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Speech By Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the SMCCI Awards Night and Gala Dinner on 21 October 2022

21 Oct 2022

SMCCI President Mr Farid Khan and Deputy President Mr Abu Bakar,

SMCCI Board Members,

My Parliamentary Colleague, Mr Zaqy Mohamad

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. I am very happy to join you tonight for this year’s SMCCI’s Awards Night and Gala Dinner. 

2. I am sure this event has extra special meaning for all of you because it has been some time since the community has been able to gather together to celebrate the achievements of your entrepreneurs and businesses. Of course, it is all the more special since we have not had the chance to gather like this over the last two and a half years because of Covid-19.  

3. I know that the pandemic has been incredibly challenging for many businesses, especially our SMEs. 

a. You were disrupted by the lockdowns, whether it was the circuit breaker or the heightened alert measures. 

b. And even as the Government provided rental rebates, wage subsidies, and a whole range of different support measures to assist companies, we know that key sectors such as the retail and the F&B sector were badly impacted. So we are happy that things are getting better now.

4. But throughout this period, I am very grateful that SMCCI stepped up and played a key role to support the Malay/Muslim community and all your members.  

a. SMCCI was an important advocate for the business community’s interests during the pandemic – including many home-based businesses. In particular, you helped reach out to more than 1,800 home-based businesses to disburse government relief funds during the height of COVID-19. 

b. SMCCI also supported the “SG United Buka Puasa” initiative, working alongside Malay/Muslim organisations, catering companies, and the People’s Association to distribute more than 200,000 food packs to families in need during the period of Ramadan.

c. So to everyone in SMCCI, from the board management to the staff and all of you that have worked so hard, a big thank you!

5. Of course, credit must go out to each and every one of you too. Because all of you here did your part and co-operated with the measures to help fight the virus together. Despite the measures we introduced being inconvenient, despite the disruptions to your businesses and daily lives, which were painful at times, you continued to co-operate and make sacrifices and worked together. 

6. And because of this strong spirit of solidarity and unity, we were able, fortunately, to get through the worst of the pandemic. Singapore today is in a much better position than before, and if you compare us to many other countries worldwide, we are also in a stronger position.

a. For that, we have to thank all of you for your co-operation and support, so a big round of applause to all of you. Terima kasih.  

7. What the past two and a half years has shown is that we are truly stronger when we stand together. Indeed, in the darkest moments of the pandemic, we continued to keep faith with each other, and we pulled together as one people. That is why we are able to emerge stronger from this pandemic so far. 

8. And that is why I think the theme of today’s event – Together towards Tomorrow – is very appropriate. We all hope that the worst of Covid-19 is truly behind us. The numbers have been going up these last few weeks, but it seems to be starting to peak and I think it may start to come down before too long. Importantly, we have been able to ride through this present wave without having to tighten or impose any new restrictions so far. While our hospitals have been busy, they have not been overwhelmed, and the vast majority of cases have been very mild.

9. Unfortunately, as we look ahead, we are faced with new challenges. 

a. The Russia-Ukraine war has tightened energy and food supplies, leading to higher inflation around the world. The war is not going to end anytime soon, in fact, it is very likely to be a protracted war, which means that there will be considerable uncertainties around energy and food. 

b. Meanwhile, to contain inflation, countries everywhere are increasing interest rates in response, but this is, in turn, is resulting in slower growth around the world.

c. We will be entering a very different economic environment from the one we were used to. For the past 20 years, everyone has become used to very low inflation and low interest rates. Going forward, inflation and interest rates will be higher than what we were used to. All of us will need to adjust to this new reality.

d. More fundamentally, we are entering a more volatile and dangerous world, with heightened geopolitical tension between the US and China, impacting investments, trade, and finance everywhere.

10. Despite these challenges, there are reasons to be optimistic. Because there remain many opportunities and growth prospects for Singapore and for the region around us.

a. Our economy is still expected to do well this year, with growth at about 3 – 4% this year.

b. Southeast Asia is also doing well – with a fast-growing middle class and an increasingly vibrant consumer market.  

11. The Government will do everything we can, especially through Enterprise Singapore. We will do more to help our SMEs navigate the challenges ahead and take full advantage of the opportunities around us.  

12. First, where energy costs are concerned, we have introduced an Energy Efficient Grant, which supports up to 70% of the cost of new energy-efficient equipment.  If you take up the grant and buy new equipment that is more energy efficient, it will help you reduce your energy bills. 

