Heartland enterprises, hawkers seek help to tide over crisis

Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, president of the Federation of Merchants' Associations, Singapore, said the coronavirus outbreak comes after last year's United States-China trade war, and "could not have happened at a worse time for the retail industry".
Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, president of the Federation of Merchants' Associations, Singapore, said the coronavirus outbreak comes after last year's United States-China trade war, and "could not have happened at a worse time for the retail industry".PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Merchants' federation says some members have seen revenue fall by up to 70%

Heartland enterprises and hawkers are calling for foreign worker levies, property tax and rental to be cut to help them tide over the coronavirus outbreak.

The Federation of Merchants' Associations, Singapore (FMAS) laid out these proposals yesterday at a media conference, noting that some of its members in Chinatown have seen up to 70 per cent of their revenue decline since late last month. It also submitted these recommendations to the Government last week, in a bid to help businesses get more support during this trying period.

FMAS president Yeo Hiang Meng said the coronavirus outbreak comes after last year's trade war between the United States and China, and "could not have happened at a worse time for the retail industry".

Mr Yeo said: "After the trade war last year, we had already seen a significant slowdown in business. This is now a very challenging situation for local companies, and they need support to sustain their businesses and emerge from this crisis."

Singapore has more than 100 hawker centres, and around 20,000 heartland retailers.

FMAS adviser Kwek Theng Swee noted that some companies have seen their revenue fall by 30 per cent due to the ongoing virus situation, and in the worst-hit cases, even 70 per cent.

"Operation costs keep going up, with rentals as the biggest portion, while revenue slides. We need a big exercise to help these people," Mr Kwek said, adding that he even saw a retailer resort to selling a bottle of cookies for $3, when its original price was over $20.

The federation proposed that the Government cut commercial property tax by up to 30 per cent, linked proportionally to landlords cutting rental by up to 15 per cent.

Mr Kwek, who is also chairman of the Heartland Enterprise Centre Singapore, highlighted that steps have been taken by some landlords such as Jewel Changi Airport, which has offered its tenants a 50 per cent rental rebate for this month and next month.

FMAS proposed that the Government extend a six-month short-term loan to businesses with cash flow issues. It also recommended cutting of the foreign worker levy, as enterprises might be paying for workers from China who have not returned to Singapore or have been quarantined.

To boost consumer spending and revive retailers, the federation recommended that $300 vouchers be distributed to households.

 
 
 

"In general, footfall has reduced everywhere, even in places apart from tourist spots like Chinatown and Orchard Road, as people prefer to stay indoors," Mr Yeo said.

Crowds have thinned by some 20 to 30 per cent in hawker centres and markets, added Mr Anthony Low, chairman of the FMAS hawker division.

He asked for masks for hawkers, who have to handle food and interact with many customers in a day.

But besides government measures, businesses have to do their part to innovate and keep up with new consumer demands for their long-term survival, Mr Kwek said.

"Our businesses should take the chance to digitalise, have their own websites and even provide residents with self-collection services, for instance. People are shopping online now and this trend will not reverse itself. We have to encourage firms to change their mentality and business models."

The Government has said that Tuesday's Budget will include measures to help stabilise the current situation and support workers and businesses.

There will also be measures to help firms position themselves strongly for the recovery.

Merchants' federation's wish list

The main recommendations by the Federation of Merchants' Associations, Singapore to support heartland enterprises and hawker centres:

 
 
 

1. REDUCE PROPERTY TAX 

Cut property tax by up to 30 per cent so landlords can reduce rental by up to 15 per cent for tenants, with the Government matching one-for-one on percentage.

2. EASE CASH FLOW 

Provide six-month short-term loans to businesses with cash flow problems.

3. TEMPORARY REDUCTION OF FOREIGN WORKERS' LEVY 

Provide a full exemption on the levy for businesses whose workers are affected by travel restrictions or quarantine for the affected period.

Provide a 50 per cent exemption for the levy for a period of 12 months for the rest of the workforce.

4. REVIVE WAGE CREDIT SCHEME 

This is to help businesses pay their workers.

5. ISSUE $300 VOUCHERS TO HOUSEHOLDS

This is to encourage consumer spending on goods and services in Singapore.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 16, 2020, with the headline 'Heartland enterprises, hawkers seek help to tide over crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe