June 23, 2017

Authors Posts by Yoong Ren Yan

Yoong Ren Yan

Yoong Ren Yan
Ren Yan is a graduate student at the LKY School of Public Policy. When he's not writing term papers, he writes articles for TMG. Quotes or references are not endorsements; views expressed are his own. Talk to him at renyan@themiddleground.sg

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by Yoong Ren Yan

WHAT’S going on with Singapore’s lifts? Since last October, lifts in Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks have been plagued by a series of high-profile incidents, causing at least four injuries and a death. Yet for the past four years, town councils across the island have scored ‘green’ for lift performance in the G’s management reports.

What gives? Have we been too blinded by headlines to see the bigger picture – that HDB lifts are by and large functioning normally? Or do these incidents reflect an underlying problem, with HDB lifts, or lifts here in general?

With currently available statistics, it’s hard to tell.

Graphic depicting recent HDB lift mishaps


How big is the problem?

The latest town council management report (TCMR) measures performance between April and September last year, and does not capture the latest spate of HDB lift mishaps. But waiting for the next TCMR would do us no good either. Recent incidents are unlikely to make a mark on the report’s measure of lift performance. Generally, town councils get a ‘green’ rating if:

  • For every 10 lifts, fewer than two breakdowns occur per month
  • Fewer than two in 100 lifts have a non-functioning rescue device

These measures suggest that a town council can still get a ‘green’ rating for lift performance if each lift breaks down, on average, once every five months. Perhaps it’s time to raise that standard.

Moreover, TCMRs measure all lift breakdowns. But not all breakdowns are equal.

Breakdowns that have led to loss of life and limb are surely the most severe, and deserve special attention. To its credit, where injuries are reported, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) has quickly moved to investigate. According to BCA, as of March this year, there were three recorded lift incidents involving injuries. There were five last year, up from just one in 2014 and 2013.

From next month, lift owners and contractors must report lift incidents involving injuries to BCA. But these figures do not feature in TCMRs.

In measuring the reliability of lifts, we can take a cue from another infrastructure-related issue plaguing Singaporeans: the trains. In a rail reliability report released earlier this month, the Land Transport Authority was keen to show that the average distance travelled between delays has steadily increased. That suggests fewer breakdowns overall.

But last year also saw a record number of major disruptions of 30 minutes or more – a fact relegated to the third page of a three-page report, as ST pointed out. We may have fewer breakdowns, but we also have more severe ones.

Similarly, a measure of lift performance should reflect the severity of breakdowns as experienced by residents. A breakdown that compromises safety is not the same as a breakdown that merely causes inconvenience. And a breakdown of one lift, for an hour, does not affect residents the same way as all lifts breaking down for days.

Accordingly, TCMRs should include indicators of major, unsafe, and injury-causing lift breakdowns, in addition to measures of their frequency.

How should we deal with it?

Getting to grips with the extent of the problem would only be a start. Besides investigations, BCA has promised to increase the frequency of audits and tighten its rules. From next month, lift contractors will be subject to stricter regulations for lift maintenance. Next year, lift owners will be required to display permits in each lift, indicating contractors and examiners.

Some town councils are already taking measures to abide by the new rules. What remains to be seen is how BCA’s regulations can be incorporated into TCMRs.

As they stand, TCMRs measure outcomes – counting breakdowns and rescue devices – rather than the process of maintenance. Adding maintenance indicators would hold town councils accountable for their management of lifts, in the same way other TCMR items like ‘corporate governance’ do.

Facing more stringent requirements, town councils may also require additional financial support, as Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang suggested in April.

Other ‘process’ indicators, such as response time to lift complaints, could also be included. The lift that severed an elderly woman’s hand in Taman Jurong last October, for instance, was the subject of numerous previous complaints from residents. Responsive town councils might spot problems earlier, and lower the frequency and severity of breakdowns.

Finally, in the course of its investigations, BCA should determine if recent incidents have an underlying cause, as a recent ST letter argued.

In April, Mr Low told Parliament that lifts installed since 2012 in his Aljunied constituency had unusually high breakdown rates, and urged the G to “take a look at the quality” of these lifts. (HDB was responsible for procuring these lifts; town councils are responsible for maintaining them.) Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee responded: “I think beyond speculation, it is better to look at specifics.” Hopefully, Mr Low provided those specifics, and Mr Lee looked into them.

While town council management is devolved to MPs, the G must retain oversight. If town councils are to maintain lifts well, the quality of that maintenance should be measured and published. And if town councils require additional resources to comply, the G should provide these resources.

As recent events have shown, lives are at stake.


Featured image Decay by Flickr user Gyver Chang. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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by Yoong Ren Yan

MORE than a week after the accident that left two SMRT maintenance staff dead, on Wednesday (March 30), the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced “interim instructions” for track maintenance work while trains are running. On March 22, SMRT trainees Nasrulhudin Najumudin, 26, and Muhammad Asyraf Ahmad Buhari, 24, were fatally struck by a train near Pasir Ris station, in the line of duty.