13. Second, I know many businesses are grappling with manpower issues.  This is not unique to Singapore, it is a problem faced by countries everywhere.  That is why even though our borders are open, it is not so easy to find workers from overseas to come here.  Again, the government will assist by helping companies to automate their processes and become more productive.  We have many grant schemes to help SMEs adopt a wide range of productivity solutions. You can also get advice on these solutions from dedicated SME centres run by various trade associations and business chambers, including SMCCI.

14. Third, for many SMEs, digitalisation is important because it can help you reach out to more customers.

a. Indeed, surveys have shown that SMEs that have digitalised saw higher revenue growth and outperformed their peers. 

b. That is why I am very happy that SMCCI has a Digital Transformation Office, supported by Enterprise Singapore, to help SMEs capture new opportunities in the digital economy.

c. Take for example our local home-based business Hot SpicyMama, which sells ready-to-eat condiments. With the help of SMCCI’s Digital Transformation Office, they are now selling their products online, on e-commerce marketplaces like Shopee and Lazada. Hot SpicyMama also took part in online campaigns like “Bazaar Kita”, which was organised during Ramadan, and their sales increased substantially after these digitalisation efforts, and they even attracted the attention of offline retail players that are now interested to carry their products. 

d. Or take Muslim-owned accounting firm MFP Pte Ltd. It started off offering largely traditional bookkeeping & accounting services. Then it pivoted to fully-digital cloud accounting services to help companies manage their accounts hassle-free, and they saw significant client growth even during the height of the pandemic. Building off their success, they have started expanding into business analysis and business advisory services. 

e. These are just two examples of what is possible if companies start to digitalise their operations.

15. Apart from this, I encourage all of you to consider internationalising to capture a share the growing opportunities in the region. I know that venturing overseas is not easy, but with e-commerce, you can now reach out to customers much more conveniently. 

a. There are many grants and schemes to help all of you go overseas.

b. One inspiring example is “Pondok Abang”, one of our finalists tonight. They are a halal food manufacturer specialising in ready-to-eat dishes. They were able to successfully launch their products in Ho Chi Minh City, after they collaborated with a Vietnam-based food distributor through a Singapore Food Manufacturers’ Association event. Today, you can find their pau goreng, bergedel  and popia durian on e-commerce sites in Vietnam and even in supermarkets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City! 

16. So whether it is becoming more energy-efficient, adopting productivity solutions, digitalising, or venturing overseas, these are all things which SMEs can do to stay competitive. 

17. But at the end of the day, what is most important is to have that entrepreneurial spirit. Running a business as an SME is not easy. It involves taking risks, trying to figure out what customers really want and how to differentiate yourself from competitors – all on a lean budget. You must aim high, and yet, you must have the pragmatism to get things done, and the grit and resilience to go through several bumps along the way.

18. Tonight, we will be recognising a number of Malay/Muslim businesses who have managed to do all of these and excelled in their own ways. But the common thread that binds them all together is that special dare-to-do attitude, their never-say-die spirit, and the determination to succeed regardless of adversity.

19. There are many inspiring stories amongst the finalists but let me share just one:

a. Kowabunga! Global was founded by Mdm Suliani and Mr Taufiq in 2011.

b. They started a student care programme in a small centre in the western part of Singapore with only $300 in capital. In the early days, they had to go door-to-door and distributed flyers to recruit students. They even developed their curriculum from scratch. But this hard work paid off. 

c. Today, Kowabunga! Global has grown into the 14 centres with 180 staff. It is an amazing success story.

20. There are many more inspiring stories amongst all the finalists and potential award recipients, and I think all of you are a tremendous testimony of how far the community has progressed with its achievements. So I want to congratulate all our awardees tonight and I hope all your success stories will inspire others, including the next generation of Malay/Muslim entrepreneurs, and in so doing help keep that entrepreneurial spirit alive. And for those who have achieved success, I hope you will give back to the community too, by mentoring smaller and newer companies to help them succeed.

21. Meanwhile, I hope SMCCI will continue to work together with the Government to support the Malay/Muslim business community. You have contributed much to the success of the community over the years, and I look forward to strengthening our partnership in the years to come.

22. If we continue to work together, we will certainly get through the stormy weather ahead. As the Malay proverb says, bersatu teguh, bercerai roboh. I am confident that as long as we stay united, we can overcome any challenges ahead, and emerge stronger together. Thank you very much.