This year, the Singapore government released four Budgets amounting to nearly S$100 billion to safeguard livelihoods and support families through Covid-19.
The most recent supplement, the S$33 billion Fortitude Budget, focused on jobs and enhanced schemes that provide additional help for affected local businesses and individuals.
This unprecedented support comes as the pandemic engulfs businesses in the greatest challenge they have ever faced. Many firms are affected by extended closures, causing significant revenue losses as they are unable to operate.
The economic impact is expected to be severe, with the Ministry of Trade and Industry downgrading Singapore’s GDP growth forecast to between -7 and -4 per cent.
Despite this, businesses continually try to rise above the challenges and navigate their way through these harsh conditions. Through the eyes of our local firms, how well do the Government’s support packages deliver meaningful relief in their time of need?
What Are Businesses Most Concerned About?
We spoke to six local business owners from a range of industries — food and beverage, retail, travel, fitness and education — to hear their thoughts on the Budgets.
While they may operate across diverse fields, the concerns they face in this period are similar. Halted operations mean no revenue, while overheads still need to be covered.
It also begs these questions: Will their business survive? Can they adapt through new methods? Can they still afford to pay and keep their employees?
Ryan Sim, co-founder of online-to-offline crowdfunding store We The People, shared that this Covid-19 crisis is “the most difficult situation to ever be in”. Staying on top of rental and manpower costs while their retail outlets are closed has been their biggest challenge so far.
Meanwhile, pro wrestling school Grapple MAX took a blow to their two main drivers of revenue: gym memberships and ticketed live events. As these streams dried up, co-founder Gregory Ho was disheartened to be “losing momentum” after a year of strong growth in 2019.
For ramen eatery Takagi Ramen, fears for their survival became very real.
At that time, based on our company savings and overheads, we had projected that in the case of a temporary stop to our operations, we may completely run out of cash flow within one or two months.– Yang Kaiheng, co-founder of Takagi Ramen
Kaiheng had to come up with a contingency plan if the worst were to happen — which possibly meant putting staff on unpaid leave, cutting salaries by up to 40 per cent, and shutting down outlets.
Similarly, craft beer brewery Binjai Brew has to contend with a grim possibility that their business may no longer be viable if people are tightening their belts and the demand for craft goods falls.
The founders are currently in their bootstrapping phase and are not earning a salary. Heetesh Alwani, one of the three co-founders, shared that they might even have to “pursue something else” if it takes too long to reach the point where they can pay themselves.
As a tuition centre, Study Room was among the first few groups of businesses that had to suspend operations. “Overnight, all classes had to be converted to online ones,” said co-founder Lim Wei Yi.
Adapting quickly was important, but it was easier said than done as they scrambled to secure equipment, change lesson plans, and help both students and teachers pick up new platforms.
Similarly, adventure travel startup Anywhr was concerned about finding ways they could adapt as all of their booked trips were forced to be cancelled or refunded.
While they are unable to do anything immediately, Anywhr co-founder Zelia Leong shared that they are working hard to be ready for a new landscape of post-Covid-19 travel.
The Biggest Help: Taking Care Of Immediate Costs
For each of the businesses, being able to get some immediate financial relief has been crucial for them to stay afloat in the face of sudden and significant changes.
Schemes that ease their cash flow have reduced their most pressing worries, so that they can afford to look further ahead and plan for a future recovery.
Across the board, they picked out the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), which co-funds employee wages, as one of the most helpful features of the four successive Budgets of 2020.
In the Fortitude Budget, it was announced that the JSS would be extended for an additional month in August to provide a total of 10 months of coverage, funding 25 to 75 per cent of the first S$4,600 of wages for each local employee.
Firms that are not allowed to resume operations after the circuit breaker will also continue receiving wage support at 75 per cent until August, or whenever they can reopen.
“The Jobs Support Scheme is important because our teachers are our most important assets, and it’s crucial that we can continue paying them,” said Wei Yi.
Ryan echoed his sentiments — and it was not just due to the fact that his team could stay employed, but that having no layoffs or pay cuts kept morale strong and helped We The People execute an important pivot as consumer spending habits changed.
Under the travel sector, Anywhr is receiving the highest tier of JSS support at 75 per cent. Zelia said this has benefitted them greatly “during this time when revenue is impacted”.
By keeping their team paid, she said it provides the resources that Anywhr needs in order to keep building better services for future users.
Takagi Ramen also benefits from Foreign Worker Levy rebates and waivers as they hire a number of foreign staff in their food service team.
Firms that hire foreign workers have had the levy waived for the months of April and May, and received a rebate of S$750 for every foreign worker they employ.
Under the Fortitude Budget, the waivers and rebates were extended for two more months in June and July for companies that had to remain closed.
With a combination of support from the JSS, rental rebates, and Foreign Worker Levy waivers, Kaiheng said their overhead costs were “drastically reduced” so that Takagi Ramen no longer needed to consider closing outlets or reducing staff salaries.
Rental relief is another area that most of the founders we spoke to have been thankful for, especially seeing that rent is often “the biggest portion of [a business’] fixed costs”.
A cash grant of S$2 billion will be disbursed to property owners from end-July, and a law has been passed that requires landlords to pass the rental relief on to tenants who have suffered significant revenue loss.
With the steep rental rates in Singapore, Ryan said that they would be “closing [their] shutters in no time at all” if they still had to pay rent with zero income from their stores.
