MPs review home visits amid coronavirus concerns

Long queues formed at the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Nee Soon South branch at Block 850 Yishun Street 81 last night. But this is a common sight on Mondays at the centre where Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah holds her Meet-the-People Session (MPS).

Coronavirus or not, the number of residents seeking help has stayed constant at about 60 people a night.

But the virus’ effect was visible in other ways. Temperatures were taken, and desks for interviews with residents were now spaced out across two rooms instead of one. Markers helped ensure people stayed 1m apart while queueing.

Ms Lee said she has no plans to cut down on her MPS. “This is an everyday job. It is necessary for us to continue to help our residents, whether through online or offline sessions,” she told The Straits Times. She also receives several appeals daily via e-mail or direct Facebook messages, she shared.

With a general election looming, engaging voters one-on-one remains a priority for MPs even as they cut back on house visits and take precautions.

The PAP MPs contacted said they would continue to hold their MPS, though several, like Ms Lee, have asked residents to make their appeals online.

The Workers’ Party (WP), which earlier issued a statement saying it would temporarily suspend all house visits, declined to comment about its MPS plans. But its MPs and members have been walking the ground, and yesterday posted photos of them observing safe distancing in Aljunied GRC at the weekend.

At West Coast GRC MP Patrick Tay’s Boon Lay ward, interview booths and chairs in the queue are spaced farther apart to ensure safe distancing. “We also encourage residents to e-mail us and we will follow up with phone calls and send appeals for them,” he said.

On Facebook, several MPs have also asked residents to consider online appeals, such as Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in Marine Parade GRC, and MPs Ang Hin Kee in Ang Mo Kio GRC and Zainal Sapari in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.

Many PAP MPs also cancelled home visits over the weekend.

In Tampines GRC, Ms Cheng Li Hui held off on door-to-door visits in her Tampines East ward, saying: “We will continue to assess the situation for the next week before we decide whether to start visits again, to prioritise the safety of our volunteers and residents.”

Previously, she had asked volunteers to check and avoid visiting those who were unwell or on a stay-home notice. These residents could get help by calling the town council or e-mailing her directly.

NECESSARY WORK

This is an everyday job. It is necessary for us to continue to help our residents, whether through online or offline sessions.

NEE SOON GRC MP LEE BEE WAH, on why she has no plans to cut down on her Meet-the-People Sessions.

In Boon Lay, Mr Tay had planned to visit a block of 350 units which would have involved over 20 volunteers at the weekend. He decided to postpone it after stricter distancing measures were announced and also cancelled his walkabouts. MP Vikram Nair also said on Facebook that Sembawang GRC MPs have decided to cancel home visits until end-April and are discussing other forms of outreach they can “safely do”.

In Nee Soon South, Ms Lee said she was reviewing her regular weekend home visits, but would still visit residents in need at their homes.

ST understands that the decision to scale back or cancel house visits lies with the individual MPs.

When contacted, the People’s Association (PA) said: “PA will conduct house visits if there is a need to reach out and assure our residents during this period.”

It cited a March 13 advisory to volunteers, which said the size of house visit teams should be kept small and that volunteers should fill up travel history and health declaration forms before visits. Details like time spent interacting with each resident should be recorded for possible contact tracing, it added.

While the latest rules limit gatherings to 10 people, unlike Mr Tay, several MPs have continued with walkabouts. Last Wednesday, WP chief Pritam Singh asked in Parliament if such outreach should still be allowed, given they could easily lead to over 10 people gathering closely.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19, said the rules apply to all activities including those by political parties, which will have to abide by them and adjust their activities.

PAP heavyweights were still seen out at the weekend, though with precautions such as distancing, going around in smaller groups and not shaking hands. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was at a market and coffee shops in Bishan-Toa Payoh with fellow GRC MPs and potential candidate Gan Siow Huang, a former air force general. On Saturday, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam visited Ayer Rajah with the ward’s MP, Ms Foo Mee Har.

Several opposition parties have cancelled their outreach efforts. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and Progress Singapore Party (PSP) said they have stopped door-to-door visits and weekend walkabouts. WP members Lee Li Lian and Yee Jenn Jong said on Facebook they had switched to distributing fliers, in pairs, instead of doing home visits.

SDP chief Chee Soon Juan said SDP would resume campaigning as soon as circumstances permit, while PSP told ST it is reviewing the situation but considering other methods of engagement.

A PSP spokesman added that its videos have been well received, and PSP is also considering live-streaming to engage with the public.

