Commentary: From ice cream to chatbots – how TACs are driving transformation in Singapore

Commentary: From ice cream to chatbots – how TACs are driving transformation in Singapore

Just as trade associations and chambers (TACs) play a critical role in driving transformation and growth, they too will have to transform to stay relevant for the future, says SBF chairman Teo Siong Seng.

Udders alcohol ice cream
A photo circulated on social media shows a FairPrice sign indicating that the sale of alcoholic ice cream was prohibited from 10.30pm to 7.00am daily. (Photo: Facebook/Mr Brown, Clinton Carnegie)

SINGAPORE: Last year, founder of Udders Ice Cream Wong Peck Lin suggested that the rules under the Liquor Control Act be made more flexible at an industry dialogue facilitated by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI). 

The Act, which came into force in 2015, restricted the sale of liquor at retail outlets and the consumption of liquor in public places after 10.30pm, affecting food and beverage with more than 0.5 per cent alcohol.

Udders’ Rum Rum Raisin ice cream had been a casualty. 

Ms Wong’s feedback, along with that of other industry stakeholders, led to the lifting of the ban on the sale of food products containing alcohol, drawing cheers from affected companies and those craving a tub of rum and raisin ice cream after dark. 

Singapore skyline
Skyline of Singapore's central business district. (File photo: Reuters)

Regular dialogues with the Government organised by trade associations and chambers (TACs) like the SCCCI are without doubt effective platforms for companies to address pain points. 

SUPPORTING ENTERPRISE AND INNOVATION

TACs today play a critical role in facilitating debate and conversation between businesses and the Government to shape pro-enterprise and pro-innovation policies.

Members at the Singapore Business Federation’s SME Committee (SBF SMEC), for example, closely monitor the industries and sectors they represent so they can effectively formulate Budget recommendations to the government. 

To date, the committee has put up more than 170 recommendations, of which close to a third have been adopted. 

These include the deferment of the increase in Foreign Worker Levy in Budget 2015, the introduction of a Working Capital Loan in Budget 2016 and more recently, the request for a single agency focused on championing the interests of SMEs which saw the merging of International Enterprise and SPRING to Enterprise Singapore (ESG) in April 2018. 

In a nod to the leading role that TACs play in shaping Singapore’s economy, Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat announced in Budget 2019 that through the Local Enterprise and Association Development (LEAD) programme, ESG will work on five-year roadmaps with capable and willing TACs with “an ambition to do more for businesses”. 

Heng Swee Keat Budget Parliament
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat speaks in Parliament on Thursday (Mar 1). 

Since the introduction of LEAD in 2005, 47 TACs have led more than 200 industry initiatives, benefitting over 40,000 companies in areas ranging from operational efficiency and productivity to business innovation and growth.

TACs are uniquely positioned to drive industry-level initiatives for transformation, help SMEs scale up and build capabilities as well as make inroads overseas. 

STRONG ALONE, STRONGER TOGETHER

Closer to the ground, TACs have a firmer grasp of members’ businesses, the industry they represent and the challenges faced. 

Increasingly, TACs are taking the lead in aggregating the common needs of the industry and seeking out innovative solutions by pooling together resources and expertise – a shift away from government-prescribed solutions for industry problems to solutions from the ground up that the Government can help to fund.

READ: The Singapore Budget and Heng Swee Keat’s shift away from Big Government, a commentary

One good example is how the Singapore Hotel Association (SHA) has helped to drive the adoption of innovative technologies to raise productivity among its members. 

In 2017, an initiative led by SHA and supported by the Singapore Tourism Board through the Business Improvement Fund – brought together the hotel industry to call for tech solutions that overcome manpower shortfalls and enhance guests’ experience. 

Shortlisted solutions were then piloted at some 30 hotels.

Among them was a digital concierge system that functions as a chatbot with artificial intelligence. Piloted at Andaz Singapore Hotel, the chatbot named Andy instantaneously addresses common guest enquiries including dining and itinerary recommendations through the hotel’s Facebook messenger account. 

