Wuhan virus: How businesses respond is crucial: Josephine Teo

Economic impact can be moderated if firms, individuals make right moves: Josephine Teo

Shoppers at the Hillion Mall yesterday. Although comparisons have been drawn with the last major virus outbreak - that of Sars in 2003, which hit hotels and shops here badly - the situation today is significantly different, said Manpower Minister Jos
Shoppers at the Hillion Mall yesterday. Although comparisons have been drawn with the last major virus outbreak - that of Sars in 2003, which hit hotels and shops here badly - the situation today is significantly different, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, with much more known about the Wuhan virus already. So, contingency plans can be executed more quickly.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Singapore businesses can still look for opportunities amid the uncertainties, and their responses will shape the extent of the impact of the Wuhan virus on the economy and the labour market, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo yesterday.

"I don't think that it's possible to say that there'll be zero impact - that's very unlikely, but the impact can be moderated if we make the right moves, if we respond in rational ways... at the company level and at the individual level," she said at a media briefing on last year's employment situation.

Businesses may choose different ways of pursuing opportunities, said Mrs Teo. For example, they may moderate the number of deals that directly involve contact with China, but look elsewhere for opportunities at the same time. Instead of travelling to China to meet clients, they could use teleconferencing, or visit other clients elsewhere.

Some companies may take the chance to focus on training which they did not have the capacity to do at other times.

"The important thing is that people know that it will pass, this is interim, we try our best to weather this," said Mrs Teo of the outbreak.

So far, company representatives whom she has spoken to have said that the number of workers affected by preventative measures is manageable.

The Ministry of Manpower on Tuesday started rejecting new work pass applications for workers from Hubei province. It said on Tuesday that it had rejected more than 30 such applications.

Workers in healthcare, education and eldercare institutions must also abide by a compulsory 14-day leave of absence if they have returned from mainland China in the past 14 days.

Mrs Teo said that the economic outlook for this year was already uncertain before the virus outbreak due to ongoing trade tensions and international conflicts, and with uncertainty being heightened, investment decisions are bound to be re-examined.

Singapore must remain open and aim to be one of the top choices when companies evaluate competing locations, she said, adding that it is important to keep an eye on the medium-and long-term situation and keep the economic transformation going to prepare for the future.

The Government is monitoring the Wuhan virus situation very closely and has the resources to help, she said. On the manpower front, the priority is to mitigate the fallout and support affected workers to preserve their livelihoods, she said.

 
 
 

"The outlook has become more uncertain. The Wuhan virus situation, however, will not last forever. We have to address immediate concerns but keep an eye on the future, so for the longer term, we will help businesses to transform and workers to adapt."

Although comparisons have been drawn with the last major virus outbreak - that of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, which hit hotels and shops here badly - the situation today is significantly different, added Mrs Teo.

For one thing, much more is known about the Wuhan virus already, compared with the situation during the Sars outbreak, so con-tingency plans can be executed more quickly.

The economy is also more diverse now, she noted. Tourism and hospitality is a relatively modest contributor to the overall economy - 4 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product.

Within the tourism sector, sources of income have also diversified beyond recreational visitors to include meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions. Tourist source markets have also become more diversified over the years.

Nonetheless, Singapore must be prepared that "unknown unknowns" may pop up and be ready to respond to them when they do, said the minister.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2020, with the headline 'How businesses respond is crucial: Minister'. Subscribe