HOW 12 SINGAPOREANS WEATHERED COVID-19’S ECONOMIC FALLOUT
It’s been a year since the country went into circuit breaker mode, sliding into its worst downturn ever. What has it cost Singaporeans? This is how ordinary folks dug deep to meet the challenge - and came out tougher for it.
Design: Kenneth Choy, Coding: Calvin Chia
VINCENT TAI, 63
Five trips — that was how many I’d get on a lucky day during the circuit breaker.
It was a lot fewer than the average of 20 to 25 trips I used to get in my 6pm-to-6am shift. And these five trips were usually to the hospital.
Once in a while, some came from street hails. But most of the time, you’d go only to the hospital, even though many taxi drivers were worried about getting COVID-19.
I mean, everything was closed. The airport, the KTV lounges, Clarke Quay, Boat Quay, even Chinatown was like a ghost town. In Geylang, you could drive like it was a Formula 1 track. Many taxi drivers became like policemen doing free patrols.
The situation was many, many times worse than SARS.
Back then, you didn’t have borders shutting — and hotels, coffee shops, shopping centres closing down. Really quite scary.
My company, SMRT, tied up with a few hotels and restaurants to deliver food. Every shift, I’d be stationed at a hotel for two or three hours.
Sometimes you’d make only two deliveries. But you’d get S$45. It was still better than plying the empty roads.
I’m thankful that the S$100-a-day taxi rental was waived at least. We’re now getting a rebate till June. I also got the S$9,000 under the Self-employed Person Income Relief Scheme to help me.
At the same time, over Phase 2 and Phase 3 of reopening, my income has almost gone back to normal. I didn’t expect that when Phase 2 started, so many people would go out.
I must say, thank god for Grab. There was no lack of calls. It used to be like 50 per cent of my regular earnings; now it’s as good as 95 per cent.
But if you ask me, there was another period in my life that was worse.
When I got divorced 15 years ago, I owed a lot of credit card debt and had to take care of my mother and second brother. My mum had dementia, while my brother had both legs amputated.
I hadn’t even settled the divorce, but all the monthly bills came in. That was a good 10 years of struggling. I was S$80,000 in debt. It took me about five years to clear it.
Today, my ex-wife lives with our two children. I live alone in a Telok Blangah flat, and I rent out the spare room.
I have a second family in Indonesia — a five-year-old son. Before COVID-19, I’d visit them every three weeks for about two to three days each time. The last time I saw them was before February last year.
At first, you think it’s okay. But as time passes, you feel very lonely. I’m getting sadder and sadder because I don’t meet my son.
Thank God we’re still in touch every day via WhatsApp video. He’d ask, "Daddy, how’s life?" It’s good, but not quite the same. Kids will talk to you for a few minutes, then run off.
I’ve joked with my friends that since I stay in Telok Blangah, I’m going to swim from Labrador Park to Batam already!
My daughter would tell you that I’m a super positive guy. Whenever people throw a lemon at me, I’d try to squeeze lemonade juice and say, thank you very much for that lemon.
But these days, you wake up, look at your phone, go to work, come back, boil water, go to the coffee shop. You probably even eat the same food. Your routine is practically the same. You question if this is life.
We’re designed to be social beings. Sometimes I feel that there’s no need to meet my fellow taxi drivers, but I still meet them. At least there’s some interaction, just for a short moment.
Story: Grace Yeoh
Photos: Jeremy Long
ANGELINE TAN, 35
HAIR SALON OWNER
In the first three months of the pandemic, my heartland business, FDP Hair Salon, lost at least S$7,000 to S$8,000. That’s not including money lost from external gigs, like theatre shows.
It was exceptionally terrible because COVID-19 hit in March, post-Chinese New Year, when business usually dips. We went down the drain.
We didn’t get any help with the rent for a few months. So my mum mentioned to my landlord that my father had been admitted to hospital. I added that we were still paying for the previous year’s bills because my father has no insurance.
Thankfully, my landlord was sympathetic; he offered some rental relief from September to December. Still, we had to pay more than half of the rent. I was allowed to sublet part of my space too, but no one was keen to take it up due to the economy.
My father has been tackling heart failure for 10, 11 years. His monthly medical bills are about S$10,000. And the amount we owed as of July last year was S$50,000 to S$60,000.
It came up to so much because the moment he has to check into the intensive care unit, it’s S$1,000 a night.
I’ve already used whatever we earned in 2019 to pay my dad’s bills. I’ve tried to scrimp and save, but I’m very particular about the products I use in my salon. Those are high-quality stuff; they come at a price.
When you’re put in a tight and stressful situation, you tend to want to shut yourself off.
I had this urge to stop everything and cut my losses.
But then, I remind myself that I’ve built something for so long and I’m not a quitter. I’ve been in this trade for close to 15 years. This business is a family business, and I’m the second generation.
The relationship I have with my clients is not just client-and-stylist. We’ve become friends. They come in, and they know that they can fall asleep and they’d look fine.
Some of them also know my entire family, since they’ve been coming to us since the first generation.
I obviously don’t see this as a business. I see it as my second home.
During the past year, some ladies who didn’t really need a cut came in anyway to support us.
