A common unseen enemy, the Covid-19 virus has affected businesses big or small, in various ways.
This past year has upended the business landscape for many companies. Some say 2020 is a landmark one that forced many to rethink how they operate and how they serve customers. Some businesses have become shadows of their former selves, while others have prospered despite the restrictions brought on by the pandemic.
The Edge Singapore spoke to a range of companies from different sectors, from small businesses to large corporations, to find out how Covid-19 has reshaped industries.
New kid on the block
Having been deemed an essential service, hawkers were somewhat spared the full brunt of the “circuit breaker”, as Singaporeans could still have their orders to go. While the decline in footfall may have led some hawkers to call it a day, the lockdown also inspired new entrants into the sector.
Former Jigger & Pony mixologist Josiah Chee was already doing deliveries of bottled cocktails and spirits before getting the inspiration to do the same for grain bowls, created out of home kitchens.
The Rice Bowl Boys was founded in April, just as the circuit breaker started. “The lockdown came with the decision of finding a job in an unpredictable situation,” says Chee. From just doing deliveries, Chee, along with his three co-founders, set up shop at Chinatown Complex Market and Food Centre in October, after the measures eased.
The past few months were nothing short of dynamic for the fledgling business, says Chee, as Singapore began its gradual re-opening. “With people starting to go back to their offices more frequently in Phase Two, and more places opened up, deliveries have definitely taken a backseat compared to dining in.”
Even with the pick-up in business, Chee, no stranger to the F&B industry, is mindful of the need to step up hygiene practices and implement safe distancing measures even as things start to ease up over the next few months.
When setting up their bricks-and-mortar business, the team received grants such as the “Hawkers Go Digital” programme, which pays a bonus if a particular number of e-payments are made each month. In addition, the team is currently applying for the Hawkers’ Productivity Grant (HPG) grant, offered by the National Environmental Agency (NEA).
The grant, capped at $5,000, would cover some 80% of their kitchen equipment costs, says Chee. “These grants have definitely helped ease the load of starting a business in these times. We are really grateful for every additional bit of help,” he says.
In the year ahead, Chee and his team hope to receive the Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG) by Enterprise Singapore when Rice Bowl Boys turns one. The grant rewards the implementation of solutions like queue management systems. “Fingers crossed on that one,” he says.
Keeping up the pace
Gyms and fitness studios were shut for much of the first half of the year, and even today, limits have been imposed on the number of users at any point in time. These limitations have made for a dismal year for the operators of this industry, which was enjoying steady growth prior to the pandemic as more people became more health-conscious.
Like many of its peers, Ground Zero, a fitness studio on Cross Street offering indoor cycling and strength training, was hit hard by the circuit breaker closure. Now operating with reduced capacity, the three-year-old studio is earning just 20% to 30% of what it was pre-Covid-19, says Jeong Fok, director at Ground Zero.
While Ground Zero received some help in the form of property tax rebates and rental waivers, the strict controls on class sizes, as recommended by SportsSG, means it will struggle to grow for the months to come.
“[The schemes] definitely did help us. But as most people who work in the fitness industry will tell you the same thing — we suffered a very big hit and our revenue took a nosedive,” he says. “As much as local cases are close to zero, we have heard no plans from the government pertaining to easing of measures for boutique studios,” laments the 35-year-old.
For photography studios, the freelance nature of the industry has proven to be an obstacle in applying for government assistance. Furthermore, event cancellations have contributed to this sector being hit extremely hard by Covid-19. Audi Khalid, co-founder of photography and videography studio Urban Aperture, tells The Edge Singapore that his company did not meet certain criteria, such as not having fulltime employees, as they depend more heavily on freelancers.
“However, we did receive a slew of assistance schemes on a personal basis, which helped us tide over the year,” says Khalid of his two-man founding team. These included the Temporary Relief Fund (TRF), which paid a sum of $500, and the Self-Employed Persons Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), which offered three cash payouts of $3,000 each in May, July and October.
For now, the reliefs such as TRF and SIRS are “good enough”, says the 32-year-old. “They allowed us to focus purely on business development and eased pressure on financial strain, funnelling more profit into the business.”
Urban Aperture also received two months’ rental relief for its studio space at Kallang Place, though frayed relations with their landlord made for a “long, drawn-out struggle”, Khalid says.
He knows he is not alone, for he has observed landlord-tenant issues are on the rise. “Evictions are happening, relationships have fallen through and businesses have had to move because of these issues. It’s a delicate process, and those who can’t afford to move simply have to make do without an office or cut their losses and close.”
In any case, with Covid-19, the creative industry has been forced to undergo changes. “We’re coming into a familiar but different world… Projects have been coming in at a traditionally low season, and vice versa,” says Khalid.
The kind of projects that come by has changed as well. Khalid now sees fewer large productions. However, there are more jobs from clients in e-commerce. He notes that while budgets for projects have fallen, there are now more small-scale projects in the market.
Also, studio and location productions for ads, corporate and government are “coming along nicely”, says Khalid. “But I know many similar businesses that are more dependent on the events industry. Production houses are dependent on the trickle-down effect.
Some businesses are struggling still. Many have closed, diversified or pivoted.” “I would say we might have actually been more profitable this year if we didn’t have that four- to five-month gap with nearly zero revenue,” he says of the circuit breaker and subsequent months.
Khalid thinks targeted assistance for the media industry would have helped more players stay afloat, the same way the nightlife sector has received additional support. “While there is the Temporary Bridging Loan Programme [by Enterprise Singapore], small businesses may not have the experience of keeping a good financial record or credit score,” he says.
Forced to suspend operations during the circuit breaker, renovation firms faced another pressing issue after the lockdown was eased: many of their Malaysian workers were stuck at home with the closure of the Causeway. “Nothing really could be done when work was suspended and workers from Malaysia went home,” says Azri Abbas, founder of design company Renodiction.
