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Export success is all about timing

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As a co-owner of a small business, focused on exporting, I cannot help but despair at our country's "trying to catch-up" status in many of our export markets.

At the same time, I am inspired by the efforts that so many people are making to meet the export opportunity (too many would say challenge).

Australia is trying, and trying hard. Lots of time, energy, and thought, have gone into FTAs, overcoming logistical obstacles, export financing, streamlining red tape, and so on.

But there remains at least one very fundamental factor that is constantly overlooked; and on the rare occasions that it does get mentioned, it is quickly dismissed for the most trivial or bizarre of reasons.

When the Great Sage, Lee Kwan Yew, realised that his tiny island state could not grow prosperous making cheap plastic toys, he looked for examples of who was doing well, and how. 

Geographical location

Singapore, in his view, had only two resources – its geographical location at the tip of the Straits of Johor, and its people.  The latter needed much development and nothing got greater attention than education, an emphasis that continues paramount today.

The geography was exploited immediately with the development of a massive, modern, container port that has made Singapore one of the world's most important export hubs and a gateway to South East Asia.

In due course, its airport banked on the same advantages, but not without huge and risky investment.

The examples that Lee Kwan Yew looked to were Hong Kong and Israel.  Israel showed Singapore the importance of education, technology, and self-defence. Hong Kong showed that you could get rich, despite having no natural resources, by exporting intangibles in the form of financial services.

One major disadvantage

Lee Kwan Yew boldly set about the daunting task of competing with Hong Kong by doing, more or less, the same as Hong Kong. He very soon realised that Singapore had one major disadvantage, but one that could be swept aside very easily. Singapore was out of sync.

If Singapore wanted to serve the same customers as Hong Kong, then it had to be open for business at the same time as Hong Kong.

Just look at the map. Singapore and Hong Kong are on quite different longitudes and (back then) were half an hour apart. A born competitor, Lee Kwan Yew eliminated Hong Kong’s 30-minute advantage with a stroke of his pen – his people adjusted easily and readily. The results speak for themselves.

Here in Australia, we could do much to bring our exporters closer to our markets and make us more competitive by eliminating at least some of the barriers.

Wake up call

We only make it harder for ourselves with five time zones. Despite being on more or less the same longitude, Brisbane and Sydney, two of our major cities, are out of sync with each other for half the year. This is a constant nuisance for overseas customers who find it both inconvenient and confusing.

Nowadays, much focus is placed on markets that are longitudinally close, for example China, Korea, Singapore and Indonesia. Singapore and Beijing are in sync.

If our wide, flat land forces us to be different, couldn’t we make it just a bit easier for ourselves with Perth and Adelaide in one zone, and Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney just one hour ahead? 

I can already hear the outcry, but if we really see our future as being export dependent, then we need to wake up – literally.

Malcolm Lower is a co-owner of Four Cow Farm Pte Ltd, a manufacturer of natural and organic skincare products based in Queensland. The business exports over 80% of its production. Malcolm spent 30 years living and working in Asia.

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