Targeted help for transport, tourism sectors worst hit by virus outbreak, 'strong' Budget to help workers and slowing economy: Heng Swee Keat

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat visiting Shangri-La's Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa on Feb 1, 2020.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat visiting Shangri-La's Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa on Feb 1, 2020.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - The transport and tourism sectors, worst hit by the coronavirus situation, will get targeted help in the Budget on top of broader measures to address the wider economic slowdown, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Saturday (Feb 1).

The measures will aim to address firms' short-term cashflow needs, and retain and train workers in the coming months by providing some support for part of their wage costs, he added.

Full details of the relief package will be announced at the Government's Budget speech on Feb 18, to be delivered by Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

In a joint release after the visit, the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Trade and Industry warned of knock-on effects on related industries, adding that the government stands ready to help viable firms stay afloat and workers stay in their jobs in the event of a broad-based slowdown.

Mr Heng said the situation is “fast evolving”, and the government will continue to refine its plans as necessary. 

"But I want to assure Singaporeans that we are ready to take action, and that we will have a strong Budget that will help us manage this challenge."

He was speaking on the sidelines of a visit to Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa, where he met hotel staff and taxi drivers. 

The hotel was the site of Singapore's first confirmed case of a person infected with the Wuhan virus. The first Singaporean case was confirmed on Friday, bringing the total number of cases to 16.

Mr Heng added that some elements of the measures would be similar to the Government’s $230 million package during the 2003 Sars crisis. 

But he noted that at the time, initiatives like SkillsFuture did not yet exist, which the Government can now build on.

 
 
 

MTI and MOF noted in their release that air traffic through Changi Airport has declined and hotel cancellations have increased.

Ms Julie Cheong, president of the Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union, said that the usual occupancy rates can go up to 80 per cent. But they are now only around 60 per cent.

Similarly, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, who accompanied Mr Heng on his visit, said taxi drivers and workers in the aviation and hospitality sectors have also reported dips of 20 to 30 per cent in earnings.

“We hope to partner our employers to move workers into relevant training, so that where there is downtime, they can upscale, so that when things get better they will be ready to seize new opportunities ,” he added.

Labour MP Ang Hin Kee, who advises both the National Private Hire Vehicles Association (NPHVA) and the National Taxi Association (NTA), said  that he is looking at expanding existing digital training, possibly by up to 50 per cent, for drivers to make use of the downtime.

 
 
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“If we can aim to get up to 15,000 people to take the training, it will definitely benefit the drivers. But we will wait for the Budget, which I think will be forthcoming.”

Ms Cheong also said she is looking at similar efforts for the retail and hospitality sectors. 

Earlier on Saturday, NTUC announced a one-time $100 allowance for taxi and private-hire operators for drivers who need to be quarantined due to the virus.

Members of the NPHVA and the NTA will receive an additional one-time allowance of $200 from the associations.

This is on top of the $100 per day quarantine allowance given by the Government.

NTA general secretary Foo Chi Yong said drivers were assured by the new measures.

"The morale on the ground is better now after the package was announced, that at least there is something to take care of them."