Reflections from the Past

This special feature reflects on how an organisation once known as the United Kingdom Manufacturing Representatives Association has transformed into the British Chamber of Commerce, Singapore, which we are familiar with today. ORIENT speaks to four past Presidents of the Chamber for their views on how the Chamber has grown and blossomed through the years.

As the stage is being set to celebrate Singapore’s 50th anniversary next year, it is indeed important to reflect on the transformation of this Little Red Dot. Half a century is a relatively short time for any nation to develop, mature and evolve into an economic powerhouse. Yet, judging by the city-state’s significance in the regional and global markets today, Singapore is a resounding success story.

 

Celebrating its own 60th anniversary this year, the British Chamber of Commerce, Singapore, has witnessed Singapore’s astonishing growth through the years. The Chamber has been a catalyst in forging strong and sustainable business ties between Singapore and the UK; whether in the fields of energy and utilities, financial services, info-comm technology, the creative industries, property and construction, shipping, logistics and transport or small businesses, it is clear that the bond between the Chamber and Singapore runs deep.

 

A Shared Past

 

Singapore and the UK are linked by more than two centuries of shared history; it is a longstanding friendship underpinned by substantial mutual interests. That enduring goodwill has manifested itself in the excellent cooperation between the two countries across a range of fields, from defence and culture to education and research. Even the stunning skyline of Singapore—which includes the now iconic Marina Bay Sands, Singapore Sports Hub and Gardens by the Bay—owes a debt to numerous British architects and engineering firms that had a hand in their design and construction.

 

 

Economy-wise, both the UK and Singapore have remained robust and resilient. The UK is one of Singapore’s largest trading partners in Europe, and the total trade value between them has increased by nearly 60% over the past decade. Also, Singapore is the recipient of the significant contribution made by the more than 30,000 British nationals and 3,000 British companies that call Singapore home.

 

At the heart of it all is the British Chamber of Commerce, Singapore, which has been playing a pivotal role in raising the profile of British companies here and facilitating business opportunities for companies in both countries. However, it has not always been an easy path, as both the Chamber and Singapore have seen their fair share of upheavals and downturns.

 

The Chamber, In Retrospect

 

Today, the British Chamber of Commerce, Singapore, has more than 400 Corporate Members and more than 2,500 Employee Members, a significant increase over the past 10 years. Although data from 1954 is unavailable, the Chamber has grown from strength to strength from the outset. However, it has not always been smooth sailing.

 

Just 16 short years ago, Asia was experiencing an unprecedented financial crisis that swept across the continent. With its deep ties to the business community here, the then British Business Association was impacted significantly as well.

 

Shanker Iyer (1999-2004) was elected President right around the time when the Asian financial crisis was at its height. The Chamber had a crisis of its own. Shanker and his team had the herculean task of avoiding the storm and steering the organisation back on track. “When I took over, the Chamber required some stability and financial discipline,” Shanker recalls. “That actually gave us the boost to grow the Chamber because, in a crisis, people tend to pull together. So all of us got together and we actually formulated detailed strategies to revive the Chamber, to get more members, to get more sponsorship, to get more income and create a new premium class of membership.”

 

A key challenge that the organisation addressed was changing the perception of the Association in the hearts and minds of UK businesses operating in Singapore. “One of the first things we did was to rebrand the BBA as a Chamber of Commerce, which gave it a bit more clout and made it more serious than just an association. The  foundation we established at that time continues to prevail even today,” reveals Shanker.

 

Aside from solidifying the foundation financially and with committed board members, Shanker also wanted to champion foreign small and medium enterprises (SMEs). It was considered a revolutionary idea at that time since it was commonly considered that big corporations were needed to anchor the Chamber’s finances. “Back then, I was serving foreign companies coming into Singapore in my professional capacity, and I myself used to represent a foreign company here before starting my own practice. I suggested that we also do our bit by highlighting the foreign SMEs’ contribution to Singapore, because many of them are quite entrepreneurial. So we set up the British Chamber SME Award, which eventually morphed into the Annual Business Awards,” says Shanker. Fifteen years on, the Annual Business Awards is now one of Singapore’s most prestigious business events that celebrates and acknowledges the achievements of businesses and provides them with a platform to gain better recognition.

 

 

Expanding the Horizon

 

In 2006, Terry O’Connor (2006–2010) succeeded Jonathan Asherson (2004–2006) as President of the Chamber. By then, Singapore’s economy was back on track. Having found a firm footing financially, it was time for the Chamber to expand its horizons.

 

The first order of business was to forge better relations with its regional counterparts. “We created an organisation called BiSEA, or Britain in Southeast Asia, which replaced the old Britain in Asia Pacific,” explains Terry. By pulling the different Chambers together, BiSEA managed to build a stronger business network in the region and facilitated the interests of the members of the British Chambers and Business Groups.

 

It was around this time that the Chamber, under Terry’s leadership, decided to grow its membership, penetrate beyond the CEO and CFO level and increase the number of individuals connected to the Chamber. “We restructured the membership packages to have more Sterling memberships, allow unlimited staff from these companies, and then encourage more companies to join us. So, from that BiSEA engagement and from sharing best practice, we really extended the headcount that was engaged through the Chamber. Although company growth continued to increase, individual member growth was explosive,” he reveals.

