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Advocating selfless leadership in business

Interview - September 26, 2018

Ever since its foundation in Singapore in 1837, SICC has been a consistently credible advocate for business interests and for Singapore to policymakers and investors respectively. SICC members represent all business sectors: 50% of member companies are local and foreign large organizations, including multinationals; and the other 50% are local and foreign medium, small and start-up companies. In this interview, Victor Mills discusses the ASEAN opportunity for Singapore, the history of the SICC and how it is advocating for Revolution 5.0.



With ASEAN, Singapore is becoming part of a more integrated economic bloc where the limitations of a small market do not exist anymore. How important is this integration of the ASEAN community for Singapore? What is the overall potential of the whole region moving forward?

Singapore was one of the five founding members of ASEAN. Originally designed to secure peace in South East Asia, the association now aims to build economic integration. That is an aspiration not yet a fact. It will take decades to achieve economic integration across the region.

For example, the members of the European Union are at very different stages of economic development and always have been. The ambitions for ASEAN are not political or monetary union, they are pure economic integration. ASEAN realizes it needs to articulate the benefits of economic integration beyond the political elites in each country to the citizens of each member state.

Singapore chairs ASEAN this year and it has focused on the pragmatic and sensible ambition to help small businesses leverage up by using e-commerce. This is also a smart move because it cuts across non-tariff barriers and allows the governments of member states to work together on infrastructure.

The ASEAN economic community has reduced tariffs at least among the larger and more developed economies. Non-tariff barriers need to be reduced. They will be, but it will take time.

Singapore’s focus on ASEAN makes sense. The region is our backyard. The number of people across ASEAN moving into middle-class status with disposable income to spend on consumer goods is increasing exponentially. ASEAN is a large market that no-one can ignore.

Singapore is a centre for finance, business services and, especially legal contracts for the region. Because the rule of law applies here, contracts can be enforced and intellectual property protected. That is a tremendous security for businesses.


Singapore maintains its competitive edge by being very pragmatic and forward thinking with plans such as the CFE report which includes the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs). Singapore plans to move towards a value-creating economy. What is the analysis that you make of the implementation of different ITMs and how close is Singapore to becoming a value-creation economy?

Now that Singapore is a developed economy, we should not make the mistake of benchmarking ourselves against developed economies like those of the United States, Japan or the European Union. Singapore should benchmark itself against other global cities.

Most of the ITMs were only rolled out last year and they will take time to be implemented. One of the things that we are doing in the Chamber is trying to communicate to our members exactly what the ITMs mean for their businesses.

When the Committee for the Future Economy Report was issued, people were surprised because it was very different from the reports of previous economic focus groups. The Committee’s report was unexpected because it was not specific. Gone are the days when you could build another integrated resort and create 10,000 jobs. What is required to achieve a value creating economy is a tremendous amount of collaboration between the public sector, academia, business people and individuals. That really is the core message of the Committee of the Future Economy Report.

It has been the tradition of Singapore since its independence in 1965 that the government does the heavy lifting in terms of acting as an enabler. To achieve a value-creating economy, it is up to each individual and each business person – whatever the size of business and sector – to get on board and realize that their future is in ASEAN. How to internationalize is something we will focus on for next year and we will leverage on our multinational members who do this all the time – it is in their DNA.


We have seen some Singaporean companies present in the ASEAN market. How do you promote that collaboration between the large Singaporean MNCs to open the door to foreign markets and bring all the SMEs with them to hunt as a pack?

Hunting in packs does not come naturally to many SMEs. This is beginning to change. Singapore SMEs are making better use of the network of Singaporeans and Singapore businesses in each foreign market to open doors to opportunity. This is a very welcome sign. It is not always easy for large Singapore companies to take SMEs with them abroad. There is always the pressure to employ the SMEs of the host country rather than bring Singapore SMEs along.


The International Chamber of Commerce is the oldest here in Singapore. What role do you play within the ecosystem here and can you give us a brief history of SICC, which is close to 200 years old now?

SICC is Singapore’s longest serving chamber. More importantly, we are its most inclusive among the 370 or so voluntary chambers and business associations. The Chamber was founded in Singapore in 1837 by a group of British trading houses. They came together to lobby the government of the day which was the East India Company. The East India Company was planning to remove Singapore's free port status. Had it done so, we would not be here today. The Chamber persuaded the East India Company to retain Singapore’s free port status. That was the birth of the Chamber.

For the first hundred years, the Chamber exclusively represented British trading interests. After the Second World War and for the first twenty years of Singapore's independence, SICC exclusively represented foreign MNCs that the government invited to Singapore to help build our economy.

In the last 33 years, membership of the Chamber has evolved to a very healthy mix of large and small, local and foreign businesses. Of the 600 companies which are members of the Chamber today, almost half are Singaporean businesses and the remainder are foreign-owned businesses. Half our members are large companies including multinationals and the other half are medium, small and start-up businesses. More than 40 nationalities and more than 20 sectors are represented in the Chamber.

SICC differentiates itself by not duplicating what other people do well. We focus on the gaps and a good example is our business awards for collaborative innovation which we started three years ago. We focus our work on helping businesses improve their productivity by being innovative. Collaboration is vital because no one company – whatever its size - can do it alone. We went for a gap in the market that was not being recognized.

We are passionate about the right kind of leadership in business, which should be selfless rather than selfish, and on the development of each business’ human capital. We strive to give our members something constructive and relevant to think about – for example, how to adapt their policies or processes to what our speakers and our thought leaders talk about.

We have taken a brave stance on advocating what we call Revolution 5.0. This is about changing business models from the current linear production to a circular model. Current linear production models produce waste which ends up in landfills or incinerators. The goal is a circular model where goods produce materials rather than waste. In other words, where materials can be harvested and used to produce other goods. There is a real urgency about this.

In 12 years’ time, there will be nine billion-plus humans on the planet. The pressure on resources of all kinds will increase exponentially. We need to think of new ways to do business. This year is Singapore's year of climate change and it is wonderful to see the fact that we are now beginning to focus on the challenges which climate change is bringing in terms of more severe weather and rising sea levels.

We also need to focus more as a society on recycling. There have been some good recent initiatives in the packaging industry to reduce waste.

We see Revolution 5.0 as another opportunity to enhance Singapore’s hub status. There's no reason why Singapore can’t be a hub for the circular economy too.