up. It forced us to be disciplined to chase for revenues and to evolve our business models to what services the market would want to pay us something for. Eventually, we had a lucky break when e-learning became an essential service in our target market and we successfully sold off our already profitable business in 2007 with decent returns to our investors. That’s another story you can read about in my earlier blog posts.

Now as panel member, I face eager new and would-be entrepreneurs of all types, determined to convince the panel that they have a differentiated, interesting and viable business. We see business proposals of all types – the typical tech and mobile / internet ones, to interesting ways to disrupt age-old businesses such as fashion and food. Many proposals were accepted but many more were not supported for various reasons, and hopefully they will have the resilient to move on and explore alternatives.

The ecosystem has changed much since my journey more than a decade ago. It is certainly more ‘cool’ now for young graduates or even undergraduates to try for that start-up dream. I have seen many top graduates and even highly qualified and successful professionals give up lucrative careers for the hard work of running a start-up. Passion is key to making startups work. We cannot artificially mandate entrepreneurship. It has to come from the founders as they will need that inner belief and drive to make it successful through the endless challenges that will come. It helps that the universities and to a lesser extent, polytechnics have taken on this message seriously and have created their own ecosystem to make it easier for ideas to be incubated. Whilst funding is nowhere as vibrant as that in established and more exciting markets like the USA and China, there is definitely a lot more channels for good ideas to chase for funding.

Our market size remains a huge constraint for startups to really grow big and take on the world stage. In some cases, regulators are opening up to create friendly environment for startups, though a lot more can be done. I would like to see more vibrant sandboxes in as many industries as possible. In some industries where the government itself is a big user and purchaser of services, such as education and defence, it can be more open to working with start-ups, and to create environments where startups can evolve innovative solutions. Whilst there has been a lot of preaching by our leaders about our country needing innovation and entrepreneurship to drive it forward, I still get a sense that many in the government services lower down have not bought into the vision. They are still creating rules that control and restrict, and relying on old ways that will not encourage vibrant industry ideas to flourish in their sector. Hopefully leaders themselves buy into what they preach and look into how there are rules and habits in their own backyard that can be changed to encourage national innovation.

I am happy to have played a role as best as I can as an individual in this scene. I had the opportunity to mentor some of the startups actively, particularly those in the education sector. It is still a great challenge that they face and will face, as this path is hardly an easy one. I have seen some grow after much sweat and even change of business directions, sometimes more than once. I have seen some give up too. Many will fail for every major success we hear of. Yet, try we must and I am glad that many of our best and brightest are indeed trying.

 

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YJJ’s third rally speech – 7 Sep 2015

亲爱的马林百列集选区选民,来自新加坡各个角落的工人党支持者,每个爱国的新加坡人,大家晚上好!

 3 天前,在义顺的群众大会结束后,我去了在如切的德明路小贩中心吃orh luak. Wah, 马林百列的orh luak真好吃,和凤山的有的比

 在小贩中心里,我碰到了一个人。这个人说他学过中医。他看到我穿着工人党的制服,就跟我说,在中医学里面,单单有素质 (“quality”) 是不够的:除了有,还要有‘ (“quantity”)。一个人不可以只吃了一两次药,就问为什么药没有见效。药,一定要吃得够,才会有效。

 这是什么意思呢?新加坡的国会里很久以来只有2位反对党议员。在2011年,我们有了6位反对党议员。在榜鹅东的补选之后,我们有了7位。2011年之后,我们就看到政府的政策有了改善。我们一定要继续给行动党服药。7个反对党议员够吗?不够! 我们一定要把更多的工人党候选人派进国会,才可以继续看到政策改善!

 911号,请投工人党一票。掌握民权,把握未来!

 

Good evening dear voters of Marine Parade GRC, dear Singaporeans.

Two days ago, ESM Goh Chok Tong had said that voters can have their cake and eat it. He said that the NCMP scheme is good enough for opposition to be in parliament. You can vote the PAP in and there will still be NCMPs to be voices in parliament. Do you know what the PAP wants? They want to bring Singapore back to the dark days of politics where they have absolute control over everything. The PAP just wants a blank cheque to do what they want so that they do not need to listen to you. Voters of Singapore, you, you have the power to stop them. You must stop them!

ESM Goh seems to like cruise ships. He likened the PAP and opposition to cruise ships. He said that the PAP’s ship has a clear destination. Yes, it is destination to a population of 6.9 million. The PAP ship is sailing there even though Singaporeans have clearly rejected this destination. It is sailing away with a Swiss standard of living for selected elites, but a Swiss cost of living for all of us! This year, the Economist Intelligence Unit has listed Singapore as the world’s most expensive city to live in, for the 2nd year running. And I am not sure what type of cruise ship we are in when our elderly needs to collect cardboards, not for exercise, but to make a living.

ESM said that the opposition is like a ship on a journey to nowhere. They are like casino ships.

Hey, wait! Who put casinos into Singapore? No the Workers’ Party! We had rejected casinos when it was debated in parliament.  ESM is mistaken. The casinos are on the PAP’s ship on the destination to 6.9 million. The Workers’ Party’s ship is on a journey towards a dynamic population for a sustainable Singapore!

Yes, a dynamic population for a sustainable Singapore is what we like to see for our children. When one looks at the government’s argument in its population white paper, you get the sense that Singapore is a big factory. We need 2-5% economic growth yearly. Our local workforce will shrink. To achieve the economic targets, the population white paper worked out a 1-2% increase to our workforce yearly. Based on that, Singapore will receive large number of immigrants. It will bring our population to 6.9 million by 2030. It will bring the percentage of citizens in our population to just 55%. In just 15 years from now, almost half of anyone in Singapore will not be a Singaporean. It is hardly a sustainable Singapore. And after 2030, what’s next? What will this government continue to do in order to have that desired economic target?

If we are just Singapore Inc.; if we are a business that looks coldly at hard economic data and at the bottom line, then what the PAP is doing will sound logical. However, we are not a business. We are a country, a nation. We can coldly grow the economy, but it will lead to cracks in society. It will lead to a crowded and divided Singapore. It will lead to a Singapore with high income inequality and where people do not feel they belong to.

As difficult as it may be, we need to invest in Singaporean workers and in our local enterprises. We need to empower ourselves to be sustainable in the long-run. In our businesses, we need to develop confident Singaporeans and dynamic Singapore companies, able to compete on innovation with the world. I have spoken on this topic in parliament on several occasions and we have outlined proposals in our manifesto as well. We need to empower our future. Vote our WP candidates and I into parliament, and we will continue to push for a dynamic population for a sustainable Singapore!

