Singapore: From Crisis to Recovery

Singapore's freelancers find new income during the coronavirus pandemic

How gig workers are surviving the pandemic
How gig workers are surviving the pandemic

As much as an economy is built by big businesses and start-ups, it's also shaped by independent workers.

So when the coronavirus pandemic emerged this year, sending markets into a tailspin and disrupting most aspects of daily life, freelancers were hard hit.

The pandemic forced many of them to find new ways of working. CNBC Make It spoke to Singaporean freelancers in some of the economy's hardest-hit sectors to hear how they've done that.

Rethinking the dream

In Singapore, as elsewhere, the freelance industry has grown over recent years as the rise of the gig economy and digital platforms such as Fiverr and Upwork have given way to new — and sometimes lucrative — ways of working. 

Last year, independent workers accounted for nearly 9% of the Singapore workforce, or 211,000 residents — up from 200,000 in 2016. Of them, more than 80% did freelance work as their primary job. 

Independent workers account for close to 9% of Singapore's workforce.

But with the pandemic, the appeal of gig work has been put to the test. Demand for services such as logistics and delivery have surged under nationwide lockdowns, but other sectors — especially the arts and hospitality — have seen business dry up almost entirely.  

That was the case for singer-songwriter Jill-Marie Thomas. 

The former national talent show winner quit her marketing job two years ago to pursue performing full-time. But when closures crippled the country's flourishing entertainment scene, her dreams were almost dashed.

It was me finally living my dream ... then for it to just come crashing down.
Jill-Marie Thomas

"It was me finally living my dream," said Thomas. "Putting myself out there without the safety new of having a 9-to-5 job and doing what I really love, and then for it to just come crashing down.", one of several sites launched internationally to support creative workers, estimates more than $21 million in income and almost 9,000 gigs have been lost in Singapore as a result of Covid-19.

To help cushion the impact, the government in March introduced a $6,500 pay-out for freelance workers, on top of various household support packages. Cultural agencies have also offered support. In May, the Singapore's National Arts Council partnered with streaming platform Bigo Live to launch SGLivehouse, a series of virtual gigs to help buskers like Thomas transition to online performances. 

Singer-songwriter Jill-Marie Thomas performs to fans online using streaming platform Bigo Live.

"They sent equipment over. We even had a tutorial on how to stream ... and what we can do to improve," Thomas said.

The 38-year-old musician said that has given her the confidence to experiment with different ways of reaching her fans and earning an income via online performances and streaming donations.

"This platform has always been here, this online platform. But with what we're going through it's just been an eye-opener," she said. "I guess it's given us all an opportunity to look into other areas that we might have overlooked."

Finding new revenue

Virtual events are just one way freelancers have digitized to find new business opportunities.

For instance, when lockdowns threatened Singapore's iconic food markets — known locally as hawker centers — stall owners partnered with government agencies to make money online

Ming Han Tan, food stall operator at Singapore's Chinatown Complex hawker center.

Ming Han Tan is a second-generation hawker seller who helps on his parents' traditional dried cuttlefish and biscuits stall in the city's central Chinatown Complex.

The 34-year-old saw business drop as much as 80% due to the outbreak as people opted to stay home, which prompted him to quickly digitize. 

We had to look at new avenues, such as doing delivery, advertising ... digital payments.
Ming Han Tan
hawker seller

"During the Covid, we had to look at new avenues such as doing delivery, advertising and marketing on Facebook, social media platforms, and also using digital payments," said Tan.

Mirroring those efforts, in June the government launched Hawkers Go Digital, an initiative to help more stallholders adopt technologies such as e-payments. As of August, almost a third (5,400) of Singapore's 18,000 hawker stalls had adopted digital payments — a figure authorities hope to raise to 100% by June 2021.

Locals tour Singapore's Chinatown Complex food court during a Hawker Day Out even
Eat Shop Play

Some hawkers are concerned about transaction fees for digital payments kicking in from 2023. But Tan said he thinks the shift will be a "win-win" for customers and stallholders and help the industry weather changes in consumer spending habits.

The scheme aligns with Singapore's efforts to support its traditional industries and the independent workers within them. Last month, for instance, the Chinatown Complex Hawkers Association and private agency Eat Shop Play launched Hawker Day Out, a series of in-person and virtual tours to encourage more people to return to their local markets.

"We hope to bring more businesses back to this whole entire Chinatown Complex and to keep it alive because it is a sunset industry," said Tan. "We do not hope that, because of this Covid, it continues to go down."

Diversifying across digital

Rapid digitization has created a learning curve for many independent workers, but it has also been a boon for some of those who make it their business to help with that transition.

Freelance digital marketer Sandra Tan has been advising individuals and businesses on how to up their online presence for several years after herself being laid off in 2016. 

Freelance digital marketing consultant teaches a virtual class from her home.

"One thing I told myself (then) was that I needed to find a future-proof career," she said.

But under the pandemic, demand for Tan's advisory services has surged as nationwide lockdowns and mass layoffs have led more people to look for new ways of operating online. 

I would dare to say it's almost a basic skill now for everyone to be able to brand themselves online.
Sandra Tan
founder, Esteem Communications

"Everybody wanted to have a slice of knowledge to know what exactly is digital marketing? What is social media? And how can they beef up their presence online," she said. "I would dare to say it's almost a basic skill now for everyone to be able to brand themselves online."

Since March alone, Tan has coached some 500 people. In particular, her work has focused on the newly unemployed and those in the hard-hit retail and hospitality sectors. Such workers, she says, have had to reinvent themselves almost entirely.

"One of the key things, especially for the hotel industry to realize, was that apart from rooms, they have to look at their ancillary services. It could be an e-butler service from Raffles Hotel or online delivery," Tan said. "That took them with a little bit of shock because we never hear of hotels delivering food, so they had to change their mindsets."

Independent workers reinvent themselves

That ability to shift mindsets and prepare for a more unpredictable future will likely be important for freelancers determined to flourish, said Tan.

"Freelancing in this period of time has actually taken on new meaning. Basically everyone now is very much on their own," she said. "But I think human beings have the ability and capability to reinvent themselves. Even as I am now, I can't rest on my laurels."

I'm very hopeful for Singapore's hawker culture — and I'm part of it. The whole culture has been around since the birth of Singapore, and it will rise.
Ming Han Tan
hawker seller

That could spell good news for fast-adapting workers like hawker Tan. The food seller said he thinks the shifts he has made in recent months will position him — and his industry — for the long-term. 

"I'm very hopeful for Singapore's hawker culture — and I'm part of it. The whole culture has been around since the birth of Singapore, and it will rise," said Tan.

Singer-songwriter Jill-Marie Thomas performs in Singapore's Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park.

And Thomas? Even as artists like her seek different ways to operate, she won't be letting go of her dreams anytime soon.

"Everything's not back to normal, but slowly things are starting to pick up," she said. "So I do hope that I do get more gigs and everything and [am] able to work towards my other dreams of owning my own place and stuff like that." 

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