From Beer to Banks, Singapore Inc. Expands across Asia

By Bernice Han
Agence France-Presse

SINGAPORE ~ Next time you stay in a luxury resort, buy a loaf of bread, open a bank account, sit on a massage chair, grab a sushi or sip a beer anywhere in Asia, check the company’s country of origin.

Chances are you are dealing with a brand based in Singapore, the affluent city-state that has broken beyond its compact size to become a regional economic powerhouse.

With the global economy apparently on the mend, Singapore Inc. is all set to reap the benefits of stepped-up spending by Asia’s middle and upper classes in the coming years.

Singapore Airlines has long been an iconic brand, but newer names like resort and spa operator Banyan Tree have established themselves as top-tier players in the region, and their ambitions go even further.

“From the very beginning when we created Banyan Tree, we said that we needed to be a global company,” the firm’s founder and executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping said at a recent news conference.

“If you don’t globalise… you eventually stagnate,” he added.

Conceived in Singapore and born on the territory of an abandoned tin mine on the Thai island of Phuket 15 years ago, Banyan Tree has established itself as a leading luxury hospitality chain rivalling the likes of Four Seasons.

It is working to spread its formula of Asian romance, rejuvenation and sensuality to other continents with exclusive properties costing as much as US$3,300 a night to stay in.

Over the next 12 months, the chain expects to open resorts in the United Arab Emirates as well as Acapulco, Mexico.

Other Singaporean companies are enjoying similar success throughout the Asian region, establishing themselves in a diverse field of industries.

OSIM, a maker of electronic massage chairs and other lifestyle products like air purifiers, has over 1,100 outlets spread across 28 countries concentrated mainly in the region.

“Singapore is a small country with a small domestic market; therefore it is critical for us to grow an external economy with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and now China,” OSIM founder and chief executive Ron Sim said.

“Going forward, we believe that Korea and Japan are markets we are looking forward to; and India will be key too,” he said.

Budget carrier Tiger Airways is also becoming a mainstay in the travel industry, having established a wide network across the Asia-Pacific region with flights to 19 destinations from Singapore.

“Asia remains a priority,” said Rosalynn Tay, Tiger Airways’ managing director for Singapore.

“The region has a large population base and air transport remains the most practical mode of transport.”

Meanwhile, Tiger Beer is now one of the most popular beverages in Southeast Asia. First brewed locally in 1932, when Singapore was still under British colonial rule, it has won over drinkers beyond the region thanks to aggressive marketing and expansion of brewing operations to key markets.

Bakery chain BreadTalk, which gained instant success at home with its freshly baked buns, has moved on to build a loyal base of customers in Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Hong Kong.

Sakae Sushi, a restaurant that serves affordable Japanese food on conveyor belts, now has more than 70 outlets throughout the region including the main cities of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and China.

Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts, a restaurant group founded here by a Hong Kong family 18 years ago, now has restaurants in Vietnam, South Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and China.

It even has branches in Hong Kong, competing with the best Cantonese restaurants on their own turf.

Singapore’s three local banks –DBS Group Holdings, Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp and United Overseas Bank –are also well established with branches and affiliates spread across Asia.

Serviced apartment operator Ascott Group can lay claim to be the largest in its industry with 25,000 units in 66 cities in Asia, Europe and the Gulf region.

In China alone, Ascott runs over 5,000 serviced residence units in 12 cities, the company said.

“Having a global network of properties gives us economies of scale and the cross-selling opportunities across different regions and properties,” said chief executive Lim Ming Yan.

The company is planning to open its first property in Georgia by the end of this year and in Kazakhstan in the second-half of 2010, he said.

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