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Your 101 guide to the Singapore market

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Singapore in order to explore the market. Singapore is a really vibrant city, which surely deserves the title "entrepreneurial capital of the world". Major corporates (like Unilever and P&G) have moved their APAC HQ to Singapore since they got very attractive tax breaks. Essentially you can look at Singapore as the capital city of Asia.

The SE Asia region

Malaysia’s “Iskandar Corridor”, is soon becoming the Silicon Valley of the East. Philippines has some great software talent but red tape is paramount. Grapevine has it that Filipinos are the most hard working lot and probably the best hires in the market. In Hong Kong it would be best to hire a Cantonese speaking local to handle the complicated business rules. Off late, the Indonesian market is generating a lot of buzz and people are even going to classes to learn the Indonesian language! In the midst of all these economies, the little red dot known as Singapore serves as a hub for all these regions.

Why setup in Singapore?

Singapore offers proximity to markets like HK, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. These ASEAN countries tend to think as a group and encourage businesses vigorously. India is not part of ASEAN (since it is a part of South Asia) and hence India based companies are currently not looked upon as local players. There is a lot more recognition in the ASEAN region if your company is based out of Singapore. Some studies say that you need to look at Singapore as more of a “middle man” to the other economies. Businesses in SE Asia want to near shore to companies in the region rather than really off shore to a far away place.

The Government

The government is very proactive and public servants are the cream of the crop. It is said that the top 1% of talented people work with the government. The government holds stake in major companies like Temasec Holdings and have heads known as GCIOs. You can get a list of government projects from Gebiz (http://www.gebiz.gov.sg). Note that some government projects come with “liabilities damages clauses” where some vendors have paid huge penalties for not delivering on time. As do you business, you are likely to bump into government agencies including IRAS, MAS, NCS, WDA, IDG, EDB, NEA, HPB and Spring. It would also be worthwhile to get acquainted with various government schemes such as Ace Startups, SPRING Seeds, iJAM and NRF TIS.

Early Tech Adaptors

People in South East Asia have a very good appetite for the latest technologies. South Korea for instance has the fastest Internet speeds in the world! This kind of speed opens up a huge market for web applications and mobile. In Singapore, mobility is really big since everyone is really hooked onto cellphones all the time. 

Business Insights

  • The market is extremely networking and events driven. Traditional sales methods like cold calling do not work. You need to network.
  • A client reference is mandatory. That’s probably the first thing that all potential clients ask for.
  • The market prefers fixed bid projects. T&M seems to be more of an American concept and 95% of all projects here work on a fixed bid mode.
  • Singapore’s business outlook is very hierarchical in many ways. So the designations of people are given a lot of weightage.
  • If the accommodation is covered by the company, then the average per diem is around 80$. Else you can budget around 150$ per employee.
  • Learn retail marketing from Singaporeans! The way that items are displayed on storefronts is truly remarkable!
  • While working on proposals, ensure that you don’t end up as column fodder for many of the RFP proposals that come your way.   
  • If you want to work as a vendor for large banks you need to go through an empanelment process and get certifications such as CMM/ISO etc.     
  • In the social media space, sentiment analysis seems to be a big thing since customers understand relevance of Consumer Generated Media.
  • There is a huge Tamilian influence in the market so ensure that you brush up on your Tamil skills when speaking to Singapore Indians.
  • China is known for its IP related challenges. Hence IP is something that you need to guarantee potential Singaporean clients about.

Pointers for setting up an office at Singapore

  • As per the Singapore Company Act, you need to appoint 2 people to run the business.
  • You need to incorporate the company with the Accounting & Corporate Regulatory Authority (www.acra.gov.sg/)
  • The best way to register a company is through a consultant like Janus Corporate Solutions (http://www.guidemesingapore.com/)
  • While setting up shop in Singapore try to partner with a local business.
  • Sign up for a SingPass, which is a common password that allows us to transact with different government agencies online (www.singpass.gov.sg)
  • If you are the founder of the company, you should consider applying for an “entrepreneur      pass” since it would open a lot of doors in the market.
  • To make some new contacts, ensure that you drop by at Block 71, which houses multiple startup accelerators.
  • To get an idea of the startup community, drop by at Hub Singapore.    
  • Look up the NICF website, which defines what the competencies for various roles are (www.nicf.sg)
  • You need to get a certified auditor to look into your account within the first 90 days of starting operations here.
  • All you smart Charlies need to know that Singaporean tax laws are very strict. The government offers 100K SGD to anyone who proves that any company is evading tax!
  • If you are an Indian company setting up shop in Singapore, then it might be worthwhile connecting with the folks at TIE Singapore.
  • For socializing and meeting people in the same boat, look up expat forums like www.entersingapore.info
  • Visit the International Enterprise Singapore (www.iesingapore.gov.sg) office, since this is a government agency that encourages Singaporean companies to expand in other regions. You might bump into potential business partners who are looking to expand in India.

Singapore Events

Singapore is also known as the MICE capital of the world. There are numerous events such as the World Entrepreneurship Forum, Mobile Asia Expo, Communicasia and my personal favorite the World Malayalee Conference! There are regular events at the Marina Bay Sands, Suntec City, Raffles Place and the Singapore Expo. There are also smaller events such as Urban Prototyping, the Singapore Walkabout, Mobile Mondays and Web Wednesdays. You should also try to keep track of the multiple events organized by many local organizations such as Action Community for Entrepreneurship, SG Entrepreneurs, Indian High Commission, LISHA, SICCI, SCS, SMBA and SINDA. Ensure that you install the EventBrite mobile application to get updates on your phone. The IIT IIM alumni network of Singapore is really well connected. Some angel investors you could interact with include Angels’ Den, Bansea, Jungle Ventures and C-Cube Angels.

Employment Pass & PR

Off late, the government has been clamping down on issuing PR. To get an Employment Pass, you need to have a minimum salary as specified by the Ministry of Manpower.  Do remember that you won’t be able to do billable work if you don’t have an Employment Pass. There also seems to be an undercurrent against too many foreigners coming to Singapore. The Ministry of Manpower pulls you up if you have too many foreigners working in your company. A lot of EP applications are also getting rejected since companies don’t have enough locals being hired.

Hiring Talent

The best schools are SMU, Nanyang and NUS. Freshers can be hired on an average base salary of 4000 SGD. This market has more of diploma holders and very few graduate degree holders. Also the salary hikes every year is almost non-existent, since the inflation is very low.  

Last but not the least; don’t forget the famed “kiasu” approach that is prevalent in Singapore. People have really busy schedules and business is seriously competitive. One thing is for sure; the Singapore market will teach you a lot about how business is done. There is no doubt that Singapore will surely push your brand onto a global platform. Wish you all the best for your Singaporean endeavors!