March 23, 2017

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by Lee Chin Wee

The North Korean saga in Malaysia is still playing out 33 days after the murder of a Kim family member. This is part two of our murder mystery novel.

 

MALAYSIA’S top cop wrung his hands. How many times did he have to say that the body lying in the morgue is Kim Jong Nam?

Heck, even if he isn’t to be trusted, just read the news. When every single media outlet from the New York Times to the Yonhap News Agency is saying the same damn thing… Yet those North Koreans have the gall to say otherwise. How would they know? They’re in Pyongyang. Did they think he didn’t know how to verify the identity of a corpse??

Back in the office from yet another media conference, the Inspector-General settled down to yet another cup of kopi. What was he to do about the two pesky North Koreans from the embassy? The jokers had tried to force their way into the KL morgue, much to the consternation of the security guards. How in the world was he going to interview them about the murder if they refuse to leave the compound? Or the 1,000 North Koreans still working in Malaysia – what if they’re sleeper agents who will now come out of the woodwork? Hopefully not, because the foreign ministry just issued a directive barring 315 of them from leaving Malaysia…

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The situation was deteriorating, and fast. For heavens’ sake, Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein even spoke to the media the week before about the possibility of war with North Korea. War! With a rogue nation armed to the teeth with nuclear and conventional weapons? Not the wisest of ideas.

The Inspector-General shook his head. He knew that the visa arrangement should never have been agreed to. North Korean elites are always trouble, let alone the first-born son of Kim Jong-il. He groaned. And what of the 11 Malaysians held hostage in Pyongyang? The foreign ministry had better act soon, or else a complete diplomatic crisis would be on the cards. These North Koreans are barbarians!

He burped as he briefly entertained the idea of sending in a SWAT team. The foreign affairs minister would throw a fit, but how dare the suspects hide in their embassy? The sheer gall of planning a murder on Malaysian soil, using chemical weapons in an airport waiting area, and then fleeing back to the embassy where police couldn’t reach them. His blood boiled. To hell with diplomatic immunity.

What a bloody mess. It was barely a month since the murder happened, but it sure didn’t feel that way.

The Inspector-General recalled how he’d been interrupted from his lunch break on Feb 13, with the call that someone had collapsed in the KL International Airport. He was incredulous at first, irritated that someone would bother him over a routine case of heart attack. But as the investigations proceeded apace, it soon became clear that this was much more than an open-and-shut case.

It seemed as if answers only begot more questions. How did the North Koreans manage to smuggle VX toxin into Malaysia? Why in the world was Kim murdered? Was the North Korean government involved? If they were, what was their degree of involvement? Were his murderers really tricked into killing him, as they claimed?

He sank back into his chair. Even the days managing security for the Bersih protests and the 2014 General Elections didn’t compare to this. Strange, wasn’t it. It was easier to make sure 100,000 protesters didn’t come to blows with the opposition, compared to investigating the murder of a single man.

His secretary rapped on his door, derailing his train of thought. “Uh Sir? Media here again. For the three o’clock update, they’ll need you in the press briefing room soon.”

I’m really not paid enough for this. Sighing, he made his way to the briefing room. The media is just going to ask the usual questions, I’ll give the usual answers, they’ll demand more answers as usual, and I’ll tell them that the case is still ongoing – as usual. Why do we even bother with this charade?

The press update, as expected, was more of the same. Yes, the body is Kim Jong Nam’s. Yes, he died of acute respiratory and heart failure. No, cause of death cannot yet be confirmed. Yes, we suspect it’s some sort of nerve agent. Yes, a group of individuals tried to break into the KL morgue last week; no, we can’t tell you who they are, but we know who is responsible.

“Inspector-General, Sir, how do you respond to the North Korean ambassador’s remarks that the ‘Malaysian police investigation cannot be trusted’?”

“The ambassador is entitled to his opinion. But my men are professional and competent, and it is disappointing to see their work being criticised when the North Koreans have given us nothing but trouble so far.” He rolled his eyes. He’d be glad to see the back of the ambassador – the man was mouthing off about the investigations almost every day.

Worst of all, he still had no idea what to do with the body. It’s got to end up somewhere, maybe buried six feet under or put in a deep freezer where the North Koreans can’t steal it. Why doesn’t his son just come and take the damn thing with him back to Macau? Or… maybe he shouldn’t.

