It is evident for Scandinavians that Knut Ngo, Swedish Trade Council’s man in Singapore, has a Scandinavian first name. But since he looks Asian new people meeting him there first of all asks, as they commonly do, which country in the region he originates from.
Then he tells them that he is Vietnam-Chinese, but originally of Chinese origin, though part of the family speaks Vietnamese. They get puzzled. And he surprises further by disclosing that he was in fact born in Norway (thus his given name)! The story behind that is that his family left Vietnam as boat refugees, was saved by a Norwegian ship and eventually ended up in Norway.
Furthermore Knut moved with his family to Sweden at young age, where he eventually finished his Electrical Engineering studies in Stockholm.
By then he was already quite multicultural and perhaps this and his roots affected him. Because quite soon Knut felt he wanted to have a market-related job where he could meet people, and preferably work in Asia. Sitting in a bunker, monitoring network base stations for a mobile network operator was not his cup of tea at all. So he applied for and got a job at Swedish Trade Council instead, and deviated from his educational path. The job immediately brought him over to Asia, initially to Taiwan.
A Swedish Singapore Hub
“I was there for two years, until the end of 2007, and was then relocated to Singapore. We were operating from the Embassy of Sweden for about two years before moving to our current office. All in all I have been in Singapore for about two years and a half now.” Knut tells us.
They are still in the same building as the embassy, but the new office means they are able to offer the Business Support Office for Swedish companies, providing office space and administrative support. The Swedish Export Credit Corporation became their first customer.
“Moving forward we want to communicate about this possibility to start up an office here through our plug and play platform, where we assist with a physical office, administration and knowledge,” says Knut.
“Too few companies know about this; that we have sort of a Swedish hub, where one can sit close to others in a similar situation, and have the chance to talk to us and access our knowledge in the region and our local networks. It becomes so much easier then.”
Swedish Trade Council has assisted a number of companies during its operations so far in the Lion city and is seeing a strong increase in the presence from Sweden. This growth is reflected also in the local economy which has come back strongly since the crisis began in late 2008.
“We are seeing strong interest in the region. In the beginning of 2008 we had 160 Swedish-related companies in Singapore, and now it’s over 200 so it has been a strong growth. This we notice in the sense that the majority of the services we have provided in Singapore have been to establish companies; assisting in starting local entities.”
Swedish Trade Council also wants to communicate about changes and updates on the market all the time, in order for Swedish companies to seize arising opportunities.
“We’re trying to communicate more clearly about what we can offer. Companies can get assistance with most things, I’d say. If interested in entering into Singapore, they should always contact the Swedish Trade Council first even if they are not looking for any specific assistance. We have people on the ground, who know the local culture and follow the market updates.”
“Just contact us and tell us about your situation and what your plans are. Based on that one can work together and discuss how to enter this market, just to take an example. We don’t charge for a discussion; there is basic information that we can provide for each of the different markets.” Knut suggests about how new clients can approach their trade office.
Putting on the Diplomatic Hat
By providing all services required to establish a company and its products, services or ideas in new markets, the Swedish Trade Council functions as a door opener and middleman who can more easily scan the market and access information.
“Many companies lack the resources internally to conduct this research, and many don’t have the ability to do it in the same way. We do after all put on the diplomatic hat when knocking on doors, saying that we represent Sweden. Potential scepticism will then fade away. When approaching someone in Asia about collaboration they might question if the company is really serious, and they tend to back off. But such kinds of problems usually disappear when we are the one to initiate the contact,” explains Knut.
“What it’s really about is that we’re trying to help the company in developing a strategy for how to enter a market. Say if a company is interested in Southeast-Asia – it could be difficult for the company to prioritize among the different countries in the region. One needs to take a step back, look at strategies, map different countries against each other and look at the company’s circumstances. It depends on which sector and what resources etc.”
“We helped companies with an established presence since years back. In an example they wanted assistance in finding new and better partners in Singapore, as the existing partners were not performing. We did research, interviews, scanning, matching and short-listed the most interesting potential partners and arranged business appointments. The Swedish company found their partners with a profile that matches their criteria. The advantage is that we have a methodology to screen everything on the market and make sure that the optimal comes out as a result.”
Government Subventions and Trade Shows
In terms of financial support Knut says it is more indirect and built into the projects.
“The Swedish Trade Council is assigned by the government to provide certain services. Other than basic advice and discussions; some funding comes in the form of subsidized projects for small to medium-sized companies. If a company fulfils certain criteria it can enter a standard project called BOP – Business Opportunity Project. 60 per cent of these projects are covered by governmental funds so the company only needs to pay 40 per cent.”
Then there is a sector-focused support alternative called ‘Business Promotion’. An example would be to have an activity in health care or ICT, for instance in the form of a delegation trip to a country visiting authorities and large clients. Then all companies within that sector are invited so they can establish first hand contact with the important players on the market that you normally won’t get in touch with.”
“It can also be that we support on trade shows and invite Swedish companies to attend in a national pavilion, saving costs and resources for the company.” adds Knut.
There are many sectors in Singapore that are of interest but one that bears fruit is certainly IT/Telecom, in which they have an activity at CommunicAsia – Asia’s largest ICT expo in June every year.
“Swedish Trades Council sees it as an important trade show in a sector where Swedish companies are very strong, not least mobile companies with very innovative solutions and services. These companies typically generate a lot of interest in Singapore.”