Celebrating the Diamond Jubilee: The Chamber: Past and Present (Part VI)

Building networks, connecting business, creating opportunities

As the business landscape in Singapore continues to boom, Britain’s influence in Singapore is evident in everything from the system of government to the legal framework and the city’s colonial-era architecture. Britain has also made significant contributions to the country’s wider economic development.

 

Enabling this development, the British Chamber of Commerce in Singapore has, for almost 60 years, been a powerful catalyst for forging strong and sustainable business links between Singapore and Britain.

 

The British Chamber of Commerce was established in 1954, known at that time as the United Kingdom Manufacturing Representatives Association. Twenty years later, in 1974, it was renamed the British Business Association and in 1998 it was rebranded as the British Chamber of Commerce.

 

Since its beginning, the Chamber has been funded entirely by sponsorship, membership subscriptions, as well as from the activities it hosts. Its role has evolved and the Chamber has adapted to the needs of businesses with the changing economic and political scenario in Singapore.

 

The Chamber History

 

The Chamber represents organisations of all sizes, including individuals from different business backgrounds and nationalities, diverse industries, SMEs and large multinational corporations (MNCs). The network currently has more than 1,500 individuals and 350 company members.

 

In 1998, when Singapore was suffering from the impact of the Asian financial crisis that had plunged the continent into deep recession; the Chamber too was impacted considerably.

 

Shanker Iyer, former President of the Chamber said “One of the first things we did was to rebrand it as a Chamber of Commerce, which gave it a bit more clout and made it more serious than just an association. We wanted to make it a business association.”

 

Subsequently a few ‘sustainable members’ as they were then known played a significant role in reversing the Chamber’s fortunes. These members volunteered to pay an increased membership fee to keep the Chamber afloat.

 

Mr Iyer added: “As Singapore business changed, we championed the SMEs – small companies coming in with big ideas. Nobody was recognising them at the time and we tried to highlight that.”

 

The Asian financial crisis also prompted the board to think of ways to boost the organisation’s finances. The BritCham Ball and the Annual Business Awards, both hugely successful events were born at the time.

 

The Annual Business Awards, now in its 13th year, had modest beginnings with just 70 people. Today it is one of Singapore’s most prestigious business events. The awards aim to celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of businesses and provide them a platform to gain better recognition.

 

Singapore's then Senior Minister of State for Education Mr S Iswaran with (from left to right) John Horsburgh, former COO of Rolls-Royce; Chamber President Steve Puckett and Chamber Executive Director Brigitte Holtschneider at the 11th Annual Business Awards Gala Dinner

Singapore's then Senior Minister of State for Education Mr S Iswaran with (from left to right) John Horsburgh, former COO of Rolls-Royce; Chamber President Steve Puckett and Chamber Executive Director Brigitte Holtschneider at the 11th Annual Business Awards Gala Dinner

 

 

Lord Green, Minister of State for Trade and Investment, UK (right) talks business with a guest at the Leaders in Business Lunch event organised by the Chamber

 

Lord Green, Minister of State for Trade and Investment, UK (right) talks business with a guest at the Leaders in Business Lunch event organised by the Chamber

 

Likewise, the Golf Tournament organised by the Chamber has grown to be a sell-out event with hundreds of participants each year.

 

The new initiatives and the hard work of the Chamber team resulted in an evolved and more beneficial organisation for the business community. Former Vice President Duncan Merrin recalled: “It was extremely satisfying to have money in the bank. We had a terrific team. It has changed totally, from a much less organised operation to what it is today.”

 

The Chamber Today

 

The diversity of members of BritCham ranges from the largest multinationals to small owner managed enterprises, representing the best of British and Singaporean talent, goods and services, making it the Chamber’s key strength.

 

A recent membership survey showed that ‘networking opportunities’ are key drivers for businesses to join as members. The Chamber therefore, works very hard to give its members a platform to build, connect and grow.

 

Board members hail from big names such as HSBC, British Airways, Rolls-Royce, PWC, StarHub, BP and successful SMEs. With the Board’s experience and vision the Chamber continues to grow from strength to strength. There is a seamless partnership with the British High Commission and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), the British Government's trade and investment promotion arm. The organisations work closely to promote British business and trade interests. Steve Puckett, the current President, said:

 

“The Chamber has become more business focused, and addresses the business issues of today. It’s more closely linked with UKTI and we have sought to link the business agendas for the Chamber and the country as a whole.”

 

He added: “Change has been a constant over the past 10 years at the Chamber. It has developed into a large, diverse and vibrant group that has business at its heart and has strong backing from British companies here.”

 

The Chamber also enjoys a high level of cooperation from Singapore businesses and government organisations.

 

The Future for Singapore-British Relations

 

The outlook for British business remains buoyant, and Singapore is attracting more established companies and start-ups from Britain each year. Britain is now the fifth-largest investor in Singapore, with over 700 British based companies here, many using Singapore as their base in Asia.

 

Aside from its importance as a gateway to Southeast Asia, why is Singapore such a draw for British business? Mr Iyer explains it is because “doing business here is easy. That’s why there is no question that it is the best place to trade in the world.”

 

He also credits the Singapore government for making the business environment so appealing. “The government is open to change and is dynamic. Singapore is financially sound, it has weathered recession and hard times because the government can react quickly and then as soon as possible put the money back into reserves – the government runs like a company. The unions cooperate with business for mutual benefit and, although no one is recession proof, it’s less risky in Singapore, certainly,” he added.

 

The Rolls-Royce team celebrate their achievement at the 2007 British Business Awards in Singapore

 

The Rolls-Royce team celebrate their achievement at the 2007 British Business Awards in Singapore

 

Tax incentives are also unrivalled by almost any other country and the Singapore government actively encourages new businesses to set up. For British enterprise, the Chamber of Commerce is often the first port of call for making new contacts.

 

Singapore’s business roots lie mostly in manufacturing and engineering but companies now exist in myriad sectors, from public relations to recruitment and design and creative services. The service industry is widely viewed as the fastest growing sector today.

 

“The developing mindset in Singapore continues to be a focus; more entrepreneurial, more new businesses,” added Mr Puckett.

 

Despite the ever-changing nature of business and the changing faces within the Chamber, one thing has remained constant – the ties binding Singapore and Britain. Mr Merrin said: “There’s a lot of respect for Brits in Singapore. We carry a good image and of course we’re deeply rooted here. In the last two years we’ve had the royal wedding, the Jubilee and the Olympics and they have all given us a high profile. America, and of course China, have a strong presence, but Britain still has a lot to offer and will continue to have a strong profile in Singapore.”

 

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