Workers’ Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim questioned why the Self-Employed Persons Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) seems to be administered by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) when it involves public funds from Singapore’s reserves, in her parliamentary speech on the Fortitude Budget.

The Government introduced SIRS – a scheme offering financial aid to self-employed Singaporeans who have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic – during the Resilience Budget and enhanced the scheme during the Solidarity Budget. Under SIRS, eligible self-employed Singaporeans can receive nine months of support, at S$1,000 per month.

To be eligible for SIRS, applicants must earn a Net Trade Income (NTI) of not more than S$100,000; earn S$2,300 or less if they are also employed elsewhere; live in a property with an annual value not more than S$21,000; and do not own two or more properties. Married self-employed Singaporeans are eligible if they and their spouse together do not own two or more properties; and if the assessable Income of their spouse does not exceed S$70,000.

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The scheme, which involves funds from past reserves, is supposed to be overseen by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). In April, however, the MOM announced that it has roped in NTUC to “administer SIRS applications and appeals, and support SEPs in need”. It said that it enlisted the labour movement to do so “in the spirit of tripartism”.

Sylvia Lim asked a series of questions about the purpose and fairness of SIRS in her parliamentary speech on Singapore’s fourth COVID support package, including why NTUC is administering the scheme in place of the Government.

Pointing out the authorities received over 60,000 appeals by self-employed persons who were affected by the COVID crisis but are ineligible for the support scheme, Ms Lim asked what the annual value of the property one lives in has got to do with whether the person has suffered serious income disruption.

She revealed that she knows several residents who are disqualified from SIRS, even though they desperately need help, simply because they are living in their parents’ homes or are renting.

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Asserting that these self-employed Singaporeans cannot apply for relief even though their incomes have been disrupted or completely displaced by the COVID crisis, Ms Lim pointed out that other self-employed persons whose incomes are unaffected by COVID-19 have received full SIRS payments due to the auto-inclusion nature of the scheme.

Ms Lim said that NTUC has outright rejected some appeals, approved some appeals and approved other appeals with a reduced payout amount, like S$800 per month instead of S$1,000 per month.

Questioning what grounds NTUC relies on to make these decisions, Ms Lim asked: “Suffice to say, these disparate outcomes have caused frustration and feelings of arbitrariness and unfairness. Questions asked include: How does NTUC decide? What are the criteria for allowing or rejecting appeals?”

The opposition politician also raised questions on why SIRS is administrated by NTUC instead of MOM. She said: “SIRS involves public funds; to be exact, SIRS involves the use of Past Reserves. Who should be in charge of the scheme?

“The government has stated that MOM oversees the scheme, but NTUC helps administer appeals for those who do not automatically qualify. From the cases we have seen, it is NTUC that is fronting all communications in appeals, while the role of MOM is not visible.”

Seeking answers on why the administration of the scheme was outsourced to the labour movement, Ms Lim questioned whether this move would set a precedent for the Government to farm out public schemes to external parties.

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She asked: “From a governance perspective, why was there a need to outsource the administration of SIRS appeals to NTUC in the first place? Was this done due to a lack of manpower, or other reasons? Will this set a precedent for the government to outsource its schemes to external parties to manage? What does this mean for government accountability?”

Watch Ms Lim’s remarks on the SIRS scheme here, from the 6:11 mark to the 9:11 mark: