Delivered in Parliament on 5 June 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought huge disruptions to global businesses and lives of people from virtually every country in the world. We are in arguably one of the most uncertain times in the history of mankind. No single government has been able to claim from the start they know how to navigate through the challenges posed by the Covid-19 and the consequences it has brought to countries, cities, societies and economies. Our government of 55 years since our independence is no exception to that with an unprecedented 4 budgets in a short period of less than 4 months. Like everywhere else, the disruptions brought on by the Covid-19 have unsettled businesses, lives and governments. This is a sign of things to come in this world where no government can claim that their past experience will provide useful relevance for the uncertain future. In this brave new world, many heads with different ideas working out consensual solutions for the common good must be preferred.
Support for businesses
In the past 2 months under the Circuit Breaker period, businesses have received support under the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) limited to 75% of up to S$4600 of every salary.
Under this Fortitude Budget, for the months ahead, only selected industries such as listed in Tiers 1 and 2 of the JSS will continue to receive wage supplements of up to 75% or 50% of each worker’s salary.
For most businesses, they will only be receiving up to 25% of the first $4600 of every worker’s salary for the remaining payments under the JSS and this Fortitude Budget will only bring one additional month’s payment limited to 25% of an employee’s salary.
As most businesses stop receiving the 75% wage support coming out from the Circuit Breaker period, we may start to see a more accurate picture of businesses suffering and insolvency figures for companies rising later this year.
The Government has announced that it will provide a cash grant to offset rental costs of SME tenants and also pass a new law to ensure landlords pass on rental support from the Government. This will be welcomed as a small temporary relief of 0.64 of a month’s rental for office and industrial properties and 0.8 of a month’s rental for commercial properties. Unfortunately, to businesses who cannot open or operate or even for businesses who face a significant drop in business at this time, it will not stave off business and cost pressures in a significant way. In effect, it will be too small an amount to save ailing businesses.
Perhaps the assistance by way of JSS and rental support could have been more targeted and not applied to businesses who may not be affected e.g. supermarkets, or certain businesses in healthcare, pharmaceutical or IT sectors, just to name a few. In this way, more will be available to the businesses who need them. We should not rely on unaffected businesses to voluntarily return the payouts.
The announced support in the Fortitude Budget for digital transformation whether for purpose of boosting e-payments or the digital resilience bonus may help to promote e-payments and to allow safe management practices in Covid-19 settings. While they may assist with business continuity under unique Covid-19 operating conditions, these schemes may be less helpful in generating business or revenue in themselves.
The financing support for promising startups under the Fortitude Budget may help some new startups but are probably irrelevant to the bulk of our existing SME businesses.
Beyond the abovementioned schemes, beyond the foreign work levy waivers and rebates announced in this Fortitude Budget, beyond the assistance from credit loans announced in previous budgets, I am concerned that many SME businesses will require more assistance if we are to expect them to survive. What are the Government’s plans to support them to tide through the months or year ahead beyond what has been announced under the Fortitude Budget?
Has the Government factored in any actual draft plans in arriving at the additional $13 billion contingency funds asked for in this Fortitude Budget and if so, whether it can now share such plans with Singaporeans too?
Challenges during the Circuit Breaker and letting businesses open up with less restrictions
The Circuit Breaker has not been an easy period for many businesses or individuals. Some are baffled why similar businesses did not always result in the same exemptions or the same manpower allocation ratios. Instructions have changed over the weeks for some businesses ranging from meals arrangements for hawkers to types of businesses allowed to be opened or types of merchandise allowed to be sold.
In the first few weeks, provision shops and minimarts in different Hougang precincts were given different directions. Some were told they were only allowed to sell food. Some were told that they were not allowed to sell mops, brooms, brushes, pails, cleaning liquids, even slippers and limited stationeries. Some were allowed to sell with no restrictions. Operators were baffled as some of these items have been sold in NTUC Fairprice without restrictions. Thankfully after the Hougang MP sought clarifications, the authorities reached out and rectified the instructions given.
