Resilience and Solidarity Budget 2020 – Speech by Png Eng Huat

Delivered in Parliament on 6 April 2020

Sir, we are living in extraordinary times.  We are living in a world filled with anxiety now.  Anxiety about our livelihood, our health, our loved ones, and even our future.

Life as we know it has been disrupted and changed in unimaginable ways by the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.  The livelihoods of many people have disappeared almost overnight as draconian measures are imposed on society to curb the spread of the virus and borders remain shut.  No one knows when we will see the light at the end of this tunnel.  I am sure we are all driving blind in the dark at times, hoping that some, if not all of the targeted measures introduced over the course of this pandemic will work somehow.

While these targeted measures are meant to slowly choke off the spread of the virus, they are also slowly killing the man in the street trying to make ends meet, working in the malls, cafés, coffee shops, and retail outlets, or driving taxis, private hire vehicles, and the list goes on.  The world is certainly closing in for the man in the street with each successive round of heightened measures introduced the past few weeks.

I was at a coffee shop in Hougang when the news broke about the ‘no dinning in’ measure for eateries.  I could feel a sense of despair hanging in the air there.  I could sense the anxiety of the stall owners and coffee shop helpers as we spoke.  Two workers were very worried for they know their jobs are on the line.  They know there would be no plates to collect and dishes to wash come Tuesday morning.  You could tell by the look in their eyes they were worried about what is to come – the bills to pay and the living expenses.

The urgency and quantum of this supplementary budget probably sums up the gravity of the situation we are in right now.  By dipping into the reserves, we are probably hoping to ride out this storm.  We certainly need to buy some time for things to get better down the road, for nature to take its course, and hopefully for a vaccine to be developed soon to end this misery.

But by doing so, we need to ensure the use of our reserves must achieve its intended purpose.  The Deputy Prime Minister had said the S$17 billion from the reserves will be used to help fund measures like supporting jobs, helping the self-employed and boosting the hard-hit aviation sector.

So the use of our reserves must save jobs, first and foremost.  It should not be used to rescue corporate executives of large companies who did little or no planning to save for a rainy day, and who continue to receive fat salaries while their companies bleed.  It must also not be used to protect fat dividends or share buyback schemes for listed companies to appease their shareholders once the crisis blows over.

Thus, I would like to ask the minister how is the government going to ring-fence the money from our reserves to serve this purpose of saving jobs for our workers, especially for those in the aviation industry, since the sector would be receiving a lion share of the reserves money.

As public money would be used to co-pay a significant portion of their staff salaries, are there any conditions imposed on these big companies, such as they must hold off any retrenchment exercises for as long as they are receiving help from the government?  And for listed companies, would there be a temporary moratorium on the payment of dividends or share buyback exercise once the assistance is no longer needed?

Next, I am in support of the measures to save jobs and the livelihoods of many self-employed Singaporeans in the supplementary budget.

One particular group of Singaporean workers I wish to highlight is those who were asked or encouraged to go on no-pay leave for obvious reason.  My colleague, Ms Sylvia Lim, has highlighted some of these affected workers earlier.  Would they be receiving any help as well as there are bills to pay and mouths to feed?  These workers would include retail staff, childcare centre cooks, coffee shop helpers, office cleaners, and the list goes on.

Other groups of Singaporeans that need help include those who are listed as directors or owners of their companies but they are actually one-man-operated entities i.e. self-employed.  I have a resident who runs an employment agency all by himself.  The world has shut its borders.  His livelihood has vanished overnight.   There are also Singaporeans who are freelancers and they do not have receipts and CPF contributions to prove their livelihood status.  Some may have only filed their income tax returns.  Where would such Singaporeans go to seek help?

I note the additional enhancements to the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme as announced by DPM earlier, and I hope the above workers would all be covered.  I hope the minister can clarify on this matter.

Next, with the closure of non-essential workplaces and schools, I would expect utilities usage for households to spike with Singaporeans working from home via telecommuting, and students moving to full home-based learning.  Affected Singaporeans struggling in this crisis would be unduly burdened by such overheads.  Are the U-save rebates adequately measured to help Singaporeans cover the impending increase in utilities charges under the latest stay-at-home orders?

Finally, many affected residents I spoke to the past 2 days asked when can the help arrive?  Some help measures will only come in May or later but many affected Singaporeans were already struggling to make ends meet since February.  I appreciate the ministries for working at breakneck speed to roll out these measures.  I am happy to note that some of these measures are being brought forward to April. Thank you.