Hawkers welcome Budget 2020 support measures during coronavirus outbreak, but unsure about long-term adequacy

Minister Indranee Rajah (right) passing a pamphlet on Budget 2020 to hawker Ng Joo Hean at Ang Mo Kio Food Centre. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Hawkers have welcomed the Government's move to introduce rental waivers in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, although a number hope more will be done to offset the drop in business caused by smaller crowds.

Mr Afiq Rezza, 30, whose family's stall at Block 724 Ang Mo Kio Food Centre is known for its mee rebus, has seen nearly one-third less customers on weekday nights and weekends since the outbreak.

The one-month rental waiver - amounting to about $2,000, in his case - is helpful and "will help us cover some of our losses", he told The Straits Times.

Mr Afiq met Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah when she made a trip to the food centre on Saturday (Feb 22) afternoon - an hour-long visit that saw her listen to hawkers' concerns and speak to reporters about this year's Budget.

Tuesday's Budget announcement saw Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat unveil a slew of measures, ranging from a $4 billion Stabilisation and Support Package to help firms with cash flow and retain workers, to $6 billion set aside to cushion the impact of a future goods and services tax (GST) increase. Stallholders at hawker centres and markets managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) will also be given one month's worth of rental waivers, with a minimum waiver of $200.

Ms Indranee told reporters that the feedback she received to the Budget has been generally positive, although some are worried about what might happen if the outbreak persists.

"Overall, employers have expressed keen interest in the Jobs Support Scheme," she said. "And this is very important because it helps companies to keep their workers, and to make sure that Singaporeans don't lose their jobs."

She noted that the Government is monitoring the situation, and would extend further assistance if required.

"As DPM Heng has said, if the situation is prolonged and it becomes necessary to offer further assistance, we do have the resources to offer help," she said.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon, who took part in a post-Budget discussion with Chinese radio station UFM100.3 on Saturday, reiterated that there is a range of support available for hawkers - including an 8 per cent cash grant on the gross monthly wages of each of their local employees, for three months, up to a monthly cap of $3,600.

"Perhaps their monthly income might be affected, but they can also receive help in other areas," he said in Mandarin.

Over at Ang Mo Kio Food Centre, satay beehoon stall owner Jome Tan, 43, said the rental waiver has not had a big effect on him, because he pays only $500 a month in rent thanks to an existing subsidy.

Speaking in Mandarin, the hawker told ST that rent takes up only about 10 per cent of his monthly costs - and that excludes the salaries he pays to the two people who help him at the stall. Total operating costs exceed $10,000 a month.

"The cost of our ingredients is rather high - a lot of it is seafood," added Mr Tan, who has also seen a 20 to 30 per cent fall in business.

He thinks it would be better if the Government could waive rent for one or two more months. "We don't know how long this virus outbreak will go on for."

The coronavirus disease, or Covid-19, has infected more than 76,600 people around the world, including at least 86 in Singapore - of whom 47 have fully recovered and been discharged.

Ms Indranee, who is also Second Minister for Finance and Education, said the current situation is "encouraging", but it is still too early to tell if the worst is over.

"The situation could still evolve, so it is important to stay cautious."

Grim as the coronavirus outbreak is, it might have a silver lining.

During Saturday's discussion on UFM100.3, management consultant and young entrepreneur Sean Chua suggested that some stall owners could consider using SkillsFuture and technology to find ways to give business a boost - for instance by introducing online platforms.

Dr Koh added: "Because of the virus outbreak, people might not want to eat out. But they still need to eat - they may not leave their homes, but they might order a takeaway.

"The outbreak is a threat (to businesses), but perhaps it is also an opportunity for transformation. If enterprises remember this, and re-think their business models, they might even end up breaking new ground in the long term."

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