From The Gallery

Coronavirus: When the dust settles, a stronger Singapore must emerge

Work of building economic and social resilience must continue, amid and beyond pandemic

With Singaporeans hunkering down at home, the streets have fallen silent. But the fight against Covid-19 rages on.

The fatigue is palpable. With three rounds of support measures announced in seven weeks, MPs have been turning up in Parliament with heavy eyebags.

Announced on Monday was $5.1 billion to cushion the impact of the Covid-19 "circuit breaker". Together, the Unity, Resilience and Solidarity Budgets add up to $60 billion, or 12 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product. The country will rack up its largest Budget deficit ever at $44.3 billion.

Government agencies have had to work with unreal timelines to roll out measures. Given the constraints, many schemes could not have been more efficient. For example, eligible self-employed persons are automatically included in the Self-Employed Person (SEP) Income Relief Scheme (Sirs) that provides direct cash assistance through quarterly $3,000 cash payouts.

Sensibly, the Manpower Ministry took existing criteria for Workfare - which supports older low-wage workers - and expanded them to cover almost twice the number of SEPs as those under Workfare.

But if there was a common refrain in the debate yesterday, it was that some Singaporeans and businesses are still falling through the cracks. For example, those aged 21 to 36 this year, or whose spouses earn a high income but have many dependants, do not automatically qualify for Sirs and will have to appeal.

As the temporary bridging loan programme is administered by individual banks, Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) asked if standardised application forms and a one-stop portal could be set up, so businesses can find out their eligibility and compare rates more easily.

Meanwhile, the authorities have tried to speed up disbursement of the $500 Temporary Relief Fund by accepting online applications and unconventional items of proof such as WhatsApp messages. Yet, some are abusing this by tapping the fund even though they have not lost their jobs due to Covid-19.

This is the dilemma posed by the "wicked problem" of Covid-19 - one that is complex and contentious and not easily resolved by traditional means. How can governments give quick relief to those in need, without compromising on fiscal prudence and proper checks and balances?

Members of the House raised possible workarounds. Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC) suggested temporarily liberalising Medisave for both outpatient and inpatient treatment, as well as intermediate and long-term care expenses. As this means dipping into one's individual medical reserves, it does not require further government expenditure, he said.

Nominated MP Walter Theseira proposed a Majulah Universal Basic Income of $110 per week per Singaporean for 12 weeks. Costing $4.62 billion, it can be funded by a temporary personal income tax increase. This means the less well-off will benefit more from the scheme, while those who are wealthier, who pay more personal income tax, will help finance it.

"Our means-testing systems will be an expensive distraction for social services agencies and policymakers at a time when the very structure of our economy and society is under threat," said Associate Professor Theseira.

Universal basic income (UBI) is something of a policy unicorn - often admired, but hardly practised on a large scale nationwide in the real world. Governments prefer to cut taxes, subsidise goods and services or provide debt relief to tide people over tough times.

At a time when speed and reach are of the essence, the simplicity of UBI is its strength. If the peak of the virus spread is to come in days or weeks, that is a virtue not to be underestimated. But with Covid-19, there is no defined playbook. One can also argue that Dr Chia's and Dr Theseira's proposals are an imperfect response to a challenge that Singapore does not yet face.

As Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday, the Government's approach remains to strike a balance between targeting support to those who need it more, and flowing support quickly to large groups. "That said, I fully support the spirit of Associate Professor Walter Theseira's suggestion. Those who have more, should support those who have less," he said.

On the other hand, some things - like resilience and values - do not change. The work of building economic and social resilience must go on. Amid the pandemic, it means helping viable businesses with costs, cash flow and credit to ward off permanent damage; and saving jobs and easing people's cash flow needs.

But the forming of an Emerging Stronger task force on economic resilience and proposed emphasis on social resilience under the Singapore Together movement are clear signs that the Government's planning horizon extends beyond the immediate crisis.

The values of thrift and prudence are also perennial. Mr Heng reiterated that the nation's reserves are not a "piggy bank to be broken at will, to provide the Government with a convenient source of additional revenue".

When the dust from Covid-19 has settled, one hopes a stronger economy and more equitable society will emerge. After all, as it has shown in every crisis since independence, Singapore is more than capable of defying the odds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2020, with the headline 'When the dust settles, a stronger S'pore must emerge'. Subscribe