Last year, the Singapore government unveiled four Budgets amounting to nearly S$100 million to help citizens, workers and businesses tide over the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
Despite this, businesses continually try to rise above the challenges and navigate their way through these harsh conditions.
This year, Deputy Prime Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat will be delivering his Budget statement on 16 February in Parliament.
It’s no doubt that many employers are expectant of this year’s agenda, but what exactly is on their wish list for the upcoming Budget 2021?
Alvin Ea, co-founder and CEO of Haulio
Haulio is in the business of container logistics and they support port truckers as a technology enabler to optimise resources and improve efficiencies.
Given that logistics is an essential service, Alvin said that their business hasn’t been too badly impacted. Even during the lockdown, the logistics industry was still running.
“In fact, the past months have seen an unprecedented boom with so much activities in the port that has even led to congestions, which we expect to continue beyond Chinese New Year for the container freight,” he said.
Thankfully, last year’s Budget announcements helped the business a lot, especially since its target industry players are mainly made up of small- and medium-sized truckers.
The biggest gain was the Job Support Scheme (JSS), which significantly helped the truckers by tiding us (over) in terms of cashflow as the upstream customers from the various sectors get impacted significantly in terms of their business volumes.
For Budget 2021, our belief is that most would love to see a further extension of JSS this year given the uncertainty with the new wave (of COVID-19 cases).
– Alvin Ea, co-founder and CEO of Haulio
Furthermore, since the industry is mostly supported by foreign drivers, he said that it would be great if the foreign worker quota for the logistics/haulage sector can be reviewed.
“Ideally, it should sit under a separate category instead of the services sector due to the nature of the business and the higher difficulty in acquiring local workers, as compared to other industries in the same sector,” he suggested.
He also expects the manpower crunch in Singapore to continue for the year ahead. Therefore, he hopes that the government will allocate more funding for training, as well as the driving of digitalisation for logistics.
“The average age of local drivers is at 50 years old. The lack of local drivers is a major factor, and our view is to reposition the role of the container truck driver by empowering them to do more through technology,” he added.
On that note, he also hopes to see more monetary and non-monetary early support to push for digitalisation among SMEs.
“As a logistics tech startup, we have seen the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the adoption of technology. For example, cheque payments have reduced considerably, (as many) move towards digital options like PayNow (instead),” said Alvin.
“We hope to see digitalisation being pushed in areas such as fleet management as well.”
Rishabh Singhvi, co-founder of WhyQ
According to homegrown hawker food delivery platform WhyQ, it received “special permission” from the National Environment Agency (NEA) to operate at hawker centres when dine-in was banned in Singapore.
“At one point, we were generating over 80 per cent of a few of our hawker partners’ daily sales,” said Rishabh.
With such “high demand” during the pandemic, it even had to double its delivery courier and hawker captain fleet from 500 to 1,000.
Thanks to this surge, WhyQ did not have to resort to retrench workers or impose salary freezes. The JSS provided WhyQ with wage support to help them retain, and even expand, their team.
They also took advantage of the SG Traineeship programme to hire six trainees.
As a growing startup, WhyQ has had to keep our operations nimble and cost structures low. Hence, we may not always have the resources to expand our team rapidly even as we grow.
With the SG United Traineeship programme, we are able to welcome new trainees to help us with our expansion plans. It has been a win-win for us and the trainees, where we provide them opportunities to explore a career in the F&B logistics industry, while they each bring valuable skillsets from their respective fields to contribute as valuable members of our teams.
– Rishabh Singhvi, co-founder of WhyQ
For Budget 2021, Rishabh hopes to see continued support for small, local businesses to hire more Singaporeans through such schemes.
He also shared that through the NEA grant, each hawker was given S$1,000 as long as they could show proof of working with a delivery service.
WhyQ thus digitised the entire onboarding process for hawkers and made it easy for them to download invoices and contracts through their platform so they can claim the grant.
A total of over 1,500 hawkers were able to claim it through WhyQ.
“With many of our hawker partners hit hard by the fall in walk-in sales, we hope to see more measures targeted at helping small food businesses like hawkers on their paths to digitisation,” said Rishabh.
“(This can) come in the form of incentives for hawkers to transit their businesses online or adopt smart solutions that would ease daily operations and ensure the longevity of their businesses.”
Vincent Xue, co-founder and CEO of WEBUY
Founded by ezbuy’s ex-co-founder, social commerce firm WEBUY focuses mainly on providing customers with daily necessities and groceries so they weren’t too badly impacted by the pandemic.