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Coronavirus: Penticton cracks down on social-distancing rule breakers

The City of Penticton says it’s cracking down on people and businesses who don’t follow social-distancing rules, now that bylaw officers have new powers to enforce public health orders to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

From March 25 to Monday morning, bylaw officers responded to four complaints of businesses breaking an order, three complaints related to people at or inside a closed facility, and six complaints about social-distancing not being followed in a public area.

Officers also investigated a complaint of a person allegedly not self-isolating after an international flight, said bylaw services supervisor Tina Siebert.

All of the complaints except for one were verified as breaches of public health orders, she added.

“We are sharing information with our provincial health partners on a case-by-case basis, so they may have the information to conduct their investigations,” Siebert said in an email.

Last week, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth authorized municipal bylaw officers to enforce public health orders through education and warnings.

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“This is intended to allow our team of bylaw officers to help with enforcing the closure of public spaces and take that burden off of the RCMP,” said Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki.

The increased authority will remain in place as long as the provincial declaration of a state of emergency continues.

The City of Vernon issued a media release on Monday clarifying that bylaw officers are not authorized to detain people or issue penalties for contraventions.

Sweeping restrictions were put in place this month on large gatherings, international travel and businesses to help curb the rate of COVID-19 transmission.

These include a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, and the closing of casinos, bars and nightclubs.

Personal service establishments, such as nail salons, tattoo parlours, barbershops, beauty parlours and health spas, are also closed. Restaurants and cafés can serve takeout or delivery only.

For COVID-19 information in Penticton, click here.

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Historic $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill passes U.S. House, headed to Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday approved a $2.2 trillion aid package – the largest in American history – to help people and businesses cope with the economic downturn inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The massive bill also rushes billions of dollars to medical providers on the front lines of the outbreak. Republican President Donald Trump said he would sign it at 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT).

“Our nation faces an economic and health emergency of historic proportions due to the coronavirus pandemic, the worst pandemic in over 100 years,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the close of a three-hour debate on the House floor. “Whatever we do next, right now we’re going to pass this legislation.”

Democrats and Republicans in the Democratic-led House approved the package on a voice vote, turning back a procedural challenge from Republican Representative Thomas Massie, who had sought to force a formal, recorded vote that could have delayed its passage.

Massie, an independent-minded Republican who has repeatedly defied party leaders, wrote on Twitter that he thought the bill contained too much extraneous spending and gave too much power to the Federal Reserve. His fellow lawmakers overruled his request.

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On Twitter, Trump called Massie a “third rate Grandstander” and said he should be thrown out of the Republican Party. “He just wants the publicity,” wrote Trump, who last week began pushing for urgent action on coronavirus after long downplaying the risk.

Democratic and Republican leaders asked members to return to Washington to ensure there would be enough present to head off Massie’s gambit. Lawmakers from as far away as California were present for the debate. The session was held under special rules to limit the spread of the disease among members, who used hand sanitizer and in at least one case wore protective gloves.

At least three members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than two dozen have self-quarantined to limit its spread.

The Senate, which approved the bill in a unanimous vote on Wednesday evening, has adjourned and is not scheduled to return to Washington until late April.

Older people have proven especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The average age of House members was 58 at the beginning of 2019, well above the average age of 38 for the U.S. population as a whole.

‘THE VIRUS IS HERE’

Democratic and Republican leaders appeared together at a news conference to celebrate the bill’s passage — an unusual event for a chamber that is normally sharply divided along partisan lines.

“The virus is here. We did not ask for it, we did not invite it. We did not choose it. But with the passing of the bill you will see that we will fight it together, and we will win together,” said Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican.

He did not say whether Massie would face any disciplinary measures from the party.

The rescue package is the largest fiscal relief measure ever by Congress.

The $2.2 trillion measure includes $500 billion to help hard-hit industries and $290 billion for payments of up to $3,000 to millions of families.

It will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

The rare but deep bipartisan support in Congress underscored how seriously lawmakers are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system threatens to buckle.

On Thursday, the United States surpassed China and Italy on as the country with the most coronavirus cases. The number of U.S. cases passed 87,000, and the death toll exceeded 1,300.

Adding to the misery, the Labor Department reported the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever.

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Enhanced financing schemes, $20 billion in loan capital to give businesses access to credit during Covid-19 crisis

SINGAPORE – Around $1.7 billion drawn from past reserves will be used to finance several enhanced schemes to provide businesses with access to credit amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The Temporary Bridging Loan Programme, which was rolled out to the hard-hit tourism sector at last month’s Budget, will be made available to enterprises across all sectors from April 1.

Businesses can take a loan of up to $5 million under the programme, up from the previous $1 million cap. All eligible enterprises can apply for the programme till March 31, 2021.