One dead body is more than enough, thank you very much.

 

This article is part of a series on the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam. Read the other piece here:

  1. Fact Fiction: A North Korean murder mystery

 

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by Lee Chin Wee

CAN you imagine a Singapore where students aren’t defined wholly by their grades?

ST ran a thought-provoking piece on Mar 16, calling on the G to be bold and take in all students through aptitude-based university admissions. The proposal runs completely against the grain of our grades-centred university admissions model, but that’s the entire point. If we are to be serious about transforming education and skills acquisition in Singapore, it’s time for some sacred cows to be slaughtered.

Many of the world’s top universities have already implemented a holistic, aptitude-based admissions model. Among employers, there is also a growing recognition that academic performance is an insufficient and inaccurate barometer for professional success – Google, for instance, has moved away from hiring based solely on GPAs and IQ tests.  As Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie points out in the ST article, “(Imagine) choosing our doctors based on grades alone. Considering how expensive medical training is in terms of taxpayers’ money, wouldn’t society want future doctors to be compassionate and caring?”

As the G seeks to prepare young Singaporeans to face the varied challenges of our future economy, it makes sense to distribute talent to where it can be best developed rather than sort students to universities based on test scores. Why, then, am I not optimistic about change?

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

Our political and civil service leadership are the least likely to take issue with the current model. Why would they, if they have been (and will continue to be) the largest beneficiaries of a highly-intense, elite-tracked, grades-centred education system?

There exists a cognitive effect known as Survivorship Bias. It simply means that, when we are evaluating the success of a policy, there is a tendency to concentrate on the people or things that “survived” the process and inadvertently discount those who did not due to their lack of visibility. Mr Michael Shermer explains this effect in an article written for the Scientific American, where he discussed the public interest in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography of Steve Jobs:
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Want to be the next Steve Jobs and create the next Apple Computer? Drop out of college and start a business with your buddies in the garage of your parents’ home. How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed? Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.

.Similarly, no one listens to someone who failed to enter university under a grades-only system. The people who are heard are the survivors: the 21-year-old Public Service Commission scholars who scored perfect grades in their youth and went on to be Deputy Secretaries, Permanent Secretaries, and Ministers.

The simple fact is that there is a lack of educational and academic diversity within the ranks of our top leadership. How many of them studied in polytechnics, or barely made the cut for university? The homogeneity of their experiences may blind them to the harms of a grades-only admissions policy.

 

Parents, social attitudes and the politics of education

Miss Davie admits that she “can already hear the howls of protest from parents paying thousands of dollars to top tutors to ensure that their kids ace the A levels.” And she’s right – Singapore is not called the “Tuition Nation” for nothing. It is estimated that over S$1 billion is spent on tuition each year, with the figure steadily increasing.

Many parents have bought into the Confucian ethos that hard work and good grades will lead to a well-paying job. It is a mantra that the G has reinforced over the years, from aggressive academic streaming that began as early as in primary school (remember the now-discontinued EM1/2/3?) to public sector scholarships awarded to top exam performers at ages 18 and 19.

Particularly for the older generation of Singaporean parents, grades are a non-negotiable aspect of school life. Co-curricular training can be missed, enrichment activities can be skipped, but exams must be passed, if not aced.

It’s more than just the idea of shifting values. Many parents and families have been financially and personally investing into a future-by-the-grades for their children. If they realise that a grades-based future is no longer as good as it used to be, you can expect some outcry.

For the G to overturn this deeply-ingrained orthodoxy is to invite backlash and scepticism – parents want less stress for their children, but they also want a fair and meritocratic university admissions process. It is easy to see how an aptitude-based system, with its numerous interviews, focus on interviews and portfolios, and discretionary admissions policies could be seen as subjective and opaque, even though it need not be.

 

The irritating, but simple, cost argument

A final consideration is that of cost. A 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions system is not going to come cheap – it means expanding the university admissions office, more time spent interviewing prospective candidates, longer hours reviewing each application.

