The panic caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has moved goalposts and turned business plans completely on their heads.
“From the time this circuit breaker started, which I think was on April 7, up to June 1, we've had about 800 phone calls and emails asking for help. Of which about 400 were first-time SMEs calling in for help. So that was the extent of the need out there”, said Chandra Mohan Rethnam, Partner, Rajah and Tann and head of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI) COVID Task Force, in conversation as part of @Work with Connected to India.
The COVID-19 crisis had started unfolding in the first few months of 2020 itself and by the time the Circuit Breaker was implemented by the Singapore government, there had been three months of global chaos.
Chandra Mohan Rethnam, a distinguished Singapore lawyer and one of the two new vice-chairmen on SICCI’s board, spoke about SICCI’s focus on helping beleaguered businesses with a slew of innovative measures in line with the Singapore government’s plans for economic recovery.
Heading SICCI’s COVID task force
Chandra Mohan had been a SICCI member for some time when he was approached in February to serve in the capacity of Vice-Chairman. Having some “bandwidth” at that time, Chandra Mohan was happy to take it up. “The timing was fortuitous, as almost instantly we were hit with very negative news about COVID, circuit breaker etc.”, he said.
“I'm only very happy that I'm on board and at this time when I think so many people need help. I'm just happy to put in my time and effort in whatever way I can now to help as many companies and businesses as possible and I'm always grateful for this opportunity that I've had”, said Chandra Mohan. “This is the first time I set out to do something through it, though I've known SICCI for a while,” he added.
One of the first things Chandra Mohan did when the new board was formed, “was to suggest that we set up a COVID task force and see how we can help SMEs at this time”, he said. “So I got two committee members, Parthiban and J.K. Saravana and we set out to see how we can help SMEs at this time and we worked out a number of schemes.”
Singapore’s Unity, Resilience and Solidarity Budgets
Around the time that the Unity, Resilience and Solidarity Budgets were announced by Singapore’s Finance Minister, SICCI set up a dedicated hotline and email address to start with.
“We advertised this (hotline and email) and we told people that if you need any help of any particular kind contact us at both of these avenues and we promise to respond within 24 hours. We then monitored the kind of responses we got”, said Chandra Mohan.
“Secondly our SME centers have been told to be very thoroughly familiar with all the various government schemes that have been announced during this time. Whenever there's any query on any of the schemes, they are on board to help them, handhold them and make sure they get the assistance”, he added.
“The third thing we've done is set up the special scheme - SICCI Helps. We approached all banks and financial institutions in Singapore, told them we don't want a generic telephone number or email address. Give us a special team of people who will handle people we refer to you, either our members or Indian businesses and people”.
“We've also ensured during this time that every one of our frontline staff is trained in identifying and helping people with any kind of stress and mental illness, because people might be facing those at this point in time", said Chandra Mohan.
“We are also working with Skillsfuture Singapore (SSG) to curate a full range of relevant courses for members and Indian businesses to upgrade themselves once they settle down in their businesses”, he added.
Cash and Capital Crunch during COVID-19 crisis
“The first concern of everybody who called us during that period was actually financing. How do we get enough cash flow to tide us over this period?”, said Chandra Mohan.
“Insofar as the banks are concerned they've been extremely forthcoming and came on board when we sent them an email and invited them to be part of the SICCI Helps program. We've got on board all the 7 major banks and about seven to eight financial institutions in Singapore”, he added.
The banks would take care of those who SICCI puts in touch with them and give them special rebates on processing fees and waivers or discounts on the interest rates.
“They have responded with: ‘Look, I'm happy to process a loan for your members and Indian businesses within two hours. I can lend from as little as SGD 3000 to SGD 150,000 and I'm giving you interest rates that are lower than credit card interest rates’ and SICCI has referred people to them”, said Chandra Mohan.
They only pay when they use these funds and so there are emergency funds available to the businesses. “So far we haven't had situations where people come back to us and said I've been rejected, though even for people who may be rejected we have alternative schemes”.
Training and Up-skilling during the COVID-19 slow down
Besides rent, salary and other cash flow assistance there are other areas in which SMEs could seek help, which they are not aware of. SICCI held a webinar recently to address those issues.
At the joint SICCI-NTUC-IMDA-SSG webinar, NTUC shared information on the different schemes that have been announced to enable SICCI members, Indian businesses and SMEs retain their employees.
“Keep them employed, find training programs to upgrade them and while they are being upgraded, the company continues to receive payment from the government so that their salaries are covered”, said Chandra Mohan.
“This is probably a very good time to upgrade your employees using the numerous schemes, because you may be feeling a lull in your business. When your business picks up after the lull, you would have better-qualified workers and it wouldn't have really cost you that much,” he added.
Going Digital during the COVID-19 lull
Retail, tourism, and F&B sectors are among the most impacted sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some others are not as badly affected. Many others have chosen this time to improve and upgrade their systems.
“In fact, one of the other things we're doing is a webinar with IMDA (Infocomm Media Development Authority) to see how we can help all our SMEs and businesses digitalize as quickly as possible”, Chandra Mohan said.
He shared the example of the Little India precinct, where many restaurants, shops and small businesses were not really ready to take a break or go for a complete shutdown. “So a lot of them approached us during this period to see how they can set up e-payment and e-commerce systems so when people call in, they can take orders online, deliver things and get payment online”, he explained.
“And you know, there are so many grants available for SMEs who adopt certain approved e- payment and e-commerce systems. The government is prepared to give them up to SGD 10,000 for these payment systems to be installed, so it's a wonderful time to really take advantage and to operate”.
SICCI’s Helpline and Hotline for COVID-19 affected businesses
If you still have questions on how to avail of help for your business - whatever its scale - the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SICCI) can assist you.
CALL - SICCI Hotline: 62222855
EMAIL - SICCI Helpline: firstname.lastname@example.org