MOM-LTA interim safety instructions

a) No trains should run in automatic mode for the sections of the track where personnel are required on the adjacent track walkway. Trains on such sections of the track should be operated manually, and at low speeds;

b) The section of the track where all works are taking place including maintenance or repair, should be isolated (i.e. no trains are allowed to approach) to provide a safe zone before any personnel is allowed to proceed to that area;

c) There should be robust authentication procedures between the personnel deployed on the tracks and the Operations Control Centre to verify the track isolation;

d) Measures for isolation must be continuously in place until staff have left the work area and trackside; and

e) Watchmen should be deployed to alert personnel on the tracks of oncoming trains from both directions of the track.

In adopting the five safety measures, the agencies said they aimed “to prevent the recurrence of a similar incident, specifically with a view to enhancing the safety of staff”, while investigations continue. While that is welcome, the measures also add the list of questions we’ve had since the accident last Tuesday.

SMRT intends to complete internal investigations next week, and we hope some answers will emerge then.

1. Are these new rules?

Is this simply a gentle reminder from the G about existing protocols? Of the five measures announced, most are already in place at SMRT, according to ST. There is one exception: work sites have not been isolated before. Before yesterday (March 31), trains could still run while workers were fixing faults, but had to be driven slowly and manually.


2. Which protocols were violated last Tuesday?

SMRT acknowledged a lapse just a day after the accident: the 15-strong maintenance crew had not coordinated with the signal unit before crossing the tracks. But there was more. The train which struck the two men had been on auto mode, when it should have been on manual, according to ST.

And that’s probably not all. Since safety protocols are designed to be redundant, erring on the side of caution, there must have been multiple lapses for an accident to happen. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong left open the possibility that the accident could have been “an unforeseeable mishap, an individual lapse or a system problem”. Which it was remains to be seen.


3. How many previous violations have there been, and how serious?

Having safety protocols isn’t any good if they aren’t followed. What were SMRT, MOM, and LTA’s audit processes, to ensure staff were complying? How many lapses have there been over the years? When does SMRT go public – only when actual injury occurs?


4. How are the rules enforced?

Are staff given adequate training and periodic reminders about safety protocols? What disciplinary action does SMRT take when lapses occur?


5. What actions did SMRT take after a similar incident in 2010 on the Bukit Panjang LRT?

On October 17, 2010, SMRT technician Chia Teck Heng, 48, was struck by an LRT train while conducting maintenance. Mr Chia later died from his injuries. Two years later, his widow sued SMRT for $507,000 in damages, but SMRT claimed that the deceased technician had himself violated its safety measures.

But then the media went quiet: we could find details about neither the lawsuit, nor the results of SMRT investigations. How similar is this case to last Tuesday’s? And what, if anything, did SMRT do after Mr Chia’s death?


6. Who makes the rules?

MOM and LTA clearly have a stake in workplace safety in the train industry, and of course, so does SMRT. But do the agencies check SMRT, a private corporation? Has the G been issuing instructions to SMRT, or mere guidelines? Who is ultimately answerable for a poorly-made safety rule?


7. Do the rules apply to the other train operator, SBS Transit?

The wording of the MOM-LTA statement suggests not. SBS Transit runs the North East and Downtown Lines, which are fully underground. Are rules about track maintenance the same for underground tracks? Does SBS Transit regularly conduct maintenance while trains are running too?


8. How much caution is appropriate?

By ordering SMRT to “isolate” tracks where maintenance staff are working, the risk of any further incidents is lower. But how safe should we be? SMRT revealed last week that maintenance work is carried out while trains are running two to three times a day, to ensure “a high level of reliability” of train services. It insists, however: “At no time do we compromise the safety of staff and commuters in our efforts to keep up the required service standards.” Should work be temporarily confined to late hours, when no trains are running?


9. What happens next?

SMRT says it will hand over a report to the Police and MOM “for their statutory investigations”. If SMRT violated workplace safety legislation, there will also be a Coroner’s Inquiry. Will it get more serious? MOM says it’s “too early” to comment on whether a Commission of Inquiry will be convened. We may have to wait for results of the investigation – the more serious the lapses, the bigger a deal this will be.


10. Will the families be compensated?

SMRT says it remains “in close touch” with the families of the two deceased staff. It has refused to discuss reparations so far, but has said it takes responsibility for the accident. Has SMRT admitted that it is fully liable? Will compensation be predetermined or negotiated with the families?


Featured Image by Natassya Diana.

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by Yoong Ren Yan

THINGS seem to be falling into place for the Bukit Batok by-election. Yesterday, the Elections Department announced it would update the register of voters on April 14. This is the clearest indication of an imminent by-election after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said one would be held “in due course“, following Mr David Ong’s resignation on March 12.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) are set to field lawyer Murali Pillai against the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan. And both candidates are already making their rounds.

Since Bukit Batok is a single seat, the Prime Minister is obliged to call a by-election. But as the Court of Appeal found back in 2013, there is “no pre-determined timeframe” for him to do so. He is “entitled to take into account all relevant circumstances”, including the national agenda.