As you all know by now, I contested in Joo Chiat SMC in 2011 and lost by 300 over votes. I did my best to reconnect with residents of the SMC for the past few years, mostly in publicly accessible areas. On 24 July, just 6 weeks ago, I found that the field that I was playing in had suddenly grown 5 times in size. I had to take the ball from a far end and start running towards the goal post again.

I am thankful that we have received lots of support. Over the past few weeks, several condominiums have allowed us to meet with residents. I am sorry that we are not been able to enter some condominiums because permission has been refused.

I recently visited several condominiums in the now defunct-Joo Chiat SMC. I met again with people that I had met during GE2011. Some had told me that they are happy that I did not go away, but expressed their concern if the battle is now too difficult because this is a big GRC and it is a PAP’s stronghold. My response is, “Yes, my opponents may wish me to go away, but I am still back. (In hokkien, they say, ‘par si beh ciao’!) I am back with a dedicated team of 4 others, with people that I know are professionally competent and most importantly, passionate about serving the people. We are here because we want to offer a committed alternative to you, the voters of Marine Parade GRC.”

In the course of our visits to many parts of the GRC, I had found that the Workers’ Party had contested actively in many of these areas in the past, and some very recently. The Workers’ Party had contested in areas such as Joo Chiat, Kembangan, Chai Chee, Ubi and Eunos. Boundaries were shifted at every General Elections, with very short notice between the EBRC report and nomination day. Marine Parade GRC has had constant change of boundaries. Residents in Serangoon Central can claim to have sea view property because they are in Marine Parade! I think it is time. It is time for the Workers’ Party to offer ourselves as a choice to serve residents of Marine Parade.

People have asked how we will manage this GRC if we are elected.

First, the TC will be directly managed. We already have 7 WP MPs and staff who have town council experience. This will provide us considerable expertise to tap on for advice in how to handle a changeover of management and to establish operations quickly. A key priority will be to ensure that there will continue to be proper maintenance and cleanliness.

We will also want to focus on the Heartware, as in H.E.A.R.T. As in how WP had managed Aljunied, we will move in quickly to establish our own grassroots. There will be regular activities amongst residents to create bonding and to build a community spirit. We will also work with Voluntary Welfare Organisations and government institutions to ensure that essential help will continue to be given to vulnerable sections of the community that need them.

I have now been in WP for nearly 5 years. I can say with conviction about something that I have observed first hand. Given access to fewer resources, our MPs and volunteers work a lot harder. There is a greater human touch, something that is coincidentally reported in today’s newspaper about how Aljunied has changed. There is a bigger human touch in Aljunied now than before.

I dare say this for my team members too, because I have worked with them and I know know that they are hands-on people. They have all joined the Workers’ Party first as a volunteer, working hard on the ground in all sorts of activities such as helping with meet-the-people sessions, grassroots events and with policy work. They stepped up to our call to be candidates in this GE. They are qualified professionally, but we did not pick them only because they are qualified. We saw how they had worked quietly and diligently for a long time and hence we want them to be your representative in parliament, your representative to see to your needs.

At this juncture, I like to give a big thank you to the many volunteers who had helped diligently, into the wee hours of the morning every day just to get our campaign here going. It is difficult because we had just a few weeks to put everything together after the EBRC was out. I am so proud of my team of volunteers. Thank you!

Let me introduce the team of candidates again. Terence Tan, lawyer and entrepreneur. He Ting Ru, head of legal department in a public listed company. Firuz Khan, entrepreneur, the chocolate man and a social activist. Dylan Ng Foo Eng, head of wealth management in a foreign bank. People with different and complementary backgrounds but with something common. They are people with passion and heart for the people. This is Team Marine Blue.

Come Sep 11, vote Team Marine Blue, vote Workers’ Party. Empower your future!

Mr Lim’s two-thirds target of Singapore core – For how long?

Today’s TODAY headline reads, “Two-thirds S’porean core in all sectors a firm target.”

The Manpower Minister, Mr Lim Swee Say had say that “The Government will hold fast to its goal of having a two-thirds Singaporean core in the economy, and this will be the structure of the country’s workforce in the ‘medium to long term’.”

This two-thirds target was first established in 2010. Mr Lim’s predecessor, then Acting Manpower Minister Mr Tan Chuan-Jin had also said this during his Committee of Supplies (COS) rounding up speech for the Manpower ministry in 2013.

Mr Tan had said, “First, we are watching very closely the growth rate of our foreign workforce. We want to slow the growth of the foreign workforce significantly in this decade, so that the proportion does not increase significantly beyond the one-third ratio that we adopted in 2010. Last year, our foreign workforce grew by about 67,000, excluding foreign domestic workers. This is still too large, and we have tightened our policies to bring it down further. We will be watching the numbers closely this year sector by sector.”

I had just two months prior to this COS debate, worked with the WP’s team to prepare our alternative proposal to the government’s Population White Paper. The figures were then fresh in my mind. I knew from the government’s own projection that this ratio of one-third foreign manpower did not hold in their own projections in their own White Paper. So I sought clarifications from Mr Tan. Below is an extract of the debate on 14 March 2013 from parliament’s records:

================================

The Chairman: Before I call the next two Members, I note that Mr Dhinakaran and Mr Yee Jenn Jong have been raising their hands very diligently. The reason I did not call you earlier is because you did not raise any cuts under this Head and, therefore, I am giving all the other Members the first right. I will come to you, Mr Yee Jenn Jong.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): Thank you, Mr Chairman. Just a quick clarification from the Acting Minister. The Acting Minister has said in his speech that the foreign workers will not go significantly above one-third of the total workforce. But during the tea break, I took the Population White Paper and I did some quick calculations. I found that the foreign worker workforce could grow to around 45% by 2030 and it is not difficult to understand this if you look at the chart 3.4 of the White Paper, where the foreign workforce growth is growing much faster than the local workforce for the next 17 years. So my question is: how long can we keep foreign workers to one-third of the total workforce?

