The third Africa – Singapore Business Forum in late August was the most successful of the series both in terms of the number of delegates attending and the depth of the discussions. African Business Editor, Anver Versi was invited to chair one of the sessions. Here is his report.
International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore), the organisers of the third Africa – Singapore Business Forum, had expected around 400 delegates to attend the meeting; instead over 650 turned up. This was a very high-level forum involving government ministers and the chief executives of some of Africa and Singapore’s biggest and most successful enterprises. It was clear that relations between Africans and Singaporeans have both intensified as well as become easier since the first such forum in 2010.
I attended that first meeting, which was very much an exploratory exercise. Most Singaporeans, apart from those who were already in business in Africa, knew very little about the continent – most of it gleaned from generally negative media coverage.
The Africans were much better informed about the island nation’s achievements but few had first-hand knowledge of how the country and its companies operated or who was who or did what. It was also not quite clear what sort of business relationship would be most suitable between Africa and Singapore.
There has been considerable progress since. Several Singaporean companies have joined the 50-odd that were already established in various African countries and the entry of Temasek, the country’s huge investment fund, into African oil and gas through its subsidiary, Pavilion, has been a major highlight.
Minister Shanmugaratnam said that an important opportunity for Africa, resulting from the transformation in China, is to become a manufacturing centre
Many of the blurred edges during the first two forums had now gained sharp focus, and knowledge about each other had improved several-fold. It was time to move on. While the first two forums were aimed largely at African governments, this year’s event was firmly directed towards the private sector. Nevertheless, there was considerable interest from government.
A well-planned media campaign, which included a visit to the island by African journalists, a supplement on companies and people which we published, and features in local papers and other media ensured that the agenda was well circulated. An encouraging feature of this year’s event was that over 400 business-to-business contacts were made over the two days of the event. Expect a very considerable increase in trade flows and cooperation between the two entities by the time the next forum comes around in two years’ time.
The fact that, this year, the guest of honour was the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, was an indication of the rise in the status and importance of the forum to the Singaporean government.
To put this into context, Singapore as a great trading nation has international conferences virtually every other day so the presence of the Minister of Finance was a strong signal that Africa now occupies a high position in the nation’s consideration. This is despite the relatively low volume of trade between Singapore and Africa which is currently only just over 1% of the $1,000m of the global total.
After welcoming remarks from Seah Moon Ming, chairman of IE Singapore, the forum took the form of a series of panel discussions. Minister Shanmugaratnam shared the opening panel with Peter Matlare, CEO of the South African multinational Tiger Brands. Tiger Brands is perhaps the biggest packaged goods company in Africa with interests in a host of African as well as non-African countries. Chairing the session was V. Shankar from Standard Chartered.
Minister Shanmugaratnam said that an important opportunity for Africa, resulting from the transformation in China, is to become a manufacturing centre. While China has long dominated low-cost manufacturing, it is becoming much more expensive to manufacture in the country and China is trying to move up the value chain. There is thus a major shift, with labour-intensive manufacturing moving out of China and into Vietnam, Bangladesh and India.