MOE statistics indicate that in 2015 alone, the six autonomous universities in Singapore received a combined 70,000 applications from A-level and polytechnic diploma holders. Assuming that an aptitude-based admissions system increases the time taken to assess each student by 15 minutes (a conservative estimate), that is 17,500 hours of additional work in total.

This subsequently gets priced into university application costs. American colleges, which recruit students on a holistic and broad-based set of criteria, are an example. As someone who applied to a number of American colleges in 2014, I know first-hand how expensive these costs can be – even as a domestic US student, applying for one college costs around US$60 (S$85). Imagine if you applied to six colleges! That’s S$510 down the drain before you even go for any interviews.

Application fees in Singapore are, on the comparative, very cheap. A local student applying to NUS, for example, only need to pay $10. It is entirely possible to apply for all six autonomous universities in Singapore for the price of applying to one or two US colleges.

 

Change is still worthwhile

Such considerations, however, should not prevent us from seeking real change to the university admissions process. While it may mean that change progresses at a slower rate – the quota for discretionary admissions could be gradually increased over a period of 10 years – it should not detract from the key points made by Miss Davie. The world will not wait for Singapore to change. If we continue to drag our heels instead of trying to find new ways to maximise our human capital, then prepare to be left behind.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Lee Chin Wee

THE Labour Market Report 2016 released today (Mar 15) revealed that the annual average resident unemployment rate rose to 3.0 in 2016, after holding steady at 2.8 per cent for the last four years. This is the highest figure since 2010, when the resident unemployment rate was 3.1 per cent.

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Compared to data from 2015, residents aged 30 – 39 (2.3 per cent unemployed, up from 1.9 per cent), and 50 & over (2.7 per cent unemployed, up from 2.4 per cent) were particularly affected, while those aged 29 & below saw the unemployment rate decrease from 5.1 per cent to 5.0 per cent.

 

Taken from Labour Market Report 2016, Ministry of Manpower

 

Part of the high unemployment rate can be explained by seasonal and frictional unemployment due to the cyclical nature of the global economy. Singapore tends to be buffeted by forces outside our control. The manufacturing sector, for instance, shed 15,500 jobs in 2016 because of flagging global demand for products. This figure would have been far worse, had it not been for the manufacturing sector unexpectedly expanding by 6.4 per cent in Q4 2016. Plunging oil prices have also badly affected the offshore marine industry, with retrenchments picking up in 2015-16. One would expect unemployment figures to improve as the global economy recovers.

However, the unemployment rate can also be attributed to structural unemployment: As Singapore adjusts to the disruptive impacts of new technology on traditional businesses, people’s skills no longer match up to market demand. Singapore’s continued economic transformation, therefore, may lead to underskilled or wrongly-skilled workers left by the wayside. As firms reorganise and restructure to become manpower-lean, longstanding jobs like accounting and secretarial work may be cut, while new business interests – financial technologies, for instance – are developed.

There are now 17,000 long-term resident unemployed (refers to those unemployed for more than 25 weeks), compared to 12,700 in 2015. This figure is the highest since 2009, when the 2008 Financial Crisis led to thousands of Singaporeans losing their jobs.

 

Taken from Labour Market Report 2016, Ministry of Manpower

 

Most worryingly, the long-term unemployment rate for degree holders rose to 1.0 per cent in 2016, the highest since 2004. Does this mean that more university graduates now hold paper qualifications that are ill-suited for the modern economy? Possibly. A bachelor’s degree in programming or software engineering received 10 years ago, for instance, may bear little relevance to the sought-after skills of today. Without a constant push for skills upgrading and on-the-job training, many graduates will find themselves either underemployed, or out of work.

As the economy becomes more complex, the need for specialised skills has soared. This has challenged the traditional view that higher education guarantees a stable career, as demand for specialised skills can change overnight with the introduction of new technology or sudden industry transformation. Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) formed 75 per cent of all residents made redundant in 4Q 2016 – a disproportionate figure.

Statistics seem to suggest that there is a growing mismatch between employee skills and job requirements; especially at white-collar managerial and technical levels. And even when tertiary-level education does meet market demand, the rapidly-evolving jobs landscape means that employees must be willing to continually upgrade themselves. Given this context, policies to help workers gain new skills or encourage businesses to leverage new technology are extremely important.