They’d ask how I was coping, and I’d say, honestly, I feel like being an ostrich and digging a hole, because every day I’m receiving bills and letters.
Every night you go to bed thinking, how are you going to pay your rent? Your staff? Your utility bills? Every night I surf the Net to see what other ways to do it, what other schemes to look out for.
Plus, I still have my father’s outstanding bill to deal with.
During the circuit breaker, I started doing some online coaching.
I had some clients who wanted to learn, for instance, how to colour their grandmother’s hair. I charge a very small fee, like S$100. It was just to get by — at least I was doing something.
But some days, the pressure gets too much and I flare up at my mum. I’d say, "You keep telling me I come home late, asking me where I go. Do you know I’m in the salon? I’m trying to rack my freaking brains."
When I end up talking like that, she begins to cry.
After that, when we’re both in a better space, I’d tell her, it’s not necessary for you to speak to me in such a way. When I talk to her in a not-so-nice way because my buttons are pushed, I’d apologise too.
One thing I have learnt is how to let my guard down and ask for help. It takes a lot out of me to ask for help.
The second thing is learning how to say no and draw boundaries with my loved ones to protect my own mental health.
I try to not live in so much fear, because I get into this spiral and I get depressed. But my worst fear is to let down my family. I expect a lot from myself.
Luckily, business picked up pre-Christmas, so I was exceptionally busy during that time.
But during that month, my father was also admitted to the hospital three times. We still owe the hospital about S$40,000 right now.
Story: Grace Yeoh, Sally Lee
Photos: Jeremy Long
MALCOLM VINCENT ROSARIO, 51
My retrenchment, when it came, was all very sudden.
I was in human resources — talent acquisition — with a software company, and I thought everything would be fine and dandy. But there you go.
That was in September. I was about eight months in the job and wasn’t given any retrenchment package — not even a prorated portion — because you needed to have served for at least a year.
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It came as a shock to my family. My wife had also been retrenched; she was in retail, which was among the first businesses to be hit by the pandemic.
So the whole family was depending on me.
About three years ago, my dad underwent a triple bypass operation, and since then he’s been very weak.
He’s also gone through three knee replacements. My mum is in a wheelchair now; she’s got osteoporosis. And they don’t have insurance.
I had HDB loan payments and some insurance that I needed to put on hold as well. So I had to do something and do it quickly.
That’s why I jumped at the chance to sign up for the cybersecurity track in the IBM SGUnited Mid-Career Pathway Programme. That’s where my interest lies.
I had been in the tech industry for five and a half years, so I’d done courses to upskill in IT — and I got two certificates in cybersecurity. I did want to move into cybersecurity.
Looking at how Singapore and the world was changing, I didn’t want to be left behind. I wanted to jump on the bandwagon and make sure that I benefit as well.
The people who designed the course told us that there was no guarantee of a job placement, but that they’d help us — people like us who were making a mid-career switch, who didn’t have hands-on experience but had value we could bring to the table.
They wanted to see at least half of us get job placements. But they also told us that people who want to go on this course need a certain amount of savings to see them through.
It’s a six-month programme, and the allowance is only S$1,500 a month. It was tough — my wife and I had to make a lot of adjustments.
I used to have three meals a day, then I just had one. We used to eat out a lot, but because of COVID, we had to start eating in, but then saving on that expense.
I guess I saw a light at the end of the tunnel through the programme. Being laid off was, in some ways, a new chapter for me — to look for something different, something more in the digital space.
But after being in that course, I asked, what had I got myself into? It didn’t go into a deep dive on the cybersecurity aspect. It just scratched the surface, like an introduction.
And when you keep sending out resumes, applying for jobs and then keep getting rejection emails, those are dark moments. Financially, it was draining; I was getting worried.
Thank goodness I’m now with Workforce Singapore as a senior career consultant in the ICT sector.
It was my career coach who approached me and told me there was a position open. So I didn’t finish my cybersecurity course.
I think they saw my genuine passion for helping my fellow Singaporeans in need. Also, I’ve been through retrenchment twice in the last year and in 2019. And they saw that this person has got the soft skills lah.
I can really relate to job seekers. Some of them are even in their 60s.
I dealt with two females who were 67 and got laid off last year, and I helped them to be employed again.
A lot of my ex-course-mates are a bit concerned now. I’m helping some of them, and a couple have secured some interviews already. That’s job satisfaction for me — helping them to gain employment.
A lot of people who are retrenched think, "Oh, so I’ll just apply for the jobs and wait." But let’s not —you have to meet people.
My contract is for one year and is renewable for one year after that. All I can do is hope, after that.
I’m still very keen on cybersecurity. You never know, because within the government, there’s the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore. That’s one thing I could explore too.
Story: Derrick A Paulo, Ruth Smalley, Goh Chiew Tong
Photos: Jeremy Long
Podcast: Ruth Smalley
ELSIE SZTO, 50s
FASHION RETAIL OWNER
Unless you really need to, don't start a fashion business. Do something else.
I once jokingly gave that piece of advice when someone asked me about the challenges of being a fashion entrepreneur during a pandemic. That was months ago, when I still had my shop, Butterflies and Marigold, in Guoco Tower.
