(CONTINUED): DPM & Minister for Finance Lee Hsien Loong: SARS - A National Response, 24 Apr 200324 Apr 2003
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Home Quarantine Allowance Scheme
34. There is another group who need help. People have been placed under Home Quarantine Orders (HQOs), have so far not been given them any allowance or assistance. We have left it to employers to work out their own arrangements, for instance by putting employees on HQOs on medical leave. As the HQO cases were initially dispersed and the number manageable, this did not pose any problem.
35. However, the closure of the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre and the imposition of HQOs on about 2,400 stallholders and workers at the Centre showed that HQOs may need to be imposed on large numbers when a business establishment is ordered to shut. Furthermore, if the Govern-ment can mitigate the financial burden of the HQOs on the quarantined persons, it will reduce the incentive for people to breach the HQO in order to continue working. Also people will be more willing to be identified and quarantined when they are traced as the contacts of a SARS case.
36. The Government will therefore implement a Home Quarantine Order Allowance Scheme, to be administered by the CDCs. Under the scheme, the Government will pay an allowance to self-employed persons who are served HQOs, to make up part of his income. It will also give the allowance to establishments whose employees have been affected by HQOs. This will defray part of their manpower costs for the duration of the HQO. It will be especially helpful to smaller businesses, which may otherwise be unable to survive.
37. For a small business establish-ment, i.e. one with fewer than 50 full-time workers, the assistance will be more generous. If the whole establish-ment is ordered to shut for a period on account of SARS, then the firm will receive this ex-gratia payment for all its employees, including those who are not on HQOs. The cut off of 50 full-time workers covers more than 90% of business establishments.
38. For self-employed persons, the allowance will be a flat rate of $70 per day, for the duration of the HQO. For employees, the allowance will be his daily salary, up to a maximum of $70 per day. The allowance will be paid to the employer. We will leave it to the employers to make their own financial arrangements with their employees. However, newly arrived work-pass holders who are required to undergo a 10-day quarantine will not be eligible for the HQO Allowance. The allowance is also payable to all persons previously or currently on HQO.
39. Through the HQO Allowance Scheme, the Government will be bearing a good part of the wage cost of the businesses affected. MOF will provide full details of this scheme later.
40. Let me now address specific economic issues raised by the MPs.
41. Rental rebates: Mr Gan Kim Yong asked about rental rebates for HDB commercial tenants. All HDB commercial tenants are already enjoying a 20 per cent rental rebate that lasts until 31 Dec 2003. These tenants include operators of student care centres, tuition centres, child-care centres and kindergartens. Some are also receiving additional rebate of up to 20 per cent to bring their rents down to the prevailing market rent. In addition, HDB will pass on to its tenants the full savings from the recently-announced property tax rebates. HDB will monitor the situation closely and will consider providing additional assistance to its commercial tenants if necessary.
42. Giro instalments for property tax: Mr Chiam See Tong asked whether property tax could be paid by instalments. Taxpayers have been able to pay their annual property tax in 12 interest-free monthly instalments since 1989, provided they do it via GIRO. More than 50 per cent of taxpayers are already taking advantage of GIRO to pay their property tax in monthly instalments, and the Government encourages more to do so.
43. Indebtedness of Singaporeans households: Madam Ho Geok Choo asked about the indebtedness of households. A study by the Department of Statistics showed that household financial liabilities have increased from 118 per cent of personal disposable income in 1995 to 174 per cent in 2000. If the economic downturn continues, it could lower disposable income and further increase the ratio of household financial liabilities to income.
44. However, we have to view this ratio in perspective. First, 72 per cent of the liabilities are in the form of housing loans. This reflects the high housing ownership in Singapore - 92 per cent compared to 60 to 70 per cent in OECD countries.
45. Second, residential property assets, even after accounting for the weak property prices, stood at $343 billion in 2001. Compared to housing mortgage loans of $106 billion, households still own about $237 billion of net housing assets - a huge amount. If we include other household wealth, such as bank savings and shares, the total net wealth of households represents 670 per cent of disposable income, comparable to OECD countries.
