NMP Anthea Ong calls for Govt to provide six months rental relief for public rental households

Nominated MP also points out the need for a deep transformation in society and economy

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong in Parliament on Friday (5 June) called for the Government to consider waiving the rent of six months for all households residing in rental flats.

Ruling out the household whose rent is already covered under financial assistance from ComCare, Ms Ong said that the six month’s rental relief will provide immediate and targeted relief to the low-income households in need directly.

During her debate on the Fortitude Budget, she raised concerns that there will be more public rental household struggling to pay rent due to loss of income following the worsening economic impact of COVID-19.

“The number of households who have suffered complete loss of income since the beginning of April has risen sharply. Average income levels have gone into freefall. On the ground, community organisations have observed that households face mounting debt, including rent arrears,” she remarked.

To further support her stance, she cited the statistic from the Ministry of National Development (MND) which stated that about 5,200 public rental households – or about 10 per cent of all public rental households – are in rent arrears, adding that of those in rent arrears, around one in four households owe more than S$3,000 in rent.

She asserted, “For context, the Government is extending S$334 million in rental relief for government tenants in this Budget. A further S$2 billion will offset SMEs’ rental costs. A similar waiver for rental flat households would cost between S$16 million and S$57 million.”

As part of the Government’s effort to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, a S$33 billion Fortitude Budget was unveiled on 26 May, aiming to provide jobs and support to workers as well as businesses to tide through the COVID-19 period. About S$31 billion of the budget is drawn from the country’s past reserves.

Additionally, it was reported that the Government will provide a S$2 billion cash grant to help offset the rental costs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) tenants with qualifying leases or licenses.

However, as Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat did not address Ms Ong’s point of rental relief for rental flats. When asked if DPM Heng can address her point about the waiver, the Minister said that the relevant ministries will look into the suggested recommendations.

The need for a deep transformation in society and economy, Anthea Ong says,”We can no longer look at our risk response in silo”

Concerning the aftermath of COVID-19, Ms Ong earlier stressed in her speech, for the need for a deep transformation in the society and economy as she called for the Government to move towards multi-stakeholderism.

“Governance-wise, this means a policy design process centred around and in collaboration with the actors with a “stake” in the outcome. Business-wise, it means considering workers, suppliers and customers equally,” she explained.

According to Ms Ong, transformation is of paramount importance as “risks are multidimensional and cross-cutting, and must be addressed as such”.

She first cautioned the House over the country’s response towards COVID-19, saying, “We can no longer look at our risk response in silo.”

Ms Ong went on to point out that the systemic gaps in worker welfare, especially for migrant workers, had left the Government unprepared for the dormitories’ infection levels.

Thus, she suggested that both the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) work together to include the adequacy of safeguards for worker health in the risk assessment framework.

Noting the societal inequities exist, she noted that it will create “disproportionate stresses” on vulnerable communities such as lower-income households and migrant workers which are being disproportionately affected in terms of income loss and economic resilience.

“The digital divide amongst lower income families, the differently-abled and the elderly became more evident. All these could deepen social and community fault lines,” added Ms Ong.

Support workers and regulate corporations through the Government bailouts and support

While lauding the Government’s effort in helping Singaporeans to safeguard jobs and income, Ms Ong also urged the Government to implement measures to protect employees against employers who may be more interested in self-enrichment than in their workers’ livelihood.

Among the measures she recommended include curbs on layoffs, excessive executive compensation, and excessive use of share options in compensation structures that disproportionately align managers only to shareholders’ interests.

Ms Ong stated that the risk-bearing responsibilities of shareholders could be eased through the Government bailouts and support.

“Safeguard against moral hazard can include reducing dividends, restricting stock buybacks, and requiring that any mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity should seek to pay back the support provided, such as clawback,” she added.

On the accountability of companies, Ms Ong suggested to use measuring and reporting to hold companies accountable for how they have used government grants, as well as taxpayers’ monies.

Referring to the independent accountability and transparency board of Obama administration, she said that it performed a crucial monitoring function by requiring any entity receiving contracts, grants, or loans to file quarterly reports.

“We could adopt a similar mechanism to ensure that companies channel government support to those for whom it is intended. Corporate reporting requirements could compel companies to demonstrate behaviours that meet broader societal and sustainability goals,” Ms Ong noted.

She also proposed that the Government integrate community engagement and social responsibility into business strategy via the Business and IPC Partnership Scheme (BIPs) to make in-kind donations to charities.

At the same time, Ms Ong also emphasised that promoting sustainable business models will be key to building a better and safer future.

“Subsidies and support to companies accelerating climate change should come with conditions for absolute emissions reductions that enable us to accelerate our Paris Agreement commitments

“As countries grapple with what a green and healthy recovery looks like, measurement and accountability may again be instrumental for change. The Taskforce of Climate-related Financial Disclosures framework should be the norm. Science-based targets should form the basis of discussions on business transformations,” she asserted.

Ms Ong then suggested that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) consider these requirements as a “cornerstone of future environment risk management guidelines” for Singapore’s financial industry.

Noting that these safeguards will require strong political will and may encounter resistance, Ms Ong remarked, “But if we want a flexible and responsive society that is able to absorb shocks and rebound from them, I believe we must recalibrate current power structures for a fairer economy that considers key stakeholders in our economic system equally.”

Emerging Stronger Taskforce should have more diverse and better representation

Speaking about the role of Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST), Ms Ong highlighted that the Government must make changes in order to recognise a wide range of stakeholders in the future, and commit to re-imagining the way forward.

She acknowledged the Government’s effort of introducing EST in longer-term planning and welcomed the remark from Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat regarding the Taskforce’s partnership with SME owners, industry experts, and trade associations as well as citizen participation.

Ms Ong went on to ask the Minister whether there are plans to formalise the partnership and citizen participation under the Taskforce.

To secure a “truly resilient and united future” for citizens, she proposed that there should be a more diverse and better representation on the Taskforce.

Ms Ong highlighted that the composition of the Taskforce’s current members “does not represent the true diversity of economic players in Singapore” as they have been traditionally treated as pillars of the current economic structure.

Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST) is the Government-led taskforce that provides recommendations to the Future Economy Council (FEC) in dealing with the longer-term impact arising from COVID-19.

Comprising 15 industry representatives across various sectors, the taskforce was co-chaired by Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee as well as PSA International Group CEO Tan Chong Meng.

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June 2020