We had just come out of the circuit breaker, when we had zero sales for two months — my first in 16 years of business. Needless to say, things were tough and definitely uncertain.
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You would think being able to reopen in Phase 1 meant good news for us, but sales were dismal, to say the least.
We were located in the Central Business District (CBD), and a lot of our customers were still working from home.
Foot traffic dropped violently, and it was like a ghost town.
It was important for my business partner and I to start talking to our landlord about our plans after our rental relief was to end in August.
To be fair, given the customer footfall when we signed the lease three years ago, our rent was reasonable. Guoco Tower is linked to the Tanjong Pagar MRT station, a very busy station.
But when we reopened, the footfall was close to zero, so our rent should come down reasonably for us to survive.
Meanwhile, I had to adjust my lifestyle. Very quickly, we started cooking at home — no more eating out, no more restaurant meals. It was a practical way of being thrifty without compromising family time with our two boys.
Thankfully, my husband has a stable, full-time job, so that has helped. But to keep my business alive, I knew I had to reach out to our customers who were still working from home.
As a small business, we were nimble and were able to adapt to the situation. We set up an online shopping platform through Shopify. We even started live-streaming on Facebook every week to sell our clothes.
We managed to get some sales, and the interaction with our long-time customers was good.
One thing I really cherish about 16 years of doing business is the relationship with our customers. That is something we have not lost to COVID-19.
While things were picking up for us on the digital front, our conversations with the landlord were not yielding much fruit.
As early as July, we proposed a Gross Turnover Model, which was in essence asking the landlord to share our pain. That did not go through.
The landlord was willing to give us a small rental reduction, but that was still disproportionate to the drop in footfall.
Our last resort was to file for a Notification of Relief, which helps SMEs like us to defer rental payments until November. That allowed us to manage our cash flow for the time being.
When November came, we were due to speak to the landlord again. Our lease was going to expire at the end of the month, and given how uncertain things were, I thought we could negotiate a shorter lease — six months or a year — instead of committing to a longer one.
We were still quite hopeful. But before we could make that proposal, the landlord told us: "Oh, Elsie, I've got good news for you. We found someone to take over your shop already."
I lost it, of course.
The landlord knew our pre-COVID sales numbers — we were here for the past three years — and that Butterflies and Marigold was a profitable business. We had consistently turned in those numbers.
How could they do this to us, especially when it is so difficult for retailers now?
We could find another shop space, but let me put it this way: Say you are playing football and suddenly there is a heavy downpour. Do you want to keep playing in the rain? Or take shelter for a while?
Perhaps for Butterflies and Marigolds, this is our time to take shelter. We are going to try to pivot 100 per cent towards online for now.
We can operate out of a warehouse or my home, as long as we find the space to continue live-streaming every week.
I still had a very good run. My partner and I ran a very successful business for 16 years. That is an achievement that nobody can take away.
Of course I feel very sad to let this shop go. But as painful as it may be, it is not the end of the road.
Story: Goh Chiew Tong
Photos: Jeremy Long
Video: Goh Chiew Tong, Anne-Marie Lim
JAKE TAN, 26
When events started being put on hold around January 2020, I wasn’t particularly afraid. I thought I could adapt, and that I was assured of a job in the company where I’d done my internship.
I majored in interactive media, and before my final year at university, I had interned at a creative agency. When school started, I continued with the agency on a part-time basis.
I was a creative technologist. I was the tech lead in events, doing projection mapping and augmented reality (AR) installations. (Projection mapping is a technique that turns irregularly shaped objects into a video display surface.)
The news that I no longer had a post-graduation job came subtly.
I go, "Boss, you’re still hiring me?" And he says, "Eh? You know the situation — I can’t." And I go, "Okay, I understand."
I would’ve commanded quite high pay, and I think, in the end, he went for someone else. I think he tried not to lay off people until sometime around May — when I graduated — when he no longer had a choice.
A few friends and I were unable to find jobs. So we decided to make jobs for ourselves.
Just before the pandemic, I had created AR Instagram filters for a few clients. That evolved into a little digital agency called Serial Communication.
We started it in June with three core members: Sheryl Sim and Ernest Goh are my co-founders and creative directors, while I lead tech and operations.
I’ve always wanted to start a company, but I didn’t think I’d do it as a fresh graduate. If COVID-19 hadn’t happened, my friends and I would’ve worked for other companies and gained a stable footing first.
Serial Communication snagged about one job a month. It could pay between S$3,000 to over S$8,000, which wasn’t enough to sustain our whole team.
We could see marketing budgets being cut. Clients would say, "We really want to give you more, but this is the amount that we have."
Sometimes we don’t want to accept those prices, but we kind of have to.
In between Serial’s jobs, we tried to make do with other jobs.
Sheryl does wedding videos and video art, and has completed an SGUnited traineeship. Ernest works part-time at a maker space (creative space to hone digital and other skills) while learning to code.
I almost signed up to do GrabFood deliveries, thinking I might as well earn a little bit of money. My father is retired, and my mum is a freelance tutor, while one of my two sisters is already working.
