The Race to Give Singaporeans and Local Businesses a Lifeline
Insight MinLaw goes behind the scenes to uncover stories about how the work we do impacts you.
2020 will be remembered for how the COVID-19 virus changed the way we live and work. Many businesses and individuals were severely hit by the pandemic. The COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act was passed on 7 April 2020 to offer relief to those affected.
We spoke to some of the officers from the Civil and Legislative Policy Division (CLPD) at MinLaw about the challenges the team faced in developing and passing the Act within an unprecedented nine days.
From left: Sanjna, Joanne, Shu Chin, Joy, Shurou
On 23 January 2020, Singapore saw its first recorded case of COVID-19. As clusters began to form, measures were introduced to curb the spread of the coronavirus and sustain the economy.
Singapore then went into circuit breaker mode on 7 April 2020. About two weeks before it began, MinLaw officers started working round the clock to bring the Act to life, offering much-needed relief to Singaporeans and local businesses affected by the pandemic.
A Timely Act
The Act was first conceived to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on businesses and individuals. The imposition of travel restrictions, supply chain disruptions and the introduction of safe distancing measures had, within a short period of time, thrown businesses and individuals into situations where it was difficult or impossible for them to perform their contracts. Most contracts simply did not anticipate the devastating effects of a pandemic of this scale.
Without support, many businesses would have had to close down, with years of sweat and substantial investment gone down the drain. There would have been an increase in litigation, bankruptcies and insolvencies.
The Act helped by intervening in various categories of contracts in which parties had difficulties performing their contractual obligations because of COVID-19. It provided breathing space for individuals and businesses to recover and negotiate a longer-term solution – without the threat of legal action. Subsequently, as the effects of the pandemic lingered, the Act was amended to assist individuals and businesses to navigate the ever-evolving business landscape.
Even as the team raced to develop the relief from contractual obligations, other agencies highlighted the need for other temporary measures to deal with the disruption that the pandemic caused to various day to day matters. Eventually, the Act that was brought to Parliament in April was an “omnibus” Bill, containing 7 parts, also dealing with MOF’s property tax rebates, MOH’s control orders, and parts to deal with meetings and court proceedings.
“Things Were Progressing Very Quickly”
But the journey to the passing of the Act was not an easy one.
It was decided in late March that unprecedented intervention was necessary. Immediately, a cross-division MinLaw team set up a resource panel of private sector professionals and representatives from different Government agencies. With their help, the legislation was conceptualised and drafted in just nine days.
The team was involved in every step of the process: from formulating the policies behind the Bill, conducting research on relief measures in other jurisdictions, organising rounds of consultations with the resource panel, working with colleagues from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) and private sector lawyers to draft the Bill and the subsidiary legislation, translating the policy into public communications materials, working on the speeches for the Second Reading of the Bill, and operationalising the processes in the Act. They repeated the entire process for subsequent amendments and additions to the Act.
“At each meeting, every clause of the Bill was looked at closely. Clarifications were sought from the respective agencies, and following the meeting, agencies had to quickly follow-up on these clarifications. Thereafter, the Bill would be refined based on the clarifications and we would then have another meeting to go through the revised draft Bill. Industry players were also invited to the meetings to provide their perspective, feedback and inputs on the Bill,” explained Joy. “Things were progressing very quickly.”
During this period, the MinLaw team worked around the clock to turn the Bill into reality.
Joy recounted how some meetings overlapped, and the team had to split up the limited resources and manpower they had. “I remember on the day of the Second Reading of the Bill, our team was present on site in one of the meeting rooms at Parliament House, to support Minister (K Shanmugam) and Second Minister (Edwin Tong). On the very same day, there were ongoing discussions on the subsidiary legislation.”
The team members sacrificed family time and missed important events. Sanjna spoke about feeling guilty for skipping her son’s 4th birthday. “Our director also missed his wife’s birthday celebration that day! He had leftovers for dinner that day. It was our media briefing that day and we had to work till late to prepare for what was happening the next day,” she added.
In the process of formulating the Bill, the team faced many challenges. Joanne described how, besides the tight timeline, the team had to achieve a fine balance in the Bill between protecting viable businesses and upholding the sanctity of contracts. Joy highlighted other dilemmas, including having to decide on the scope of the Act. The team consulted other Government agencies to better understand the impact of the pandemic on certain industries and contracts, before deciding whether they should be covered in the Bill. “It was not only important that we worked within that timeframe; it was also important to ensure that we did things right,” Sanjna noted.
Moving into operationalising the Act, Shurou shared that it was at times overwhelming to receive a flood of queries from the public, each with their own set of worries and issues. Recognising the difficult situation that Singaporeans were in, the MinLaw team took pains to assist their queries as best as they could.
The officers also had to work with multiple agencies and partners – cutting across various ministries and statutory boards – at a time when remote working and other business continuity arrangements were in place and many officers were struggling with technical issues, scheduling conflicts and last-minute changes. It was chaotic, to say the least.
The team spoke about the seemingly unending grind to operationalise the Act: “There were so many tasks to complete each day, and almost every task was one we’d never encountered and yet had to figure out and complete within a very short space of time.” Shurou added that they would not have been able to make the Act a reality “if not for the support of countless other individuals and teams who really helped us so much, in so many ways we don’t often say.”
Now that Singapore has entered Phase 3 of its reopening and life gradually returns to a new normal, the team reflected on their journey over the past year.
“Walking around the vicinity of Orchard Road a couple of weeks ago, I saw some shops which were empty. They had closed down, having been unable to survive the rigours of the past year. And it made me wonder how many more of such empty shops we would be looking at if the various measures under the Act had not been implemented. At that moment, I felt proud to have been part of a team that was working hard every day, trying to help people and businesses,” said Sanjna.
Joy spoke about how the intense work on the Act helped to strengthen bonds between colleagues – “without teamwork and coordination, I think this feat would not have been possible.”
On their key takeaways, Sanjna and Joanne said that it was to always be prepared to make bold decisions quickly. They pointed to the importance of being agile and nimble – to constantly hear and take in feedback, to closely monitor the evolving situation locally and globally, and be prepared to make changes to refine decisions.
Shurou added that it was important to listen to what the beneficiaries of the policies had to say, explaining that this would help the team identify gaps in the policies, or the way the information was communicated to the public: “We want to help as many people as possible with our policies. So we have to listen to them to understand what really works. Otherwise we end up creating something that no one can use.”
Wrapping up the interview, the team expressed their gratitude to all the people and teams whom they worked with on the Act. Sanjna explained: “Everyone, in MinLaw and several other ministries, pulled together when the going got tough, and we got things done. The Act could not have been possible without each and every one of them, providing support, giving their time, effort, and expertise..”
At the end of the day, the team hoped that the measures had helped Singaporeans cope with the current circumstances. “Knowing that people have benefitted in one way or another drives us to continue working hard,” Shu Chin said.
Last updated on 29 Jan 2021