Despite the current economic uncertainty, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and large enterprises in the Southeast Asia and Greater China regions are eager to venture abroad in search of a boost to their profits and reputation. In particular, they have their sights set on the ASEAN region.

The UOB Business Outlook Study 2024 (SMEs & Large Enterprises), which surveyed more than 4,000 companies in seven key markets in the ASEAN and Greater China regions, revealed that more than 80% of companies want to expand abroad . This interest is more pronounced in Indonesian and Vietnamese companies. The two main sectors wanting to expand are manufacturing and engineering, as well as technology, media and telecommunications.

Overall, the study, which is in its fifth year, found that nearly eight in ten companies are positive about the current business environment, and one in four expect business results to improve significantly this year. However, many companies said they remain vigilant about the impact of inflation and rising operating costs, and are recovering from the overall economic slowdown. The companies said they plan to focus on reducing costs and adopting digital solutions to improve productivity.

Venturing abroad remains key in growth plans

About three in five companies named ASEAN as the top market they want to expand into in the next three years. In contrast, only one in three companies said they wanted to enter mainland China. Within ASEAN, Malaysia is the top country that companies want to venture into, followed by Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

However, companies face several challenges, such as difficulty finding the right partners to work with (39%); lack of internal talent/experience to drive overseas expansion (36%); and inadequate financial support or funds (35%).

ASEAN addresses labor market needs

Most companies are looking for more support in the form of financing or grants to enter new markets, connections with large companies, as well as tax incentives. Around four in five companies expressed their desire to use cross-border digital trading platforms for their overseas expansion.

Sustainability is an imperative for most companies, but more help is needed to implement it

The study also revealed that almost 90% of companies believe sustainability is important, but only 44% have implemented sustainability practices. Only 38% of SMEs in Singapore have implemented these practices, compared to around half in both Thailand and mainland China.

In the survey, companies cited rising costs for customers, the impact this will have on their profits and the lack of adequate infrastructure for renewable energy as obstacles to implementing sustainable practices. Companies stated that they want more support in the form of tax incentives, sustainable financing options and easier access to financing/grants to adopt sustainable practices.

Eric Lian, Head of UOB Commercial Banking Group, said: “The study findings validate and consolidate our business strategies as we partner with SMEs for their long-term growth. For SMEs with cross-border ambitions, our network connects them with the right partners to gain strategic ideas and solutions, as well as expertise to detect emerging trends that can lead to new business opportunities in ASEAN and Greater China, the two main regions to which companies aspire to expand.

“SMEs also recognize that sustainability is a business imperative, but they face difficulties getting started. Incorporating ESG considerations into business strategies will better position SMEs to unlock growth opportunities and build long-term resilience. To boost the green initiatives of SMEs, the UOB Sustainability Compass is an instrument that allows companies to overcome obstacles and kick-start their sustainability journey, in addition to our efforts to simplify sustainable financing for companies.

Supply chain management continues to be a challenge for companies

About 90% of companies surveyed recognize the importance of supply chain management for their business, especially among companies in mainland China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Almost 90% of companies believe that sustainability is important, but only 44% have implemented sustainability practices

However, many businesses are feeling the pressure from the effects of high inflation and interest rates, which have led to increased supply costs and difficulties in acquiring supplies or raw materials.

To ensure supply chain stability, around three in ten companies are taking steps to diversify their supply chain, adopt better inventory management practices, and use data analytics for faster decision making. Companies stated that they would like more support in the form of tax incentives/rebates, easier access to finance/subsidies and opportunities to collaborate with industry bodies, government-linked companies or large companies to help overcome the challenges they face in the supply chain.

Strong push for digitalization among companies

About four in five companies said they have digitalized the operations of at least one department and expect to spend more on digitalization this year. However, companies expect to face several challenges, including cybersecurity issues, high implementation costs and a lack of skills. among employees in their digitalization process.

Companies say they want more training programs to retrain or reskill employees, connections with the right technology and solution providers, and tax incentives or credits to adopt digitalization.

Companies said they want more training programs to retrain or reskill their employees, connections with the right technology and solution providers, and tax incentives or credits to adopt digitalization.

The UOB Business Outlook Study 2024 (SMEs & Large Enterprises) aims to understand key business prospects and expectations among SMEs and large enterprises in seven ASEAN and Greater China markets: Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand , Vietnam, mainland China and Hong Kong SAR. Since 2020, the study has been conducted annually in Singapore. Last year, the scope of the study was expanded to include the ASEAN and Greater China markets.


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