Whether Singapore will be able to bounce back stronger from this period of slowing growth and higher unemployment depends on how well we can react to technological disruption. If our workers and businesses do not stay ahead of the curve, one should be prepared for more grim news ahead.

 

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by Lee Chin Wee 

BUCKLE in, because public transport fares are likely to rise. Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan hinted as much during his Ministry’s Committee of Supply debates last week (Mar 8). Addressing Parliament, he said that the Public Transport Council (PTC) was reviewing the current fare formula, which is due to expire later this year.

In December last year, the PTC had revised fares downward due to lower energy prices. However, Mr Khaw noted that “the PTC cannot always bring good news, sometimes they have to adjust fares upwards. And when they do, I hope commuters will be understanding.”

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Many Singaporeans, especially those in lower income brackets, will soon be feeling the pinch. A month ago, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a 30 per cent hike in water prices – the first time water prices have risen in 17 years. It also comes on the heels of increased Service & Conservancy charges in 15 PAP-managed town councils, and higher parking charges at public car parks across the island.

Of course, every fee increase must be evaluated based on its own merits. It is not enough to say that the cost of living has gone up – in the case of public transport fares, any increase should be measured against real wage growth in Singapore and the trend pattern of public transport operating costs.

 

Is it expensive to keep trains and buses running?

To obtain a better understanding of public transport operating costs, we studied SMRT’s annual reports from FY2011 – 2016 as a case study.  Of particular interest were the rail/light rail and bus businesses. We isolated the annual figures for operating revenue and operating profit in these areas.

 

 

Operating profit for core public transport services is not high; in fact, it is a negligible portion of SMRT’s overall profit. In 2016, SMRT recorded an operating profit of $138.5 million. Out of this sum, only $13.3 million was from the rail/light rail and bus businesses – barely 9.6 per cent of total profits. The other 90.4 per cent can be attributed to SMRT’s other business interests, such as advertising and property rental. For instance, SMRT owns Kallang Wave Mall.

Not only is operating profit already low, it is decreasing due to operating costs rising at a marginally faster rate than operating revenue. Why might this be the case? Because in recent years, SMRT has been investing in renewal works for key infrastructure, and the acquisition of operating assets. For instance, from August 2013 to December 2016, 188,000 timber sleepers were replaced with more durable concrete sleepers. To prevent further power faults, SMRT is also replacing the third rail system which supplies electricity to trains. The cost of financing these projects is not directly passed on to the consumer, as fare prices are set by the PTC.

 

Can Singaporeans afford a fare hike?

When fares rise, consumers end up shouldering more of the operating costs. The key question is, can Singaporeans afford it? In comparison to other countries, our public transport fares are very affordable. A 2016 study by UniSIM showed that, for a 10km train ride, Singapore’s train fare was the sixth lowest out of 35 major world cities. It costs a commuter SGD$1.33 to travel 10km on train, whereas the global average (after Purchasing Power Parity adjustment) is around SGD$2.30.

Tracking real wage growth against changes in public transport fares, it also appears that public transport fares are reasonable. Since 2011, real wage growth has broadly kept pace or surpassed increases in fares. This, however, does not account for the period of 2012 – 2013, where fare changes were temporarily suspended as the PTC reviewed its pricing structure.

 

 

Should public transport fares be going up?

Someone’s got to pay for the cost of running our trains and buses. When SMRT was still a publicly listed company, there were three parties who could do this: (1) the consumer of public transport, who pays through fares; (2) the G, who pays through taxpayer monies; and (3) the retail investor, who buys SMRT stock. Since SMRT was acquired by Temasek Holdings, we are now left with options (1) and (2).

Clearly, consumers of public transport are also taxpayers. But not all taxpayers are consumers of public transport. Hence, when the G subsidises operating costs, people who are under-consuming public transport will be cross-subsidising those who use public transport frequently. Some view this as good, because those who under-consume public transport tend to be rich anyway, and their taxpayer dollars should be used to make sure others can have cheap MRT rides. Others view this as bad, because people should contribute based on how much of a service they consume.

Another point of view is that SMRT and other transport operators should use their profits from more profitable business sectors to cross-subsidise rail and bus services. The argument here is that instead of raising fares, transport operators should be willing to take losses on its core business (that is effectively a public service) in exchange for making large profits on advertising, overseas consulting, and retail business. However, there is a limitation to this model – transport operators only have secondary interests in these other business areas, and cannot sustain such an internal cross-subsidy if operating costs continue to mount.

