SINGAPORE: With the COVID-19 situation evolving rapidly around the world, Singapore will need to stay vigilant and ensure that its responses remain adequate, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Tuesday (Feb 25).
Within Singapore, he noted that the coordination across various Government agencies has “become even better” under the leadership of National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong. Both Mr Wong and Mr Gan are leading the multi-ministry taskforce set up to tackle the outbreak in Singapore.
But given how the novel coronavirus outbreak was evolving rapidly around the world, with recent spikes in infections in countries such as South Korea and Iran, Mr Heng stressed the need for Singapore to remain on guard and take all necessary precautions.
"We must continue to be vigilant and continue to ensure that our responses are adequate as the situation evolves,” he said.
Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, was speaking to reporters after a visit to the Parkroyal Hotel on Kitchener Road where he observed how the hotel was coping with the downturn.
Last week in his Budget statement, he announced that Singapore would set aside S$6.4 billion to support frontline agencies, businesses, workers and households to tide through the COVID-19 outbreak.
From this amount, S$800 million will go to supporting frontline agencies in their efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, with the bulk allocated to the Ministry of Health.
There will also be two other special packages worth more than S$5 billion. The first is a S$4 billion Stabilisation and Support Package to help firms with their cash flow and retain workers, as well as support sectors that are directly affected. Meanwhile, the S$1.6 billion Care and Support Package aims to support households with their expenses.
Asked if these measures took into account the evolving COVID-19 outbreak, Mr Heng described the Budget as a “very calibrated response” and that it was appropriate for the Government’s “assessment of the evolution of the current trajectory”.
He added that at the moment, it is difficult to predict how quickly the disease could be contained and whether it would have a knock-on impact on the rest of the economy.
But if the situation changes, Mr Heng reiterated that the Government is prepared to do more.
“If the situation does get worse, we will have the measures to take a further action.”
READ: COVID-19 relief measures appropriate for now but Government will do more if necessary: DPM Heng
When asked about feedback from some quarters of the business community that the newly announced relief measures may not reach those who need help, Mr Heng said the likes of the Jobs Support Scheme, the Wage Credit Scheme and the corporate income tax rebate are “direct” support measures for companies.
In terms of the property tax rebates, Mr Heng noted that property giant CapitaLand had taken steps to pass that on to its tenants and urged more landlords to do the same.
He added that his ministry was looking at this issue and he would address this during the upcoming Budget debate.
Mr Heng also urged businesses to "take whatever that is already on the table" - the Stabilisation and Support Package, as well as the new and existing transformation and growth measures - and make use of them to retrain workers and refine their operations.
He applauded Parkroyal Hotel's efforts in doing so. During his visit on Tuesday, Mr Heng observed how the hotel re-designed jobs and increased productivity through measures such as rolling out an electronic check-in process and installing vending machines on each level to replace the minibars in hotel rooms.
The hotel plans to accelerate these efforts and use technology to lighten the workload of its employees, despite having taken a negative hit from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
General manager Richard Ong said the hotel is drawing support from the "very re-assuring" relief package where the wage support initiatives can help to defray manpower costs. Other schemes, such as property tax rebates, will also alleviate pressure on the hotel's bottom line, he added.
Mr Heng hopes that more companies in Singapore will make full use of the Government's measures during the COVID-19 outbreak, so as to tackle both immediate and longer-term challenges.
"This is a very good time to ... raise our skills, raise our capabilities and raise the quality of our operations," he said, adding that such transformation efforts will put companies in a better position for recovery.
SINGAPORE MONITORING DEVELOPMENTS IN MALAYSIA “CLOSELY”
Mr Heng was also asked by reporters for his take on the latest political developments in Malaysia.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad on Monday tendered his resignation as Malaysia’s prime minister, while quitting as chairman of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) amid speculation that a new pact would be formed to replace Pakatan Harapan (PH) as the ruling coalition.
Malaysia's King Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah has accepted Dr Mahathir’s resignation but appointed him interim prime minister.
READ: No legal obstacle to form new ruling coalition, but against spirit of Malaysia's constitution: Expert
“The situation in Malaysia is also evolving rapidly,” Mr Heng said. “We are monitoring the developments closely.
“It is a domestic matter and I hope that the various parties will come to some agreement expeditiously.”
Describing Malaysia as Singapore’s closest neighbour, he noted that both countries have many ongoing bilateral projects.
These include the Singapore-Johor Bahru Rapid Transit System, Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail and the recently announced taskforce set up to strengthen cooperation between both countries in the fight against COVID-19.
Singapore and Malaysia are also working together within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “maintain the unity and centrality of ASEAN”.
“There are important measures that we hope we can continue so we will respect the decision of the Malaysian leaders,” said Mr Heng.
“I very much hope that we can continue our cooperation quickly and we will work with the government of the day to advance the many areas of bilateral cooperation we have embarked on.”