With Parliament still debating the Budget, the earliest a by-election would be called is this May, according to Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh. Law don Eugene Tan thinks a by-election in the third quarter of this year is more likely, as “the ruling party would probably like some time to lapse after last year’s GE”.

To get more clues, we took a look at the timelines of our two most recent by-elections, and lined them up against Budgets and other significant events.

By-Election Timeline
Graphic by Sean Chong

In February 2012, Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong vacated his seat three days before the Budget speech. The Prime Minister waited two months after the Budget was concluded to call a by-election, leaving the seat vacant for more than three months.

A similar situation might arise this time. If the political pundits are right, the G will wait till after the Budget as well. With Parliament due to sit until April 14, an election may happen in May or later.

In contrast, Punggol East MP Michael Palmer resigned in December 2012, leaving the G enough time before the Population White Paper debate and the Budget to call a by-election. But then, the Prime Minister had a window of more than two months before the Budget – this time, he had less than two weeks.

After the writ of election is issued, things proceed as if by clockwork. As with general elections, Nomination Day is usually set a week after an election is called. And Polling Day is 10 days after that. This typical schedule could change to lengthen the process – to as long as three months – but this seems unlikely.

With big items on the political calendar for the second half of this year, including reports from the Constitutional Commission and the Committee on the Future Economy, an Hougang-like timeline looks plausible. The G may be hoping to lock in its support after GE2015, before events take their own course. Of recent by-elections, the longest it has waited is three-and-a-half months.

If the past is any guide, Bukit Batok voters should be going to the polls no later than June.


Featured Image by Natassya Diana.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
Singapore Parliament.

by Yoong Ren Yan

FINANCE Minister Heng Swee Keat told us to expect a “particularly prudent” Budget. In the absence of any further details, commentators figured there’d be at most a modest increase in spending. So Mr Heng’s announcement that the G plans to increase spending by $5.0 billion (7.3 per cent) this year caught some by surprise.

Could the G increase spending substantially and still end up in surplus? It already ran a record $6.7 billion deficit last year. To balance the books, revenues would need to jump $11.7 billion – 18 per cent from last year’s estimates – a very unlikely scenario given the lacklustre economy. So it would be in the strange situation of running a deficit, while claiming to be “prudent”.

And a deficit this early in the G’s term may have posed problems in the future. Because it must balance its books between elections: to start a new term with a deficit would mean we’d need surpluses to compensate over the next few years.

By running a deficit, the G would have been making a possibly costly bet. Sure, if the economy were to recover strongly, revenues would spike, and a deficit would have become a surplus. But with a weak economy, we’d face more taxes or more cuts, and might even be forced to tap into the reserves.

But all this didn’t materialise. As it turns out, the G will have an overall surplus this year.

Revenues are expected to rise by $4.3 billion (6.7 per cent), which seems high considering the state of the economy. This increase was driven by vehicle taxes and a large contribution from the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) – both of which Mr Heng called “one-off factors which we do not expect to be sustained”. A bit of luck, then.

But revenue increases are not enough to fill the gap. Indeed, this Budget has a “basic deficit”: spending and current transfers exceed revenue by $7.7 billion. That’s the net amount the G is pumping into the economy. And that’s why Mr Heng said this Budget was “expansionary”.

So how can a basic deficit become an overall surplus? It’s down to something known as the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC).

What is the NIRC?

Singapore’s reserves of at least $700 billion are managed mainly by MAS, GIC, and Temasek, which earn interest for the G. Initially, the G was allowed to use half the dividends – cold hard cash – from these investments in the Budget.

Then from the 2009 Budget onward, the system changed. For MAS and GIC, the G could use half of expected long-term returns, even when these returns are not cashed in. Temasek, in contrast, could only supply half its cash dividends. This change nearly doubled the NIRC, from $3.7 billion in the 2008 Budget to $7.0 billion in 2009.

In July last year, the Constitution was amended again to allow the G to use half of expected returns from all reserves, including those managed by Temasek. This time, the NIRC is projected to increase from $9.9 billion last year to $14.7 billion this year. 

The NIRC allows the G to use up to half the expected returns from Singapore’s reserves in annual Budgets. Since 2009, this applied to only GIC- and MAS-managed assets. But thanks to a Constitutional amendment passed last year, the G can now use Temasek’s returns too.

With Temasek’s contribution, the NIRC increased 49 per cent, from $9.9 billion last year to an estimated $14.7 billion this year. Coupled with smaller transfers to endowments and trust funds, the basic deficit of $7.7 billion is transformed into an overall surplus of $3.4 billion.

This relatively obscure component has made much of the difference. New charts on the G’s data portal show how. Consider last year and this year. Basic balances, in red, are similar, with an $8.8 billion basic deficit last year and $7.7 billion this year. But the overall balances for the two years, in green, are worlds apart.

So it’s not prudence, in the sense of spending less, that has saved the day. Instead, we’re reaping the benefits of our past prudence, in the form of returns from our very substantial national reserves.

And there’s another change. Before 2015, the basic balance (in red) tracked the overall balance (in green) closely – except for 2009, when we used our reserves. Historically, the NIRC was used to replenish endowments and trust funds – which are long-term investments – rather than paying for current spending. Now, the big difference between basic and overall balances implies that the NIRC is also covering operational expenditure.