Regardless of what one believes, everyone would agree that high operating costs for public transport are unavoidable if we want to ensure our trains and buses become more reliable and less fault-prone. And even if public transport fares were held steady, taxpayers would still feel the pinch – either directly in the form of higher taxes, or indirectly as money that would otherwise have gone to other G services is now used to subsidise public transport.

Come this April, though, when the PTC convenes to announce changes to fares, I’ll still be hoping that my daily MRT rides get cheaper. One can dream, right?

 

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by Lee Chin Wee

DURING the Committee of Supply debates on Mar 6, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say clarified that if you work in the gig economy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a freelancer.

Mr Lim explained that there is “no official definition of the gig economy”. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), he said, instead uses the term “platform economy” to refer to workers who use online platforms such as Uber and Airbnb to find “short-term, piecemeal jobs”.

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So who is, and isn’t, protected by labour laws?

Not all gig economy (or platform economy) workers are freelancers. An employee of a transport company who uses Grab to find customers, for example, can be considered a gig economy worker but is not a freelancer. These workers are entitled to labour law protections, such as mandatory minimum leave days.

Hence, in terms of labour protections, it does not matter whether you use an online platform to find work or use more traditional avenues like taxi company rental. What does matter is your contract status – if you are a freelancer, you have entered a contract for service while if you are a contracted employee, you have entered a contract of service.

As employees are, in theory, subject to an asymmetric employer-employee relationship, a greater scope of labour laws applies to them. In contrast, freelancers are considered to be self-employed and are therefore not legally entitled to statutory protections and benefits accorded to employees. The legal rights and obligations of freelancers are largely dependent on the terms and conditions of the contract they enter into with their hirers.


What are the differences between freelancers and employees?

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) website sums up the differences in this convenient table:

 

Contract of ServiceContract for Service
Has an employer-employee relationshipHas a client-contractor type of relationship
Employee does business for the employerContractor carries out business on their own account
May be covered under the Employment Act Not covered by the Employment Act
Includes terms of employment such as working hours, leave benefits, etc.Statutory benefits do not apply

 

  1. Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions: Freelancers earning an annual Net Trade Income (NTI) of more than $6,000 need to contribute to Medisave. There is no legal obligation to contribute to the Ordinary or Special Accounts, but freelancers can do so on a voluntary basis. Comparatively, employees are entitled to monthly employer CPF contributions and also are obliged to pay into their CPF accounts themselves.
    • The median Medisave balances of self-employed persons was $21,700 in 2014, compared to $14,300 five years ago. This is still lower than the median Medisave balances of employees, which was $27,700 in 2014.
      .
  2. Employment Act: Freelancers are generally not covered by the Employment Act. This means they do not get paid public holiday entitlements (min. 11 days per year), sick leave (min. 14 days of paid outpatient leave and 60 days of paid hospitalisation leave per year), paid annual leave (min. 7 days per year), timely payslips (monthly salary within 7 days, overtime pay within 14 days), etc. Freelancers must instead seek recourse through the Small Claims Tribunal or Subordinate Courts instead.
    .
  3. Work Injury Compensation Act: Freelancers are generally not covered by the Work Injury Compensation Act. This means, if they get injured while performing a task or job, their client does not have to pay the legally stipulated amounts corresponding to the work injury. Freelancers must instead seek recourse through a civil suit.
    .
  4. Union Membership: Freelancers can still be NTUC members. This means they enjoy membership benefits such as subsidised skills retraining workshops run by NTUC partners and rebates on grocery shopping at NTUC FairPrice. However, the Trade Union Act, along with the Industrial Relations Act and the Trade Dispute Act, does not apply to freelancers. NTUC will not engage in collective negotiation or mediation on behalf of freelancers, as there is no traditional employee-employer relationship.


What is the problem?

Some will no doubt argue that freelance workers in the gig economy were not coerced into taking up these jobs. The lack of labour protections, the argument goes, is not a problem as one is not subject to the same employee-employer relationship that is characteristic of contracted full-time work.

