INTERVIEW: Home-based baker, Shahid Ashraf of CHOUXBYSA — “We need to give each other moral support & spread positivity”

Lifestyle Contributor
(PHOTO: Shahid Ashraf for CHOUXBYSA)

Surely by now, you would have heard of the kerfuffle raging between home-based businesses (HBB) and government agencies, who, in one fell swoop, affected the rice bowls of many home bakers. Thousands of HBB owners rallied to their social media pages, their fervent fans following closely behind, demanding an explanation or a clarification for these small scale operations, most of whom depend on the brisk Hari Raya period for a huge cut of their profit margins for the year.

A clarification was indeed issued on 26th April 2020, where, in a joint statement by four government agencies—the Trade and Industry Ministry, Environment and Water Resources Ministry, Housing Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority—HBB were basically told to cease operations or risk a S$1,000 fine. 

Everyone had an opinion about this with most on the side of HBB owners, taking umbrage from the uneven standards applied to physical F&B establishments who were allowed to utilise food delivery service during circuit breaker period. However, the strongest voice of support came from our President herself, Mdm Halimah Yacob who, in a Facebook post, waxed nostalgic about ordering Hari Raya cookies from HBB, and ended the post saying she looked forward to purchasing them again. 

I wanted to talk to HBB owners who were adversely affected by this stop-work instruction and at the same time, peel back the layers of misunderstanding the general public have about Singaporeans who chose this line of work. After scrolling through Instagram, I chanced upon CHOUXBYSA, a HBB bakery founded by Shahid Ashraf Bin Rosli, serving up halal artisan choux that has earned rave reviews by close friends of mine and long-time customers of CHOUXBYSA. In a two-part series exploring the world of HBB, I speak first to Shahid in an attempt to understand a little bit better the trial and tribulations faced by an extremely small, but tight-knit community of bakers who have managed to meld passion and the need for survival into a unique business. 

(PHOTO: Shahid Ashraf for CHOUXBYSA)

What do Singaporeans misunderstand most about home-based businesses such as yourself? 

I think one of the misconceptions is that we are lazy and full of excuses to go and find a full-time job outside. There are also people who think we earn a lot more than brick and mortar F&B since we do not have to pay rent for our business operations. The truth is, there are many reasons why people choose to be Home-Based baker or run a home-based business. 

Some have sick children or parents to care for, while some do not have sufficient academic qualifications to land a decent paying job in the open, and often aggressive job market out there.  For me, CHOUXBYSA was the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, which was sparked by a decrease in income from my initial occupation as a Grab driver. 

What do you remember of your initial reaction when you received official news from the government that all HBB is to cease operations? 

Before the official announcement, I already speculated that the government would be imposing new regulations when they gradually shut down some of the commercial F&B businesses. It is not surprising that some merchants find it unfair and thus voice out their grievances on the double standards vis a vis the commercial F&B industry versus home-based food business. They feel that if the physical F&B establishments had to close, home-based food businesses should be closed too. 

So, when the new ruling on home-based businesses was finally announced, I was quite calm and composed. I immediately thought of whether I had sufficient savings to tide over this pandemic. It was going to be yet another challenge especially after my previous stable income as a Grab driver was already badly affected and I was counting on this to make up for the loss of income. 

(PHOTO: Shahid Ashraf for CHOUXBYSA)

Admittedly, there was a bit of confusion with regards to conflicting messaging between MTI and HDB. How do you think the government could have better handled the transition to this stop-work order for all HBB?  

In my opinion, it should have been carried out in stages so that home-based businesses have enough time to clear their outstanding orders and make necessary arrangements with their customers or suppliers if need be. The MTI and HDB should have also given a straightforward answer to the public so that everyone is on the same page concerning the new rulings implemented. 

The matter should not be addressed by only one news platform; Berita Harian was the only newspaper reporting the issue when the new ruling was announced. Not everyone can understand the Malay language, and there are home-based businesses run by other races too. 

We should not generalise and assume that all HBBs are operated within the Malay community. 

It is the different announcements from HDB and MTI, including the news article published in Berita Harian, that contributed to the uncertainty among the HBBs. 

What has been the most significant impact this ruling has had on you since it was announced? 

Definitely cashflow. It severely disrupted the finances I need to manage some of the liabilities in both my business and daily life. I also have many new followers on CHOUXBYSA Instagram account that were disappointed as they weren’t able to try our new line of products due to the ruling which was enforced abruptly. 

What has been the most important lesson you've taken away from this experience that might change how you pursue your business in future? 

A contingency plan is needed in every business, be it a home-based business or a bigger scale start-up. I have always considered the worst possibilities in future events and prepared a contingency plan. I’m quite lucky in that I have set aside sufficient saving funds for the business to sustain during this harsh period. 

I also feel it is essential that every HBB owner accurately declare their income tax. This way, the government has documented proof to show that we are affected by this pandemic as a Self-Employed Person, and in turn grant us access to the relief packages offered during this period. HBB that has yet to declare their taxes will not be in the official record, and these owners will not be eligible for the relief fund during this trying time because there is no proof to show their loss of income.

Recently, the government announced the potential easing of measures on May 12th for home Based businesses. What preparations do you intend to undertake, and how have your customers reacted to this news? 

Both my customers and I are definitely delighted after hearing the great news. Some are already asking when I will be taking new orders. We can see the effort of our government to help in easing the situation not only for Home-Based Businesses but the commercial-run establishments too. 

I would like to personally thank our President, Mdm Halimah Yaacob for her swift action in handling this matter and reassuring the HBB community that she has been an avid supporter of small-scale businesses such as mine for a long time.

I have sourced out for supplies and ingredients to ensure that I am fully prepared for the upcoming Bake Sale as our products are baked upon order. This ensures food quality and freshness. We will also be putting up the infographics given by the government on our Instagram page to remind all our customers on the precautionary measures to be taken when doing transactions and deliveries. 

What advice would you give to other HBB owners such as yourself in getting through this tough time? 

What we need to do is to give each other moral support and spread positivity. There’s just too much negativity being spread around that does not help us in this situation in any way.

I believe that what goes down will eventually come up, so be patient and have faith because this is going to end. Maybe not in the near future, but eventually for sure.