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: I thank Mr Yee for the question and the opportunity to clarify. When we are looking at the ESC’s recommendations, I think we are looking at keeping to about a third where we can, and we are really looking at this decade. For the following decade, the dynamics are a bit different. So for this decade, depending on how it unfolds, with the measures taking place, we would aim to hover at or around one-third if we can. I think we can probably manage to do that but it will be painful. But beyond that, of course, as you all know, by 2020 our own domestic labour force growth will basically end up at about zero. So whatever growth we have thereafter will largely be foreign labour growth. So what happens in the following decade? A lot depends on productivity. A lot depends on where we are in terms of restructuring efforts which is why this phase is particularly important. So it is really about one-third for this decade until about 2020.

Chart 3.4 of the Population White Paper (source: http://population.sg/whitepaper/resource-files/population-white-paper.pdf)

Chart 3.4 of the Population White Paper (source: http://population.sg/whitepaper/resource-files/population-white-paper.pdf)

================================

In his reply, Mr Tan had admitted that the one-third target is possible only for this decade. That I agree with. Whilst doing our own computations for alternative models, we had then studied all the publicly available numbers about population in Singapore. There will be net addition to the local workforce from 2013 till 2020, the end of this decade. This is because there will be more Singaporeans turning of age to be included into the workforce than there are Singaporeans retiring. Beyond 2020, the numbers are horrible. In order to get the kind of economic growth the government had wanted in the White Paper, there has to be more addition of foreign labour without any addition of local manpower. How much to add will depend on productivity growth, which the government had set a target of 2-3%. Sadly, this productivity growth has been near zero or negative in recent years.

So Mr Lim’s comments that the two-thirds Singaporean core will be something for the  ‘medium to long term’ is rather puzzling. What is  ‘medium to long term’? His predecessor had already agreed with me that “by 2020 our own domestic labour force growth will basically end up at about zero. So whatever growth we have thereafter will largely be foreign labour growth.” and that “it (foreign workforce) is really about one-third for this decade until about 2020.”

At the point that I had asked the question in March 2013, based on available manpower data of 2012, locals made up 63.0% of the workforce. By 2014, this figure has dropped to 61.9%. It was 62.1% in 2013. (Source: http://stats.mom.gov.sg/Pages/Labour-Force-Summary-Table.aspx)

Mid 2012 Mid 2013 Mid 2014
Total Workforce (‘000) 3,361.8 3,443.7 3,530.8
Local Workforce (‘000) 2,119.6 2,138.8 2,185.2
% Local 63.0% 62.1% 61.9%

               Figure 1: Summary of data from MOM’s website

Is Mr Lim’s definition of long-term up to 2020 only? If it is beyond 2020, how is he going to achieve that because even with a growing local workforce in this current decade, the ratio has been declining well past the two-thirds ratio already while productivity has failed to improve.

What do you think?

 

MTI Committee of Supply Debate 2015 – Internationalising Singapore companies

I delivered the following two speeches during the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of Trade and Industry on 6 March 2015.

Growing Singapore’s Global Corporate Champions

Mr Chairman, we have recognised the limitations of relying on Multi-Nationals to drive our economy.  SMEs account for 70% of employment but contribute a much smaller percentage of GDP.

I like to call for a whole-of-government approach to nurturing Singapore’s global corporate champions; just had we had done so in our pursuit of FDI.

This is an important national priority. We should create an inter-departmental secretariat to take ownership of the target to have 1,000 Singapore enterprises with revenues above $100 million by 2020 and even more ambitious goals. This is similar in approach to our National Productivity Council which sets over-arching goals – such as the 2-3% productivity growth targets – and then works with various agencies to set sector goals and monitor sectoral progress. For other urgent national priorities, we have committees, such as the National Climate Change secretariat and the National Population and Talent division

Such a secretariat could work with MFA to ensure that the wish-lists of the most promising Singapore firms be fully factored into our trade diplomacy. It could work with companies to identify R&D needs and coordinate with our tertiary and research Institutes to help to focus important IP developments. It could work with MAS and MOF to address issues related to funding – and perhaps revisit the idea of an EXIM Bank which some of our competitor nations have.  It could also work with all agencies to help improve access to government procurement opportunities or special innovation projects in ways that are GPA[1]-compliant.

It could also work with economic agencies like IES, EDB and SPRING to ensure that more aggressive support is given to firms with the most potential to become our global corporate champions. It could help bring partners together to exploit opportunities as well as government co-investment. But support has to be conditional on delivering results – exports, revenues and spin-off benefits to the Singapore economy.

In the early days of South Korea’s industrialization, then-President Park Chung Hee made aggressive government support available to the emerging chaebols, but conditional on the achievement of very aggressive export targets. Otherwise the firms would be dropped from the program.[2]

Looking at other countries with a similar population size to Singapore which have nurtured global champions – like Israel, Denmark, New Zealand and Norway – as well as looking at how a few of our promising local firms are making good progress globally, I believe that using this results-oriented approach can help build a strong third pillar to our economy.

[1] https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/gproc_e/gp_gpa_e.htm

[2]

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/9d84d488-5f90-11e4-8c27-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3TPJbfFZ1

Encouraging Internationalisation

Mr Chairman, we need to grow our promising local firms into globally competitive companies, but with their roots in Singapore.

The new programmes such as IGS (International Growth Scheme) and the Double Tax Deduction for Internationalisation are a welcome step in the right direction. These schemes can benefit companies venturing abroad, especially by organic growth. However, in some situations, acquisition may be more efficient.

We can improve our ecosystem to enable our future world champs. We should encourage more companies to use IFS (Internationalisation Finance Scheme) now that it can be used for M&A. The number of companies getting IE-administered grants for cross-border M&A has been increasing but is still small at 32 last year[1].

To encourage strong development of our brands overseas, can we have a lower tax rate for IP-related income from abroad instead of the usual 17% for corporate tax?

I also like to ask about the new schemes. Can DTD cover manpower expenses incurred to put Singaporeans overseas, such as kids’ schooling allowances and relocation costs?

For IGS, is there a target for the number of companies to be on this? We have targets for the other schemes, but what about IGS? And how many years will be granted and what are the key conditions for renewal at expiry?

For Venture debt risk-sharing, do the schemes apply for overseas M&A?

Thank you.

[1] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00007198-WA&currentPubID=00007207-WA&topicKey=00007207-WA.00007198-WA_5%2BhansardContent43a675dd-5000-42da-9fd5-40978d79310f%2B

Pawnbrokers Bill

I delivered the following speech in Parliament on 19 January 2015.

This Bill seeks to update the Pawnbrokers Act which was last amended in 1993. Amongst others, it removes the existing auction system, requires pawnbrokers to provide an indicative valuation of a pledge to a pawner at the point of pawning and at the end of the redemption period, and raises the minimum paid-up capital of pawnbrokers for their first outlet and for each subsequent branch.