“Instead, through our platform, we saw how other businesses were badly affected due to the break in the supply chain. (They) relied on WEBUY to open up other avenues for their business model to thrive,” said Vincent.
“Both our international and local suppliers who catered to selling their products to large restaurants in the region saw an opportunity to diversify their customer base to include the everyday customer.”
Thankfully, just as the pandemic started, WEBUY had just ended its Series A funding of US$6 million. This fresh injection of funds helped them to retain all its staff and “grow the business threefold in 2020,” said Vincent.
“Due to the spike in e-commerce sales for daily necessities, WEBUY grew its team and its capabilities through the mobile app to aid both customers and clients in order to fully maximise the experience and opportunity.”
According to Vincent, the past Budget support measures was “enough” to help them tide through difficult times by cutting down on their expenses.
For one, it allowed their clients from the traditional F&B sector to find digital avenues so they can be aligned with Singapore’s digital transformation roadmap.
With Budget 2021, we understood that monetary aid measures were being rolled out as the first line of action. However, due to recent changes in employment regulations, we are hoping that support measures will allow a lax in foreign hires.
Although unemployment levels in Singapore have been recorded as being the lowest in recent years, we do see that hiring a diverse team of people changes the way we grow our business and for our future expansions.
– Vincent Xue, co-founder and CEO of WEBUY
He added that he hopes that the government will work in tandem with local businesses to better understand their pain points with regards to hiring and business flow.
Kenny Choy, co-founder of Sqkii
Prior to COVID-19, Sqkii had identified 2020 as the year to kickstart its expansion into the wider Asia market.
“Even before the year started, we had secured multiple projects in Singapore and beyond. But as soon as the pandemic hits us, almost all of these projects were put to a halt.”
“Our revenue for the month of April dropped to S$0 for the very first time,” shared Kenny.
Needless to say, the pandemic forced them to rethink their business strategy.
He noted that as social distancing is expected to become a norm and air travel expected to rebound in the years ahead, the expansion or even resumption of a viral physical activation would have to take a backseat indefinitely.
Sqkii knew they had to quickly adapt to the ‘new normal’. In early March last year, they planned a new digital strategy by revamping their gamification approach.
“Since then, we had developed six new games and initiatives, of which four had been successfully monetised,” said Kenny.
“Essentially, we took advantage of the situation where most brands are looking to shift their marketing efforts online and that consumers are seeking for alternative entertainment (and gaming) sources because of the restrictions in air travel.”
“This combination of factors allows the kind of modified gamification services that we provide to shine through as it is a great way to engage bored consumers while driving marketing objectives in a fun way that helps brands stand out from the highly competitive digital landscape.”
By the fourth quarter of 2020, Sqkii had increased their headcount by over 50 per cent and their revenues have also bounced back to pre-COVID levels.
The SGUnited traineeship programme has encouraged a lean startup like us to expand our local team at a quicker pace than we had originally planned. In fact, we have been very pleased with the trainees we had hired and have every intention to convert them full-time after the traineeship programme has lapsed.
Through this experience, I believe an extension of this programme or even a watered-down version would benefit both prospective employees and small-time employers tremendously as they continue to manoeuvre out of this highly uncertain landscape.
Kenny Choy, co-founder of Sqkii
He added that Sqkii is planning to expand their team further following the increased demand for gamification marketing.
Looking back on past Budget measures, Kenneth said that initiatives like the JSS and SG United Traineeship programme were very helpful in getting them get over the “initial shock”.
“As we didn’t exactly expect help from the government, the cash payouts from the JSS came as a nice surprise. It provided us with some budget to experiment with new and bold initiatives as we attempt to craft out new revenue sources.”
One of these new initiatives is #HuntFromHome, which is partly funded by JSS.
“We made use of the funds to research, develop, market and execute multiple pilots of this virtual edition of our signature #HuntTheMouse campaign.”
The experiment exceeded expectations and they are now looking to launch the game in Malaysia.
On that note, he hopes to see more support measures that can help local companies expand overseas despite the prolonged travel restrictions for Budget 2021.
William Chin, founder and CEO of Mummys Market
The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the entire MICE industry, but Mummy’s Market has turned the crisis into an opportunity.
It accelerated its seven-year plan to one year, seeking out alternative channels to continue catering to customers.
“We shifted our business from the MICE sector towards the digital space to launch Singapore’s largest online baby fair by mid-May 2020. This garnered around S$5.8 million in gross merchandise revenue,” said William.