With the enhancements, even the hardest-hit businesses can continue to have access to credit, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in Parliament on Thursday (March 26).

Around $20 billion of loan capital has also been allocated in the $48 billion Supplementary Budget unveiled by Mr Heng to support companies with strong capabilities and catalyse private sector loan capital.

The SME Working Capital Loan, which helps small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in all industries access financing for cash flow, has also been updated.

The maximum loan quantum has been increased to $1 million, up from the $600,000 cap announced at Budget 2020.

The Government will work with participating financial institutions to defer principal payments for one year on loans under these two schemes if enterprises request to do so.

The Enterprise Financing Scheme – Trade Loan, which supports enterprises in areas such as the financing of short-term import and export needs, will be enhanced for one year from April 1.

The maximum loan quantum has been raised to $10 million, up from $5 million, and the Government’s risk-share has been increased to 80 per cent, compared with the previous 70 per cent.

Interest rates for loans taken under the programmes are subject to assessments by participating financial institutions.

The Government is also increasing its subsidies to businesses for loan insurance premiums under the Loan Insurance Scheme to 80 per cent, up from 50 per cent, to help SMEs across all industries manage their trade financing costs.

The programme helps SMEs secure short-term trade loans, and the increased support will be in place for a year from April 1.

Mr Heng highlighted that the Monetary Authority of Singapore is working with banks and insurers to see how they can best help businesses and individuals facing cash flow challenges with their loan obligations and insurance premium payments.

Details on these will be announced by the central bank and the industry at a later date, he noted.

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World's ailing airlines appeal for aid as U.S. offers $58 billion

DUBAI/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Global airlines urged the world’s major economies to act quickly to prevent irreversible damage to an industry that has seen demand decimated almost overnight by the coronavirus crisis.

Several states have already stepped in to help airlines hammered by the travel slump, with the United States offering $58 billion in aid, Singapore announcing support for aviation and Australia easing competition rules.

As leaders from the Group of 20 nations met for a video summit, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) asked governments to provide or facilitate financial support for the major carriers it represents.

“The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic around the globe and the resulting government-mandated border closings and travel restrictions have led to the destruction of air travel demand,” IATA Chief Executive Alexandre de Juniac said in an open letter.

Underlining the industry’s plight, AirAsia, the region’s biggest budget carrier, became the latest to announce sweeping schedule cuts and said some of its businesses would halt flights altogether for a period.

Singapore Airlines said it would tap existing investors for up to S$15 billion ($10.5 billion) through the sale of shares and convertible bonds to offset the shock to its business from the coronavirus outbreak.

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It also arranged a S$4 billion bridge loan.

“Many airlines have been paying out more in refunds than they have received in new booking revenues,” de Juniac, a former head of Air France-KLM, said.

“The average two-month cash reserves held by airlines are rapidly being exhausted,” de Juniac added, calling for direct financial support, loans or tax relief.

LOADING CARGO

In a desperate bid to preserve some revenues and keep global supply chains operating, U.S. Delta Air Lines, Air New Zealand and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways joined a list of carriers that have offered to charter passenger planes as freight transporters, using their spacious cargo holds.

About half of the world’s air cargo normally travels in the bellies of passenger planes, so the cancellation of passenger flights has led to a sharp reduction in capacity, with knock-on effects on food, industry and other trade.

U.S. airlines, like others around the globe, have been reeling from the slide in passenger numbers and on Wednesday the U.S. Senate passed a $58 billion rescue package, half in the form of grants to cover some 750,000 airline staff wages.

Those receiving funds cannot lay off employees before Sept. 30 or change collective bargaining pacts. [L1N2BI0XW]

The bill has restrictions on stock buybacks, dividends and executive pay, and allows the government to take equity, warrants or other compensation as part of the package.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to back the move on Friday. President Donald Trump has promised to sign it.

A HEAVY PRICE

IATA, which estimates the pandemic will cost the global industry $252 billion in lost revenues this year, said earlier it had written to 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including India, Japan and South Korea for emergency support.

Australia and New Zealand have joined other governments in announcing some financial relief. But this has not stopped carriers from putting staff on leave and grounding planes.

Virgin Australia plans to permanently cut more than 1,000 jobs among the 8,000 staff that have already been stood down. Australia’s Flight Centre Travel Group said it would cut 6,000 travel agent roles globally.

In a move unthinkable under normal conditions, Australia’s competition regulator said it would allow Virgin, Qantas Airways and Regional Express to temporarily coordinate schedules and share revenue on 10 regional routes.