Madam Speaker, I support the Bill. I am concerned though about the rise in the number of pawnshops and in the total value of pawnbrokering loans in recent years. The number of pawnshops has grown from 114 in 2008 to 217[1] as at June 2014. The value of pawnbrokering loans rose more than three times from S$2 billion in 2009 to a peak of S$7.1 billion in 2012[2]. Many of the pawnshops are in the HDB heartlands. In an earlier parliament reply, we are told that HDB does not generally limit the number of shops for each trade and leaves it to market forces to determine the trade mix of shops. Market forces have indeed led to the rise of the pawnbroking industry.

In our geographically small island state, with some 217 outlets, access to pawnshops for a quick loan is easy. This has prompted some journalists to cast the spotlight on our pawnbrokering industry which now has three publicly listed pawnbrokers as key players in the market. A Bloomberg report in June last year titled “Rolex for Casino Cash Fuels Singapore Pawnshop Growth”[3] highlighted stories and statements by industry players about the rise in pawnbrokering activities being driven by gambling. The report, as well as other reports[4] [5], also pointed to soaring living costs as another reason for Singaporeans to turn to easy credit sources such as pawnbrokers to cover their living expenses.

Madam Speaker, there is very little data available on the profile of pawners. The ministry has said that it does not track the reason for non-redemption of pledges[6]. While the overall percentage is small at 5%[7], 5% of 4 million valuables pawned in 2012 works out to around 200,000 items that were unredeemed and had to be sent for auction. We do not know how many of these 200,000 items were from pawners who repeatedly failed to redeem their valuables. We also do not know the reasons for these non-redemptions.

I’d like to call for a more detailed study on the profile of pawners and on the industry. In particular, we should look at those who do not redeem their valuables to understand the underlying reasons. Also, in order not to become a society with excessive pawning, the study can also look into the appropriate number of outlets in each neighbourhood and if the level and content of advertising should be subjected to some controls. I believe better data will be useful to help look into the underlying causes for the rapid rise in the pawnbrokering trade and how we can tweak the Pawnbrokers Bill in future to continue to keep pace with this industry’s changing landscape.

Thank you.

[1] http://business.asiaone.com/news/pawnshops-the-rise

[2] http://tablet.todayonline.com/singapore/removal-auction-system-among-proposed-pawnbrokers-act-changes

[3] http://mobile.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-17/rolex-for-casino-cash-fuels-singapore-pawnshop-growth.html

[4] https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/singapore-cost-living-sees-pawnshops-043309125.html

[5] http://www.fool.sg/2013/11/04/the-battle-of-the-pawnbrokers/

[6] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006308-WA&currentPubID=00006301-WA&topicKey=00006301-WA.00006308-WA_1%2Bid-da07f921-38d6-46fc-8a85-f7f746df8cfd%2B

[7] http://news.asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130527-425418.html

 

MOF Debate – Life Insurance Tax Relief and M&A Scheme

I delivered the following 2 speeches during the Ministry of Finance’s Committee of Supply debate today.

Life Insurance Tax Relief

Sir, currently taxpayers can claim tax relief on premiums paid for life insurance if their CPF contribution is less than $5,000. This $5,000 ceiling was last raised from $4,000 in 1979, 35 years ago. That increase was to ensure that the lower-middle income earners continue to benefit from the concession.

Income levels have changed a lot in 35 years. Many working Singaporeans are not able to enjoy this concession while their foreign counterparts can because they do not contribute to CPF.  I hope the minister can review this scheme to raise the ceiling to a more appropriate level so that the lower-middle income earners of today can benefit and will be encouraged to save more for their old age.

[Ref: 1979 Budget speech- http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00057321-ZZ&currentPubID=00069377-ZZ&topicKey=00069377-ZZ.00057321-ZZ_1%2Bid037_19790305_S0004_T00171-budget%2B%5D

 

Merger and Acquisition Scheme

Sir, I refer the Minister to my Budget speech. I had spoken quite extensively about encouraging M&A as it can help raise our productivity and global competitiveness. The current M&A scheme has not been well utilised and is meaningful only for larger acquisitions.

I hope the Minister can review the provisions in the M&A Scheme to encourage more M&A activities amongst SMEs through targeted measures. This can include higher allowances for smaller M&A transactions. It can also cover purchase of operations and businesses of SMEs rather than outright share sales, as the acquirers may be wary of potential liability associated with small companies. Acquirers who invest in automation of their acquired businesses to achieve greater productivity and to change old business models could be rewarded with more generous PIC incentives or special grants.

MTI Debate – Supporting SMEs

I delivered the following speech was delivered during the Ministry of Trade & Industry Committee of Supply debate today.

SMEs have borne much pain from a tight labour market and continuously higher industrial and commercial rents.

Supporting SMEs is vital to lift productivity across a huge swathe of our economy. In Germany and Switzerland, SMEs are celebrated as drivers of exports and economic growth[1]. Some of their mid-sized companies have world-class capabilities and are global leaders in their fields.

We should aim to help some of our home-grown companies become global leaders.

First, I echo the concerns of members who have called for attention on industrial and commercial rents. We have already lost the ability to manage rental costs, having ceded buildings that the government once controlled to REITS, which now dominate the market. In commercial retail, REITS, with their huge collective hold on the market can force up prices, sometimes steeply with each renewal. I call on the government to look at intervention measures, including having more industrial space of its own to set desired rental benchmarks and to provide checks on the rental practices of REITS in the malls as described by various members earlier.

Next, financing. MLP has provided 3,500 loans to small companies over the last 2 years.[2] Even with government’s increased risk share, banks may still not be willing to lend to start-ups with short track records.  MTI had said it does not monitor the success rate of loan applications for MLP. I hope SPRING can work with banks to raise the awareness of MLP and other schemes, and monitor the success rate of applications. It could intervene should banks be found to remain unduly cautious.

Also, there are many SME schemes, administered by different government agencies. The range of schemes is daunting and are often difficult for the ‘小白兔’ (little rabbit) type of small companies Mr Teo Siong Seng spoke about, to take up.

I am concerned that some schemes are too prescriptive. My colleague Mr Giam had in his Budget speech cited the example under IPG, where IDA pre-qualifies vendors for sectoral solutions under iSPRINT.

