NZTE trade commissioner: “You’ve got three different cultures in an area the size of Lake Taupō; that’s going to make for some really interesting conversations.”
When the world started opening up post-Covid, then-prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s first move was to lead a trade mission to Singapore in April 2022.
Her goal was simple: to show New Zealand was “open for business”. It paid off.
Exports to Singapore increased by 29.6 percent from year-end December 2021 to 2022, making the country our largest two-way trading partner in Southeast Asia and fourth globally. Food and beverage comprises 50 percent of these exports.
Having Singapore as the first stop was no random decision.
The two countries share a long history of free trade, with the first bilateral agreement, the Closer Economic Partnership, dating back to 2000. Upgraded to the New Zealand-Singapore Enhanced Partnership in 2019, it forms the basis of $11.6 billion worth of two-way trade as at June 2023.
The two countries are also signatories to five other free trade agreements.
The number of agreements between the countries captures a shared understanding of what it means to be a small country reliant on exports to grow, says Maggie Christie, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s (NZTE) commissioner for Singapore.
Yet, while New Zealand finds itself floating in the middle of the Pacific, Singapore – with its geographic advantage – has taken the opportunity to establish itself as a global hub.
With close ties and similar values, Singapore should be seen as “a stepping stone into the rest of the world” for Kiwi startups, particularly Asia, says Christie.
With five-and-a-half million people living in an area smaller than the size of Lake Taupō, Singapore is the third most-densely populated country in the world. It has the second-highest density of millionaires in Asia and the fourth-highest GDP per capita globally.
Three-quarters of the citizens and permanent resident visa holders are Chinese, with ethnic Malays and Indians comprising 15 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively. The remaining 1.6 percent of the population is primarily composed of Eurasian Singaporeans.
The diversity makes Singapore a “good market” to test how people respond to a certain product or service, says Christie.
“It gives companies the opportunity to grow and test and, in doing that, when they go into other markets, they have credibility.”
Having Singaporeans willing to buy a product means a lot to the rest of Asia, she says.
Leveraging this diversity and its location, Singapore has established itself as a landing pad for multinational corporations, with more than 7,000 companies headquartered there and 38,000 international companies having a local presence.
Singapore’s economy is largely powered by high-value manufacturing and a growing tech and services sector; the country has just surpassed Hong Kong to become the world’s third-largest financial hub after New York and London.
Kiwi startup Cogo is making the most of Singapore’s recent financial bent.
Recognised as the world’s first open-banking climate fintech, the 13-year-old business is combating climate change by changing consumer behaviours.
It does so through an app, which, by connecting to a user’s bank account, measures the carbon footprint of their spending and provides personal recommendations on ways to lower it.
Cogo currently works with 16 banks globally, including NatWest in the UK, Westpac, Commonwealth Bank and Suncorp Bank in Australia, and Kiwibank in New Zealand.
Although the startup has a global presence, it is in the initial stages of expanding into Asia. As part of its efforts, it participated in the prime minister’s 2022 trade mission, which led to a partnership with OCBC, Singapore’s oldest local bank.
Now, with a successful pilot under its belt and another deal with a ‘big Singapore bank’ in discussion, founder Ben Gleisner says Cogo is “just starting to get to market”.
Gleisner says this traction has led to the country becoming a “logical place” to establish Cogo’s Asian headquarters – not only due to its location but also the “pull from Singapore, particularly through the government” for sustainable business.
“They want to be known as the global centre for ESG [environmental, social and governance] and finance,” he says.
Christie says this sustainability space is particularly hot for startups considering a move to Singapore, albeit still “quite nascent”.
The burgeoning ESG attitudes in the region are precisely what attracted CarbonClick – another New Zealand green fintech, which enables travellers to offset the environmental footprint of their travel.
Like Cogo, CarbonClick already has global reach, with customers in key travel hubs, including the United Arab Emirates, the UK and Europe.
Recognising Singapore's fast-growing interest in sustainability, cofounder Dave Rouse says entering the market early was a strategic move for the startup, as the country plays a central role “connecting a lot of airlines and a lot of people”.
While he says getting its first customer was hard, the effort paid off.
The startup recently announced a major collaboration with Changi Airport, one of the largest transportation hubs in Asia, which will see passengers able to offset travel emissions through a carbon calculator on the Changi Airport website and the Changi app.
Now, with the partnership established and a Singapore-based recruit having joined its ranks in January, Rouse says opportunities in the region “just keep flowing.”
1.Validate the market
Singapore has a long-term plan filled with government initiatives that New Zealand businesses can take advantage of.
Instead of rushing into things, take the time to figure out the opportunity available for your product, says Christie.
For more information, see here.
2. Tell your story
In a market like Singapore’s, which is “always looking for the next best thing”, coming from New Zealand is not enough, says Christie. A startup must prove how it will benefit the buyer.
She advises investing in figuring out who you are and your unique value proposition. Then, being vocal about it.
And be ready. It might require more ‘creativity’ than you’re used to, says Rouse.
3. Relationships are everything
Singaporeans like to do business with people they spend time with, says Rouse.
“It’s pretty important to go out for beers and invest the time in the after-work activities,” he says.
Gleisner agrees, citing the importance of the network provided by NZTE: “Don’t go in assuming things will happen without local connections,” he says.
4. Consider partnerships
Collaborating with companies in similar sectors, known as ‘co-opetition’, can be a good strategy for entering the market, especially for tech startups.
“When in Singapore, you’re competing against the rest of the world,” says Christie. Co-opetition can provide ‘strength in numbers’.
Partnering with a Singaporean company may also make businesses eligible for government grants and funding.
See more here.
5. Get on the ground
If you are serious about making Singapore work – especially if it’s a springboard into other parts of Asia – you will need someone based there, says Christie. “It’s the demonstration that you’re committed.”
And, with lots of businesses around, delaying a coffee invite, even by a week, can mean missed opportunity, she says.
6. Don't forget to take an umbrella
“It definitely rains,” says Gleisner.
Hot Markets is a monthly series that, as the name suggests, explores markets that look promising for Kiwi startups looking to go global. Find out more about the Singapore market here.
Mary Hurley brings three years experience in the online media industry to the Caffeine team. Having previously specialised in environmental and science communications, she looks forward to connecting with founders and exploring the startup scene in Aotearoa New Zealand.
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How accurate it will be rests on ecosystem players doing their part.