'What to do? I think very soon will close': The plight of money changers in S'pore with nothing to change

Tough times.

Syahindah Ishak | Nyi Nyi Thet | September 13, 2020, 02:57 PM

A common theme for many industries struggling with Covid-19 in Singapore is the need to change, and adapt to this "new normal" we constantly hear about.

For some, it's simple: Cultivate an online presence to make up for the lack of footfall. For F&B outlets, perhaps a delivery system? Or getting on a delivery platform to make your food available to those unable to get to your food.

But what if the entire basis of your operation is undermined by the pandemic in 2020?

For money changers in Singapore, the Covid-19 crisis has proved to be an existential threat to their entire industry.

Situation "very bad" for many

When Mothership went down to visit some of the money changers around Singapore, the situation seemed dire nearly island-wide.

A money changer in Tampines 1 mall described the situation as "very bad".

Image by Syahindah Ishak.

The lack of customers had been evident once borders started closing months ago.

And like many shops during circuit breaker, they had shut down during the period.

However, reopening hasn't helped much at all.

"Because cannot go out...no flights. Even Malaysia also cannot go. Now they are just selling what they have because they cannot go overseas. Whatever currency they have, they will sell. They sell everything. We cannot get profit from that."

Another money changer located at Tampines MRT also described the situation as "very very bad", and elaborated on how much their business had suffered:

"Less than 10 people come the shop. Last time, we get more than 100 per day. About 90 per cent cut is the difference. Very bad."

The ones that come are usually trading in any leftover foreign currencies, with a few changing for some Malaysian Ringgit.

He added, "How to survive? I just have to...need to have enough for the salary for my staff."

With business taking a hit, some money changers told us that they had to either let employees go or to reduce staff salaries.

For some other money changers we spoke to in Parkway Parade, they said they were currently relying more on revenue from remittance services instead.

Money changer at Parkway Parade. Image by Syahindah Ishak.

Still open due to contractual necessity

For many, their shops remain open not due to overwhelming demand, but rather, contractual necessity.

A money changer in East Point, Simei, told us that they need to continue running the shop because of the payment lease.

However, due to the poor business, they have shortened their opening hours from 11am to 8pm, compared to the previous hours of 10:30am to 9:30pm.

"Mentally, we are also affected. Now less people come, I don’t do anything, you know. It’s very boring. I just read most of the time. But this is a place to work, not to relax."

Money changer at Eastpoint Mall. Image by Syahindah Ishak.

General outlook is not optimistic

The general hope from the changers is that this entire nightmare ends soon, and that travel becomes commonplace once more.

Most of those we talked to, however, were not too optimistic that the reversal, if it were to even happen, will not happen in time.

In fact, the general consensus appeared to be one of quiet resignation.

One even told us: "What to do? How to do it? I think very soon will close."

Some respite in Changi Airport

The only location where things looked even remotely close to normal was at Changi Airport.

Even then, there appeared to be a steep divide in terms of which money changers were actually benefiting.

The money changer at departures was doing significantly better than arrivals (note, this was before Brunei and New Zealand arrivals were allowed into Singapore):

Image by Syahindah Ishak.

Image by Syahindah Ishak.

While the money changer at departures saw slightly better business, the "better" is of course very relative.

"The business drop about 40 to 50 per cent. Last time...a lot leh. 200 to 300...around there."

One money changer also gave his take on the disparity between departures and arrivals.

"Actually, those people who come back to our country, they cannot….they not allowed to walk around the airport when reach. Because the Covid rules, they have to quickly go quarantine. Must not mix with other people. So the customers who come here ah, actually they from upstairs (departure)."

So even at the epicentre of travel in Singapore, the recovery for money changers is stilted and incomplete.

With a vaccine still a distant hope and travels being restricted, some money changers in Singapore are contemplating not just a tough stretch, but a complete eradication of their business.

The future for money changers remain uncertain

One money changer we spoke to also pointed out how Covid-19 has simply sped up the decline of the money changing business.

“Things need to get better. But I think, this trade, no future because everything is also going digital. This virus…the Covid made it faster.”

With a concerted shift to move away from cash, more e-payment options are crossing borders. For example, tourists coming from China into Singapore are increasingly able to use WePay.

Similarly, more non-cash options have for been popping up for Singaporeans when they eventually start travelling again.

Much of the conversation involving the virus has been about the projected recovery once the world returns "to normal" with the need for change to tide over this tough time.

But perhaps for some, change isn't a way to escape the storm, it is the storm itself.

As one money changer told Mothership:

"And our business (money changers), can probably sustain for another two to three years maybe? But if this virus continue longer, might be hard to survive."

Money changer from Bedok Mall. Image by Syahindah Ishak.

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Top image by Syahindah Ishak.