COMMENTARY

An exceptional help package - again - that boosts confidence

THREE mammoth budgets in the space of just seven weeks. It's never been done before in Singapore's history. Even so, there was still the assurance that more help could be on the way if the Covid-19 outbreak does not improve.

One can perhaps say that, with nearly S$60 billion worth of measures in this trio of packages, the Singapore government is using every available weapon in its arsenal to fight this invisible and stubborn opponent that has caused so much disruption.

The government has shown that it is ready and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the country - workers, employers, households, the low-income groups, and others - can tide through this crippling pandemic, especially during the next month when thousands of businesses and all schools are shuttered islandwide.

The message from Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Monday was clear: Singapore has no choice but to endure the short-term pain caused by this four-week circuit breaker, so as to avoid even sharper pain down the road. But no matter how the situation pans out, nobody will be left behind.

The government's latest round of support measures to save jobs and protect the livelihoods of Singaporeans - worth a total of S$5.1 billion, funded with another S$4 billion from the past reserves - are impressive, both for their scope and also the speed at which they will be rolled out.

This Solidarity Budget - or Budget 3.0, as coined by some - was pieced together and announced in Parliament just 11 days after Mr Heng stood in the same chamber to give details of the S$48.4 billion Resilience Budget.

Companies big and small - the vast majority bleeding profusely with all the disruption and ever-changing regulations - will get a much-needed blood transfusion to help them stay alive.

There are greater wage subsidies of 75 per cent for the first S$4,600 of wages paid to every local worker in April, a waiver of the foreign worker levy for April and a S$750 rebate, and a guarantee that all property owners will pass on the property tax rebates in full to their tenants.

The government is also enhancing its financing support for enterprises so that viable businesses will still have access to credit even in this uncertain period.

With so much support from the state, it will be extremely difficult - and heartless - for any boss to still retrench any of his staff, no matter how battered the business might be.

Employers, too, have a moral responsibility to show solidarity with all their workers and give them the assurance that they still have a job to come back to when the circuit breaker is lifted.

As for those in the self-employed group, they will also be relieved to hear that about 100,000 freelancers are now automatically eligible to receive a total of S$9,000 in cash, after some enhancements were made to the qualifying criteria.

On top of all this, the government is putting S$600 cash in the hands of every adult citizen, with the majority getting the one-off sum deposited straight into their bank accounts within the next week.

With this S$5.1 billion supplementary package, the total amount of the three budgets now stands at S$59.9 billion. This is equivalent to about 12 per cent of Singapore's GDP.

The overall budget deficit for the 2020 financial year will also soar to S$44.3 billion, or 8.9 per cent of GDP. These numbers have far surpassed anything the country has witnessed before.

These numbers are significant in more ways than one. The fact that the government has to dip into the past reserves twice in less than a fortnight shows the severity of the Covid-19 impact.

But it's also an immense show of strength that we have both the resources to tackle the problem without burdening future generations with the bill, and have capable leaders at the helm to make these difficult and complex decisions for us.

For now, as we wait for the Budget measures to kick in, each one of us has one important job to do, and that is to stay home as much as possible and keep physical contact with others to the bare minimum. It's not a tough ask, and that would be the greatest display of solidarity that Singapore needs to outlast the virus.