In the particular instance of companies like Uber, the question is whether the driver-Uber relationship is that of a freelancer-client or employee-employer. Uber drivers do exhibit many employee-like characteristics such as working for only one contractor, and have “fixed” working arrangements – not contractually, but in terms of the minimum hours or peak periods one must work to remain marginally profitable. It is arguable that these workers are freelancers in name but employees in substance.

The legal lacuna created by Uber has given rise to a number of lawsuits filed against the company in other countries. The claimants argue that Uber misclassifies drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees.

In 2013, 385,000 current and former drivers in California and Massachusetts launched a class action lawsuit against the company, alleging that Uber was legally obligated to give them employee pay and benefits. Uber settled for a $84 million ($100 million if the company goes public) payout, to be distributed to drivers based on how many miles they had driven. More recently, the London Central Employment Tribunal ruled that Uber drivers should be classified as employees, earn at least the national minimum wage and get paid vacations. Uber appealed, and the case is still ongoing.

Moreover, recent Ministry of Manpower statistics show that out of the 200,000 freelancers in Singapore, 19 per cent do not consider freelancing their preferred choice. This means that, in some cases, the gig economy is substituting rather than complementing the traditional economy.

In other words, someone working as a contract employee of a private transport company may have little choice but to drive an Uber: In today’s slowing economy, either he keeps his existing labour protections and takes a pay cut, or he potentially earns more by joining the gig economy but loses his employee benefits.

A further problem is that freelancers do not pay into their CPF Ordinary or Special Accounts. As the number of gig economy freelancers grows due to the proliferation of online platforms that disrupt traditional industries, the G will have to deal with increasing retirement insecurity among older workers. What this means for national savings and government investments remains to be seen.

 

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by Lee Chin Wee

Singapore and the United States

SG - US

MP VIKRAM Nair asked what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) position was on US-China relations, while MP Low Thia Khiang asked what Singapore could do if the US and China didn’t get along.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan agreed that US-China relations are the “key bilateral relationship” that will affect “peace, prosperity, and security in our region”. He noted that competition between the US and China is “inevitable”, but also noted that “never before have two (large) powers been so interdependent, intertwined economically”.

Responding to Mr Low, Mr Balakrishnan said that Singapore wants to be part of a “common circle of friends”, and develop “win-win relationships” with both countries. However, he also admitted that Singapore “has no say” over the US-China relationship, and should “avoid choosing sides for as long as possible”. He said Singapore should remain an “honest broker” who says “the same thing” to both the US and China.

MP Cedric Foo wanted to know how “the new Trump Administration and its America First foreign policy” would affect Singapore, which “relies heavily on open and free trade”. He also asked if Singapore would be working even closer with the United States for “mutual benefit”.

Mr Balakrishnan was “confident” that Singapore will be able to develop a “win-win partnership with the United States”. He pointed to how Singapore-US relations were “strong and enduring over the past 51 years”, and have persisted through “five Republican and four Democratic administrations”.

Mr Balakrishnan argued that the “strategic imperatives that underpin America’s involvement in the region remain unchanged”. He also said that “new areas of convergence” were emerging to supplement existing mutual interests, pointing to a 2016 memorandum of understanding regarding cyber security that Singapore signed with the US.

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Singapore and China

SG - China

MP Cedric Foo noted that despite “the strong political, economic, and social ties” between Singapore and China, there would invariably be “occasional differences” between the two countries. He asked how Singapore plans to manage these differences moving forward.

Mr Balakrishnan argued that Singapore-China relations are “fundamentally strong”, and cautioned against “overreaction”. Noting that differences are “not unusual even amongst close friends”, he said that “our shared interests far outweigh these differences. Singapore will not allow differences to derail longstanding co-operation.”

MP Sun Xueling cited a quote by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, where he described the Singapore-China relationship as an “all-round cooperative partnership progressing with the times.” She asked how the G interpreted these remarks and wanted an update on Singapore-China relations.

Replying, Mr Balakrishnan said: “Singapore has long been a steadfast friend of China. I would describe our bilateral relationship with China as ‘in good working order’.”

Mr Balakrishnan used the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative and the China-Singapore Forum on Leadership as examples of joint projects between Singapore and China that bring the two nations closer together. He said the “high frequency of interactions at senior leadership level has conferred a high degree of resilience and strategic trust in our relationship.”