In the Circuit Breaker period, most businesses were required to stop operating in their premises and most employees could not work in their working premises and had to stay at home. Those who could still do some or all of their work at home were the lucky ones as for many jobs and many businesses, telecommuting is either not an option at all or not a adequate option for a variety of reasons. Many businesses have been looking forward to the resumption of operations in their premises. Yet it has been confusing and uncertain for many business owners whose businesses were supposedly cleared for resumption.
Minister Chan Chun Sing was reported in the media on 19 May to have said as follows: “Only those who require the use of machinery and specialised terminals or need to complete legal documentation will be able to return to their workplaces. Workers who need infrequent access to the workplace for information or materials can already do so on an existing time-based exemption…The rest of the workers will continue to work from home. This will allow more than three-quarters of our economy to resume their normal operations.”
These caveats are a challenge to viable resumption for many businesses. To continue with telecommuting per se may not be a viable option for many as telecommuting may suit certain positions but not others and viable work that is required to be carried out in the office and unsuitability for telecommuting goes beyond the over-simplified description of merely requiring “the use of machinery and specialised terminals or need to complete legal documentation” especially bearing in mind many businesses will as I have highlighted earlier see their wage support under the JSS reduce to 25% from June onwards. Productivity is another area of concern.
The Government can be less prescriptive in this area, including any current limitation in the number of workers allowed at the workplace. Let businesses take ownership in managing telecommuting and the extent of telecommuting as appropriate for each individual business and their bottomline. Where any of these employees are required to be in the office, or for workers where telecommuting has limited application, the government can leave the onus on businesses to carry out prescribed safe work place practices including having appropriate social distancing and safe seating arrangements, use of SafeEntry, keeping records of staff and visitors to premises including temperature records and good cleaning practices.
Let businesses focus on recovery with more breathing space. I am sure that most businesses will understand that their business operations are subject to closure due to failure in social distancing and safe workplace arrangements or in the event of an actual infection and most will take the necessary protective steps accordingly.
Update in Foreign Workers currently still not allowed to leave their Dormitories and projection of their release back to work
Mr Speaker, sir, next I would like to seek an update from the Minister for Manpower in the number of Foreign Workers who are still currently not allowed to leave their dormitories to go to work.
Further, is the minister able to give a projected estimation of the number of these workers who will be released back to work in each of the next 2-3 months?
I am asking these questions because, pending a review of our labour policies in the near future perhaps after the Covid-19 crisis, particularly on our unhealthy level of reliance on cheap foreign labour and also the way we house them, in the meantime, we need these workers to be back helping to restart our economy and also at the end of the day, the workers do not ordinarily live and work outside of Singapore and they are part of our community.
I am also asking these questions because it touches on how confident the Government is in bringing down infection in the foreign worker dormitories to zero.
Safe Connectivity with the world
Last Friday, the Government announced plans to launch ‘fast lane’ arrangement with COVID-19 measures for essential business, official air travel between Singapore and China in early June, starting with 6 Chinese cities. Prior to that, the Government had also announced that there will be talks to re-open borders with New Zealand.
Quite understandably, we cannot stay unconnected for too long and the opening up of air travel and connection with these and indeed other countries will be beneficial to our businesses and economy.
On the other hand, we have had recent experience of significant Covid-19 infections brought about by arriving passengers from abroad, first with the Wuhan tourists in January bringing the first recorded cases and transmissions to Singapore and then later on with some of those returning to Singapore or visitors from abroad around the period of March and April.
For the Government’s plans to open up air travel in the coming months even with selected countries, and pending the eventual introduction of a vaccine for Covid-19, I hope that all necessary measures will be taken to ensure that the reopening will not lead to a resurgence of imported Covid-19 cases.
It has been reported that passengers will not be required to serve the 14 days’ quarantine period and they will be required to undertake swab tests before boarding and after arrival in Singapore.
If swab tests are required before boarding a flight to Singapore, how do we ensure that all overseas swab test results provided are reliable? For swab tests done on arrival, how will the Government ensure that pending the outcome of the testing, there will not be any risk to any persons whom the passengers come into contact at the airport, at their selected accommodation and also while being transported to their accommodation. Are there any restrictions on their accommodation for this initial period?
