Singapore ready to do more if COVID-19 outbreak worsens: DPM Heng

Singapore ready to do more if COVID-19 outbreak worsens: DPM Heng

Heng Swee Keat Singapore Airlines cabin crew
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat giving cookies to Singapore Airlines cabin crew during a meeting at Changi Airport. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)

SINGAPORE: The Government is ready to do more on the economic front if the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore deteriorates, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Monday (Mar 30).

"I would like to reassure Singaporeans that we have the resources to do that if we need to," he said in response to a question about whether Singapore may need to dip into its reserves again to help cushion the economy from the impact of the global pandemic.

This comes after Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, unveiled a landmark S$48 billion Resilience Budget on Mar 26 to help workers and businesses as well as strengthen economic and social resilience.

The measures will be partly funded by a draw of up to S$17 billion on the reserves, and Mr Heng did not rule out further draws if there was a need to.

READ: What you need to know about the Resilience Budget measures

In his initial Budget announcement on Feb 18, the minister had already pledged S$4 billion to measures aimed at stabilising the economy amid near-term uncertainties caused by COVID-19.

"For now, let's concentrate on making the best use of what we already have in the Resilience package," Mr Heng added on Monday, calling it a "very substantial" package. "In fact, one reason I am here today is to look at how the aviation industry is making use of this package."

Mr Heng was speaking to reporters at Changi Airport after meeting with workers in the aviation industry, one of the hardest-hit sectors amid the pandemic.

As part of the Resilience Budget, more than S$750 million will go toward supporting Singapore’s aviation sector, which employs more than 190,000 people and contributes more than 5 per cent of Singapore’s gross domestic product.

More than S$400 million will go to a jobs scheme that will see see the Government pay up to 75 per cent of the first S$4,600 of a worker’s monthly wages.

The other S$350 million will be used to help businesses in the aviation sector, including giving rebates on landing and parking charges as well as rental relief for airlines, ground handlers and cargo agents.

Mr Heng said the sector has made good use of the resources, as companies are using the downtime to upgrade workers' skills and rethink their processes and business models.

"The CEOs of the different parts of the aviation industry are coming together to develop plans, including plans in R&D (research and development), staff training and job redesign to emerge stronger," he said.

DPM Heng Swee Keat visits Changi Airport
DPM Heng Swee Keat meets employees at Changi Airport on Monday Mar 30, 2020. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)

Affected staff are also being re-deployed to other departments or organisations that need more manpower during the outbreak. This includes roles like customer service, contact tracing and hygiene ambassadors at hawker centres.

When asked about potential retrenchments at Singapore Airlines (SIA), which has cut 96 per cent of its capacity, Mr Heng said "at the moment, the industries – and certainly the aviation industry – are seeking to retain their workers as much as possible".

"That is why, as part of the Resilience Budget, I allocated a higher level of support for industries which are most badly affected by the COVID-19 outbreak," he added. "I am confident that Singapore Airlines will continue to look into this carefully and take very careful decisions on this."

SIA is one company in the aviation sector to have re-deployed staff across departments. Some cabin crew are volunteering with the social media team and at the ticketing office in ION Orchard, both of which have seen a spike in customer queries.

SIA CABIN CREW ON COVID-19 ANXIETY

Discussing the impact of COVID-19, SIA cabin crew told reporters they were initially pleased with the reduced flying hours as it allowed them to spend more time with family and friends.

But as the outbreak dragged on, their rosters grew increasingly empty, fuelling anxiety about how they were going to pay the bills and support the family.

Heng Swee Keat SIA cabin crew Changi Airport
Mr Heng addressing SIA cabin crew who have been redeployed to other departments. (Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information) 

Leading steward Fabien Sieh, 36, said these worries linger, although the morale among colleagues remains intact.

"We do not want to influence everyone (negatively)," said Mr Sieh, who now volunteers at the ticketing centre. "In fact, we want to pat everyone on the back and say we can go through this together."

The crew said volunteering with different departments has taught them new skills, given them a bigger picture of the company's operations and kept their minds off when their next flight could be.

"After a while, I start feeling like do I really want to just stay at home?" said fellow leading steward Alvin Ee, 42, who is helping the social media team. "How many Netflix episodes can you watch?"

Leading stewardess Ann Sim, 32, said she is thankful for the volunteering opportunities as they are a way of giving back to a company that she said has cared for them well, especially when it comes to medical expenses.

Amid the current difficulties, SIA is exploring how to ease rental fees for foreign crew and has waived a clause that prevents employees from working for another company. 

The latter allows staff to work in high-demand part-time jobs, like as contact tracers assisting the health ministry. Details like remuneration and the scope of jobs are still being worked out.

"Coming back to reality, we still need the money to go through the next few months," Ms Sim said, noting that she has enough savings for the time being.

"Volunteering is just not the best way to actually tide us through. Some crew have (large) expenditures, or are married and are both flying. It's going to hit them very hard this time round."

Singapore Airlines cabin crew speaking to media
SIA cabin crew (from left) Fabien Sieh, Ann Sim and Alvin Ee speaking to media. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)

Beyond the current financial measures, Mr Sieh said he hopes to see other government agencies chip in to lift the aviation sector, including relaxing requirements to "make our lives a little easier" when they finally take to the skies again.

One example, Mr Ee said, is the lapse of cabin crew licences because they have not flown for some time.

"The company has assured that they are speaking with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in regard to how they will better help us go through our licensing when everything starts picking up," he stated.

FURTHER MEASURES BEING DISCUSSED

Mr Heng said aviation industry chiefs have given him "preliminary ideas" on further measures to boost the sector.

"They have indicated a number of areas which we could get into," he said. "I would say that it is a bit too early for us to finalise these measures. But we certainly have to start work on this."

Heng Swee Keat Changi Airport SATS staff
Mr Heng speaking to SATS passenger service agents in Changi Airport Terminal 3. (Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information)

For now, Mr Heng said the Government is focused on containing the outbreak and limiting damage to the economy, as he elaborated on the Monetary Authority of Singapore's (MAS) decision on Monday to ease monetary policy.

READ: MAS eases monetary policy as economy reels from impact of COVID-19

"The MAS operates on an exchange rate-centred policy. Our exchange rate must be centred at a level that supports economic activity and at the same time keeps our inflation low," he said.

"At this point, MAS estimates our core inflation will be low, and that we can afford to keep the exchange rate at zero appreciation with no change to the width of the band."

Mr Heng, who was MAS managing director from 2005 to 2011, called it "the right approach at this time".

"At this stage, monetary policy by itself cannot reflate the economy," he added. 

"In fact, our aim is not to aim for growth at this point. Our aim at this point is very focused on limiting the damage to the economy. And in particular, not affecting our long-term capability."

Mr Heng said this includes keeping workers in their jobs and retraining them to ensure they "emerge from this with a higher level of skills".

Nevertheless, Mr Heng said morale in the aviation industry remains high, stating that long-time workers "feel very deeply" about their jobs.

"They have never seen such a situation," he added. "They are looking forward to a recovery."

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect clarifications on comments made by DPM Heng on potential economic support measures.

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Source: CNA/hz(mn)

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