46. Furthermore, most households service their housing loans through their CPF savings and contributions. So long as they keep their jobs, the impact is manageable. This is why the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is trying its best to minimise job losses, through enhanced training grants, skills upgrading and other measures.
47. Retail Sector: Ms Olivia Lum asked about measures to help the retail sector. Domestic consumption has been affected as the initial fear of SARS has kept consumers away from all crowded places, including retail shops and restaurants. However, not all retail outlets are equally badly affected. Those in HDB estates fared better than those in the CBD area and those that cater primarily to tourists. The property tax rebates are intended to help such establishments, and I strongly urge property owners to pass on the rebates to tenants. HDB itself will be doing so. These retail outlets can also send their workers for training and make use of the absentee payroll scheme for MOM and STB approved courses.
BATTLEFRONT 3 - THE SOCIETY
48. The third battlefront against SARS is in our society, the way each Singaporean responds to the problem, and cooperates with the measures which will help us to solve it. This is the most critical battlefront. If we lose this front, we will lose all the other fronts, and lose the war.
49. Government is doing everything possible. But for these policies and measures to succeed, every Singaporean must play his part.
50. To support the public health measures, all Singaporeans should follow the daily precautions recommended by the Ministry of Health to protect ourselves and those around us. We need to be keenly aware of our social responsibility to our families, friends and fellow citizens, in containing the spread of SARS. See a doctor if you are unwell, telling him the truth, and heeding his advice. Go to Tan Tock Seng Hospital if you suspect you have contracted SARS, and abiding by the HQOs if you are on quarantine. Do not travel to SARS-affected areas. Take personal responsibility to measure your own temperature and the temperatures of your family everyday.
51. To deal with the economic problem, we also need to work together. The tripartite partners have rallied to help affected companies stay viable and preserve as many jobs as possible. The NTUC, the Singapore National Employers Federation and MOM have issued a joint statement recommending temporary cost reduction measures, including a shorter work week, lay-offs and wage cuts. They have also acknowledged that, despite these measures, retrenchments will be unavoidable in the tourism and transport-related sectors, and advised employers to treat fairly workers who have to be retrenched. This realistic and constructive approach will help companies to stay afloat, and help as many workers as possible to keep their jobs.
52. One group that is bearing the heaviest burden is our doctors and healthcare workers. They are on the frontline of this fight against SARS. Despite their heavy workload, the extreme stress, and the risk that they are exposed to daily, they have not compromised on their professionalism or their dedication to duty. We can all be proud that in such a difficult situation, these doctors, nurses and hospital attendants, who include non-Singa-poreans, have shown the steadfast courage and commitment to do their best to overcome this national problem. They are an inspiration for all of us.
53. The Courage Fund is a tangible way for Singa-poreans to show their support for the health care workers. I am sure that all members of this House will join me in adding our gratitude and support to the sentiments that have been expressed publicly by many Singa-poreans over the last few weeks. But more importantly the health care workers need our co-operation, because whether their jobs become easier or harder in the coming weeks and months, depends on whether everyone is doing his part to contain the spread of the virus.
54. SARS will be a long term problem for us. Now that it has spread to so many countries, scientists believe that it is not likely to be eradicated from the world. We have instituted effective measures to contain the outbreak in Singa-pore. As we discover more about the virus, we will modify and improve the arrangements to minimise the risk of infection. But every Singaporean must adopt sensible precautions and socially responsible habits,while carrying on with our normal day-to-day activities. We have to learn as one society to cope with the virus.
55. Life will not be the same as it was before SARS. We must adjust our habits and behaviour patterns so as to tackle this new threat and adapt to the changed environment. But with precautions and changes in habits which protect ourselves and especially other Singaporeans, we can continue to make a living, bring up our families, and maintain our social and community activities.
56. SARS is a grave challenge. But we have an effective public service, a cohesive and cooperative population, and the resources to deal with the problem. We are mobilising all these to tackle SARS. I am confident that together we can overcome this problem, restore confidence, and get Singapore back to normal again.
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