But in September, my professor hired me as a research assistant to do programming for the virtual reality component of an exoskeleton research programme.
It's a multidisciplinary collaboration centred around wearable assistive devices that will help mild/moderate stroke patients. My six-month stint pays S$3,000 a month.
I’m also doing an NTU MiniMasters business course because it’s free for the Class of 2020.
From April, my friends and I will focus more on our business. We’re working on branding and a proper website, and we haven’t really put ourselves out there yet. Most of our engagements have been by word of mouth.
Our projects have included a projection mapping piece for a restaurant in Dempsey Hill. The restaurant really liked it, and we might do something new for them each year.
We’ll also be creating an AR experience on Instagram for the boutique hotel Lloyd’s Inn.
If there’s an advantage in starting a company during a pandemic, it’s in terms of overheads.
We probably would’ve needed an office space, and to go and network with people — but we now save money and time through Zoom meetings.
There’s one thing, however, that got me down last year: I felt I didn’t really create any art. I’m still pondering what the role of an artist is in a pandemic.
We were all doing part-time jobs and trying to survive. I know a few artists and deejays who carried out swabbing — just a lot of people trying to adapt.
Before the pandemic, the thinking about artists was that we question the status quo and try to shed light on issues like global warming. Today, should our work be about the pandemic, or do we still talk about global warming?
How do we not lose our purpose? It’s an internal conflict.
Story: Anne-Marie Lim, Neo Chai Chin
Photos: Jeremy Long
The COVID-19 circuit breaker was very tough because I have four kids and I’m not working. We had no savings.
My kids, aged seven to 15, are still schooling. They had to stay home in our rental flat, and I needed to help them with home-based learning.
Four kids, two laptops, you tell me how?
Quarrel, you know. Sometimes the smaller ones will access their Student Learning Space first, then the older ones will do it later. We tried using the phone, but cannot see.
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From January to March last year, my family got S$400 a month in ComCare assistance.
But in April, ComCare stopped because I forgot to submit one or two documents. (Editor’s note: The family was given interim assistance of S$120, and financial aid from two other organisations.)
How did we survive? Budget, lah.
It was almost Ramadan at the time, and during the fasting month, I didn’t have to cook so much because the mosque was sending food.
We also received rations from Pertapis and sometimes from the Residents’ Committee.
I was really happy to get supermarket vouchers from Beyond Social Services. It’s S$300 every two months. It helps us to save a little bit more money. (Her children also each got S$140 in MOE meal support vouchers during the home-based learning and school holiday period in April-June.)
If I was really on a budget, I would buy only vegetables. I’d cook whatever we had — sardines, fried rice. I would cook eggs with sambal, egg curry, or fried eggs with ketchup or soy sauce.
Sometimes when I was very stressed or very busy, I would eat a bit only.
As long as my kids eat, I’m okay. I don’t worry for myself, only for my kids.
For Hari Raya, we didn’t need to buy new clothes, so this helped me budget. We couldn’t go out — so wear new clothes in your own house for what? Even though our ComCare was renewed around May before Hari Raya, we stayed home and watched movies.
With ComCare assistance (now S$1,300 a month, extended to April 2021), I can buy more food, such as meat or fish, and toiletries.
Fish is expensive; depending on what you buy, half a kilo is S$6 or S$10 already. If you only have S$10 to spend, that means you can buy eggs and vegetables only.
I also put aside S$100 to S$200 for emergencies. It’s not much, but this will slowly grow.
I destress when I do volunteering.
Over the last two years, once a month, my friends and I buy, pack and distribute food and other rations to vulnerable elderly in our estate.
We have 18 beneficiaries now. The items are sponsored by a woman who gives tuition to children in the estate.
We order things like rice, eggs and Milo from the nearby supermarket. When we pack the items, we are happy because we can laugh and chit chat.
When you give things to people, you feel happy. I make new friends. I know how my neighbours are doing.
If I say I am poor, there is someone poorer than me.
I know that for financial help to continue, for my family income to improve, I’ll need to work.
I’ve registered my younger kids for student care, and when they get a place, I can slowly find work.
I can’t apply for administrative roles because I have no qualifications — my parents took me out of school halfway through Primary One to look after my newborn brother.
I’ve worked as a manicurist, factory production worker, cleaner and cashier. But, given what I’ve been through in my life, I’d like to be a counsellor.
As it is, I counsel my mother, uncle, brother, everyone. And when you have kids, you have to keep talking to them and read their body language.
I attended a course on parenting because I want to let my kids know they are loved, and that mummy understands them.
By sharing my story, I want to tell others not to give up, no matter the situation or their background.
Story: Ruth Smalley & Neo Chai Chin
Photos: Jeremy Long
Podcast: Ruth Smalley
SYAZWAN RAHMAD, 30
I’d dreamed for three years of auditioning for musicals or choreography positions in Europe. A friend who was in London performed in the Aladdin and Miss Saigon musicals, and I was like, "Oh my God, I need to do that."
My plan was to fly there for auditions last June — I’d saved up and planned the itinerary, but had not made any bookings.
But the pandemic happened, and this had to be deferred.
