Survey findings from Spire Research & Consulting show that manufacturing companies based in the Asia-Pacific continue to value Singapore as the best location for Regional Headquarters, although more are beginning to favour China as well as Hong Kong. China is also the most favored manufacturing site of the future, followed, surprisingly, by India.
The findings of Spire’s latest study, which focused on Asia-Pacific companies’ forward-looking plans, suggest that Singapore continues to be the preferred base for international companies to manage their regional operations but the island republic is not unsusceptible to competition from the region, especially Greater China.
“The survey findings are consistent with our experience of working with MultiNational Companies (MNCs) over the past few years,” commented Spire’s Group Managing Director Leon Perera. “These findings demonstrate that Singapore remains the most competitive location for Regional Headquarters in the Asia-Pacific region. However, more companies are opting for dual RHQs – Hong Kong for North/Northeast Asia and Singapore for South/Southeast Asia. Singapore will need to evolve new strategies to retain RHQs in the face of fierce competition.”
What the MNCs say
Spire’s survey was carried out among more than 100 global companies located in the Asia-Pacific region. Approximately 60% of respondents operate in at least three Asian countries, with nearly a third operating in seven or more. Highlights of the findings include the following:
Singapore, China, and Hong Kong were respectively ranked first, second and third as preferred RHQ locations
More than half of the respondents ranked Singapore as among their top location choices for RHQs, mainly because of economic policies, infrastructure and political stability.
Info-communications technology, and lifestyle and leisure are the main industries that rank Singapore as the best location.
China, which came a close second to Singapore, received 56 votes compared to Singapore’s 57 for attractiveness as an RHQ location.
China is a mecca for international manufacturing companies, who account for roughly half of China’s manufactured exports. However MNCs increasingly want to locate RHQs in China because of the overwhelming importance of the Chinese domestic market.
Many RHQs located in China are “Greater China” RHQs. However, more than 30 global companies reportedly have their pan-Asia Pacific RHQs in Shanghai alone, including General Motors, Visteon and Fuji-Xerox.
Hong Kong was third in line with 47 votes.
Hong Kong hosts 1,228 RHQs as of September 20061, compared to over 4,000 that conduct their global and regional functions in Singapore.
The major lines of business of Hong Kong-based RHQs are wholesale, retail and import/export trades, business services, and transport and related services.
For production locations, China (unsurprisingly) leads the pack by a large margin, followed by India in second place, and then Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia respectively.
Nearly one-third of the respondents feel that China is the most competitive location in the region for manufacturing and that they would move more manufacturing there in future.
India, rated as one of the preferred locations for manufacturing amenities by 16% of the respondents, is currently undergoing a remarkable transition in launching Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in a bid to accelerate its industrialisation.
Setting up a centre of operation in an SEZ allows foreign companies to enjoy various forms of low-risk benefits, which vary across industries, sectors and sub-sectors.
Over 100 proposals for new SEZ projects have already been accepted for establishment by the Board of Approvals. Investment in the infrastructure within SEZs is expected to exceed US$2 billion.
Singapore’s position has improved over the previous survey amongst local manufacturing companies.
In third place, Singapore is seen as a competitive location for manufacturing especially for high-end products such as advanced electronics components (eg. semiconductors) and biomedical technology
What MNCs want in the Asia-Pacific: Regional Headquarters
The top three criteria businesses use in deciding the attractiveness of a location for Regional Headquarters are economic policies, domestic market size and infrastructure respectively, followed by political stability.
Economic policies still underline the RHQ decision-making for 62% of the companies surveyed. The Singapore government’s economic policies – such as low taxes and liberal rules on the employment of foreigners – have served the island republic well in the competition for RHQs.
Interestingly, domestic market size was the second most important factor rated number. This may tilt the balance of RHQs towards China and Hong Kong in future if Greater China continues to grow at current rates – a reminder of the stiff competition Singapore will face for RHQs going forward.
There is a basic need to support efficient business operations without disruption.
RHQs require global connectivity, which in turn requires excellent IT, financial and transport capabilities – thus infrastructure is ranked very highly by the respondents, with 44% of the votes.
Political stability is crucial in selecting the location for any business but in particular for locating RHQs in the Asia-Pacific region, which contains countries with volatile political environments. Singapore’s peaceful, stable and secure physical environment, coupled with predictable governmental policy-making, enabled the republic to score highly on this attribute.
What MNCs want in the Asia-Pacific: Manufacturing Bases
As with RHQs, economic policies are the number one consideration, followed by domestic market size, infrastructure and supply/cost of labor and land. These were also the top four factors in terms of total numbers of votes.
The size of the domestic market is a factor which strongly favors China and India. Supply and/or cost of labour and land is a factor that has traditionally favored China but given the strains in the Chinese labor market, the advantage may shift to other countries in future such as Vietnam and Indonesia.
Cost remains an important business consideration but analysis of the survey findings in totality suggests that total cost is the real key to cost advantage. This places the focus on:
• total product life cycle costs (R&D, product design, production, logistics etc.), rather than just assembly costs;
• total cost of production, rather than just labour costs. In the case of many high value-added products, the preference for skilled-labour availability overrides low-cost labour.
Singapore’s position in the war for foreign investment
The survey findings clearly show that Singapore’s position as an RHQ hub for international companies operating in Asia-Pacific is strong, though not immune to competition. Going forward, many international companies may be tempted to locate a South Asia headquarters in Singapore (with Malaysia providing keen competition) and a North Asia headquarters in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing.
About Spire Research and Consulting
Spire Research and Consulting (spireresearch.com) is Asia’s leading strategic market intelligence consultancy. Spire’s competitive advantage lies in its ability to deliver to its clients actionable intelligence on the external business environment in support of their strategic decision-making in marketing and business development. Spire is one of the few companies in its industry to be headquartered in Asia. Spire’s clients include over 20 Fortune 500 organizations as well as Government agencies in ten countries.