Facebook messenger
Messenger boasts some 1.3 billion monthly users, who engage in about eight billion conversations a month.

During the pilot period, the hotel managed to direct around 60 per cent of enquiries to Andy, freeing up front-desk staff to engage with guests with other needs. Today, the hotel plans to integrate Andy with its existing systems so that he, too, can process requests for room service, extra pillows and other amenities.

READ: Introducing robots in hotels in Singapore is a good idea, a commentary

Similarly, the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (ISCA) has encouraged the adoption of technology among their small and medium-sized accounting practices by developing a customised audit software in partnership with a software developer under ESG’s LEAD programme. 

The off-the-shelf solution, built based on ISCA’s audit methodology, enhances audit quality, increases efficiency and eliminates the need for individual firms to customise their own software. This form of automation has cut down processing time by 20 to 30 per cent compared to current paper-based systems. 

These are just a handful of examples of how TACs are leading the change in industry transformation and helping companies overcome limitations to stay competitive through initiatives that might be otherwise difficult for them to undertake alone.

BEYOND BORDERS

Given the size of Singapore’s small domestic market, Singapore companies need to also actively look beyond their shores to expand their businesses. This, however, is risky, requires a significant outlay of resources and time, and the process can also be complex, especially if they take the plunge on their own.

Thankfully, TACs have joined forces with the Government to help them break into overseas markets through trade fairs and business missions – prime platforms for firms to obtain business leads, connect with potential business partners and gain market exposure. 

With the support of ESG and the Ministry of Trade and Industry, SBF organised and led a group of over 80 Singapore companies to the China International Import Expo last year. It was the largest ASEAN delegation to showcase their products and services to the Chinese market.  

Facebook signs are seen during the China International Import Expo (CIIE), at the National Exhibiti
Facebook signs are seen during the China International Import Expo (CIIE), at the National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai, China November 5, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song)

The International Marketing Activities Programme (iMAP), managed by ESG, covers up to 70 per cent of the costs of these initiatives, allowing TACs to shift the global expansion of local companies to high gear.  

Between 2011 and 2015, ESG (then IE Singapore) teamed up with more than 50 TACs through iMAP to organise 1000 business missions and Singapore pavilions in overseas trade fairs, benefitting some 15,000 companies, 95 per cent of which were SMEs. 

TACS OF THE FUTURE

For as long as trade has existed, merchants have banded together, whether to forge alliances, advance their interests, set out standards of conduct for trade or shape legislation, through the formation of TACs.

In what may be a little-known fact, the dawn of Singapore’s TAC movement can be traced as far back as 1837 when the Singapore Chamber of Commerce (renamed Singapore International Chamber of Commerce in 1964) was formed to defend the interests of the local business community against the East India Company administration. 

Since then, TACs have played a vital role in supporting Singapore’s rise from former British colonial trading post to thriving Asian metropolis, remaining as committed to creating a vibrant local business community as they were nearly a bicentennial ago.

But more can be done. Bigger trade associations can play a leadership role in bringing together TACs and companies to support efforts that bolster the growth of our industries and economy.  

Today, TACs face the same disruption as their members with the same urgency to transform. To effectively guide members through the turbulence and provide value for the next generation, TACs, too, need to change, adapt and innovate more nimbly. 

Singapore crowd file
People crossing a street in Singapore's central business district. (File photo: Reuters)

In a 24/7 world, connected globally through technology, TACs must embrace the digital world and evolve into highly interactive, globally accessible platforms that engage members at a much faster and relevant pace. 

This brings new challenges to the TACs of today, but it is an opportunity to become stronger, more efficient and more effective. TACs have to rethink what they can bring to the table and how they can adapt to the tools of tomorrow to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world.

Ultimately the success of any TAC rests on the shoulders of the community and companies it serves. It is only when our local business community succeeds and flourishes that everyone wins.

Mr Teo Siong Seng is the Chairman of the Singapore Business Federation.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)

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