One in four or 25% of business executives in Singapore are looking at a recovery in their profitability to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year.

This is slightly more optimistic than the 12% in the Southeast Asian region who are looking at a reversal this year.

Meanwhile, the statistic on those expecting a recovery by 2022 goes up to 56% amongst leaders in Singapore, and 59% for those in Southeast Asia.

These findings were highlighted in a survey of 2,400 executives in 52 countries conducted by professional services firm EY. Of these individuals, 185 come from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, or the Southeast Asian region.

Interestingly, over half or 69% of respondents from Singapore identified digital transformation as an area that their organisation has outperformed in during the pandemic.

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By contrast, 54% of respondents from Southeast Asia felt that their companies have done exceptionally well in this area.

Other areas the business executives reflected that their organisations did well in include operational stability (Southeast Asia: 66%, Singapore: 53%) and engagement with local communities (53% for both Southeast Asia and Singapore).

Meanwhile, close to half or 41% of the Singapore-based respondents reflected innovation of new products and services as an aspect they had performed the worst in during the pandemic.

Similar sentiments were seen across Southeast Asia, with 54% highlighting this an area of underperformance.

“While respondents may feel that good progress has been made, they need to continue to sharpen their strategic focus, embrace the power of digital transformation, actively engage their customers and stakeholders and positively contribute to the communities in which they operate,” reckons Vikram Chakravarty, who leads the global strategy and Asean strategy and transactions teams at EY.

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Going forward, Asean is expected to generate the most growth and M&A (merger and acquisition) opportunities in the near-to-medium term.

As such over half of the respondents (Southeast Asia: 56%, Singapore: 59%) are looking to actively pursue M&A in the next 12 months.

The most acquisitive sectors in Asean as reflected by the leaders polled include, technology, advanced manufacturing, power and utilities and consumer and financial services.

Driving this appetite are concerns about tariffs and trade flows, stronger technology, talent and capabilities and growth into adjacent business sectors or activities.

Luke Pais, EY Asean’s M&A private quity leader is not surprised by this, given the possibility of medium to long-term growth in Asean.

“Conditions for M&A, including low interest rates, accommodative capital markets and abundant private capital, remain highly supportive. Companies that are bold coming out of a crisis tend to generate far greater value over the long term,” he adds.

Interestingly, close to half of the business leaders polled think that Asean will generate the most growth prospects and opportunities for their organisation in the next three years.

Other geographies that respondents expect to see growth opportunities in are India, Japan and Oceania.

The top investment destination amongst Southeast Asian companies for cross-border and domestic trade are: Singapore, Japan, Thailand and China.

For companies in Singapore, the top destinations are Thailand, India, Singapore, Japan and the UK.

Key strategic considerations the respondents are looking at now are: investing in talent, divesting underperforming assets or businesses and making strategic acquisitions.

Among the constraints to effective strategy implementation are a lack of leading technology, cost and capital constraints and insufficient external advice, the survey results indicate. 

To this end a majority of the leaders polled, or 83% from Southeast Asia and 78% from Singapore, reflected that they are undergoing a business and technology transformation programme.

This follows the current validity of purpose and strategic objectives as well as changing shareholder expectations.

“We know from history that companies that transformed and transacted after a crisis came out stronger, relative to their competitors. Hence, companies in Southeast Asia must act boldly and embrace digital transformation and M&A as a way to win in the post-pandemic world,” mulls Chakravarty.