A FOCUS on soft skills and values could help improve the business environment here, according to representatives from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) gathered at the first national conversation with the business fraternity held yesterday.

The 160 participants attending the three-hour conversation drew attention to the need for a business community driven by good values and work-life balance, rather than paper qualifications, as one of the ways to tackle the manpower crunch facing various industries.

"It is important for SMEs to practise integrity and good business ethics because we need to strive to become employers whom people want to work for," said Emma Boyd, director of Pinstripe Business Solutions.

The participants also pointed out that change needed to come from the government to help improve the business environment.

Apart from raising common concerns related to rising costs and a highly competitive business environment, the participants urged the government to take a more targeted approach in its SME policies.

"Striking a broad stroke for all SMEs will not work because they all have different needs. There needs to be more policies and a framework in place for the micro businesses," said Wei Chan, a business development director of F&B outlets, such as Baguette and Next Door Deli.

Other issues that were raised included the need to cultivate a strong eco-system for SMEs that would allow creativity and innovation to thrive.

To do so, participants stressed the need for the government to provide more opportunities to small private businesses for collaborative work, instead of choosing multinational corporations (MNCs) over them.

"SMEs are well positioned to take over some of the government-led operations, but there needs to be more collaboration on the part of the government to work with smaller firms," said Yogesh Arora, consultant chef of Design A Cuisine, an enterprise that provides consultancy services for the hospitality industry.

Teo Ser Luck, Minister of State for Trade and Industry, said that many of the suggestions and concerns raised by the participants were valid and could be implemented, without elaborating on what these changes would look like.

"Suggestions that were raised on SMEs working together in an eco-system or on how to make the SME sector more attractive are things that we can consider," he said.