Singapore’s furniture industry: Beyond the crossroads of change

Mr Ernie Koh, President of the Singapore Furniture Industries


Where Singaporean furniture companies used to enjoy good profit margins from outsourcing production in Southeast Asia, economic shifts within the region have now put them in a bind. Ernie Koh, president of the Singapore Furniture Industries Council, talks about how design-thinking and innovation will drive the local industry beyond the crossroads of change.

The Singapore furniture industry is well-adapted to change. It has, after all, happened frequently enough in history for businesses to deal with its complexities. In the 1980s, the government’s turn towards a knowledge-based economy saw many low-skilled labour-intensive cottage industries moving out to find new homes in Asia such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and China. While there is still no room for expansive manufacturing facilities, many companies continue to base their headquarters in the country.

But China’s rise as the world’s production powerhouse, coupled with the region’s increasing labour costs and manpower crunch have brought about the necessity for change again.

It is with this background in mind that Ernie Koh, President of the Singapore Furniture Industries Council (SFIC), begins to discuss how sustainable growth is still possible in the face of goliath.

“With these new developments, it was time to reconsider the current business model again. How can we continue to be competitive?” says Ernie. “After much brainstorming, we decided to focus on these three areas: Improve, innovate, integrate.”

Ernie explains each engine of growth in detail: Improving means upgrading skills, and embracing new technology and ways of thinking; innovation, being a way of doing things differently; and integration, synergising with complementary sectors to grow organically.

Many of the Council’s activities stem from such a foundation. The industry has reaped the fruits of creating value through design and quality. Singapore’s furniture sector grew 7.4% between 2012 and 2015, generating some S$6.25 billion in sales last year.

Great Leap Forward

“Necessity is the mother of invention. Furniture companies here need to think about branding, quality, and consider the Asian market beyond Singapore shores,” says Ernie.

It is an idea that has driven the industry to be more design-focused, giving birth to SingaPlural, an annual week-long design event featuring talents across the creative sector. Its fifth edition was held in March in conjunction with the International Furniture Fair Singapore.

The SFIC has also brought back the Furniture Design Award for 2016, encouraging international design talents to showcase their unique styles. Furthermore under the DesignSingapore Council, one can undertake research projects that encompass ergonomics, environmentally-friendly material and advanced technology.

 

SingaPlural 2015. Photo Credit: SingaPlural


Design Showcase at Hall 4, International Furniture Fair Singapore

 

As a gateway to Asia, Ernie believes that Singapore is not only strategically placed for trade, but also a hub for regional design.

“Singapore is increasingly being recognised for nurturing furniture design capabilities. The lack of a well-defined culture here is also to our advantage because it gives us free rein to articulate our artistry on a fresh canvas. You can take inspiration from around the world and produce your own narrative.”

He adds that it is his dream to see the first Singaporean celebrity designer within his lifetime. “We certainly need a bit more publicity for this.”

On The Threshold Of A New Dawn

The SFIC was established in 1981 representing 95% of established furniture manufacturers in Singapore. “The Council promotes its members’ interests. Many of our initiatives help to secure members’ footprint in the world market, develop local talent and encourage entrepreneurship.”

Members are also encouraged to integrate ‘green’ products into their portfolio to prepare for a time when consumers’ concerns over health and safety will be the cornerstone for making purchase decisions.

The Council works with academics and the government to organise workshops and network with external associations. In March this year, a new JTC Furniture HUB@Sungei Kadut was announced to cluster trade and manufacturing under one roof.

Artist’s impression of the JTC Furniture HUB@Sungei Kadut. Photo credit: JTC Corporation

 

The SFIC Institute also launched the first carpentry training centre last year, as well as ‘place and train’ programmes to attract younger individuals and mature workers to join the industry. A new accreditation scheme will help maintain and improve quality standards.

“This certification helps one to specialise in some forms of furniture making and earn a transferable set of skills useful for moving on to another company or position. In a way it also raises the profile of the profession, improving the image of furniture makers from carpenter to craftsman… We are losing people to other sectors such as retail and sales because there are very limited opportunities for them to really utilise and expand their skill set.” 

 

This article was first published in Panels & Furniture Asia (Jul/Aug 2015) and has been edited to reflect current events. 

Mr Ernie Koh will be speaking at the Sylva Wood 2016 seminar on June 27 in Shanghai.