In the wake of a petition urging authorities to reconsider their handling of home-based businesses (HBBs) under the circuit breaker regulations, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli has criticised those who he claimed are “trying to incite” such businesses to “pressure the government to make exceptions” for such businesses.
Branding the move “irresponsible”, Mr Masagos said that such action only serves to rub “more salt” into the “wounds” of HBBs they are “purportedly fighting for”.
This is because “they know the government cannot make exceptions to any sector affected in the TCB period”, he said.
Urging the Government to allow HBBs to continue operating during the circuit breaker period, according to Mr Masagos, shows that the people calling for such a measure “do not care for the safety of our HBB operators nor our community”.
“If the HBB operators continue their business as usual, they run the risk of being infected or becoming a cluster of COVID-19 cases — more so near Raya, when orders pile up,” he added.
Mr Masagos — who is also Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs — said that while he understands the frustration of HBB operators for “not being able to make the most of the month-long Ramadan and Hari Raya reservations”, there are also HBB operators who understand that the purpose of the circuit breaker measures “is to significantly reduce the spread of infections in our community”.
“This is evident in the attitude of Ms Sery Rahim, who was interviewed by Berita Harian on Saturday.
“She is willing to provide a refund to her customers or postpone their orders accordingly, as she understands that she should adhere to the regulations and play her part in keeping everyone safe,” he said.
Mr Masagos added that the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SMCCI) has indicated that it would work with with the Government “to help organise the HBB operators after the TCB is lifted, so that they can continue their business safely, while putting in place safeguards to prevent cluster formation”.
“In this crisis, we must unite if we want to prevent community spread of COVID-19. This involves adjusting and sacrificing for the sake of all, and not letting personal interests dictate our actions. I’m sure the majority of our HBB community understand this,” he said.
“In many countries when the leaders are in conflict, the welfare of the people is gambled away. Like the Imam who continued to pray in the mosque until he himself was infected with COVID-19. Or a government that allowed freedom of movement and businesses too early under pressure, and had to declare an emergency again barely a month after the restrictions were lifted.
“Our government does not make decisions under pressure, especially when the demand is harmful to society. It is the same decision process in opening or closing our mosques. It is not done under pressure, but based on sound medical advice that our religious scholars defer to,” said Mr Masagos.
Mr Masagos called on the people to be patient and to “not let our sacrifices be in vain because of the interests of a few”.
“Being calm and patient is also in the spirit of fasting in Ramadan … When things get sufficiently better for our health authorities to advise the lifting of restrictions, we will allow our barbers and HBB to go back to do their business. This can only happen when we all work together,” he said.
Netizens highlight multiple issues with Mr Masagos’ criticism, including not adequately addressing ambiguities on the regulations and how the regulations adversely affect low-income HBB operators
Many netizens who commented on Mr Masagos’ statement raised issues with his criticism of those who call upon the Government to reconsider the stiff penalties and restrictions — such as the S$1,000 fine against those found errant — against HBBs during this period.
Several netizens pointed out that far from trying to “incite” unpleasant sentiments among HBB operators, people are simply trying to draw attention to how low-income — particularly Malay-Muslim — families operating such businesses will be severely affected by the restrictions during this period.
One commenter stressed that while low-income families — including those who operate HBBs — are grateful to receive Government assistance, the amount received may not be enough to help them as they have “family to feed and bills to pay”.
“Most of us are not beggars … It is easy to tell them [HBBs operators] to be patient, because they [Ministers] are not in their position. Do not equate a person’s thousand-dollar salaries with the meagre earnings of a family living on paycheck to paycheck,” said a user named Imran Osman.
One commenter said that while he does not operate a HBB, he could feel for those who do, as some of them may have been laid off or put on unpaid leave.
“Those who are merely looking for a source of income are now prevented from doing so… They have bought ingredients to meet the orders of many, and yet they are forced to cancel [the orders]… They suffer losses in thousands of dollars… Who will buy their ingredients? They will have to return the deposit [placed by customers],” said user Rusli Duki.
Several netizens questioned Mr Masagos on the ambiguity regarding who the regulations apply to and why such regulations apply to them, and that people are merely seeking clarification regarding the matter.
One commenter pointed out that the available government schemes listed “do not apply to many”, and asked Mr Masagos if the Government will roll out “new fund schemes” to help HBBs during the extended circuit breaker.