If an overall surplus is our only measure of prudence, then yes, this year’s Budget is “particularly prudent”. But is this NIRC framework sustainable?

Former Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam thinks so. At the budget round-up on March 5 last year, he said the NIRC “ensures that we spend from our reserves in a disciplined and sustainable way”.

The G isn’t technically drawing on the reserves, just using half the returns we earn from it. This is the exact opposite of countries encumbered with public debt: while we earn returns, they pay interest. In that light, its policy seems quite prudent.

But every billion we use now is a billion less saved, that we could earn returns on, and use when the proverbial ‘rainy day’ arrives. And if we accept that some returns can be spent, where should the line be drawn? Is half too much, or too little?

Before amending the Constitution on July 13 last year, some MPs raised these concerns. Ruling party MP Foo Mee Har emphasised the importance of operating revenues over the NIRC. And Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh expressed concerns about what the G would do if returns were unexpectedly poor.

Prudence, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.


Featured image from TMG file. 

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If I Were A Finance Minister

by Yoong Ren Yan

WHEN I was working for a government watchdog in New York, budget transparency was a big deal. That year, the leaders of both houses of the New York state legislature were arrested for corruption. Their crimes followed a familiar trend: billions of dollars in the budget were hived off for the exclusive use of these leaders. And no one knew what they spent it on – until prosecutors mustered up enough evidence and courage to take them down.

In places where corruption is endemic, everyone gets why the public needs budget data. The New York City government, for instance, makes all its transactions public in Checkbook NYC, searchable by date, amount, recipient, department, and contract number – quite literally a cheque book. Even Jakarta intends to make its transactions public and immediately available, according to Lee Kuan Yew School Dean Kishore Mahbubani.

In contrast, Singapore offers only aggregated budget figures, but in a difficult-to-use format. And unlike New York City and Jakarta, there is no public data on individual transactions.

This is enough to produce some beautiful visualisations, but still isn’t as detailed as some would like. In the 2015 Global Open Data Index, collated by non-profit Open Knowledge, Singapore ranks 23rd overall, out of 122 countries, and tied with Austria and South Korea. But on budget transparency, we scored 10 per cent, and rank 49th.

As Mr Mahbubani put it: “Clearly, we live in a different world when Jakarta becomes more transparent than Singapore about its revenue and expenditures.” Ironically, corruption invites transparency. But in places where public officials are overwhelmingly honest, why bother making data public at all?

But transparency is not all about preventing graft.

In a letter to The Straits Times, Ms Jolene Tan of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) argues that budget openness can improve participation and debate.

Referring to the Open Budget Index, published by the International Budget Partnership non-profit, Ms Tan calls for supplementary reports, both before and after the budget is enacted. These reports provide revenue and expenditure projections, making it easier for non-government groups like Aware to make “constructive, evidence-based” budget proposals.

Currently, many budgetary details are only revealed ad hoc, “at the discretion of government agencies or through the unsystematic process of parliamentary questions” – a point TMG has raised many times and applies beyond just budget data. While genuine progress has been made, especially with the G’s new data portal, there is also room to collate requests publicly, and release data predictably.

Transparency is achievable even on matters as contentious as budgets.

Both the United Kingdom and the United States have independent budget offices that release projections on taxes and spending. Governments, oppositions, and civic groups alike use their budgetary expertise. The UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility even considered scoring the fiscal effects of opposition party manifestos.

Once the public is empowered with budget data, it is equally important that governments listen to proposals.

As Ms Tan points out, public consultations about the budget this year, under the auspices of feedback portal Reach, ended on Feb 26. This left the G with less than a month to read, and consider adopting, any proposals made, including Aware’s plan to support caregivers and enhance long-term care.

It would be sad were we to make our budget transparent simply in response to persistent corruption, and a breakdown of trust in public officials. Instead, transparency – in the form of data, independent expertise, and genuine consultation – serves nobler purposes.

Back in 2010, the Ministry of Finance rolled out “If I Were The Finance Minister”, a game developed in collaboration with Temasek Polytechnic. The game – which you can still play – puts players in the shoes of the Finance Minister, emphasizing the “tough choices” inherent in budgets.

An admirable effort, we think. But the public shouldn’t just be playing games – it should be able to examine the real deal.

"If I Were The Finance Minister", a game developed by the Ministry of Finance and Temasek Polytechnic for the 2010 budget
A screenshot of “If I Were The Finance Minister”, a game developed by the Ministry of Finance and Temasek Polytechnic for the 2010 budget.


Featured illustration by Sean Chong.

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PMETs Budget
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Yoong Ren Yan

THEY say you won’t know how it feels until it hits you. There have been signs of an economic slowdown for some time now, but the warnings remained warnings – until now. According to the latest manpower report, 15,580 workers were laid off last year, the highest number since 2009 when 23,430 were made redundant at the height of the global financial crisis.

