Budget debate: Coronavirus concerns present long-term opportunities, say MPs

People queueing to get their temperatures taken at One Raffles Place on Feb 10, 2020.
People queueing to get their temperatures taken at One Raffles Place on Feb 10, 2020.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - While the coronavirus outbreak has battered businesses, it has also created opportunities to better prepare Singapore for future challenges, MPs said on Thursday (Feb 27).

Speaking on Day 2 of the debate on the Budget statement, they said these include getting more firms to adopt e-commerce, diversifying supply sources and making flexible work arrangements permanent for working parents and caregivers.

A total of 54 MPs, including political office holders, spoke over two days on various aspects of the Budget.

USING TODAY'S CRISIS TO PREPARE FOR THE FUTURE

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said the shortage of surgical masks highlights the need to diversify Singapore's supply sources as the virus affects the global trade of goods and supplies.

While the Government has announced its intention to seek new sources and look into manufacturing masks locally, "we need to take stock of what other items, besides masks, we potentially need to manufacture on our own in the future," he said.

Pointing to firms that face difficulties in diversifying their supply sources, Mr de Souza asked whether government support is available to help them connect with more diverse trade partners.

Business continuity plans put in place by many firms in recent weeks also provide an opportunity to test whether flexible working arrangements are feasible, he said.

"If it works, more firms may be ready and confident to try adopting it as an available standard practice to support our working parents with young children and working caregivers."

Mr Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked for more support for companies that are adopting or expanding their e-commerce operations.

 
 
 
 

"This crisis provides the impetus to push SMEs which have been reluctant to consider this sales avenue," he said.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) called for more recognition and support for freelancers, who she said are especially vulnerable to changes in economic conditions.

Many have little savings to see them though a work drought, she said, noting that a number of events and work assignments have been cancelled or deferred as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.

She asked whether working capital loans or other measures aimed at helping businesses with cash-flow issues could be extended to freelancers as well.

Noting that many freelancers are engaged by government departments, Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) asked if they can be paid up to half of their fees when large events are cancelled due to the virus.

The vulnerability of gig economy workers and the self-employed was raised by a number of MPs on Wednesday (Feb 26), including Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC), who suggested greater bargaining powers as a way forward, rather than trying to put them on par with traditional workers.

This could be done through greater union representation, or classifying them as workers defined by the Employment Act, he said.

MORE SUPPORT FOR BUSINESSES AND WORKERS

Some MPs also echoed calls by those who spoke on Wednesday in urging more immediate and extensive financial support for firms and employees.

Mr Chong asked whether the Jobs Support Scheme, which will offset wages of local employees for three months ended December 2019, could be extended to include businesses that began operations this year.

He also asked how the Finance Ministry determined the financial assistance sums announced last week, such as the $4 billion Stabilisation and Support Package for firms and employees.

 
 
 
 

"Has the ministry also set for itself some indicators internally to decide on when further assistance be rendered should the outbreak crisis deepen?"

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) asked whether Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat would consider a second relief package, if warranted.

Apart from its dramatic impact on the tourism, aviation and retail sectors, the virus has also disrupted manufacturing supply chains, Ms Foo noted.

"With the $7.7 billion of budget surplus left for this term of government to tap on, DPM Heng has ample ammunition to do more," she said.

Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) said he had received feedback that the measures in the Stabilisation and Support Package are adequate for small enterprises, but not medium-sized ones.

The cap for the corporate income tax rebate, for example, is $15,000 - a drop in the ocean for a medium-sized company, he said, adding that assistance should be calibrated to the size of an enterprise.

Mr Ong also asked how cash-flow assistance can be sped up, given that many businesses are now running down their reserves while their suppliers are unable to extend credit.

BOOSTING FRONTLINE WORKERS

At least six MPs also praised front-line workers such as doctors, nurses and cleaners, with many calling for stronger social and financial support for those most directly exposed to the virus.

Some Singaporeans have rallied in support of these workers, while others have shunned them out of fear of being infected.

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) said volunteers in his Yew Tee constituency helped to put together care packs for staff at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Ng Teng Fong General Hospital to boost their morale.

But he also had a resident who was shunned by some for donning her nursing uniform in public.

"When those who shun us arrive in my hospital, I will care for them just the same as the others," Mr Yam quoted her as saying.

 
 
 
 

Nominated MP Mohamed Irshad said the bonuses of healthcare workers may be impacted if hospital revenues take a hitfrom the outbreak.

"Given the extraordinary circumstances, I hope the Finance Minister will consider extending financial support or even bonuses to our nurses and doctors who are on the front line," he said.

Fellow NMP Walter Theseira pointed out the disparity between the wages that workers such as cleaners earn and the social value that they bring, particularly during a public health crisis.

The solution to the imbalance, he said, is to increase the wages of lower-paid workers.

This could be paid for by restructuring wages for higher-paying jobs, including those held by parliamentarians who are leaders in their own professions, said Associate Professor Theseira, who teaches economics at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

"Today we commend our cleaners and security guards, nurses and public health workers, for being in the front line of protecting us against Covid-19. We acknowledge the work of our public transport workers, our hawkers and shopkeepers, in keeping our supply lines and daily life running as normal.

"Can we give them a tangible increase in their salaries to acknowledge their sacrifices? If we don't have the words to express our gratitude, then let us at least have the dollars," he said.

Mr de Souza, who was the last to speak on Thursday, said a crisis can bring out the best and worst in a society. While there may be disagreements on fiscal measures and social policy, how these differences are resolved is key, he said.

He noted that many of his colleagues' speeches featured the undercurrent of unity, with Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang), for example, highlighting the need to unite rather than point fingers and stigmatise.

DPM Heng is set to respond to the MPs when he rounds up the Budget debate on Friday (Feb 28).