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U.S. House sets Friday debate for coronavirus aid bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives will begin a two-hour debate on a sweeping, $2.2 trillion coronavirus aid bill at 9 a.m. (1300 GMT) on Friday but it was not clear whether the measure would be able to pass on a voice vote, the House Majority Leader’s office said late on Thursday.

While most House members are in their home districts because of the coronavirus outbreak, those able and willing to travel to Washington for a vote should arrive by 10 a.m. (1400 GMT), according to the House advisory.

There have been discussions of a possible roll-call vote if a voice vote is blocked by dissenters.

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Giant U.S. coronavirus relief bill heads for debate in House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives will begin a two-hour debate on a sweeping, $2.2 trillion coronavirus aid bill at 9 a.m. (1300 GMT) on Friday, despite doubts over whether it can quickly pass on a voice vote or will be delayed into the weekend.

While most of the House’s 430 members are in their home districts because of the coronavirus outbreak, several are expected to travel to Washington for a vote sometime after 11 a.m. (1500 GMT), according to an advisory issued on Thursday.

The leaders of the Democratic-majority House want to pass the bill on Friday, or at the very latest on Saturday, hoping to provide quick relief to Americans as deaths mount and the economy reels from the pandemic.

On a call with fellow Democrats on Thursday afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged House members not to do anything to delay the unprecedented economic aid package the Republican-led Senate backed by a unanimous 96-0 vote on Wednesday night.

The rescue package – which would be the largest fiscal relief measure ever passed by Congress – will rush direct payments to Americans within three weeks if the House backs it and President Donald Trump signs it into law.

The $2.2 trillion measure includes $500 billion to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for payments of up to $3,000 to millions of families.

The legislation will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

VOICE VOTE SOUGHT

The rare but deep, bipartisan support in Congress underscored how seriously lawmakers are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system threatens to buckle.

Pelosi said House leaders were planning to fast-track the rescue plan by passing it via a voice vote on Friday. She had said that if there were calls for a roll-call vote, lawmakers might be able to vote by proxy, as not all would be able to be in Washington.

The Capitol has laid out special procedures because of the coronavirus – including barring members from sitting beside one another – to minimize the threat of infection as they vote.

There could be opposition. Republican Representative Thomas Massie said he opposed the bill, and was uncomfortable with the idea of allowing it to pass on a voice vote, rather than recording how each House member voted.

“I’m having a real hard time with this,” Massie, an outspoken fiscal conservative, said on 55KRC talk radio in Cincinnati.

Other members lashed back at Massie. Democratic Representative Dean Phillips addressed Massie on Twitter asking him to let his colleagues know if he intended to delay the bill’s passage “RIGHT NOW so we can book flights and expend about $200,000 in taxpayer money to counter your principled but terribly misguided stunt.”

The United States surpassed China and Italy on Thursday as the country with the most coronavirus cases. The number of U.S. cases passed 82,000, and the death toll reached almost 1,200.

The Labor Department reported the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever.

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PM and ministers to take three-month pay cut in solidarity with Singaporeans coping with coronavirus

SINGAPORE – The Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers and other political office-holders – as well as the President – will take a three-month pay cut to stand in solidarity with Singaporeans in this difficult time, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Thursday (March 26).

Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said that political office-holders will take an additional two-month pay cut on top of the one-month pay cut announced last month, in light of the deteriorating situation caused by the coronavirus.

“The President, Speaker and both Deputy Speakers have informed me that they will join in and take a similar three-month pay cut in total,” said Mr Heng, as he delivered the Supplementary Budget.

“It is in times of crisis that the true character of a nation can be seen,” he added. “We are all in this together, and we must all look after one another in these trying times.”

Calling the Covid-19 situation an “unprecedented crisis” that has escalated very quickly, Mr Heng said it has prompted the Government to take extraordinary measures and put together a landmark supplementary budget.

Delivering a ministerial statement that outlined the Government’s thinking behind what he has called the Resilience Budget, Mr Heng said the coronavirus is a defining challenge for Singapore.

“It is a public health crisis, an economic shock, and a social test,” he said. “It will challenge our resilience as individuals and as a society.”

Mr Heng noted that just five weeks after he delivered his Budget speech on Feb 18, the world is now facing a pandemic, with an estimated 410,000 people infected across 190 countries.

While Singapore acted early and decisively and managed to keep the number of cases to a manageable level during the first wave of infections, the world is now seeing successive waves and imported infections, prompting countries to take public health measures, said Mr Heng.

But measures on the medical front to contain the pandemic have made the economic battle more difficult, he added.

“As more countries implement their measures, the economic disruptions will be wider, deeper, and more prolonged,” said Mr Heng. “The global economy is now facing both a supply and demand shock.”