 

 

The growth in Corporate and Individual membership during this time was, in fact, one of the key reasons why the Chamber was able to remain steadfast during the second wave of financial crisis around 2008. “I remember travel being curtailed and expenses being cut, so we had more people coming to our events and looking for guidance and advice,” Terry recalls. “We were therefore able to have all sorts of learning, sharing and networking with other companies.” In a curious way, the financial crisis opened up the Chamber to more opportunities, thus pushing it to even greater heights.

 

The Chamber Today

 

Today, the Chamber is well positioned to facilitate business between the UK and Singapore. Within the Chamber, the diversity of members ranges from the largest multinationals to small owner managed enterprises, representing the best of British and Singaporean talent, goods and services. Furthermore, the Chamber has a deeper member engagement than ever before, something that Steve Puckett (2010–2013) championed.

 

 

Over the last decade, the Chamber has facilitated efforts in establishing ties between Singapore, the British High Commission and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). “The Chamber grew to be more business-focused and addressed business issues. It became more closely linked with UKTI and we linked the business agendas of the Chamber and the UK as a whole,” Steve describes. This meant that UK businesses coming to Singapore now have an immediate business-to-business available connection from the outset.

 

On the UK front, the Chamber provided a successful platform from which Singaporean companies could expand in the UK. “It’s important to have Singaporean companies that invest in Britain engaged with the Chamber because they bring a unique perspective,” Steve insists. This is important because, British companies do not look to join a Chamber just to meet other British businesses. “They want business opportunities to expand into different markets and they want to be able to network as widely as possible”

 

To that end, the Chamber, during Steve’s tenure, secured some of Singapore’s biggest corporate names, such as Keppel, Wing Tai and the City Developments Limited, continuing to widen the Chamber’s local business presence.

 

The Chamber of the Future

 

Hugo Walkinshaw, the 44-year-old incumbent President, is the youngest in the Chamber’s history. It has only been a little over a year since he took over the helm in May 2013, but he has already been instrumental in introducing numerous initiatives.

 

In June 2013, the Chamber successfully launched ‘Business Services,’ a new addition to the existing Chamber services catering to small companies from the UK coming to Singapore. “Our first piece of work was in Oct 2013. Now, we have a full-time team who are already servicing small companies out of the UK that are coming into Singapore and the region,” Hugo reports. In fact, the way Business Services was launched was a role model for other Chambers around the world.

 

 

Hugo has big dreams for the Chamber’s future. “I think, in a decade, we will have a very different style of operation in the Chamber, and I think we’re beginning to see that shift now,” he affirms. “We’ve been a non-profit organisation, we’ve been somewhat administrative and very focused around planning events. I think, in 10 years’time, we will be much more focused on professional Business Services and content knowledge management; we’ll be much more than the non-profit organisation we are now.”

 

So what does the future hold for Singapore, the UK and the Chamber? For now, it would seem like the ties can be further cultivated as the UK looks increasingly eastward in its foreign and trade policies. Foreign Secretary William Hague stated when he delivered the Fullerton lecture in Singapore in 2012 that “long-term engagement with Asia is not an option for us; it is an imperative.” For the UK and Singapore to succeed, an enduring partnership remains essential, particularly in the face of challenges both old and new.

 

The future looks bright for the Chamber. With record numbers of Corporate and Individual members today, the Chamber has never been in better shape to serve the interests of its members, be they companies or individuals.

 

Their Finest Hour

 

The four former Chamber Presidents to whom Orient spoke share the finest moments of their respective tenures.
 
Shanker Iyer
I think the one that really gave us a thrill was when we had the 50th anniversary celebration 10 years ago. We said, “Let’s be ambitious and have then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew as the Guest of Honour,” and he accepted our invitation. For us, it was probably the proudest moment because he was there, I was on stage with him, and almost a thousand of us were there, too. That was the culmination of what we were doing, and I think all of us were quite chuffed.
 
Terry O’Connor
The proudest moment for me was being able to hand over the baton to a worthy successor with the Chamber in record membership both in terms of companies and individuals, record financial health and having a stable and very successful management team. Certainly the smartest thing I ever did as a Chamber President was to recruit Brigitte Holtschneider, the Executive Director of the British Chamber of Commerce, Singapore.
 
Steve Puckett
Having lived in Asia for nearly 30 years and built businesses using the best of the resources at my disposal—part of the essence of doing business in Asia—I brought that mindset to my tenure as President from the outset. I looked at the resources available, looked at the needs we had as a Chamber and matched that with the vision I shared with the Board and the potential I believed was there, focusing resources where they were needed the most in an effort to build on the success of my predecessors.
 
Hugo Walkinshaw
The first and foremost is to have the chance to take over. I was delighted to be invited by Steve Puckett and the High Commissioner to take on the role—it was something I thought I’d rise to later in my career, when I was a bit older. Another is being the first Chamber to be accredited under the new joint UKTI initiative. And we were the first to launch Business Services successfully; from what I understand, we are seen to be a role model for British Chambers globally, so having achieved that during the first year of my term was pretty cool.

 

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