WITH REVENUES GROWING 50 per cent a year for the past three years, Cryoviva Singapore – a company that specialises in cord blood banking – has enjoyed the kind of success most companies would envy.
But its chief executive officer, Ashish Munjal, expects growth to be even better this year.
“Definitely. We are positive about our prospects this year and have plans to expand into Indonesia and the Philippines,” he said, adding that the company was looking to add 15 to 20 employees to its 40-strong workforce.
“When it comes to health care, people do put aside funds for their family. So we are not that affected by the economy,” Munjal said.
Health care, alongside education and information and communications technology, is bucking the downward trend – growing strongly despite a slowdown in Singapore’s economy.
According to the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the city state’s economy grew 1.8 per cent last year, its slowest pace since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. The government forecasts growth in 2017 to be between 1 per cent and 3 per cent.
With the economy lacking the lustre it once had – it grew 15.2 per cent in 2010 – many observers are awaiting the issue of a report by a government-appointed committee that will outline long-term growth strategies.
The Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), chaired by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, is expected to release its report in the next week or so, after a year of deliberations.
Inderjit Singh, a former member of parliament, is hoping the report will shift the focus away from Singapore’s previous growth model, which relied on exports, foreign investment and cheap labour.
Singh, a long-time champion of local enterprises, said poor economic planning was partly to blame for the slowdown. He said the failure to rein in costs was a key factor in the gloomy business climate and criticised the government for not doing enough to help local firms.
“Failure to [create] home-grown champions over the last 20 years is also a policy failure that already has and will have long lasting implications on the economy,” Singh said.
“The CFE must provide answers and show direction and inspire businesses. I hope we will see some significant initiatives that can change the game plan, and bring growth and prosperity again to Singapore.”
Other observers, such as DBS economist Irvin Seah, doubted the committee would suggest drastic changes.
“Don’t hold your breath. Its mandate is to outline a long-term vision for Singapore, so do not expect anything specific.”
The pressure on Heng is mounting. Singapore faces a host of macroeconomic risks regarding its growth prospects, including a slowdown in China and geopolitical uncertainty.
The rise of protectionism, led by US President Donald Trump, is one of the greatest threats.
“I think the brewing headwinds of an aggressive, if not antagonistic, Trump administration is something to watch out for. He has certainly been busy in his first days in office signing executive orders,” said Selena Ling, an economist at OCBC Bank.
The president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, Kurt Wee, said most firms were pessimistic about the future.
“There are certain select sectors doing well. But by and large, you have an economy where a large chunk of demand has disappeared,” said Wee.
“We are probably right at the bottom [of the slowdown] but it doesn’t mean there will be a sustained recovery.
“It looks more like an L-shape than a V-shape to me.”
Even so, there is a glimmer of hope.
Manufacturing, a leading indicator of the economy, surged in the final three months of last year. Industrial production jumped 21.3 per cent in December, mirroring improved output in the rest of Asia.
Some economists expect the momentum to continue in the next few months, with several upgrading their forecasts for 2017.
Seah, the DBS economist, said the improvement in manufacturing was a clear signal the economic cycle had turned. But he also warned that even if growth picked up, it was likely to be uneven.
“The multinationals will be the first to feel any improvement before it trickles down to the local companies,” he said, adding that the labour market could be the last to feel the turnaround.
Some 19,000 people lost their jobs in Singapore last year, more than the 15,580 laid off in 2015, and the most in seven years, according to official data.
“Local firms, responsible for the bulk of employment here, will want to be sure of the outlook before hiring,” Seah added.
Despite the patchy outlook, United Overseas Bank economist Francis Tan said the economy could do better than his earlier prediction of 1.8 per cent growth in 2017.
“The pickup in electronics is a good leading indicator that should filter down positively to other sectors domestically,” said Tan.
Aaron Low is a Singapore-based journalist and a former deputy business editor at the Straits Times. He is also the founding partner of the Nutgraf, a content marketing agency