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Before COVID-19, I was earning S$5,000 to S$6,000 a month. I was busy choreographing events, music videos, competitions and other productions. I was teaching classes and performing at clubs and private parties.
When the circuit breaker happened, I didn’t care at first; I was going to rest and watch Netflix. A few days later, it hit me — I’m the kind of person who’s very active every day, but suddenly I couldn’t do anything.
Clubs and studios were closed, and classes came to a stop. I had roles in two productions: The Singapore Police Force bicentennial musical, and Vote Kumar by theatre company Dream Academy. Both were cancelled.
In April and May, my monthly income fell to about S$1,000 or less. It was bad.
I went into a dark and negative place. Things went haywire at home because we were in an enclosed space and didn’t get to go out, except to buy food.
I lived with my parents and two brothers in a three-room flat. We quarrelled a lot. I felt I was suffocating.
The lowest point in the circuit breaker happened during the fasting month leading up to Hari Raya on May 24.
A food issue escalated into the biggest argument with my parents, and I suddenly told my father that if he wanted to know another "bad" thing about me, well — I’m gay. He kept quiet, and we didn’t talk about it after that.
Hari Raya is about seeking forgiveness, and it was only a few days later that my mother dragged my younger brothers to me to ask forgiveness. It took me another few days to seek forgiveness from my mum and dad.
Before going back to my room, I also said: "You know, you should listen to your children more too." But they kept quiet.
Other than that, I kept to myself for about a month, and even thought about committing suicide. I managed to conduct some classes on Zoom, but the stress and depression kept building.
During Phase Two of reopening, when auditions for a major event began, I couldn’t focus and was so embarrassed when the choreographer said, "Wow, Syazwan, what are you doing? Why do you look so lost?"
I’d never been like this in my career, and I left the rehearsal venue. It hurt my reputation.
People reached out to me, but I shut everyone out and later explained to the choreographer that I was going through a bad time and didn’t want to burden the group.
After August, work picked up. I conducted mostly private classes for students, in the studio and on Zoom, and my income recovered to about S$4,000 a month.
I created dance courses for beginners and advanced learners, and promoted them on Instagram.
Enquiries started coming in, and my workload from October was hectic.
In November, my income hit five digits, mostly from teaching. I was amazed because I could previously earn that amount only when I taught, performed and choreographed.
I felt blessed because not many people could earn this much during COVID-19.
November was also the month I moved out of my family home and into a rented room.
I turned 30 on Dec 30, and as my father’s birthday is in early January, the family custom is to celebrate our birthdays together. It was awkward at first because I hadn’t seen my family for a couple of months. I’d only talked to my mother on the phone.
I tried to make conversation, and it got better. They replied and made funny comments, tried to connect with me and asked how I was. They never did that before.
Actually, I miss them a lot.
I talked to my father for the first time in months during the celebration and started to think I could slowly let the past go.
More recently, I sought professional help after another wave of negative thoughts. I told the doctor, can you help me — I’m so tired. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder last month. I need to focus on myself and heal.
My hope for 2021 is that we can all travel soon, because my dream is still to venture out and audition in London. You only live once, so I will still aim for it.
Story: Sim Yee Lim, Ruth Smalley, Neo Chai Chin
Photos: Jeremy Long, Marcus Mark Ramos, Ruth Smalley
Video: Jonathan Yeo, Marcus Mark Ramos
RAYNER LOI, 27
Imagine you have an uncle who gave you a six-figure sum to study overseas.
You squandered the money and haven’t graduated — but it’s now Chinese New Year, and you’re going to see him. How are you going to face him?
That’s the feeling I’ve been getting in my monthly meetings with investors since the pandemic began. I don’t have good news to share with them.
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But they’ve constantly reminded me that it’s not my fault, and I’m very thankful to them. They affirm that I’m doing everything to make the best of the situation for Lumitics, the food-waste-tracking start-up I co-founded in 2017 while in university.
One investor said he hasn’t lost faith in my team or the company. That meant so much.
Before the pandemic, we had 20 to 30 smart waste bins contracted with clients such as hotels. Buffets are the lowest-hanging fruit in reducing food waste, so when we speak to any hotel, we typically focus efforts on that first.
With COVID-19, buffet lines have stopped. We had zero revenue around July.
But by October, we recovered about 15 to 20 per cent of our business as hotels began to see more local demand. They figured out their hygiene measures and how to operate and welcome guests safely. They can now turn to look at solutions that reduce their costs.
We’ve had initial discussions with cruise companies, and are looking at production kitchens and restaurants.
As for airlines, we did a successful pilot project with one last year on how to optimise in-flight food waste.
It expanded into beverages — how many cans of Coke or bottles of wine the plane should be carrying, because extra weight is a fuel cost for the airline. In the business recovery phase, hotels and airlines can’t afford to be wasteful.
In recent months, I’ve sensed more openness from clients and prospective clients. From zero conversations a week to having a couple, I take that as a win.
It’s a roller-coaster ride. When the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble was initially announced, we were exploring trials with some companies in Hong Kong.
When the bubble was suspended in December, it was a big blow to us; the cost of quarantine before meeting a client isn’t worth it.