Why is all this happening? A combination of a gloomy global economy, and restructuring efforts in Singapore, none of which show any sign of changing. Layoffs are actually picking up with a third of last year’s layoffs happened in the last quarter. Our relatively low unemployment rate – 2.9 per cent for Singaporeans – may not hold steady for much longer.

But what might be a cause for greater concern is whose jobs are at stake. Of those made redundant last year, 71 per cent were professionals, managers, executives, and technicians (PMETs), many from the professional services, wholesale trade, and finance industries. About 65 per cent were aged 40 and above.

It’s little wonder that Silver Spring, a social enterprise which focuses on professionals, managers, and executives (PMEs) aged between 40 and 70, has seen applications on its job portal spike 50 per cent over the last six months. Also, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) helped 50 per cent more PMEs over the past year than the year before.

But targeted job portals or programmes can’t solve the problem if there aren’t enough jobs.

Prospects for those laid off aren’t rosy. Vacancies fell to their lowest level in four years. There are still more vacancies than unemployed people, but only just with 1.13 vacancies per unemployed worker. And just half of those laid off could find jobs within six months, down from 59 per cent a year ago.

As always, PMETs and older workers face the most difficulty in getting another job. PMET vacancies fell by 23 per cent between March and December last year. A quick check on Silver Spring revealed just 39 PME jobs available.

So the skills of those jobless don’t match the jobs available, and thus they are staying out of work longer. These are classic indicators of a structural problem in our labour market – one that the G is already aware of, and is responding to.

West Coast MP Patrick Tay, who is also NTUC assistant secretary-general, has suggested a “sectoral approach” to help industries where job losses are concentrated. NTUC is also giving PMEs union representation to better serve their needs. For instance, as part of NTUC’s U PME programme, the Association of Banks in Singapore now has a jobs portal for retrenched workers to find employment at other banks.

Of course, if banks are retrenching en masse, it’s difficult to see how a jobs portal would help. Instead, workers may need retraining to join other growth industries, including healthcare and information and communications technology.

That’s the objective of the multi-billion dollar SkillsFuture initiative, which may be put to an early test given these employment numbers.

And to incentivise companies to hire middle-aged PMEs, the G is piloting wage subsidies as part of the Career Support Programme. For a 50-year-old PME unemployed for more than six months, for instance, the G is offering a year-long subsidy for jobs that pay more than $4,000 a month. It will pay up to $2,800 for the first six months, and up to $1,400 for the next six months. It already funds PME retraining through the Professional Conversion Programmes.

The G’s response will be clearer come tomorrow (March 24), when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat presents his first Budget. Mr Heng has promised a “strong focus” on the economy, including help for the “variegated landscape” of small and medium enterprises here.

But what about workers? While the global financial crisis was far more severe, the 2009 Budget might offer clues on what the G has planned. As part of the Resilience Package, then Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced a temporary Jobs Credit, which subsidised the wages of all employees by up to $300 per month. Such a broad-based policy can weather a recession, which we may be due for this year. But it is very costly seeing as the G tapped into the reserves to fund it, and may not even be appropriate if jobs and workers are mismatched.

In 2009 as well, Mr Tharman rolled out the Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience – the predecessor to SkillsFuture – with highly subsidised PME-level courses. Some tweaks to SkillsFuture, targeted at middle-aged PMEs, may be on the cards this time round.

These are trying times to be presenting the first budget of a new term. Mr Heng has already said the G plans to be “particularly prudent”. So while the spike in layoffs is a concern, expect any policy changes to be targeted and incremental for now.


Featured illustration by Sean Chong

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Everything Happens in Parliament.. In full HD and colour
Illustration by Sean Chong


by Yoong Ren Yan

DO YOU know what your MP is doing in Parliament? It used to be that you’d have to trawl through parliamentary transcripts to find out – but not any more. Last August, The Middle Ground counted the number of times MPs showed up and spoke. Now, three graduate students at Singapore Management University have gone much further.

The Visual Earpiece project is the brainchild of Mr Michael Ng, 31, Mr Wu Hong Hong, 24, and Mr Edmund Lim, 39, all candidates for the Master of IT in Business. With snazzy search functions and glorious network charts, it gives people interested to find out what happens in Parliament a high-definition granularity that blows apart the current search function on Parliament’s website.

Its most popular feature is an interactive explorer of Hansard, the official reports of parliamentary debates here. Users can find conversations based on which MPs spoke, from which parties and constituencies, and about what topics.

Hovering over former Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew’s name, for instance, reveals that he spoke in seven of every 10 transport-related debates in the 12th Parliament (between GE2011 and GE2015). Eighty-nine per cent of debates he participated in were about transport issues.

Former Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew's participation across different topics, compared to total debates in each topic
Former Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew’s participation across different topics, compared to total debates in each topic
89 per cent of debates Mr Lui participated in were transport-related
89 per cent of debates Mr Lui participated in were transport-related

Say you recall a debate involving Ms Sylvia Lim and Ms Josephine Teo, over town council issues. Clicking on their names reveals that they’ve only spoken in the same debate twice. The debate on February 13 last year is what you’re looking for. Hovering over that debate also yields which MPs participated:

Participants in the town council debate on February 13, 2015
Participants in the town council debate on February 13, 2015

Conversations can be sorted by date, number of speakers, number of exchanges, and even word count. The debate with the most exchanges during the 12th Parliament, unsurprisingly, was about the Population White Paper in January 2013, when six speakers spoke 227 times.