“When work resumed, about 80% of the skilled workers were still in Malaysia and the manpower crunch made things difficult during the early period of Phase 2,” adds the 43-yearold.
His business was set up just a year ago, and now hires five full-time employees. To tide through the difficult months, Azri applied for SIRS, channelling the three payouts — totalling $9,000 — into paying overhead costs and expenses for his business.
However, the worst is not yet over. “Things are not back to normal because we are still facing a manpower crunch,” he says. “Because of that, prices have increased.”
Border closures have also affected supply chains. “We are having shortages of materials as well. Selected items chosen by clients are mostly out of stock and they need to switch to other alternatives,” says Azri.
Azri thinks the current issues will continue for “at least another year”. As he is self-employed, he hopes the SIRS scheme will be extended, along with more tax rebates for landlords.
Shocked but not distressed
As a well-known local technology company, Aftershock has emerged somewhat victorious from the lockdown. With people stuck working and attending classes from home, demand for the homegrown company’s gaming computers and Prism+ monitors has outpaced supply, says co-founder Joe Wee.
As the situation worsened in March, Wee says the team was uncertain how the pandemic would affect their business. When the company received about $500,000 in wage subsidies under the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), Wee found himself with “more headspace to prepare and react to what was to come”.
As a result, Aftershock was able to strategically stockpile supplies to prepare for border closures. Wee added that these supplies were instrumental in keeping their business model of selling direct to customers intact, and allowed the eight-year-old company to continue functioning well even during the circuit breaker period.
Wee says Aftershock was fortunate to have the digital presence, as well as the necessary infrastructure in place, to cater to online transactions, which spiked when owning a PC became a necessity for work or school.
As a result of the high demand, Aftershock grew its team by 30%, adding new builders and customer service officers to their team, now numbering 60 in Singapore. The company also hires employees in Malaysia and Australia.
Wee has mixed feelings towards the broader PC industry. “The demand for PCs in the market has grown significantly. While that typically is a good thing for businesses, we are also facing uncertainties for our supplies. As the pandemic worsens, many countries, including ours, have introduced lockdowns and border closures,” he warns.
For now, the only way to scale this obstacle is a vaccine for Covid-19, says Wee. “There is no way to predict how long this will take; the only thing we can do is be resilient and only make promises we can deliver.”
While health and medical workers whose day jobs are with the public hospitals have been lauded for their gruelling efforts in fighting the pandemic, another segment of the healthcare industry is facing a different kind of ordeal. When borders were shut earlier this year, medical tourism, too, was suspended. Private hospitals, which cater to a number of wealthy, foreign patients, saw their upmarket clientele dry up all of a sudden.
Farrer Park Hospital (FPH) caters to a good number of foreign patients — some 30% of its patient load are not Singapore residents. Dr Peng Chung Mien, CEO of FPH, tells The Edge Singapore that the hospital had to adjust some of the patients’ visits to a safer time to come to Singapore.
In addition, the hospital extended their foreign patients’ medication until a visit is possible. “When the patients are not able to get the care they need in their own country, we can apply through their specialists to MOH [Ministry of Health] for special consideration for them to fly in for care in Singapore,” says Peng.
They also have to go through all the required tests for Covid-19 before they are allowed into Singapore, he adds. That said, the drop from revenue from foreign parents has been “almost made up” by revenue from local patients.
The hospital was also helped by the JSS, as well as rental rebates from the Farrer Park Company, owner of One Farrer Hotel and the hospital.
While he notes that public hospitals have to cater to more patients and visitors than private hospitals, FPH had treated and discharged more than 200 patients with Covid-19 by end-June. “We are a smaller facility. So, we don’t have a big scale [of patients] to handle. [But] on the other hand, we have a smaller team, and our smaller team of staff has to do more,” says Peng.
Despite the difference in scale, he says precautions and infection control protocols at FPH are “not much different” from the public hospitals. FPH also has a unique operating environment.
The hospital is co-located with One Farrer Hotel, which was used as additional space for convalescent cases, or patients who were recovering from the coronavirus. This allowed more resources to be dedicated to moderate Covid-19 cases while also allowing the hospital to also take care of its other non-Covid cases. These included patients with stroke and heart conditions, as well as some with chronic diseases or those who are immunocompromised.
According to Peng, there is a need for a dedicated team of nurses to care for these non-Covid patients, as any disruption to treatments or lapse in infection control could result in poor disease management, worsening their state of health and possibly even lead to death.
Despite the disruptions in the way the hospital operates, there are certain practices that have to be strictly adhered to. For one, FPH trained its hotel staff to collect, bag and label swabs according to laboratory requirements.
The hospital also helped set up the first drive-through testing facility at the driveway in front of the One Farrer Hotel in June.
Peng says this helped to keep jobs intact during the entire pandemic through “redeployment and reskilling our human resources, and supported national efforts to contain the spread.”
Moving forward, he expects a “gradual” recovery but said that depends on whether Singapore can keep the domestic situation under control.
As for FPH’s foreign patients, Peng is confident that when the travel restrictions are lifted, they will be back, for many of them recognise that they may not receive a similar quality of care elsewhere.
As such, FPH stands ready to admit these patients again. The hospital “remains competitive at the top end [of medical tourism] with the provision of complex and advanced medical therapy and care,” he says.
Moving forward, while Peng is also confident that the government will respond with further financial support if needed, he is also looking forward to tighter collaboration between the public and private healthcare sectors, specifically in sharing resources such as equipment and bed space.
He knows that government hospitals are already full and busy, whereas private hospitals like his have the required capacity – which should be put to good use when the whole country is dealing with a common problem. “After all, it’s our role to support the national heathcare need," says Peng.