I live with my parents, I’m not married, and I don’t have a house or car loan to pay off. A lot of the anxiety is really about my team of six.
One of them is Malaysian, so he has rent to pay, and his family depends on him to support the education of his siblings, who are considerably younger.
My team have joined in this dream of mine, and if it goes to the ground, I’d have let them down.
My co-founder Adriel Tan reminds me, though, that I shouldn’t be carrying this burden alone.
Obviously I’m not going to lie to them and say all is fine. But I need to be the strongest pillar in the company and give them hope.
We announced a 20 per cent pay cut in October, and my guys were with me on everyone taking a hit rather than having to let people go. One has since left for another job, and I could understand his reasons.
Government agency Enterprise Singapore launched the Enterprise Development Grant for small and medium food service companies to leverage solutions such as Lumitics’ to manage their food waste, and claim for the expenses from the Government.
Because of that, we’re starting to see a bit more traction.
My pitch to companies is, there are two possible outcomes of tracking their waste: They get data to back up the fact that their kitchens are running efficiently; or, they learn that they’re quite wasteful and there’s room for optimisation. Either way, it’s a win.
But to benefit from this grant, we must be able to close the deal with clients. Also, I might start a sales process in January, but get paid only in May.
My belief in the potential of this company and the need to reduce food waste hasn’t wavered. But it’s about staying alive right now so that we can ride the recovery.
On the other hand, I’m grateful to have this privilege of managing a business during such a crazy time. How many 27-year-olds get to navigate such challenges?
Every day is an opportunity for me to learn and grow.
Story: Anne-Marie Lim, Neo Chai Chin
Photos: Jeremy Long
Podcast: Ruth Smalley
KALAI VANAN BALAKRISHNAN, 35
This January, for the first time in 10 years, I felt too tired to go out and rescue animals.
I’ve been managing the rescue and rehabilitative work of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) since 2011. Usually, if I feel jaded and mentally fatigued, I try to break the routine and do something else. I’m able to bounce back quickly.
But that wasn’t working for me.
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At no point did I think about quitting, however. This isn’t a job for me — it’s more a big responsibility given to my colleagues and me. It’s not something I can just throw away to go and do something else.
And when the pandemic started, we knew it was going to last for a long time.
We’ve had to come up with ways to engage the public. So during the circuit breaker, we did a video every two days — such as a virtual tour of our premises — to let people know that we’re still working.
My staff did a good job of raising money. But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped worrying.
Our expenses are about S$70,000 a month. This includes staff salaries, animal feed, rental, utilities and running our van.
Thanks to COVID-19, our annual gala dinner last year was derailed. This event usually allows us to raise up to S$130,000, which is usually spent on new projects like building animal enclosures, or on increasing the size of the team.
Besides the stress of fund-raising, we’re worried about not having enough people to take care of the animals after we rescue them.
At full strength, Acres has about 21 staff; half of them are from the rescue and animal-care teams. As a charity, we don’t have that much funding to employ a larger team. We rely on volunteers.
The priority here is our animal care. These volunteers help with the manual labour, cleaning and food preparation on the premises.
We have more than 150 animals from the illegal wildlife trade at our rescue centre now, which include iguanas, star tortoises and snakes.
We also rescue native animals, like the common mynah and eagles. During the circuit breaker, however, we used only four rescue volunteers — and they doubled up as animal-care volunteers at times, even though they had day jobs too.
Just before COVID, we had staff who went on leave, so we entered the pandemic without the full strength we needed.
The situation became worse when COVID struck the foreign worker dorms. Two of our staff were stuck in their dorms. Because of the reduced manpower, people were fatigued.
That said, historically, in terms of rescue and rehab work, we’ve done a lot of stuff with minimal manpower.
Since I started this job, I’ve worked 36-hour shifts, followed by a day of rest. The shift includes time to sleep, but all it takes is one call — maybe for a snake in the house at 2am, which takes up around two hours — then you don’t have rest.
As the pandemic dragged on, things slowly picked up. In September, we had eight to 10 volunteers taking turns to help us. This eased the volunteers’ workload and fatigue, and took some burden off the staff’s shoulders.
When COVID struck, we had thought the call numbers would drop because people could not roam around.
But as we approached December, we got about 15,000 calls for the year - our highest ever.
If you look at 2020, yes, we rescued about 4,000 animals. But we try not to gauge our performance for the year based on the quantity of animals.
Instead, we look at how many of those animals survived. How many were we able to care for properly, rehabilitate and release back into the wild? Those are better markers for how well we have performed.
This year, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary. First, we want to address our increasing call numbers. How do we cater for that? We can’t just keep functioning with one vehicle and two people per shift.
On top of that, we want to revamp our sanctuary. So for 2021, we have plans in place to expand our team, raise funds and have more cages, and maybe another vehicle, since we have only one van now.
We also have some campaigns in mind to reach out more to the public regarding wild animals.
People are so bored not travelling that they’ve been visiting nature reserves more. They want to know more about local biodiversity, which is great. But there needs to be a lot more public outreach and education.