The Population White Paper debate had the most back-and-forth exchanges in the 12th Parliament
The Population White Paper debate had the most back-and-forth exchanges in the 12th Parliament

But it gets even better. We spoke to Mr Ng, whose team is finally helping to put Parliament in colour.

Numbers, Mr Ng says, are useful, but aren’t enough. An MP can attend Parliament and speak, but what they say is “not always gold.” Instead, Mr Ng and team quickly realised they had to analyse what MPs said – qualitative data – and present it in appealing and intuitive ways for the public’s use.

Three factors, according to the team, make for a good MP: depth of knowledge, scope of coverage, and quality of discussion. To see how broad and deep an MP’s contributions were, the Visual Earpiece plots magnificent network charts that break down debates by topic.

The Visual Earpiece maps parliamentary debates by topic and MP
The Visual Earpiece maps parliamentary debates by topic and MP

No wonder the project has been turning heads since its launch last week.

What does a particular MP specialise in? Just search his or her name. Ministers, as master specialisers, are the large nodes on the peripheries. For example: Mr Lui’s contributions during the 12th Parliament were nearly exclusively about transport (in orange). And he rarely started debates (blue links), responding to conversations started by other MPs instead (yellow links).

Mr Lui's contributions, mapped on a network chart
Mr Lui’s contributions, mapped on a network chart

Mr Ng and team are mindful that aggregated data still can’t measure how meaningful an MP’s contributions are. For that, users get links to Hansard, where they can read debates and judge for themselves.

For the more politically-minded, the Visual Earpiece also tracks interactions between ruling party MPs, opposition MPs, and Nominated MPs (NMPs) – on three axes. Each link represents an exchange between MPs of different groups.

Interactions between three groups of MPs - ruling party (blue), opposition (red), and Nominated (green) - are mapped on a HivePlot
Interactions between three groups of MPs – ruling party (blue), opposition (red), and Nominated (green) – are mapped on a HivePlot

What’s clear is that ruling party MPs (in blue) speak to the opposition (in red), and to NMPs (in green). But the opposition doesn’t speak to NMPs much during the 12th Parliament. For more findings, see our summary here.

The Visual Earpiece is the result of almost half a year of conceptualising and coding.

It all started with the election. Last August, the trio were looking for a data project “relevant to the Singapore context.” As the public debated what makes a good MP, they decided to help Singaporeans “do [their] own research” about what MPs do in Parliament.

Easier said than done, of course. “We are the public,” said Mr Ng, “so not everything is available to us.”

Because complete parliamentary records aren’t available online, the trio approached the Parliament Secretariat. But they were told that the CD-ROM containing records from the 12th Parliament, which sat between GE2011 and GE2015, wasn’t yet available. The team had to “scrape” data from the search function, clean up the data, and then sort conversations by topic – an arduous process.

But the effort’s paid off. After Mr Ng posted about the project on DataScience SG’s Facebook page, the Visual Earpiece has had more than 800 users so far. To the team, it’s a “proof of concept” that Hansard can be made open for Singaporeans to “explore”.

What’s next? The team hopes to expand the project beyond the 12th Parliament, and even update the Visual Earpiece ‘live’, as parliamentary records are made available. They also want to refine how their programmes identify topics of discussion, as some topics (e.g. “drugs”) are still messy.

The trio is still in contact with the G for more data. Mr Ng doesn’t rule out a future collaboration. But his team’s priority remains to establish the Visual Earpiece as a resource for the public, to view Parliament in colour.


Featured illustration by Sean Chong

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5 Things You Didn't Know About 12th Parliament
Illustration by Sean Chong


by Yoong Ren Yan

THINK you know all there is to know about Parliament? Think again. The Visual Earpiece, the brainchild of three graduate students at Singapore Management University, lets you see Singapore’s 12th Parliament (between GE2011 and GE2015) like never before. It’s got sophisticated search functions and beautiful network charts . Want to learn how to use it? Read our report here.

But beyond the aesthetics, several things stuck out for us in the data.

1. Ministers specialise.

This one’s pretty obvious, but the figures are stark. Take former Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew for example. 89 per cent of his contributions to the 12th Parliament were transport-related (in orange). Ministers are readily identifiable on the network chart: they’re the big nodes on the periphery. Any guesses about which node Mr Lui is?

The Visual Earpiece maps parliamentary debates by topic and MP
The Visual Earpiece maps parliamentary debates by topic and MP

2. NMPs specialise too.

This isn’t surprising since Nominated MPs are nominated by functional groups. Ms Janice Koh, who represented arts and culture groups for the first half of the 12th Parliament, spoke mostly about arts issues (in green) – and arts issues in education (in blue). Similarly, SMU law professor Eugene Tan contributed to higher education debates in particular.

