INTERNATIONAL Enterprise (IE) Singapore helped more companies with their overseas plans last year than in 2012 as increasing numbers of firms saw the need to venture abroad amid a challenging business climate at home.

However, external trade declined as Singapore imported less and trade with partners such as the European Union, Japan and Indonesia fell.

In all, IE assisted some 26,000 companies through grants, loans, advice and other forms of aid. Most of them - 85 per cent - were small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Out of all the firms, 91.7 per cent benefited from IE's Market Readiness Assistance (MRA) programme, which provides a broad range of support to companies making their first foray overseas.

More than $15.7 million was approved in grants to 3,574 companies under the MRA scheme, to get them started on their internationalisation journeys.

These grants covered support for participation in trade shows, conducting market assessment and market entry activities such as overseas legal registration.

One of the firms that benefited from the MRA scheme was Mind Stretcher, which used its grant to defray a portion of the costs of getting legal advice and documentation services for its first foray overseas, into China.

It also used the grant to conduct a study on the English education enrichment market in Shenyang and Liaoning and eventually set up its first overseas branch in Shenyang late last year.

"Singapore companies recognise that they need to venture abroad to address the market opportunities, especially during this period of rapid changes in the global economy," said IE chief executive Teo Eng Cheong.

"We will continue to review and enhance our assistance so as to provide more effective support to our companies."

Another 348 companies turned to IE for help under the Global Company Partnership (GCP) scheme, which is for firms that already have an overseas presence.

A total of $24.8 million was approved in grants to these firms, to help them with capabilities development, market access and manpower for internationalisation.

"IE understands our business direction, model and products, so with their different offices overseas, they source for potential clients and help connect them to us," said Biomax chief executive Sim Eng Tong.

Biomax, which has developed the technology to convert organic waste into fertiliser in 24 hours, ventured into Australia, Turkey, the United States and South Africa last year with IE's help.

IE also granted $774.8 million in trade and financing loans and $2.84 billion in insured investments and sales to 1,846 firms.

Singapore's total external trade, meanwhile, declined by 0.5 per cent to $980.2 billion last year. Total exports expanded by 0.6 per cent while imports declined by 1.6 per cent.

China overtook Malaysia and the European Union to become Singapore's top trading partner, up from its third spot in the previous year. Malaysia and the EU each moved down a rung to become the second- and third-biggest trading partners.

Singapore's trade with China grew 11 per cent to $115.2 billion as exports to China increased 10.3 per cent to reach $60.5 billion.

Trade with Malaysia grew 0.2 per cent while trade with the EU fell 8.4 per cent.

As of end-2012, Singapore's stock of direct investments abroad (DIA) increased by 2.9 per cent from 2011 to $459.7 billion. Of this, 56.8 per cent went to Asia, with China accounting for the largest share of 19.8 per cent.

This data comes from the Department of Statistics, which releases DIA figures with a one-year lag.