 

Singapore and Malaysia

SG - Malaysia

In light of Malaysia’s application to the International Court of Justice to re-open the Pedra Branca case, MP Amrin Amin wanted to know if it “has affected the overall tenor of our relationship.”

MP Baey Yam Keng had a similar question, asking the minister to “elaborate on Singapore’s response to Malaysia’s application, and whether this case (would) affect bilateral relations with Malaysia?”

Mr Balakrishnan replied that “our relationship with Malaysia is as good as it ever has been”, as evidenced by the landmark agreement over the Singapore-KL high-speed rail. He also revealed that Singapore is trying to reach an agreement with Johor over a Singapore-JB rapid transit system.

Regarding the Pedra Branca case, he said that it reflects both Singapore and Malaysia’s willingness to resolve differences “amicably, and according to international law”. He assured Parliament that “Singapore is committed to resolving this issue amicably” and that “relations with Malaysia are good, and will remain good”.

Singaporeans, he said, “should not be disconcerted by these developments”, because “even with the best diplomatic efforts, one can only expect other states to act in their own self-interest”.

 

Singapore and Indonesia

SG - Indo

MP Amrin Amin wanted to know what some of the recent highlights of Singapore’s relationship with Indonesia were, and also the Minister’s assessment of Singapore’s relationship with Indonesia.

Mr Balakrishnan replied that Singapore-Indonesia relations were “strong”. He pointed to a successful leaders retreat between PM Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Semarang last November, and said that “Singapore was Indonesia’s top foreign investor in 2016”.

MP Chia Shi-Lu, noting that Singapore and Indonesia will be celebrating their 50th anniversary of bilateral relations this year, asked: “I would like to (know) whether there are plans for Golden Jubilee celebrations with Indonesia.”

Said Mr Balakrishnan: “Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi announced the start of official celebrations (for the Golden Jubilee) last month during her visit to Singapore.” More details will be unveiled by the MFA soon.

 

Singapore and ASEAN

SG - ASEAN

MP Low Thia Khiang asked: “What is the status of ASEAN integration? Has the South China Sea issue effectively blocked any progress towards integration? Are the Philippines really embracing China, and if so, what are the implications for ASEAN unity, given that the Philippines is ASEAN chair this year?”

Replying, Mr Balakrishnan admitted that ASEAN’s cohesion and unity have been “tested by difficult issues, not just last year, but many times before”.

But he pointed out that “(Singapore) upgraded the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement in 2015” and “facilitated the successful and substantive ASEAN-China 25th Anniversary Commemorative Summit in 2016”. He promised that Singapore will “work closely” with the Philippines to ensure a successful ASEAN chairmanship, and also lay the groundwork for Singapore’s own ASEAN chairmanship in 2018.

MP Liang Eng Hwa queried what Singapore was doing “to maintain strong links with our fellow ASEAN countries.” He also asked: As the ASEAN chair in 2018, how can Singapore help to advance economic integration within ASEAN, and with its key partners?”

The minister said that Singapore would “explore ways to help ASEAN ride the technological wave of the fourth industrial revolution”. He added that Singapore would “continue to partner with organisations like the Singapore Business Federation and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises to help our businesses maximise the economic opportunities that ASEAN presents.”

However, he cautioned: “the events unfolding in the European Union are a salutary reminder (for ASEAN) to not reprise their problems.” ASEAN “must be pragmatic and practical in maintaining (the) pace and scale of economic integration”, or risk falling apart.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Lee Chin Wee

ON TUESDAY (Feb 28), SMRT Trains was fined a record $400,000 for breaches in safety protocol that resulted in the deaths of two employees on Mar 22 last year. The company pleaded guilty to one charge under the Workplace Safety and Health Act (WSHA) for failing to ensure the safety and health of its employees.

Trainees Mr Nasrulhudin Majumudin, 26, and Mr Muhammad Asyraf Ahmad Buhari, 24, were on the train tracks between Tampines and Pasir Ris MRT stations when they were hit and killed by an oncoming train. SMRT later admitted that maintenance staff had not followed established safety procedures: non-safety-compliant track access had become a habit in the company.