SMEs will be limited to these vendors if they want a fuss-free way to tap on IPG funds. SMEs sometimes know which solution they want. A pre-qualified list may restrict the development of new innovative solutions.

I declare that I had used grants from various agencies previously. Other than PIC, I have found the rest challenging in terms of application, approval wait time, making claims and writing of reports.

Perhaps we can learn from the PIC. PIC benefitted from much publicity. Can we “push” schemes to SMEs by requiring the completion of a simple questionnaire in the annual filing to ACRA? This questionnaire could ask about planned investments in training, software, automation, and so on that are not receiving scheme support. Based on responses, forms for relevant schemes or SME Centre officers could be dispatched to the companies.

Thank you.

Budget Speech 2014 – Honouring our pioneers, KiFAS and developing our SMEs

The following speech was delivered on 3 March 2014 during the debate on Budget 2014

Mdm Speaker, In Mandarin

议长女士, 我支持今年的财政预算案.

我很高兴这个财政预算案通过”建国一代”配套来对新加坡先驱一代表示尊敬。

我的父母都是在五十年代末期从马来西亚来到新加坡。他们在当时的师资训练学院认识,在新加坡独立前结了婚,成为华校的华文教师, 他们从此在新加坡居住,也成为了新加坡公民,当了三十多年的华文老师,一直到退休。

那是个动荡的时代, 尤其是在华校里, 那是思想斗争的战场,当时新加坡正极力排除共产党的影响。

我的父母自1960年以来一直居住在同一间屋子里, 就在如今的如切单选区内。那时面对我家后院的甘榜菜市还有很多农场。

我父母亲的故事和我在如切区内遇到的许多年长居民都差不多一样. 这些居民大多数在同一间屋子里住了四十,五十多年. 很多从事平凡的工作,从岗位上退休了几十年。他们最关心的问题一直是医药费。即使他们已经多年没有收入了, 但是因为他们居住在私人屋子,就一直没有获得很多政府在医药上的津贴。

这次”建国一代”配套发給每一个合格的新加坡人,不论所居住的房屋类型,也不看收入。

在国会里有许多的议员都是”建国一代”的子女。建国一代的新加坡人没有因为当时我国面对危险的环境和生活困苦而离开新加坡。虽然他们许多只是平凡的市井小民, 干的是平凡的工作, 但今日繁荣的新加坡是他们用心血建立起来的。我们应该尊重他们,也应该感激他们对新加坡的贡献。

接下来,我要谈谈两个课题:教育和中小型企业。我会用英语继续演讲。

[(English text for Chinese speech) Madam Speaker, I support Budget 2014. I am happy that we are honouring the pioneer generation of modern Singapore.

My parents both came to Singapore from Malaysia in the late 1950s. They met at the then-Teachers Training College, now NIE, got married and became teachers and Singapore citizens before our independence. They stayed put in Singapore and worked all their adult years in the same job, being Chinese teachers in our local schools. Those were turbulent years, especially teaching in Chinese schools at a time when Singapore had to fight the influence of the communists. Chinese schools were battlegrounds for mindshare. My parents had lived since 1960 in the same house in what is now classified as Joo Chiat SMC. Those days, Kampong Chai Chee facing our backyard was teeming with farms.

They are like many of the elderly residents I had met at Joo Chiat SMC, residents who have stayed in that one and only one house for the last 4-5 decades. These elderly residents have retired decades ago, many from humble jobs. Their biggest concern has been healthcare costs. They have not been able to enjoy many of the healthcare subsidies offered by the government because of their housing type, even though they have been without income for many years. I am happy that this package is given to all our pioneers, regardless of their housing time and how well they are doing currently. Many of us parliamentarians in this House are children of the pioneer generation of modern Singapore, children of people who stuck with this country when there was little and danger was all around us. Children of ordinary citizens no doubt, but citizens who build Singapore to what it is today. It is right for us to honour them.

Next, I will speak on two areas: Education and SMEs. I will continue my speech in English.]

Madam Speaker, in the area of education, the Minister has announced that KiFAS qualifying income level has been raised so that more families can benefit too. This is welcomed. KiFAS is now extended to all MOE kindergartens and those operated by the anchor operators. Previously, only PCF qualified for KiFAS.

I am puzzled why the extension announced by the Minister is to only these few operators. There are around 500 MOE registered kindergartens in Singapore. PCF operates 235 kindergartens. MOE has five, with up to another 10 being planned for the next few years. NTUC does not operate kindergartens. The 3 new anchors are childcare operators. I believe that they operate just 7 premium kindergartens between them. In any case, the anchor operator scheme is a childcare programme and not a kindergarten scheme. The commercial operators have to setup new operating entities to separate their current operations from the childcare centres that they will operate as anchor operators.

So in effect, parents still do not have many choices of which kindergartens they can send their children to. From my understanding of the kindergarten landscape and based on what the Minister has described, they may now choose between PCF and five MOE kindergartens.

Madam, I had spoken about this before. I find it strange that the CFAC, which is the equivalent scheme for childcare, can be used on all MSF registered childcare. However when it comes to kindergarten, MSF has imposed various conditions that had prevented others from qualifying. These include conditions such as the operators cannot have any religious or racial affiliations and cannot be private operators. None of these conditions are required for CFAC. I am not sure what will be announced at the COS, but I certainly hope the scheme can be extended to many more, if not all MOE registered kindergartens.

MOE has said that character and values education are important. Many of the kindergartens with religious and racial affiliations such as those run by Buddhist groups, Huay Kuans, Muslim groups, churches and other VWOs do take in children from the public and have strong character and values education. I wish to see them being included. I will speak on this again during the COS debate.

Next, SMEs. I wish to declare that I own and operate private companies classified as SMEs.

While Singapore enjoyed 4.1% economic growth last year, this economic growth had come about solely because of the growth in manpower. GDP growth is defined as workforce growth plus productivity growth. Productivity growth last year was zero. We cannot depend on economic growth through workforce increase. The government’s long-term goal is to reach 2-3% annual productivity growth by 2020.

At last year’s budget, I spoke of the need to encourage industry consolidation. The current schemes such as PIC and now PIC+, tend to benefit the larger companies. We have over 150,000 SMEs in Singapore. Many are micro enterprises that may not even employ the three non-shareholder staff required to qualify for PIC (cash grants). Even for small companies that qualify, they may not have the scale to benefit meaningful from investments in major automation.