NMP Janice Koh spoke mostly about arts and culture issues (in green)
NMP Janice Koh spoke mostly about arts and culture issues (in green)

3. Do we have a shadow Cabinet?

Some Workers’ Party (WP) MPs mimicked Ministers, as nodes on the periphery. Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam spoke about transport (in orange) and health issues (in green) especially, and ended up close to those Ministers on the network chart. Other opposition politicians, including WP leader Low Thia Khiang and Mrs Lina Chiam of the Singapore People’s Party, had more dispersed patterns.

NCMP Gerald Giam specialised in transport (in orange) and health issues (in green)
NCMP Gerald Giam specialised in transport (in orange) and health issues (in green)
NCMP Lina Chiam, by contrast, did not specialise
NCMP Lina Chiam, by contrast, did not specialise

Some chairmen of Government Parliamentary Committees (GPCs) also specialised, like Culture, Community and Youth GPC chairman Baey Yam Keng.

GPC chairman Baey Yam Keng spoke about arts and culture issues (in green) in particular
GPC chairman Baey Yam Keng spoke about arts and culture issues (in green) in particular

4. WP has different priorities than the G.

The 12th Parliament as a whole contributed most to debates on transport, housing, and foreign affairs. But WP MPs had a slightly different pattern, with education issues most mentioned. Foreign affairs came much further down the list.

Topics WP MPs spoke about (in orange), compared to topics the 12th Parliament as a whole spoke about
Topics WP MPs spoke about (in orange), compared to topics the 12th Parliament as a whole spoke about

5. The opposition doesn’t talk to NMPs much.

Of the debates WP MPs participated in, only 14 per cent had contributions from NMPs. The opposition and NMPs talk to the G, but not much to each other. Plotting interactions on three axes, with the ruling party in blue, the opposition in red and yellow, and NMPs in green, the lack of opposition-NMP interactions is obvious.

Interactions between three groups of MPs - ruling party (blue), opposition (red), and Nominated (green) - are mapped on a HivePlot
Interactions between three groups of MPs – ruling party (blue), opposition (red), and Nominated (green) – are mapped on a HivePlot


Featured illustration by Sean Chong

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by Yoong Ren Yan

OH, TESSIE. Everyone wants a piece of you. Your owner Joe Nguyen, 44, has spoken – and tweeted. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has said its due. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has called Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has promised to “investigate“. And yesterday, the international media picked up your story.

In this exclusive interview, we ask Tessie what it’s like to be the only Tesla Model S electric car on Singapore’s roads – and about the long journey it took to get here.


TMG: How’re you feeling? Forsaken? Misunderstood?

Tessie: Frankly, I’m just relieved to be on the road again. My first seven months in Singapore weren’t fun at all. Sure, Joe took good care of me, but cars aren’t made to be kept at home – or at Vicom, ugh. They didn’t even know how to charge me. It took a full week because they had to switch off the power whenever they went home. Then they drove me for 11km, and that was it. Boring.

TMG: Your owner, Mr Nguyen, told us straight: “I love the car.”

Tessie: Joe’s great. He’s been showing me off a fair bit, and says things like “this is the future of cars.” I’m not complaining. I’m green, I can perform, I’m beautifully designed, and I make cool sounds – what more do you want?

TMG: But not everyone agrees, of course.

Tessie: Oh, sure. Those testers at LTA. Mr Musk and the US government said I consume 237 watt hours per km, but somehow LTA got a much higher figure: 444 watt hours per km. What’s going on? Maybe it’s because I’m second-hand. Maybe their test was wrong, because they haven’t really had to test electric cars before. Bureaucrats find it hard to deal with new things sometimes. All I know is I’ve always been told I’m efficient, so I don’t get it.

TMG: And LTA slapped on that $15,000 surcharge because of that difference.

Tessie: Yeah, Joe bit the bullet and paid up, but he doesn’t like it. He’s appealed to LTA many times but they won’t have it. So finally he wrote that open letter and it’s gotten a lot of attention. He doesn’t think it’s fair that electric cars are treated the same as those with normal internal combustion engines. It’s very frustrating. I don’t generate any emissions. If Singapore wants to be environmentally conscious, how can it make owners pay more for a green car? They’re supposed to have given Joe a rebate.

TMG: But according to LTA, although “tail-end” emissions are zero, you still need to be charged, and generating electricity causes emissions too, no? The economic principle is that you pay for whatever externalities you cause, even if they’re way upstream, right?

Tessie: Well, yes. And based on those standards, they calculated that I wasn’t so efficient after all. But if they’re concerned about electricity causing emissions, why aren’t they taxing all users? How is charging an iPhone different from charging me? They should be implementing a carbon tax or something like that, across the board, not penalising cars like me. Joe won’t mind that his electricity bill goes up as a result of a carbon tax. And I’ll be treated like the, uh, appliance that I am.

TMG: But you’re just not an appliance, right? You’re a car. And Singapore doesn’t like cars. That’s why you’re so much more expensive here than in Hong Kong, for instance!

Tessie: Yeah, things are rough for cars in Singapore. This $15,000 surcharge is nothing compared to the $215,000 in certificate of entitlement and other fees Joe had to pay. All in all the taxes were three times what I cost in Hong Kong.That wouldn’t change much even if Joe got a $15,000 rebate instead. Having said that, I suppose owners value us far more because they paid so much!

