Should we rally behind Singapore Airlines as it fights to survive Covid-19? Interesting question. The answer is not straightforward. The Singaporeans-SIA relationship has always been a bit of love-hate. Or pride versus perceived betrayal. Let’s hope that both sides come out of the current pandemic crisis understanding and appreciating each other better.
In particular, SIA should treat true-blue Singaporeans more warmly as the bona fide owners of the airline and regard them as VIPs whenever they fly SIA. In spirit in the economy class at least, if we cannot afford Business Class seats. Otherwise, we will continue to look at SIA the same way that we look at the under-utilised SportsHub, the Gardens (White Elephants) By the Bay and the irritating F1 horror circus as irrelevant to our lives and totally alien to our national psyche.
There was a time when SIA was said to be showing signs of side-lining Singaporeans as it sought to capture the international market, especially in the West. Complaints about the airline’s alleged Pinkerton Syndrome were rife. So much so that some Singaporeans were literally boycotting their own airline. They complained that SIA girls (and men) practised double standards and tended to “look down” on Asian passengers. A Jon Hamm lookalike would always get instant and friendlier service. Maybe SIA was deliberately targeting a certain market segment and could not say so publicly without sounding like it was uninterested in any other kind of business.
When budget airlines started biting into the profit margins of SIA, the airline woke up, fought back and went budget/regional and more down-to-earth with SilkAir and Scoot. By which time, nevertheless, Singaporeans have been finding out, like most other travellers, that SIA was merely one option among many. Or so it seemed.
But SIA is, of course, much important to Singapore – and Singaporeans – for two main reasons.
First, it provides jobs. The SIA Group had more than 28,000 employees across three airlines and SIA Engineering as of March. Because of Covid-19, last week, the carrier said that about 2,400 employees would be affected by job cuts, while another 1,900 positions are being eliminated by measures such as a recruitment freeze and early retirement schemes.
Any shrinking hurts a lot of people.
And we should be glad that at least three companies, the Jumbo Group, Commonwealth Capital and EtonHouse, have already started offering jobs to the retrenched SIA employees. And the employment of SIA stewards and stewardesses as Covid-19 Safe Distancing Ambassadors has also been a good move. Well done.
Next, SIA is not just a commercial airline. It is at the centre – together with Changi Airport – of Singapore’s role as a global air hub, indeed, of Singapore’s very existence. DPM Heng Swee Keat rightly said: “The SIA group sits at the heart of our aviation system and anchors our position as an air hub. In 2019, SIA accounted for over half of passenger traffic and cargo tonnage in Singapore.
“As the main hub carrier, SIA links us to the rest of the world. Many foreign airlines choose to come to Changi because they can tap on SIA’s connectivity to the rest of the region.
“A diminished SIA will undermine our air hub’s ability to recover from the crisis. Air travel will eventually resume when Covid-19 comes under control. Until then, SIA will need liquidity to tide over this outbreak.”
There will be strong Temasek Holdings support to ensure SIA’s viability. Fear not.
Now, it is almost like SIA has become more vital than when Lee Kuan Yew said, in trying to resolve a pilots’ industrial action in 1980, that he was prepared to shut down the airline. To him then, Changi airport was more indispensable than SIA.
As the region moves up the development ladder, SIA should be at the nexus of the action. It will play a big part in the continuing rise of Asia in the 2020s and beyond.
But do Singaporeans feel they have any real connection whatsoever to their national carrier? I am not sure many care that much about it, it would appear. I ask: How many true-blue man-in-the-street Singaporeans have ever stepped into a SilverKris lounge? Not many? Maybe SIA can open all these lounges to all Singaporean passengers booked for its upcoming Flights To Nowhere. Come on, SIA, here’s your chance to endear yourself to your real employers.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also former managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.