Several netizens questioned how commercial entities such as restaurants and hawkers are allowed to continue selling food via delivery and even self-pickup at their premises, which, they argued, is not very different from the modus operandi of HBBs.
Stringent measures can be placed during delivery and pickup for HBBs instead of imposing a blanket restriction, several netizens opined.
One netizen, however, agreed with the restrictions imposed on HBBs during the circuit breaker period, citing concerns regarding cleanliness and food safety standards compared to commercial food outlets.
Another user argued that making exceptions for HBBs may potentially open the floodgates for others to follow suit, therefore defeating the purpose of strict safe distancing measures.
A few netizens pointed out that cleanliness is generally not an issue with HBBs — particularly with those run by Malay-Muslims, the primary demographic of such businesses during the month of Ramadan, during which they take orders for kuih and biscuits for Hari Raya.
“Honestly, our Malay people have been very disciplined, clean and responsible for ages, and the kuih muih that they make are tastier and more hygienic than those made in factories. So what is the agenda behind this?” questioned user Anwar Lestaluhu Noor.
Petition urging govt to allow small HBBs to operate in compliance with circuit breaker rules garners over 67,000 signatories as of noon on 28 April
The petition in question, named “Allow Small Home-Based F&B Businesses to Operate with Compliance to Circuit Breaker Rules”, is addressed to the Government, the Housing Development Board and the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
The petition has attracted 67,373 signatories as of Tuesday noon (28 April) from its target of 75,000.
“Nadia Fae”, the individual listed as the user who started the petition, expressed hope that the petition will “make HDB revise their approach to handling home-based businesses in light of the pandemic situation”.
“We shouldn’t always look to prohibitions and bans as the immediate and best way to handle the spread of the pandemic, especially when it involves the livelihood of small-income families,” said Ms Nadia in a statement on the petition page on Change.org.
“With the circuit breaker measures already in place for 3 weeks now, it is high time to allow home-based businesses to adapt their operations around the measures rather than prohibiting them from operating altogether.
“The measure issued by HDB today is causing a lot more trouble than is being accounted for – with these home-based businesses being ceased, families are facing even more financial constrains, their cooking supplies are in surplus culminating costs with no profits in the months of quarantine to come,” the statement read.
HBBs, according to the petition, “can and should continue operating with as little impact on the circuit break rules as possible” by adhering to food hygiene rules stipulated by Singapore Food Agency under the HDB/URA’s Home-Based Small Scale Business Scheme.
Additionally, HBBs could implement social distancing measures when executing deliveries, which includes using GrabExpress to deliver their orders in small batches, or even limiting delivery to one order per runner.
“Avoid face-to-face deals by leaving the packages outside their homes, right when they are notified by the deliverer’s arrival.
“To ensure hygiene standards continue to be adhered to, sellers must make sure the food is contained and sealed properly, placed on a surface elevated from the floor, away from shoe racks and anything else that is unhygienic.
“Lastly, the food should not be left outside for longer than a minute so sellers and deliverers must be in close correspondence via phone or text,” the statement read.
Similar to regulations for essential F&B establishments that are allowed to continue operating, customers should be allowed to pick up their food the same way that they would go to the grocery store to buy their essentials, according to the petition.
This, it added, should be done “alone, with face mask and without any unnecessary loitering”.
Govt may consider easing restrictions on HBB operations if community transmission numbers go down: National Development Minister Lawrence Wong
Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said at a multi-ministry task force press conference yesterday that the Government may consider easing the restrictions on the operations of HBBs if “community numbers do continue to come down”.
“Current rules do not allow for home-based F&B, but if and when community numbers do continue to come down, as we said, we’re going to review the numbers.
“And if the numbers are brought down, we may very well relax some of the restrictions, and at that time, we will let Singaporeans know when this or any other activities that we think can start will be able to resume,” said Mr Wong.
According to a joint statement by the Ministry for Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) — Mr Masagos’ Ministry — and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as well as HDB and MTI, HBBs that do not meet a specific set of criteria during the circuit breaker period will have to cease operations or face a S$1,000 fine.
In order to continue operating, the authorities noted that the business should operate only online without requiring the business owners and staff to leave their respective premises, and should not involve needing any visitors or customers or third-party delivery services at the premises to collect and deliver goods.