He noted how lockdowns have had knock-on effects, given today’s highly-integrated global supply chains, while people staying home mean that spending has fallen, while business confidence is plunging in the face of growing uncertainties.

Global financial and stock markets are also in turmoil, while credit has tightened around the world, he added.

As an open economy that is highly integrated with the global economy, Singapore will be deeply impacted by these global shocks, said Mr Heng.

He noted that advance GDP estimates released on Thursday (March 26) showed that the economy contracted by 10.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry has downgraded the Republic’s GDP growth forecast for the year to between minus 4.0 per cent and minus 1.0 per cent.

“In economic terms alone, this will likely be the worst economic contraction since independence,” said Mr Heng.

The Resilience Budget, which will introduce over $48 billion in new and enhanced measures, is therefore focused on three areas: protecting jobs, helping enterprises with immediate challenges, and strengthening economic and social resilience so that Singapore can emerge intact and stronger.

“We cannot prevent an economic recession as the external health and economic situation will evolve beyond our control,” he said. “But it will help us to mitigate the extent of the downturn, and more importantly, help save jobs and protect livelihoods.”

The Resilience Budget is also a reminder that the battle against Covid-19 is waged not just on the medical and economic fronts, but that the virus is also a test of Singapore’s social cohesion and psychological resilience, said Mr Heng.

“This reflects our determination that Singapore and Singaporeans remain resilient in the face of these challenges,” he said. “Come what may, no matter how daunting the challenge at hand, we will bounce back, stronger and more united than ever, as we weather this storm together.”

Concluding, Mr Heng pledged that the Government will lead the way in the fight against Covid-19 by doing its best to anticipate and respond to developments, make decisions based on facts and evidence, and exercise judgment when there are trade-offs.

“The Government and the political leadership are in this with Singaporeans,” he said. “We share the worries and anxieties of Singaporeans, and we will do our best for them.

“We will walk with every Singaporean, through every up and down.”

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EU lawmakers back suspension of airline slots rule until October

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European lawmakers overwhelmingly agreed on Thursday to suspend until Oct. 24 a rule requiring airlines to use at least 80% of their flight slots to keep them the following year so as to ease an industry crisis unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Following a deal reached last week by envoys of the EU’s 27 member states, the European Parliament voted in its first-ever remote session in Brussels to suspend the EU slots rule until the summer season ends in late October as European flights fell 60% this week with several major airlines forced to ground their fleets.

The last time the EU waived the airport slots rule was in 2009 because of the financial crisis. EU governments will still need to approve the final agreement but that is seen as a formality.

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Coronavirus: Resilience Budget will save jobs, support firms as S’pore faces biggest challenge in over a decade: Heng Swee Keat

SINGAPORE – The supplementary budget to be presented in Parliament on Thursday afternoon (March 26) is to be called the Resilience Budget, and it will help to save jobs and support companies, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

More will be given to those who have been hardest hit.

Households will also receive additional help to tide through this difficult period, he said.

In a post on Facebook, Mr Heng said that the coronavirus outbreak will be with Singapore for many months to come. “Our resilience as a country, as a society, is being put to the test as we face our biggest challenge in more than a decade.”

What is key, he said, is for all Singaporeans to do their part and “make the best use of what we have”.

“Various analysts and business leaders have been guessing about the size of the Budget, and its reach,” he wrote.

“It is important not to have excessive expectations or merely focus on the headline numbers. What is more important is that all of us do our part and make the best use of whatever we have.”

Grim economic data released on Thursday morning showed that Singapore’s economy shrank 2.2 per cent in the first quarter of this year, and is headed for a full-year recession – its first in two decades. The Ministry of Trade and Industry downgraded its 2020 growth forecast to a range of -4 to -1 per cent.

Mr Heng, who is also Minister for Finance, said the Covid-19 global pandemic was Singapore’s biggest challenge after the global financial crisis in 2008.

“I still remember vividly the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, when I was heading up the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Those were dark days, but we bounced back,” he said.

“This time around, we face not just an economic crisis, but also a global pandemic.”

Mr Heng assured Singaporeans that the Resilience Budget to be presented at 3.30pm in Parliament will give people much-needed economic support.

This second stimulus plan is in addition to the more than $6 billion that has already been set aside in the February budget, called the Unity Budget, to help Singaporeans grapple with the economic fallout from the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Measures announced then include a $4 billion package to keep workers in jobs and help companies with cash flow, $1.6 billion for a one-time payout to every Singaporean aged 21 and above and $800 million to support front-line agencies fighting the outbreak.

“Together, we can weather the storm and emerge stronger as one Singapore,” said Mr Heng.

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