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Toilet paper is the hot new currency in Singapore and Hong Kong

People queue to buy protective masks at Mustafa Centre on February 8, 2020 in Singapore. (PHOTO: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

By David Ramli and Abhishek Vishnoi

(Bloomberg) -- In the high-stakes world of gift giving in Asia’s financial hubs, Montblanc pens and leather folios are out -- toilet paper and surgical masks are most definitely in.

As fears of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) spread across the region, pharmacies and supermarkets in Hong Kong and Singapore are running out of basic supplies like toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitiser and especially masks.

That’s created an opportunity for financial service providers looking to wow clients and bolster relationships. The Singapore arm of online trading provider IG Group went viral after handing out party packs with 3M Co. N95 face masks, digital thermometers and bottles of Dettol antiseptic.

IG began distributing the gifts after Singapore raised the viral alert to orange -- a critical level. What started as an amusing idea from the company’s local management team quickly spiraled and now its staff and clients have been receiving the care packs in the office and via mail. The gift has proven timely with some banks across the central business district evacuating their offices and requiring employees to work from home.

“It all started as a precaution for friends and family and then others started asking how to get the masks and other things,“ said Terence Tan, head of business development at IG Asia Pte. “So we thought: Why not get these things for our staff and clients?”

He said the first packages for clients went out today and they’ll send out more packages as additional supplies come in.

American Joel Werner runs a hedge fund, Solitude Capital Management in Hong Kong. On February 10, he bought the equivalent of 216 rolls of toilet paper on Amazon.com Inc. after his family tried in vain for days to find any in Hong Kong. The shipping alone cost $200 but he thinks it was worth it. He kept half of the bounty and plans to give the other half to friends and colleagues.

“It’s a better gift than wine now,” he said.

Household items also are gaining traction in the social lives of those in the financial hubs. Friends gathering at a restaurant in Hong Kong this week were asked to bring contributions of face masks or toilet paper for a lucky draw.

And in a sign of love in the time of the coronavirus, photos of bouquets stuffed with instant noodles and vegetables instead of roses are making the rounds of Singapore’s finance WhatsApp groups for Valentine’s Day after a run on supermarkets forced them to impose limits on shoppers.

It all goes to show that when crisis strikes, it’s the thought - and thickness of the toilet tissue -- that counts.


© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.