Many of our smaller companies are struggling to stay afloat under the tight manpower and high rental cost environment. While raising their productivity and injecting innovation into their businesses should be the way to go, these companies need to scale up first. Last year, I had argued for the need to stimulate merger and acquisitions (M&A) so that enlarged companies can better take advantage of economies of scale.  I wish to repeat my desire to see changes to tax incentives to encourage M&A.

There is a Merger and Acquisition scheme, first introduced in 2010 and enhanced in 2012. As of May last year, only 42 companies have used this scheme. 34 were companies which MOF classified as SMEs with annual revenue of up to $100 million, which meant many could be fairly sizeable companies.  The average and median size of deals supported by the scheme was $25 million and $3 million respectively.[1] The scheme provides meaningful tax incentives for large and mid-sized deals but not for acquiring the small and micro enterprises.

I hope to see the government encourage consolidation amongst smaller companies through enhancing the M&A scheme. The M&A scheme could be graduated to allow higher tax allowances for smaller deal sizes of up to $1 million in value.

Also, the current scheme allows only for outright purchase of shares. Some acquirers prefer to buy over the operations and businesses of SMEs, but not the entire company as they prefer not to be entangled with liabilities that may be associated with the target company. We can loosen the definition of M&A to include such types of acquisitions.

We can also incentivise the acquirers to automate the operations of their acquired businesses to achieve greater productivity and to revamp old business models. We can look at allowing even higher than 400% tax allowances in PIC for investment in automation for merged entities to get them to speed up investments in productivity improvements for the acquired operations.

I noted that both the Singapore Business Federation and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) have also issued recent statements for the government to do more to promote M&A, including improving M&A tax allowances. They too cited the need for industry consolidation to create more breadth within industry clusters for better economies of scale and to reduce marginal costs.[2]

Besides tax allowances, the government could also look at how financing can be made more readily accessible for M&A. For example, the ASME had called for an equity financing scheme to help SMEs fund local and overseas M&As. Such a scheme would make available the option for companies to take on loans for acquisition through pledging equity in private companies. This can be done with risk-sharing collaboration between banks and the government. This will be a useful tool for deserving ambitious companies in our midst to grow rapidly through strategic acquisitions and take on the international markets.

Next, on the innovation mindset of our companies.

SMEs are grateful that PIC has been extended for 3 more years. The scheme has helped defrayed costs and many companies have only just started to use it. As of April last year, 97% of the claims were for purchases of IT and automation equipment and for employee training. The remaining 3% were for the other 4 categories, including R&D and acquisition of intellectual properties.

I believe innovation is important if we are to derive a lot more out of our companies. I hope we can encourage investments in creating breakthrough business models and technologies.

In their pre-budget survey[3], professional services firm KPMG found that 50.3% of 159 companies surveyed felt that the innovation measures in PIC have had no impact on raising innovation. The same survey found that only 1.6% of the respondents were focused on driving innovation.

The survey highlighted a worry finding that SMEs and even Singapore public-listed companies have not found benefits in innovation measures. Respondents in that survey commented that IRAS has been very strict in administering incentives for innovation, favouring revolutionary development at the expense of more market-driven evolutionary development. IRAS has a very strict definition of qualifying R&D activities. [4]

Indeed, this has been my personal experience too speaking with technology companies trying to develop the next killer App or a potentially industry game-changing software. They had not been successful in claiming PIC for their R&D manpower based on the strict PIC definition.

I hope IRAS and MTI can review the criteria and work on a more market-oriented definition of research and innovation and to drive more adoption by companies in this area.

Finally, in the area of SME financing, this budget provides for increased government risk-share on micro-loans to SMEs from 50% to 70%. In a reply to my PQ, MAS has said that it does not call for banks to require that SMEs meet a project track record or any specific requirement in order to get a loan. In evaluating loans, financial institutions all have their own criteria, some of which can make it rather difficult for companies, especially those with shorter track record to secure loans. This may be so even with government risk-sharing.

IFS loans cap has now been doubled to $30 million per company. I like to know from past evidences, if IFS and existing government-supported financing schemes had sufficiently met the overseas expansion needs of our companies. The total value of loans approved under IFS declined yearly from $378 million in 2010 to $121 million in 2012. Similarly, the Loan Insurance Scheme (LIS and LIS+), saw total value of loans approved fall from $2.3 billion in 2010 to $1.3 billion in 2012.[5]

The Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) had called for an EXIM bank in 2010, only to be deemed not feasible by MOF a year later. There were notable disappointments from the business community then at that decision.[6] Our companies are disadvantaged when compared with other countries like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, where the percentage of total business credit going to SMEs range from 50%-76%, compared to 27% in Singapore.[7] Even with the increased government risk sharing, will financial institutions still be too conservative in their approach as they still need to bear some risks and there are less risky things for them to do?

I hope the financing situation for SMEs will be closely tracked. If the new measures are not sufficient to help meet our SME’s financing and overseas expansion needs, perhaps the government can relook again into whether it is necessary to create a SME Bank or an EXIM bank.

In conclusion, as we honour the pioneers of modern Singapore in this Budget, like the honourable member Mr Laurence Lien, I too like to think of each generation as pioneering for the next. As we approach the 50th year of our independence and soon the 200th anniversary of the founding of Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles, my wish is to see a vibrant Singapore, with innovative home-grown companies and dynamic Singaporeans establishing a new Singapore in this 21th century, so as to ensure success for our future generation.

Thank you.


Investing in a Dynamic Population and Workforce

Speech delivered by Yee Jenn Jong at the Institute of Policy Studies Corporate Associates luncheon at Regent Singapore on 22 March 2013

 

It is my privilege to be in the presence of many distinguished guests who are captains of their industries and top researchers. I thank IPS for inviting me to speak.

I have titled my talk “Investing in a Dynamic Population and Workforce”. I will touch on the fundamental premise the Workers’ Party’s population policy is based on, that is, when we foster a dynamic Singaporean population and workforce, we can achieve a sustainable economy in the long term. For a more dynamic workforce, I will talk about three areas with room for improvements: productivity, work-life harmony, and female labour force participation. We also need to adjust our mindset as political and business leaders of the nation and to think outside the box to foster a creative economy held up by innovative workers.

Let me begin by arguing that we need to shift our comparative lenses. We tend to think of ourselves as a global city. Implicit in this mindset are the specter of our nearest competitor, Hong Kong, and to want to be like New York and London. But let us not forget that we are a country. As a country, the government’s primary responsibility is not to the economy but to the people. Economic growth must not be an end in itself, but the means to the people’s prosperity. I feel it is better to compare ourselves with small and dynamic countries that have achieved sustained economic success.