Critics have pointed out that the record-setting $400,000 fine is chump change for a company that posted an FY2016 net profit of $109.3 million. So how does the court’s ruling on SMRT’s breach of the WSHA compare to past charges of fatal workplace safety and health breaches?

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Nicoll Highway collapse

  • On 20 April 2004, the temporary retaining wall system supporting the excavation of a Circle Line MRT tunnel adjacent to the Nicoll Highway gave way. The resulting collapse caused a 100m section of Nicoll Highway to cave in, killing crane operator Mr Vadivil Nadeson, 44, construction worker Mr Liu Rong Quan, 37, inspector of works Mr Tan Lock Yong, 56, and construction supervisor Mr Heng Yeow Pheow, 40.
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  • Nishimatsu Construction Company, the main contractor on the worksite, was handed the maximum fine of $200,000 after pleading guilty to one charge under the Factories Act. It admitted that its design errors had resulted in a retaining wall at the worksite being too weak.
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  • Four individuals were also charged under the Factories Act. Mr Paul Broome, an engineer with Nishimatsu, was fined $160,000 for failing to ensure the worksite was soundly constructed and properly maintained. Design manager Kazuo Shimada and project director Shun Sugawara were fined $160,000 and $120,000 respectively. Former Land Transport Authority project director Ng Seng Yoong was fined $8,000 for failing to exercise due diligence in monitoring excavation works and assessing readings of instruments that monitored the work.
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Changes to legislation on workplace safety

The Factories Act was in effect at the time of the Nicoll Highway collapse. Under the Act:

  • In relation to a contravention which results in the death of 2 or more persons, the person guilty of an offence shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $200,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.

On 1 Mar 2006, the Factories Act was replaced by the Workplace Safety and Health Act, which imposed harsher penalties on errant employers for workplace safety and health breaches:

  • For an individual offender, the maximum fine for a first conviction is $200,000; and is $400,000 for a repeat offence. Maximum imprisonment of 2 years (can be either a fine or imprisonment, or both).
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  • For a corporate offender, the maximum fine for a first conviction is $500,000; and is $1 million for a repeat offence.

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Two deaths at Fusionopolis Way, Buona Vista

  • On 22 Jan 2014, GS Engineering and Construction Corporation employees Mr Rajib Md Abdul Hannan, 24, and Mr Ratan Roy Abinash Roy, 28, fell to the ground while loading an 800kg air compressor onto an unsecured platform at the construction of two towers at Fusionopolis Way in Buona Vista.
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  • The two Bangladeshi men died of multiple injuries. They were ordered to perform the task despite concerns that it was dangerous to do so since the loading platform was not secured to a building structure.
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  • GS Engineering and Construction Corporation was initially fined $150,000, but this was increased to $250,000 on appeal by prosecutors. The appeal was the first ever for an offence under the WSHA.
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Severe workplace safety and health breaches abroad

  • On 5 Oct 1999, a Thames Trains carriage passed through red signal at Ladbroke Grove and into the path of the oncoming Paddington-bound First Great Western (later owned by Network Rail) express. Both drivers were killed, as well as 29 passengers, and 400 others were injured.
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  • It transpired that the same red signal (SN109) had been passed eight times in the previous six years, with no action being taken. Thames Trains was fined £2 million in 2004. In 2007, Network Rail was fined £4 million for health and safety breaches.
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  • On 24 Aug 2011, Olive McFarland, 82, was struck while using the Gipsy Lane footpath crossing by a Network Rail inter-city train travelling at 100mph from London to Norwich.
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  • Investigations found Network Rail had failed to act on substantial evidence that pedestrians had poor visibility of trains when approaching Gipsy Lane footpath crossing, and were exposed to an increased risk of being struck by a train. Network Rail was fined £4 million for breaches of health and safety law.
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  • On 22 Feb 2014, 18-year-old Australian Mitchell Callaghan tried to board a city-bound train at Heyington station in Toorak, on the Glen Waverley line. As the train departed, Mr Callaghan fell through the gap between the train and the platform and died as a result of his injuries.
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  • Metro Trains Melbourne has been charged with two breaches of the Rail Safety Act (2006). Each charge carries a maximum fine of almost AU$1.4 million. The case is currently being heard in court.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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