NEWS

Parliament Q&A

Reply by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, to the Adjournment Motion on Support for Home-Based Businesses During COVID-19 Circuit Breaker Period on Monday, 4 May 2020

TOPICS: Covid-19

1. Mr Speaker, Sir, I thank Dr Intan and Mr Zainal for conveying the concerns of home-based businesses, or HBBs.

2. I too salute Mdm N, Ms Sery and Ms Tan for their spirit of self-reliance. I too can empathise with Dr Intan’s mother who supplemented her income with a home-based business. This was what many Malay families and many of us in the Chamber have gone through. My mother too operated a home based business when my father passed on. So when I say I can empathise deeply with their challenges, I say this as someone who has lived that life. Many housewives juggle taking care of their children and elderly parents, and running these businesses to supplement their incomes. The tightening of Circuit Breaker measures has put restrictions on many businesses including HBBs. For HBBs catering to the Malay/Muslim community, I understand their disappointment, especially those who had been gearing up for Ramadan and Hari Raya celebrations. But the COVID-19 crisis is not about preserving livelihoods alone. The crisis has forced many governments – many of us – to make stark choices between preserving livelihoods and preserving life itself.

3. Indeed their plight reflects the difficulties many Singaporeans currently face. Many have lost their jobs or have been placed on no-pay leave through no decisions of this government. And even for those of us who still have our jobs, we are confined to our homes, going out only for essentials and exercise. But I believe many support the Circuit Breaker and agree that it is necessary. We are starting to see the results. I thank everyone for choosing to stay united, to save lives and protect our community.

4. Let me share with the House our approach so far and the support available to those affected.

KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR IMPLEMENTING CIRCUIT BREAKER AND TIGHTENING RESTRICTIONS ON HBB

5. On 7 April, we imposed the Circuit Breaker to decisively curb the spread of COVID-19. Before this, we routinely had more than 50 new cases daily. Like many countries, the risk of cases growing exponentially was real and this is the reason why it is so hard to plan and prepare our citizens for what comes next. We had to act fast and hard to minimise people movement and social interactions. We understand this has been painful for everyone.

6. The list of essential services was further tightened from 21 April as the infection rate had not reduced sufficiently. Barbers, laundromats, as well as desserts, confectionary and cakes stores suspended their operations.

7. We also clarified that only HBBs that operated solely online were allowed, as these do not involve collection and delivery of goods.

8. Non-online HBBs could normally run without oversight or registration as they were typically small and did not disturb their neighbours. However, their informal and dispersed nature presents a special challenge during COVID-19. We cannot enforce safe distancing in them the same way we do for commercial outlets. This poses a real risk when people move and interact in residential estates, as goods are collected and delivered.

9. It takes just one infected person to start a cluster. Lives, especially of our elderly, are at stake and they can be right in the homes of these HBB operations. The Circuit Breaker would need to be extended if community transmissions remained high. Hence, we made the difficult decision to restrict the operations of HBBs. I hope everyone understands why.

RESUMPTION OF SELECTED ACTIVITIES

10. But what has been the outcome? Because everyone including HBBs complied with the measures, we are seeing early results. The average daily number of new cases in the community has halved, from 25 in the week before to 12 last week.

11. We are therefore gradually relaxing restrictions from 12 May. Beyond allowing retail sale of cakes and confectionary for takeaway and delivery, we are resuming food HBBs, for delivery and collection only. So we are not backpedalling. We are just making decisions based on the situation, and the situation has improved. But we are not out of the woods yet, because clusters can still form as activities and interactions increase. Food HBBs, their customers and delivery personnel have to comply with a set of safe distancing measures — practising contactless delivery and collection, and installing TraceTogether to help contact tracing. Dr Intan suggested channelling HBBs to central kitchens but this is not necessary with the latest position, and may result in even greater movement of people. Other non-online HBBs are to remain closed for now.

12. Food HBBs can now accept and start preparing orders to be fulfilled after 12 May. It fulfils the hope I had expressed in my Facebook post — that you will be in time for Hari Raya Puasa, even if we must be prepared for a quieter Raya.