Let us take a look at this table, which was published in The Economist on 2nd February this year, just as we began the White Paper debate.

Economist-2Feb2013-Topoftheclass

The Economist 2 Feb 2013

Singapore is ranked 7th. It is interesting to note that the top 5 countries in the list are small and dynamic countries. They are Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Switzerland. They are not unfamiliar. The Nordic countries are often brought up in our debates on education reforms, birth rate promotion, and social development. Switzerland was once our gold standard, as we pursued growth towards a Swiss standard of living in the 1990s.

Perhaps it should be again. The problem was that we defined the Swiss standard of living in terms of GDP per capita. We assumed perhaps correctly then, that growth would be shared and distributed more or less equitably. This assumption has not held. We now have one of the highest income inequality in the world. There are many reasons for this and I would not have time to discuss them today.

If you take a look at the table again, you will see an indication of why the wealth of our nation is not shared equitably. Singapore ranks in the top 5 in global competitiveness, ease of doing business, global innovation, and corruption perceptions. But when it comes to human development and prosperity, we are 26th and 19th respectively. Prosperity refers to the Legatum Prosperity Index, which goes beyond GDP. It also measures other factors such as entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, health and social capital.[1]

This suggests that we have structured our economy to enable businesses to drive growth and be able to generate profits, but we have under-developed our people, such that Singaporean workers are not benefiting as much from growth as their peers in other developed countries. In 2011, our wage share as a percentage of GDP is 42.3%.[2] This is low compared with developed economies such as the United Kingdom (53.8% in 2011), Canada (52.3%), Switzerland (59.7%), Australia (47.5%) and the European Union (49.2%), which ranges from nearly 50% to almost 60% share of the GDP for wages.[3]

More than ever, there is a great urgency to invest in and to develop the Singaporean workforce to ensure our growth is driven by Singaporeans at the core.

Today, I highlight three areas with room for improvements: productivity, work-life harmony, and female labour force participation.

The Workers’ Party shares the government’s target of 2 to 3% productivity growth. The challenge is in achieving these goals. Last month, MTI reported that labour productivity fell by 2.6% last year. Labour productivity has fallen for five consecutive quarters. There is therefore urgency to improve labour productivity, particularly in industries where we lag far behind international benchmarks.

The second area we need to invest in is work-life harmony. A study by the Ministry of Social and Family Development found that only 23 per cent of workplaces offer flexible working hours. According to the study, work-life harmony has not improved over the last six years. Our score is 63 in 2012 out of a possible 100, no different from 64 in 2006.[4] The numbers clearly show that we need to increase our efforts. The MSF study found that those who scored higher on work-life harmony were more likely to be engaged and productive in the workplace, have better physical and mental health, and reported better family relationships and desire for more children. In other words, work-life harmony is important in improving our national TFR and promoting productivity growth.

One tool to promote work-life harmony is flexi-work arrangements. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US found that work from home employees performed 13 to 22% better than those in the office.[5] Flexi-work arrangements would also attract stay-at-home mothers to enter the workforce.

This is the third area Singapore needs to invest in: female labour force participation. In 2012, there were over 160,000 economically inactive residents who intended to look for a job within the next two years. Of these potential entrants, 64% were female.[6] There were around 270,000 economically inactive female residents aged 15 to 69 years old. This is a big potential pool of new workers.

The Labour Force Participation Rates (LFPR) for women in the prime working ages of 25 to 54 years is 77% in 2012.[7] Compared internationally, 77% is not the best that we can achieve for a developed economy with an educated workforce. There is room for the rate to rise to 85%. Some may also argue that the trade-off for higher female LFPR is lower TFR. This is where our comparative orientation to the small dynamic countries would help. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have prime-age female LFPR of between 83% to 88%, and TFR between 1.76 and 1.90.[8] Promoting female LFPR may actually have the reverse effect of improving TFR, as the sense of security on the part of women and overall gender equality are important factors in promoting birth rates.[9]

Ultimately, Singapore’s long-term goal should be to improve our TFR to foster a dynamic workforce. Meanwhile, we need to improve overall labour force participation rate to moderate the effects of an ageing workforce. Our current labour force participation rate is 72% for residents aged 15 to 69 years old. The Workers’ Party has called for this rate to be improved incrementally to 79% by 2025 through facilitating elderly reemployment and encouraging more women to re-enter the workforce, while we strive to improve our TFR. Again, let’s look at other small dynamic countries. Switzerland has a labour force participation rate of 80% for ages 15-64 years old and 72% for 15-74 years old. Switzerland has also climbed out of a low TFR of 1.38 in 2001 to achieve 1.52 in 2011.[10]

Finally, I wish to conclude with some personal thoughts about the challenges facing us. Besides being an NCMP, I am also in the business community. I ran an education group as an employed professional in the late 1990s and have started various education-related businesses since 2000.

There are indeed great challenges ahead as our population ages and our economy restructures to move away from the labour-fuelled growth that we are familiar with. Our foreign workforce is already at 1/3 of our total workforce. Singaporeans today form only 62% of our population. Working through the population data with various scenarios, we concluded that the window to restructure Singapore’s economy is a rather short one if we are to avoid massive new inflows of foreigners that will further greatly dilute the core Singapore identity. From now till 2020, the local labour force is still increasing as we will have more new job entrants than those retiring. During the remaining 8 years of this decade, we will all need to work together to raise productivity, find new markets and have more innovation driven growth.

I am reminded of a Chinese word for crisis, called “危机”。“危” stands for “危险” or danger while “机” means “机会” or opportunity. There are dangers and challenges right now for those in the business community. We are forced to adjust to a situation of tight manpower and changes in government policies and regulations. Technology changes are much faster than before. Global connectivity means greater competition for our businesses.

Yet, every time in history when there is great danger, there are opportunities too for those who can see the changes that are coming, adapt to it faster than others, and seize new opportunities that emerges. This is because the playing field may become leveled in a crisis or when there are changes in the operating landscape. Those that emerge first with good solutions will be winners.

I am reminded of my own experience when I ran an education technology business during the dotcom boom. The industry saw intense competition. Many players were wiped out within a couple of years. Then a great crisis came upon Singapore, in the form of SARS. Ironically, it was in this time of crisis that our clients became aware of the need for our type of solutions. Out of the crisis and the massive industry consolidation that took place, a few players managed to emerge with viable business models and growth.