TMG: So to the G, if there must be cars on the road, it would rather they be green; but it still prefers fewer cars to more cars.

Tessie: That’s what it looks like. But should its objectives be so skewed towards discouraging ownership? If it wants to be serious about climate change and lowering Singapore’s emissions, then several things should be different. Incentives to choose greener cars shouldn’t just be marginal – owners should feel it in their pockets when they choose a gas-guzzler over a Tesla. And electricity should be taxed based on emissions. Electric cars are great, in my very biased opinion, but we can only be as efficient as the electricity we use. Why am I causing as much emissions as a gas-guzzler here, but much less in the US? Because Singapore still, overwhelmingly, uses fossil fuels to generate electricity.That’s not my fault!

TMG: You’re one smart car.

Tessie: Thanks. I did a lot of reading up in those seven months.

TMG: So what happens now?

Tessie: Well, Joe’s still hopeful, especially after this call between Mr Musk and PM Lee. He wants, at least, for future electric car-owners to have it easier, but it’d be great if he could get his $15,000 back too.

TMG: Ah, but that call. Some people are worried it means big business has power over a small country.

Tessie: Has Singapore ever caved to international pressure? I doubt it. If the G changes its mind, it won’t be because it wants to maintain good relations with Tesla. And Joe and I would much rather it change its mind because it sees that one policy is better than the other.

TMG: We hope it chooses the better policy too. But don’t you like the attention you’ve been getting? If we make electric cars cheaper there’ll be more of you around.

Tessie: I have to admit, being the only Tesla in the country is nice. But sometimes company is nice, too. In the meantime, if you see a white Tesla Model S on the roads, be sure to say hi!


Featured image by Natassya Diana

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ERP gantry. Image sourced from Flickr user: Karl Baron

by Yoong Ren Yan

EXPLAINING Singapore’s policies to non-Singaporeans can be hard. Try telling a European, for example, that the G wants to put GPS trackers in every car – and that it’s not a big deal here. Those trackers are part of our new satellite-based Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system – or “ERP 2.0”. Come 2020, road users will be charged by the distance they travel on congested roads.

So we know the G has our data, and in general, we trust them to use it for the purposes they say they want it for. That trust does not extend to the private sector, which is subject to strong data protection laws. Under the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), private organisations are required to seek your consent when they collect information, and when they use it for purposes other than what was initially specified.

The G is exempt from the PDPA. Instead, it addresses privacy issues on a case-by-case basis. For instance, Medishield Life premiums are collected by the Central Provident Fund Board. To figure out how much to collect from each person, the Board has broad powers to request and obtain health, income, and other personal information from other public agencies. It gets this data whether or not you consent.

In other cases, the G relies on the PDPA to ensure privacy. Quasi-governmental entities like healthcare institutions are subject to the PDPA. But for the purposes of providing healthcare, they can still share confidential patient information as part of the National Electronic Health Record system. If a patient agrees to a referral, for instance, proposed guidelines note that a patient “would have consented to the doctor disclosing his personal data as required for the referral”. A similar logic could apply to justify data-sharing across healthcare institutions nationwide.

But any unauthorised disclosure of data – for purposes other than implementing Medishield Life, or for healthcare provision – remains an offence.

Would these protections would be appropriate for ERP 2.0?

Arguably, a tracking system would need more safeguards against leaks and abuse. Beyond affecting the premiums we pay or our access to healthcare, ERP 2.0 feeds the G information about our exact locations, assuming we are in the cars we own. Would warrants be necessary, for instance, for the Police to tap ERP 2.0 data? Could they, like American security agencies, just tap it all?

The stakes are higher, and to maintain trust, perhaps protections should be too.

So far, proposals on how to protect privacy have been few and far between. In 2014, then-Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew responded to questions in Parliament about ERP 2.0, noting that the G would “anonymise and aggregate the data“, such that the identity of cars would remain unknown – and hopefully unknowable.

And just last month, when the tender for ERP 2.0 was awarded, a Land Transport Authority spokesperson said: “We want to reassure all road users that the necessary safeguards will be incorporated, so only data necessary to perform relevant functions will be collected.”

We still don’t know what this means in practice. And given the case-by-case approach to protecting privacy within the G, it’s difficult to guess what these “necessary safeguards” will look like. Current ERP legislation provides no specific protections that guarantee anonymity that we could find.

A model like the Medishield Life Scheme Act may be useful. The G can, in legislation, specify the public agencies authorised to tap into ERP 2.0, the extent of data shared, and permissible purposes. All other agencies should then be barred from accessing the information, unless Parliament decides otherwise.

ERP 2.0 is a substantial expansion in the G’s use of our personal data: the G, or one part of it at least, will know where we are, real-time. That no major scandals have emerged over how the G protects privacy bodes well. But as we wade into deeper waters, it seems sensible to discuss – in public – what the G can do to keep our data private.


Featured image ERP Gate by flickr user Karl Baron. CC BY 2.0 

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