Hawkers welcome rental waivers amid drop in business in wake of coronavirus outbreak

Hawkers have welcomed the Government’s move to introduce rental waivers in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, although a number hope more will be done to defray the drop in business caused by smaller crowds.

Mr Afiq Rezza, 30, whose family’s stall at Block 724 Ang Mo Kio Food Centre is known for its mee rebus, has seen business fall by nearly one-third on weekday nights and weekends since the outbreak.

The one-month rental waiver – amounting to about $2,000, in his case – is helpful and “will help us cover some of our losses”, he told The Sunday Times.

Mr Afiq met Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah when she made a trip to the food centre yesterday afternoon – an hour-long visit that saw her listen to hawkers’ concerns and speak to reporters about this year’s Budget.

Last week’s Budget announcement saw Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat unveil a slew of measures, ranging from a $4 billion Stabilisation and Support Package to help companies with their cash flow and to retain workers, to $6 billion set aside to cushion the impact of a future goods and services tax increase.

Stallholders at hawker centres and markets managed by the National Environment Agency will also be given one month’s worth of rental waivers, with a minimum waiver of $200.

Ms Indranee told reporters that the feedback she received to the Budget has been generally positive, although some are worried about what might happen if the outbreak persists.

“Overall, employers have expressed keen interest in the Jobs Support Scheme,” she said. “And this is very important, because it helps companies to keep their workers, and to make sure that Singaporeans don’t lose their jobs.”

She noted that the Government is monitoring the situation, and would extend further assistance if needed.

“As DPM Heng has said, if the situation is prolonged and it becomes necessary to offer further assistance, we do have the resources to offer help,” she said.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon, who took part in a post-Budget discussion with Chinese radio station UFM100.3 yesterday, reiterated that there is a range of support for hawkers – including an 8 per cent cash grant on the gross monthly wages of each of their local employees for three months, up to a monthly cap of $3,600.

“Perhaps their monthly income might be affected, but they can also receive help in other areas,” he said in Mandarin.

At Ang Mo Kio Food Centre, satay beehoon stall owner Jome Tan, 43, said the rental waiver has not had a big effect on him because he pays only $500 a month in rent, thanks to an existing subsidy.

Speaking in Mandarin, the hawker told The Sunday Times that rent takes up only about 10 per cent of his monthly costs – and that exclude the salaries he pays to the two people who help him at the stall. Total operating costs exceed $10,000 a month, he said.

“The cost of our ingredients is rather high – a lot of it is seafood,” added Mr Tan, who has also seen a 20 to 30 per cent fall in business.

He thinks it would be better if the Government could waive rent for one or two more months.

“We don’t know how long this virus outbreak will go on for.”

Nearly 78,000 people around the world have been infected by the coronavirus, including 89 in Singapore – of whom 49 have fully recovered and been discharged.

Ms Indranee, who is also Second Minister for Finance and Education, said the current situation is encouraging, but it is still too early to tell if the worst is over.

“The situation could still evolve, so it is important to stay cautious.”

During yesterday’s discussion on UFM100.3, Dr Koh said the outbreak was also perhaps an opportunity for transformation.

“If enterprises remember this, and re-think their business models, they might even end up breaking new ground in the long term,” he said.

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