Having the [rental reliefs] protects us from our contractual obligations with our landlords, which we were still liable to pay even though our stores have been closed since the circuit breaker.– Ryan Sim, co-founder of We The People
For Grapple MAX, which recently shifted to a new facility, and Study Room, which has just expanded its centres prior to closures, rental reliefs have also been timely to “alleviate the pressure” on them.
Financing The First Step To Long-Term Goals
Some firms are also benefiting from schemes that were created to support their long-term endeavours, and help them transform to stay competitive amid the changing business environment.
One of them is Takagi Ramen, who shared that they are currently in the process of applying for the Temporary Bridging Loan Programme (TBLP) and the SME Working Capital Loan under the Enterprise Financing Scheme (EFS).
The TBLP lets eligible enterprises across all sectors borrow up to S$5 million, with an interest rate capped at 5 per cent per annum.
Under the EFS, the maximum loan quantum for the SME Working Capital Loan was raised to S$1 million. The Government also takes on 90 per cent of the risk-share in both of these loan programmes.
Since business has stabilised and Takagi Ramen is no longer grappling with the threat of closing down, plans to open more outlets are now back on the table.
Kaiheng finds the reduced interest rates of the financing schemes “very attractive”, and hopes to take advantage of them to “accelerate expansion”.
If that goes well, he plans to tap on the Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG), which has been enhanced to provide up to 80 per cent funding until 31 December 2020, to adopt more automated solutions.
Binjai Brew has also applied for the PSG, hoping to use the grant to take their packaging productivity up a notch. “Being able to package cans [of beer] faster will free up time so that we can focus on selling,” said Heetesh.
He will also apply for the Digital Resilience Bonus, which helps businesses adopt digital payments, invoicing, and business processes, so that Binjai Brew can explore using new technologies to reach their customers.
As for Study Room, which has shifted to online resources like virtual meeting and collaboration tools to keep their classes going, Wei Yi hopes to receive support for their digital move.
Going online is the future for not just the tuition industry, but also for most other industries. We have been propelled into the future by Covid-19, and any financial assistance to facilitate this would be beneficial. If it could include [funding for] investments in learning platforms, that would be good.– Lim Wei Yi, co-founder of Study Room
He admits that he is still looking into the details of various schemes and grants to determine which one he should apply for.
For example, the Digital Resilience Bonus is currently being piloted with the food and retail sectors first, in order to benefit many traditional hawkers and mom-and-pop shops who are unfamiliar with technology.
Support Empowers Businesses To Move Forward
With a wide array of support measures, firms are able to regain footing on a solid ground, where they are able to embark on innovative solutions to rise to the challenges they face.
We The People quickly identified an opportunity as they observed that people were building stronger sanitary habits amid the pandemic.
Hot on the trails of a “new normal” for hygiene standards, they brought in new products like UV sterilisers for shoes and handphones, and saw their efforts pay off with “a surge in sales” on their website.
Even though the Binjai Brew team faces an uncertain road ahead, they have continued to direct their efforts into improving their product selection and increasing their digital footprint through online marketing campaigns.
Through this, they saw “an increase in online sales and an increase in return customers in April and May”, said Heetesh.
Grapple MAX, like many other fitness studios, started offering online Zoom classes since the circuit breaker. As wrestling is a contact sport, Gregory understands it’s unlikely for his studio to reopen even in Phase 2.
However, he shares that they are using this downtime to develop an “alternative product that focuses on no-contact classes”. They have been wanting to explore this even before the pandemic, and it could potentially become a more accessible point of entry to introduce wrestling to a wider audience.
Study Room has also hopped onto Zoom to conduct their tuition classes. Despite having to deal with a few shortfalls, like the mental drain and lack of engagement through a screen, they have found meaningful ways to use this technology to their advantage.
As students became adept in online classes, [we decided to] start a new free online session to widen their horizons. We made use of the opportunity to invite different people to speak to our students. So far, we have invited a reporter who covered [the outbreak in] Wuhan, a Syrian refugee, and a radio DJ.– Lim Wei Yi, co-founder of Study Room
Among these businesses, Anywhr is probably experiencing the deepest lull as they await for travelling to safely resume. However, Zelia is not letting this time go to waste, as her team has been researching upcoming trends and talking to customers and industry experts to understand how travel needs will change after Covid-19.
“This includes making sure all destinations, activities, and recommendations by our trip curation team are of the highest standards and comply with best safety and hygiene standards for post-Covid-19 travel,” said Zelia.
With enough means to safeguard their own businesses, founders are also extending a hand to care for the community around them.
We were quite surprised that we were able to maintain our margins during this period and are acutely aware that our company is part of the fortunate minority — so we donated S$10,000 to local charity Free Food For All, as we believe the whole community needs to come together to be able to pull through this.– Yang Kaiheng, co-founder of Takagi Ramen
Likewise, Wei Yi believes that education should not be solely focused on profits, but should also protect the wellbeing of students. In line with that, Study Room reduced its fees by 50 per cent in April to support parents, and provided extra help for those who had lost their jobs.
Covid-19 has indeed been rough for the economy, but it’s clear that businesses are not taking these hardships lying down.
While this pandemic and its economic effects are expected to last a year or longer, we’re set to see a new generation of leaders rise from it and emerge stronger than before — businesses that adapt and transform quickly, and those that do their part to uplift the community.
All opinions represented in this article belong to the business owners interviewed by Vulcan Post.
Featured Image Credit: Takagi Ramen / Binjai Brew / Web In Travel / We The People / Wonderwall SG / The Asian Entrepreneur