SOUTH Africa's biggest banking group is strengthening its presence in East Asia with the opening of a branch in Singapore. The Monetary Authority of Singapore has granted a licence to open a branch to ABSA Bank, said Ken Hughes, general manager, business development, with the group's regional arm, ABSA Finance Asia. He said yesterday that ABSA would be the first South African bank to establish an office in Singapore. ABSA general manager for the Asia-Pacific region, Louw Burger, said ABSA must follow its clients into Southeast Asia which was developing as an import and investment area for South African companies. 'Trade between Singapore and South Africa has grown by 200 per cent in the last two years and many companies are using Singapore as a base of market entry into Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the surrounding region.' The new branch will be run by Tony Rogers, previously chief executive of Standard Chartered Bank Malaysia. The branch is expected to open in January next year, offering trade financing, structured finance and treasury services. An investors services division will offer services for South African equities, bond fund management and custodian services. Mr Hughes said activity by South African companies was on the rise in the region as a whole. ABSA Finance Asia is now 'engaged in discussions with 11 South African companies on potential joint ventures in China comprising five in the food and beverage sector, one in building materials, one in mining and one in industrial products. At the same time last year, it was considering two operations on the mainland. In Malaysia, ABSA Finance Asia is talking with two South African companies about potential engineering joint ventures, one in the steel industry and the other in construction, he said. A potential food and beverage joint venture was being discussed in Singapore, Mr Hughes said. As part of its drive into the region, barred to South African companies for decades because of Pretoria's abandoned policy of apartheid, the South African Government is holding a series of seminars in the region. Mr Hughes said the first seminar was being held in Seoul next week, followed by seminars in Tokyo, Beijing, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and possibly New Delhi. A Hong Kong seminar is scheduled for October 31. ABSA is the biggest bank in South Africa with US$25 billion in total assets. ABSA Finance Asia offers trade and treasury services, including trade finance, pre-export finance, spot and forward foreign exchange, capital markets services in the form of access to South African equities, bonds, fund management and custodian services, South African property sales and leveraged finance for investment portfolio. It also is involved in structured finance, including syndications, debt origination, private placements and underwriting, short and medium-term corporate finance.