Story: Grace Yeoh, Ruth Smalley, Anne-Marie Lim
Photos: Jeremy Long
Video: Ray Yeh
JEFF TAN, 32
Singaporeans tend to say that Singapore has nothing much to offer or worth doing. But when I went on walking tours of Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam in 2019, it was an eye-opener.
It also started my journey as a tour guide. I got my licence in August 2019, and became a full-time freelance guide with Monster Day Tours around December 2019.
Each job earned me about S$90 to S$100. Tips meant another S$50 to S$100. There were maybe 10 to 15 jobs a month, so I was making about S$2,000 in total.
And then the pandemic hit. When China ordered its first lockdown in January, around the Chinese New Year period, the English-speaking guides here weren’t so badly affected. But the Chinese-speaking guides saw an immediate effect.
By mid-March, everything dropped by 50 per cent. In April, I think it all dropped to zero. Luckily, I qualified for the Self-employed Person Income Relief Scheme. So that was S$1,000 a month to support me till October.
I also took up a job as a safe distancing ambassador from April to May because of the circuit breaker.
The lowest point in my life was before this job, because I had nothing to do.
I didn’t really want to drive for Grab because my grandmother stays with me, and there was a risk of exposure.
But in the end, I also quit being a safe distancing ambassador because something was weighing on my mind — that I could gain much more knowledge by trying to develop some virtual tours.
When another tour company, Lion Heartlanders, decided to collaborate with mine, we co-developed tours and helped each other to market the products.
The founders of both companies felt that Lion Heartlanders would be a better fit for me, so I joined the latter full-time in September. I’m now Lion Heartlanders’ lead in meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) and product development.
Among the things I do is to set up the Zoom room prior to virtual tours, which includes getting the slides and videos prepared.
We initially looked at whether the tour guides could do live streams. But we noticed that when the signal is disrupted, the whole experience stops.
I still work with Monster Day Tours on a freelance basis, for both physical and virtual tour operations. I facilitate the creation of the virtual tours as well as new products.
One of our first virtual tours was in one-north because I’d say not many people know about entrepreneurship in Singapore.
Doing a virtual tour is also a bit different because you need to put in the element of conversation. It’s about building the interest for viewers.
Apart from work, the circuit breaker brought my family closer, especially as I was working from home.
My parents are divorced, so my sister and I live with my mother — who is a private tutor in Mandarin, so her income was also affected by the circuit breaker.
This period has reminded me to be patient, for example when teaching my mum things or curating experiences for schools.
I’ve also learnt to be more meticulous, so that every little thing we try to do will have "spark".
I think I’m generally cheerful and outgoing, but I tend to overthink things — like, if this doesn’t work, what next?
I was concerned about whether the tourism industry will recover. Unfortunately, I still can't say for sure. I’m earning 30 to 40 per cent less than what I used to earn, and I don’t know when I’ll recover the rest.
Story: Grace Yeoh, Lianne Chia
Photos: Jeremy Long
KUIK SWEE BOON, 48
DANCE COMPANY DIRECTOR
Dance is communication beyond language. The moment when two humans come into contact with each other, their true intentions are revealed because the body would never lie.
The importance of human connection in dance is why I started T.H.E — or The Human Expression — Dance Company 13 years ago.
The day when the Government announced the circuit breaker was the very start of the publicity for our annual M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival. For the first time in 11 years, the festival had to be postponed.
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We could not hold our weekly workshops, which amounted to about 30 per cent of our income.
We also could not go on tour for an indefinite period; five international performances were cancelled.
With the COVID-19 pandemic striking at the heart of live performances in Singapore and overseas, we lost an estimated S$120,000.
I was in total survival mode going into the circuit breaker — how could we art practitioners keep our work alive?
I could have said, "Hey, let's all rest for a month and not work." But our bodies are our only instrument.
I decided to buy a Zoom account and threw my dancers in at the deep end. "Let's try training on Zoom," I said.
What I did not anticipate was the amount of troubleshooting we had to do.
We spent the next fortnight learning things like how to share music through Zoom. How do we give counts together with the music when there is a time lag in the video calls? How can I critique my dancers' movements when they look grainy and pixelated?
We also had to adapt to a new regime for home. For instance, we were accustomed to Marley dance flooring in the studio, which helps cushion the impact when we execute jumps. But home flooring does not give that protection.
As dancers, we also need ample space to move. I had to set a minimum space of two by two metres, which involved all of us moving furniture.
Our preparation paid off in Phase 2, when we could resume training in our studio. Although we had to observe safe distancing measures, we were thankful, and we tried our best to inject new energy into our work.
It is difficult to imagine, but between April and December we produced at least seven digital pieces — from a duet performed at home on Zoom, to a full-length virtual reality filming of an old repertoire.
These were efforts we made to bring audiences back to the theatre.
Thankfully, our digital venture was supported by the Digital Presentation Grant for the Arts, which gave us S$40,000. The Arts and Culture Resilience Package also provided us with a one-time S$75,000 support, which helped with our operating costs.
Together with the Jobs Support Scheme, which subsidised the salaries of our full-time staff, we managed to stay afloat and focus on producing meaningful, relevant work.
