Singapore Budget 2020: Boosting confidence in Singapore key to quick recovery

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - Crucial to woo tourists back quickly, with some firms already struggling, say observers.

While Budget measures to help workers and businesses hit by the coronavirus outbreak will provide some short-term relief, restoring Singapore's reputation as a safe travel destination is necessary to speed up the rebound, said tourism industry players.

Recent developments are keeping visitors away and causing business to go into free fall, they noted.

These include Singapore raising its disease outbreak response to orange, reported coronavirus cases in other countries that are linked to travel here, and countries issuing travel advisories on Singapore.

Israel on Monday banned all visitors with recent travel to four Asian territories, including Singapore.

South Korea, Kuwait, Qatar and Thailand have also issued travel advisories urging their citizens to defer non-essential travel here.

Singapore and Japan are the countries with the highest number of confirmed cases outside of China, with 84 patients as of yesterday.

On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled a $4 billion package to aid businesses, with additional relief for the hard-hit tourism and transport sectors.

The tax rebates, wage support and rental waivers are expected to help firms with cash-flow issues.

Mr Samson Tan, chief executive of GTMC Travel, said that bookings were down 60 per cent, and estimated losses of about $400,000 for the first half of the year.

He added that measures, such as job training and bridging loans, would help in the short term, but the survival of many businesses in tourism-related sectors would rely on boosting confidence in Singapore as a destination.

"The Government can't manage your business for you, but they can send strong signals to other countries to help sentiment to return," said Mr Tan, the inbound committee chairman for the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore.

Ms Jean Wang, chairman of the Society of Tourist Guides Singapore, said that cancellations have been coming in waves - first when restrictions on Chinese travellers kicked in, then again when Singapore upgraded its disease outbreak response to orange.

Some tourists had the perception that it was not safe to visit Singapore, in the light of reports of delegates to a meeting at the Grand Hyatt Singapore testing positive after returning to their home countries and the recent travel advisories, she added. "We need the Government to speak up for Singapore, so that tourists will have the confidence to come here and spread the word that things are fine."

Ms Wang also said that the Budget measures do not go far enough to help those who are hardest hit, noting that there was no aid for tourist guides. "We are self-employed, so we don't qualify for the schemes for businesses and employees."

Bookings have completely dried up for some, with about 100 of the society's 400 members having indicated interest in a part-time job.

"I'm not sure if companies will hire us now, even malls are cutting hours so they don't need so many staff," Ms Wang said.

Business leaders said some of the Budget support measures should kick in earlier as many firms are struggling to stay afloat.

The new Jobs Support Scheme will offset 8 per cent of wages for every local worker in employment, for three months. This will have a monthly cap of $3,600, and payment will be given to employers by the end of July this year.

But smaller firms may not be able to wait this long, said Mr Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises.

"They are happy to keep jobs and be part of the solution, but a lot are already bleeding quite badly," he added. "They are in the eye of the storm right now."

Mr Vihang Patel, chief executive of fintech start-up Finaxar, echoed Mr Wee's sentiments.

Although his firm has not been directly impacted by the outbreak, his clients have felt the pinch. "If their consumption stops, our business gets impacted. One sector's duress spreads quite quickly."

Labour MP Patrick Tay suggested bringing forward the implementation of the jobs support and wage credit schemes, as well as the top-up of SkillsFuture credits, "to provide speedier relief and assistance to affected industries and workers".

Overall, experts agreed that this year's Budget was "comprehensive" and "forward-looking".

Mr Chia Seng Chye, tax services partner at Ernst & Young Solutions, pointed to the slew of measures and schemes to grow the economy and create opportunities for people. The emphasis on lifelong learning was particularly important given Singapore's ageing population, he added.

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