GOVERNMENT’S COMMITMENT TO SUPPORT WORKERS AND BUSINESSES IN THESE DIFFICULT TIMES

13. To preserve lives, moves have been rapid and hit many hard. We will take care of those affected by the COVID-19 situation and those affected by decisions to curb its exponential growth.

14. MOF has introduced schemes over three budgets to support our businesses, workers and those in need. All Singaporeans aged 21 and above also received a one-off Cash and Support payout in April.

15. Many HBBs operators would have benefited from the Temporary Relief Fund that was meant for relief in April. From May, as Mr Zainal enquired, self-employed HBB owners can apply for the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), or the COVID-19 Support Grant if they do not qualify for SIRS but are salaried employees who lost their jobs, suffered a pay cut, or were placed on involuntary no-pay leave. Social Service Offices (SSOs) will also extend other forms of support, like ComCare for low-income families who need help.

16. Many members of the Malay/Muslim community have stepped up to calm worries and extended help to food HBBs. This is the correct spirit in the holy month of Ramadan. I would like to thank them all.

17. For instance, the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI) quickly got in touch with over 1,800 HBBs. SMCCI helped qualify HBBs so that they could access the Temporary Relief Fund automatically. They are advising them on how to tap on other government support schemes. SMCCI is also looking to provide capability and capacity building for HBBs. If there is a silver lining, the HBBs now have SMCCI to champion and help them run viable and resilient micro-businesses. I wish them a fruitful relationship.

18. I also thank lawyers in the M3 community who, together with SMCCI, extended free legal advice to HBBs concerned about the legal implications of failing to fulfil their obligations, like issues around deposits and inability to deliver in time.

[Mr Speaker, allow me to speak in Malay.]

19. Saya amat prihatin dan bersimpati dengan golongan masyarakat kita yang bergantung pada perniagaan kecil-kecilan dari rumah untuk sumber pendapatan mereka. Mereka yang telah mengambil pesanan untuk bulan Ramadan dan Syawal pasti terjejas teruk, terutamanya dengan pesanan Ramadan yang mungkin kurang sedikit tahun ini kerana COVID-19. Tetapi kita perlu mengurangkan semua pergerakan dan interaksi agar tidak menyebarkan virus kepada warga tua, keluarga dan rakan-rakan kita. Penyesuaian perlu dibuat, sama seperti bagaimana kita telah menyesuaikan diri untuk melalui Ramadan yang sangat berbeza tahun ini. Saya berterima kasih kepada masyarakat kita kerana memahami dan membuat penyesuaian. Oleh kerana kita sudah mula melihat hasil dari langkah-langkah pemutus rantaian jangkitan yang telah diperketat, Pemerintah telah membenarkan perniagaan makanan kecil-kecilan dari rumah untuk beroperasi semula dari 12 Mei. Ini memberi para peniaga masa sebelum tibanya Hari Raya Aidilfitri, walaupun perayaan tahun ini perlukan penyesuaian juga. Dewan Perniagaan dan Perusahaan Melayu Singapura (DPPMS) sedang mendekati dan menasihati para peniaga untuk memanfaatkan skim-skim bantuan pemerintah, dan bekerjasama dengan para peguam M3 untuk menawarkan nasihat guaman secara percuma. Dalam usahanya untuk membantu HBB dalam masyarakat Melayu/Islam, DPPMS juga sedang meninjau bagaimana untuk menyokong golongan ini dalam jangka masa panjang.

CONCLUSION

20. Let me conclude by assuring Dr Intan, Mr Zainal, and the House that the Government stands ready to support workers and businesses who have been hit by COVID-19.

21. The situation has improved, not by chance but because we stayed home and observed safe distancing. But we must not be complacent. We are dealing with a cunning virus and a difficult adversary. If we have reaped anything from this, it was to give focus to food HBBs to do your part to enforce safe distancing during food preparation. I also hope that through the crisis, they will be reborn resilient like Dr Intan’s mother. For those HBBs that remain suspended, please be patient. Restrictions can only be lifted gradually and carefully when the situation continues to improve. We must prevent infections from spreading uncontrollably because when that happens, nature will take a tragic course. The more united we are in observing the Circuit Breaker, the sooner we can lift the measures.

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