Coronavirus pandemic: Solidarity Budget

MPs share stories of lives upended by the outbreak

MP Liang Eng Hwa said yesterday in Parliament that he believes "we will eventually have a Victory Budget in time to come". PHOTO: GOV.SG Shoppers at Orchard Central yesterday. This week, Singapore will shut down all schools and most workplaces as it
Shoppers at Orchard Central yesterday. This week, Singapore will shut down all schools and most workplaces as it puts in place a “circuit breaker” to stem the spike in Covid-19 cases in the country. But the loss of revenue has already hit businesses hard in recent weeks.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
MP Liang Eng Hwa said yesterday in Parliament that he believes "we will eventually have a Victory Budget in time to come". PHOTO: GOV.SG Shoppers at Orchard Central yesterday. This week, Singapore will shut down all schools and most workplaces as it
MP Liang Eng Hwa said yesterday in Parliament that he believes “we will eventually have a Victory Budget in time to come”.PHOTO: GOV.SG

Workers, firms face uncertain future, but some say crisis can be a catalyst for change

As the coronavirus burrows into society and upends Singaporeans' way of life, MPs spoke in Parliament of workers fearing for their jobs, businesses struggling to stay afloat and families striving to come to terms with the new normal.

But amid the dark clouds, there is a silver lining, they said. Managed well, this crisis can be a catalyst for change.

"There are still plenty of uncertainties ahead. The outbreak may get worse before it gets better, and there is no certainty how long this will take," said Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).

"But I believe we will eventually have a Victory Budget in time to come, where we will position ourselves for a strong recovery and emerge stronger," added Mr Liang, who kicked off yesterday's debate on the new additional support measures to help Singapore cope with the crisis.

Earlier yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that an extra $5.1 billion will be set aside to save jobs and support businesses and families. Dubbed the Solidarity Budget, this third package means a total of $59.9 billion is being marshalled to take on the coronavirus outbreak.

This week, Singapore will shut down all schools and most workplaces as it puts in place a "circuit breaker" to stem the spike in Covid-19 cases in the country.

But the loss of revenue has already hit businesses hard in recent weeks, whether they are landlords or tenants.

Tenants have been up in arms because many landlords have not passed down the property tax rebates they received - an issue that will be addressed in proposed legislation.

But some landlords have outstanding mortgages to repay, and struggle to do so as tenants delay paying rent and vacancies rise in their properties, said Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC).

"Everyone has his plight, and the root of the problem is revenue loss and the resulting cash-flow problems," he added.

Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang) noted the "circuit breaker" measures for this month are "slowly killing the man in the street trying to make ends meet".

He was at a coffee shop in his constituency when the Government announced that dining in would no longer be allowed, he said. Two workers were especially worried about what this meant for their jobs.

"They knew that there would be no... dishes to wash come Tuesday morning. You could tell by the look in their eyes that they were worried about what is to come, the bills to pay and the living expenses," he added.

Nominated MP Anthea Ong said an acquaintance working as an event emcee nearly killed himself last week after losing all his gigs.

And Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) recounted how a resident's children had gone hungry one day after their father - a Grab driver and the sole breadwinner - was not able to make enough money to buy food for them.

Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) highlighted that some companies and people may need extra help to begin working from home

Also, the home environment may not always be conducive for work. "Imagine several adults in a home teleconferencing at the same time, and then having children trying also to do home-based learning in a small space," she said. "All this will add stress to any home environment."

Then, there are workers who are misled by unscrupulous employers.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said a resident had asked him if it was true that employers' Central Provident Fund contribution rates had been reduced.

"Her employer said it is a cost-saving measure to help businesses," he told the House. "Of course, I told her it wasn't... However, this brings to mind that in times like this, businesses may resort to illegal measures to cut their losses."

At the same time, the crisis provides the impetus for change - for the better.

If businesses had been further along the road to digitalisation when the crisis hit, the transition to telecommuting would have been less painful and better executed, said Nominated MP Douglas Foo, who is president of the Singapore Manufacturing Federation.

"The economy and business landscape after we emerge from this crisis will be vastly different," he said. "Companies have to realise with increasing urgency that digitalisation is no longer just a want or a good-to-have. It is now a necessity, and business owners must snap out of the haze of apathy and really use this opportunity for change."

Ms Ong also called for more mental health support for Singaporeans, given that pandemics can induce anxiety and inflict psychological damage.

"It is hard to fault such a generous Budget trying to avert an economic calamity and save jobs and industry - even lives," she said. "Yet, the crisis illuminates long-term cracks that we must address decisively for a good and strong rebound as a nation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2020, with the headline 'MPs share stories of lives upended by the outbreak'. Print Edition | Subscribe