“Besides the e-commerce platform, we also brought our operations back offline and launched our first-ever physical retail store at Suntec City.”
When it became apparent that they would no longer be able to do offline events, Mummys Market decided to re-skill existing staff instead of retrenching them.
“We (got) our existing team to pivot their skillsets to focus on new areas, and upskill to pick up any necessary skills required for such a transition.”
For instance, the sales team moved from selling exhibition spaces to become category managers, working on acquiring content such as listings and deals, and doubling up as customer service support for mothers.
The marketing team were also given a crash course on digital performance strategies and tactics to adapt to the new direction.
Beyond retaining their staff, Mummys Market actually hired new staff, particularly those that have been retrenched from other affected industries, to help meet increased demands and needs from the new platforms.
In the past Budgets, the government cushioned the employment rate dip with JSS, which we have benefited from. The introduction of the Jobs Growth Incentive also helped to encourage companies like ours that are either growing or pivoting forward to be able to take a leap that would otherwise have been too risky during this volatile period.
Enterprise Singapore has also been very supportive, opening their doors even wider during the initial phase of the pandemic to provide their support in establishing business continuity plans.
– William Chin, founder and CEO of Mummy’s Market
Commenting on the upcoming Budget, William said that he is optimistic that whatever support measures that will be unveiled will be helpful for businesses, as per previous Budget announcements.
“No matter what developments may come, my greatest wish is for Singapore to recover and for us to return to normalcy as soon as we can,” he summed up.
Jaslyn Chan, Chief Growth Officer of IUIGA
While retail has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jaslyn observed an interesting effect. Having adopted an omni-channel business model, IUIGA actually saw a positive impact to its digital-first approach.
“Daily online retail traffic went up almost four times in comparison to regular brick-and-mortar operations in Singapore, particularly during April’s circuit breaker.”
She also observed that physical retail experiences evolved during the pandemic, so she sees it as an opportunity to “set a new tone in how everyday consumers can connect with the buying experience.”
This led to the launch of IUIGA’s first furniture-retail experience store in August last year, which represents their growing confidence in reimagining the future of retail.
2020’s Budget support measures have been helpful to bridge traditional businesses in their transition to becoming more digitally connected businesses.
For IUIGA, the measures had a complementary impact as our business model is already digital-first in principle and mechanism. This enabled us to use the support measures in more prudent areas like cashflow management. Likewise, malls offered extended rebates for occupancy and this provided a runway for our retail expansion.
– Jaslyn Chan, Chief Growth Officer of IUIGA
As IUIGA continues to witness increased online consumer engagement and transactions, it further validated their omni-channel business model.
According to Jaslyn, staff performance-bonuses were increased, and existing staff were also doubled in other areas as their focus shifted towards online retail fulfilment and online retail engagement.
In fact, IUIGA is still looking out for new hires as the brand continues to grow.
For this year’s Budget, Jaslyn said that it is difficult to pinpoint what measure to anticipate given how all businesses will still need to adapt to the developments of COVID-19.
“What IUIGA is keeping close watch is how the impacts of our interconnected financial system will cascade down to businesses.”
“It would be helpful to see how more integrative support measures/grants could work in tandem for businesses whom are still transitioning to meet the evolving behaviour patterns of today’s buyers, be it in the B2B or B2C space,” she added.
Hiring Is A Top-Of-Mind Concern For Employers
Although many businesses have been badly hit by the pandemic, it seems like they are on track to a steady recovery.
To further grow their business, many are still looking to hire despite the weak job market.
These hiring efforts have been made possible thanks to the government’s various initiatives like traineeship opportunities, wage support, and foreign worker salary levies.
However, with almost S$100 billion dished out for last year’s Budget, it is very likely that this upcoming Budget will be set at a smaller scale.
Understandably, from the government’s point of view, it may be impossible to give out more support given that the COVID-19 situation is still dynamically evolving.
We don’t even know how long this virus outbreak will last and it would be unwise for the government to deplete all the budget now.
With the significant amount drawn from the reserves last year, it is important that the proposals in Budget 2021 are designed with a long-term, prudent view to help Singapore work towards restoring its finances.
Now that the worst of the pandemic looks to be behind us, especially with the vaccine soon to be distributed, it is time to focus on supporting businesses to strengthen and transform for the future.
Featured Image Credit: WEBUY / Vulcan Post / Haulio / Sqkii / IUIGA / Mummys Market
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