Safe Travel on Public Transport for Phases 1, 2 and 3
Minister Khaw Boon Wan announced on Monday that rail and bus services will return to pre-circuit breaker levels but indicated that safe social distancing may not be possible. This is disconcerting. Besides being a potential Achilles heel in our fight against Covid-19, it is inconsistent with social distancing efforts that were carried out previously on trains during the Circuit Breaker. It is also inconsistent with the stringent enforcement efforts adopted in many other situations with regards to social distancing, for which many people have been fined or given warnings for breaches and the rationale for such enforcements.
Presidential approval of budget and draw from our reserves
Finally, President Halimah Yacob was reported to have stated her support for this Fortitude Budget. I wonder whether the President, in arriving at her conclusion to support the draw of $31 billion from our reserves as well as the previous draws from reserves under the Solidarity and Resilience Budgets, had already been advised of the total amount of reserves Singapore has and had taken this into consideration.
Mr Speaker, sir, in Mandarin.
议长先生, 在接下来的几个月中，我们可能会开始看到更多的企业倒闭，从而导致更多的人失业。5月之后，大多数企业将获得25％的薪金补贴，而 “坚毅向前预算案” 将只会提供额外一个月的薪金补贴。
我也希望政府能够 为 那些被获准恢复营业的企业提供更大的灵活性，并在 这些企业 遵守政府的安全距离和其他工作场所安全条规的前提下，允许企业按照各自的方式管理业务。
[Translation: Mr Speaker, sir, we may start to see the number of business failures going up in the next few months, leading to more job losses. After May, most businesses will receive 25% wage support and the Fortitude Budget will only increase support by one more month of such wage support. I would like to ask the Minister to extend more support to our SME businesses especially those who are struggling.
I also hope that the Government will extend more flexibility to businesses who are cleared to resume business on their premises, to manage their businesses as they see fit as long as they comply with safe distancing and other safe work place practices as required by the Government.]
至于 政府恢复 与中国和新西兰 航空 往来 的计划，这有可能对我们的经济有利。但我希望政府能够采取一切措施以确保通过我们的空中链接的开放不会带来另一波的输入型病例.
[Translation: As for the Government’s plans to resume airlinks with China and New Zealand, it is important to resume connection for the benefit of our economy but I hope the Government will take all necessary measures to ensure that we will avoid another wave of foreign imported Covid-19 infections.]
随着在第一、第二和第三阶段 恢复 更多的 地铁和公交服务，我也希望 政府 能够采取 所有必要措施，以确保 安全的出行 和 保持社交距离，特别是在 高峰时段。
在 公共交通上 如果 无法保持社交距离，这将与当局在其他方面对于遵守社交距离的严格执法工作相抵触，也可能会是我们与冠状病毒的斗争中潜在的致命弱点。
[Translation: As more rail and bus services are resumed in phase 1, 2 and 3, I also hope that the Government take all necessary measures for safe travel and social distancing especially during peak hours. The relaxation of social distancing in our trains since Tuesday is a huge concern. Lack of social distancing on public transport is inconsistent with the authorities’ stringent enforcement efforts in social distancing elsewhere, not to mention a potential Achilles heel in our fight against Covid-19.]
最后，据报道，哈利玛总统表示，支持这项 “坚毅向前预算案”。我想了解，总统在得出 支持 提取310亿元的储备金，以及支持 “坚韧团结预算案” 和 “同舟共济预算案”从储备金中 提取 款项时，是否已经被 告知 我国所拥有的储备金 总额，并列入了考量。
[Translation: Finally, President Halimah Yacob was reported to have stated her support for this Fortitude Budget. I wonder whether the President, in arriving at her conclusion to support the draw of $31 billion from our reserves as well as the previous draws from reserves under the Solidarity and Resilience Budgets, had already been advised of the total amount of reserves Singapore has and had taken this into consideration.]