Every situation is different and every industry has its own challenges. My encounter with “危机” or crisis, convinced me that we need to keep looking at the “机会” or opportunity every time there’s “危险” or danger.

In 6 years’ time, Singapore will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ founding of modern Singapore. Next to the parliament house stands a statue of Raffles, with the inscription “On this historic site, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January 1819 and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.”

Singaporeans have had genius and perception in the past to overcome and grow stronger with each great challenge. Today, Singapore is at another crossroad, already a great seaport and modern metropolis but in need of a new model to move forward. We will need to search deep inside ourselves, build up the Singapore core, both in the population and in the workforce and have confidence to take ourselves forward in this 21st century.

Thank you.


[2] Department of Statistics, Yearbook of Statistics Singapore, 2012, July 2012, p. 75.

[3] OECD Statistics, stats.oecd.org.

[6] Ministry of Manpower, Labour Force in Singapore, 2012, p. 47.

[7] Ministry of Manpower, Labour Force in Singapore, 2012, p. 3.

[8] Prime-age female LFPR data are from skills.oecd (http://skills.oecd.org/informationbycountry/); TFR data are from National Population and Talent Division, Marriage and Parenthood Trends in Singapore, June 2012.

[9] Peter McDonald, “Explanations of Low Fertility in East Asia: A Comparative Perspective”, Ultra-low fertility in Pacific Asia: trends, causes and policy issues, edited by Gavin Jones, Paulin Tay-Straughan and Angelique Chan, London: Routledge, 2008, pp. 23-39.

COS 2013 – SME Bank and Renewable Energy

Committee of Supply Cuts by YJJ on Ministry of Trade and Industry

SME Bank

The service economy is increasingly important to Singapore. Excluding Financial and Insurance, the service sector had 135,000 enterprises and employed 1.35 million workers in 2010.

The 2012 SME Development Survey highlighted that 50% more service sector SMEs found bank financing a challenge compared to the previous year. This is despite the availability of government-backed loans through financial institutions. The survey also found more SMEs facing cash flow problems and worsening liquidity.

Service sector SMEs generally require working capital financing such as supplier invoice financing, working capital term loans and factoring. They are generally asset light with little collaterals. Financial institutions are cautious and tend to make unsecured lending only to bigger mid-sized SMEs. With the Basel III minimum adequacy requirement, banks are likely to tighten loans to smaller and riskier SMEs.

Government lending to SMEs has been implemented in countries such as USA, South Korea and Malaysia to address market failure in working capital financing loans to SMEs.  A government-led SME bank will be useful for the following:

(1)  SMEs with track record of less than 3 years. SMEs have highlighted that banks generally offer financing to SMEs with more than 3 years of track record.

(2) SMEs with small scale operations. Financial institutions tend to focus on mid-sized enterprises.

(3) SMEs with intangible assets. Many knowledge or technology-based companies have intangible intellectual properties which banks are unable to assess. I understand there was previously a government backed unsecured loans to tech start-ups through the now defunct Keppel-Tat Lee Bank called TechFinancing. Is the government supporting more of such schemes?

 

To alleviate concern that the SME bank will crowd out private sector lenders, the SME bank can be a lender of last resort to the under-served small SMEs.  Alternatively, the government can form tighter partnerships with existing financial institutions to serve this market.

——————————————-

Renewable Energy

It has been some years since the government identified the clean energy as a key economic growth area. Since 2007, the government has invested $350 million to fund the development, testing and export of clean energy solutions. By 2015, the government expects the clean energy industry to contribute $1.7 billion to Singapore’s GDP and employ around 7,000 people [1]. It is now 2013. How far are we from this target? We have a dozen tidal, wind, and solar energy MNCs setting up largely R&D facilities here [2], but how many sizeable Singapore enterprises have sprung up to spearhead clean energy solutions export?

 

Solar power currently represents just 0.1% of electricity generating capacity in Singapore. [3] This is very low and could be the reason why local enterprises have not taken off. We are too focused on development and testing. Germany is the global leader in the solar energy production. The German solar energy industry was enabled not just by R&D but also lessons learned in system adoption and use because of the aggressive promotion of the alternative energy market.

 

Solar energy capability is not just about producing and exporting panels. Clean energy solutions is a post-industrial service industry where hardware and software have to be coupled with customization and after-sales service. Without a sizeable local deployment, it would be very difficult for Singapore to export our clean energy solutions expertise.

 

Currently, we only have two small scale schemes for private companies, one to encourage test bedding in government facilities and the other to offset the capital costs of installation. [4] We need to scale up system adoption and use in the private sector to develop the industry and make the market.

 

I propose the government look into three possibilities. One, Feed-In Tariffs for solar energy producers selling their electricity back to the grid on long-term guaranteed contract at a slightly marked-up price. Two, Rooftop Leasing to encourage building owners to lease out their rooftops to solar energy companies to produce electricity. Three, Solar Leasing to encourage building owners to rent panels from solar energy companies.

 

The government has said that it is not fair to subsidize electricity generation producers. [5] However, the government provides funding and subsidies in many creative forms to develop promising industries. In the case of these solar energy schemes, MTI should study its viability and release the findings to the public. I think it is time to experiment with solar leasing, rooftop leasing and FITs to study viability.

 

[1] http://www.edb.gov.sg/content/edb/en/industries/industries/alternative-energy.html

[2] http://www.edb.gov.sg/content/dam/edb/en/resources/pdfs/factsheets/Alternatve%20Energy%20-%20Clean%20Energy%20Factsheet.pdf

[3] According to the Energy Market Authority, there are 120 commercial and 36 household PV installations with 5.55 MWp (megawatts peak) capacity at end 2011 (http://www.ema.gov.sg/page/32/id:65/). Conventional electricity generating capacity stands at 9,892 MW at end March 2012 (http://www.ema.gov.sg/media/files/facts_and_figures/2012.03/MSA2a.pdf).

[4] The first is the S$17 million Clean Energy Research & Testbedding Programme (CERT). The programme provides opportunities for government agencies to partner private companies to develop and testbed clean energy applications and solutions using government facilities in Singapore. The second is the S$20 million Solar Capability Scheme, which was launched in 2008 to help companies offset part of the capital costs of installing solar technologies in new building projects.

[5] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00072686-ZZ&currentPubID=00075242-ZZ&topicKey=00075242-ZZ.00072686-ZZ_1%23%23