But this productivity mission took a toll on everyone. I remember everyone requesting not to do online performances any more — the dancers had to work doubly hard to produce digital performances.
To save costs, some had to become videographers and photographers. While they were willing to pivot their roles, there is a limit to everyone's energy.
On top of that, digital works are not bringing in the same ticket sales that our pre-COVID live shows did.
When our performance was free, we saw up to 2,000 people streaming it. When we adopted a pay-as-you-wish model, however, the audience numbers dropped to as low as 200, even though they could simply register and choose not to pay.
In the end, only 15 per cent of the audience for each show paid for their ticket, and our live-streamed performances earned just S$1,700 in total.
In the past, we earned around S$10,000 from our live productions.
Even so, we must acknowledge that digitalisation is absolutely necessary. Especially in Phase 3 right now, though live performances can resume, theatres can have only 20 to 30 per cent of the usual audience, which is not cost-effective.
Hence we need the digital platform to compensate for the reduction in seating capacity. If all else fails, the worst-case scenario is to produce fewer shows to reduce expenditure, as laying off staff is out of the question for me.
In five years' time, if the seating capacity for live performances remains as it is, I won't accept it.
While I understand that safety is the priority, it should not be at the expense of Singapore's arts and performance scene.
Story: Goh Chiew Tong
Photos: Jeremy Long
Video: Goh Chiew Tong
LESTER LEE, 32
HOME BUSINESS OWNER
The word that defined the first three months of COVID-19 was "zero".
As freelance videographers, my wife Charmaine and I had zero clients coming in. My mother, a Thermomix saleswoman, had zero sales. My father, a property agent, clinched zero deals.
The pandemic meant no weddings, no direct sales, nobody itching to spend on big-ticket properties.
My family of freelancers was completely jobless. Our income was zero.
But I can’t say that we’re not used to this.
Since I left my full-time advertising job in 2016, money has come second. I was fuelled by passion. I wanted control.
I wanted to own my decisions, good or bad. If I’d wanted stable money, I’d have stuck to a salaried job.
I’m sure I got this from my folks, who have been freelancers all their lives. So our threshold for financial stress has always been quite high — but, man, did this pandemic put it to the test.
By April, when the Government offered self-employed individuals a monthly payout of S$1,000 for nine months, I was 5 per cent relieved, 95 per cent gripped by fear.
If the Government saw this problem lasting for nine months, we could assume that we’d be jobless for just as long. 2016 Lester had not prepared for this.
It was like fight or flight. My reflex response was to apply for full-time advertising jobs.
You can be sure I was among the first applicants whenever a job was listed. But the next day, I’d see 2,000 other applicants.
By mid-April, I started doing food delivery, and Dad followed suit. It was an "essential service" and he was tired of sitting around, he said.
Mum tried live-streaming cooking classes to plug Thermomix. It’s funny because she knows absolutely nothing about Facebook. Charmaine and I stepped in to help, just itching to use cameras and lights. We had nothing going on, anyway.
Who was to know thence came our turning point?
One day, we were demonstrating Mum’s best recipe, the curry bun — the underdog of Singapore’s great delicacies, I’d say. We had to prepare four buns to show the different stages of the process, which meant four extra buns lying around.
We sold three to our audience, gave one to our neighbour and thought nothing of it.
By accident, we had started a business. Word was spreading beyond our immediate circles.
We needed to join the queue at baking ingredients supplier Phoon Huat to scavenge for flour. We needed an Instagram page. We needed a name. We needed to be remembered.
Eat My CB it was (go figure), and people lapped it up.
In May, all four of us had a job again. Mum was in charge of the curry, Charmaine the bread, Dad the deliveries, and myself the marketing. Being together all the time created a new energy in the house.
My family became closer than ever. We started at 5am and wrapped up at 1am. Never had I heard my stoic father talk so much in my 32 years.
Never had I quarrelled so much with my mother; she allowed me only to cut potatoes, they were always too big or too small, and I realised I loved her just the same. Needless to say, Charmaine was my rock through it all.
From June through August, we were so busy we did not even realise Phase 1 and 2 of Singapore’s reopening was upon us. Could we open a shop?
Then I realised we were not even making the median salary per person. I put the idea away.
In September, when weddings and small-scale events were happening again, we got our first video project of 2020.
Little did I know that being jobless was not the most stressful thing I was to experience that year.
I tried to muster creativity to produce videos, but without my wife, who was focusing on the Eat My CB business, it was hard. I was operating at my maximum, yet I could not meet deadlines.
In October, Eat My CB sales plummeted to a fifth of the usual. Everything was crashing down.
It would have been easier — and safer — to quit when the going got tough. But something told us to stick it out.
By a stroke of luck, publicity picked up again in November. The festive period more than made up for the nightmarish previous two months. All four of us even took a break in February.
It’s been a real roller coaster, but 2020 was still a good year. Mum, who’s 60, picked up social media marketing; Dad, who’s 66, learnt to use digital payments; Charmaine, who’s 31, is a superstar baker; and we’re stronger as a family.
I don’t know what’s going to happen this year, but I’m staying on the ride.
Story: Christy Yip, Grace Yeoh
Photos: Jeremy Long