May 27, 2017

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Authors Posts by Wan Ting Koh

Wan Ting Koh

Wan Ting Koh
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As field correspondent, Wan Ting likes chasing leads. When she's not doing that, the former Lit Major enjoys watching horror films and filling her awfully chocolate quota in her free time. You can reach her at wanting@themiddleground.sg

by Wan Ting Koh

MORE pathways are opening up for students who want to get through the education system via talent rather than grades, but with kiasu and kiasi attitudes still largely driving the education system here, will mindsets change?

In the debate on his ministry’s budget today (Mar 7), Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng outlined several enhancements to existing schemes that show the G’s efforts to shift away from a grade-centric education system.

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First up is the Subject-Based Banding (SBB) initiative that was first implemented in 12 prototype secondary schools in 2014 for lower secondary students. SBB lets students from the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams take subjects that they are stronger in at a higher academic level. For example, a student who is in the Normal (Academic) stream, but scored an A for Mathematics in his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), can take Mathematics at the Express level under SBB.

By 2018, the G aims to roll out SBB to all schools which are offering Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) courses at the lower secondary level. The SBB has been in place for upper secondary school students since 2003.

Mr Ng said that this approach would help students “deepen their learning in areas of strengths”, build their confidence and “opens up new post-secondary possibilities for them”.

Through an enhancement in the DSA scheme, the G will also be increasing opportunities for primary school students to get into secondary schools through their strengths and achievements rather than academic aptitude.

From 2018, all secondary schools will be able to admit up to 20 per cent of their Secondary 1 intake through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme. First introduced in 2004, DSA is meant to recognise students’ achievements in non-academic areas, such as sports and the arts. It offers Primary 6 pupils places in secondary schools before they sit for PSLE.

Currently, only Independent schools have a 20 per cent allowance on students they accept through DSA. Autonomous schools have a 10 per cent cap while schools with distinctive programmes can admit up to 5 per cent of its students through DSA. The general academic tests that students have to sit for as part of the DSA selection criteria will also be scrapped by 2018. While these tests allow for a comparison of students’ abilities, they “inadvertently put undue focus on general academic abilities”, said Mr Ng.

In any case, students with strong general academic abilities would already be able to qualify for secondary schools with the PSLE results, he added.

On what secondary schools could use to assess entrants, Mr Ng said: “Schools can conduct their selection via a range of assessment tools including interviews, trials, auditions and subject tests. They will also consider the applicant’s overall portfolio and achievements.”

One other change applies to the tertiary front. Polytechnics will be increasing their intake allowance for students who go in through the Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) scheme, which, similar to DSA, admits students based on their interest and aptitude, rather than academic performance.

This scheme was introduced in 2016 for Academic Year 2017, and allowed polytechnics up to 12.5 per cent intake through EAE. However, from Academic Year 2018, the allowance would be increased to 15 per cent.

What’s new is also the expansion of the scheme to Institute of Technical Education (ITE) so that ITEs will be able to admit up to 15 per cent of their Academic Year intake through the ITE EAE.

While the G is taking tangible steps to expand the education system’s focus beyond academics, mindsets will take a longer time to catch up. This problem was flagged by Member of Parliament (MP) Denise Phua, who asked what could be done to change mindsets that are geared towards grades.

Mr Ng said that while academic excellence is “a key strength of our system, it should not be over-emphasised, at the expense of other meaningful activities”.

But whether the G’s push towards a more holistic education can genuinely change mindsets remains to be seen.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Lady using Pair taxi app by the road, while a blue and yellow taxis pass by.

by Wan Ting Koh

WORKING in the gig economy doesn’t necessarily make you a freelancer, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in Parliament today, in his Committee of Supply speech on the gig economy in Singapore.

In fact, according to Mr Lim, you can technically still be an employee under contract with an employer even if you work in the gig economy. Mr Lim termed these group of workers “gig employees”. But this distinction means that gig employees should be covered under labour laws, such as the Employment Act – a right which freelancers are not entitled to.

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And this throws into uncertainty the fate of full-time Uber and Grab drivers here, who are currently considered self-employed.

Responding to questions from Members of Parliament (MPs) about the increasing number of freelancers in Singapore, Mr Lim said that whether a gig worker is an employee or freelancer depends on his or her contractual arrangement.

He raised the example of a private car driver. If this driver joins a transport company with an employment contract, but primarily takes on jobs offered via an app, he is still an employee of that company, even if he is on a short-term employment contract. In other words, gig employees are no different from those employed under “contract of service”.

Freelancers, on the other hand, are those who do not enter into employer-employee relationships. They provide service for a fee and are not overly constrained by the conditions imposed by the platform owner, or a service buyer, said Mr Lim.

Mr Lim’s announcement is timely as it follows a booming gig economy where an increasing number of workers are turning to “on demand” gigs to gain an income, instead of conventional, stable nine-to-five jobs. The phenomenon raises issues of employment rights for a group of workers who often go unprotected by labour laws.

Although there is no official definition of the gig economy worldwide, said Mr Lim, gig workers are commonly referred to by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as workers who work on the “platform economy”. This “platform economy” refers to online platforms which match service buyers with workers who take up the short-term jobs.

New survey findings released by Mr Lim in Parliament showed that there are about 20,500 gig workers here. Of these, around 10,500 come from the private car driving industry such as Uber and Grab, while workers from the professional services, creative services, delivery services and media and communications make up the rest.

The survey also found that of a total of 200,000 freelancers here, some 167,000 freelanced as their main job, while the rest did it part-time alongside other jobs.

A further breakdown of survey findings revealed that more than eight in 10, or 81 per cent of freelancers chose freelance work as their preferred job, while the remaining 19 per cent did not freelance as their preferred choice.

The survey also asked freelancers their top concerns or worries, and these were: The lack of income security, the lack of employee benefits and savings for housing and retirement, and the possibility of untimely payment from clients, said Mr Lim.

The growing numbers of freelancers are enough to make the G look into providing more employment protection for them, so the G will be forming a tripartite workgroup, comprising of representatives from the labour movement and employers, to study the issues they face.

He said: “While these concerns may not be new to freelancers, we are taking them seriously. This is because the number of freelancers may grow in our future economy, in tandem with the growth of the platform economy.”

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has also been giving freelancers some coverage. It set up the Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit about two years back to provide a range of benefits for members for a fee of $117 per year. Read our article about it here.

Even though Mr Lim did not mention any names, his example of the private car hire industry brings to mind the situation of Grab and Uber drivers in Singapore. They are currently considered self-employed, that is, they do not have CPF contributions, are not equipped with insurance, and have no leave days.

With distinctions between gig employee and gig freelancer being made, Uber and Grab might have to do something about their practices here, which might conceivably affect their bottom-lines. Hopefully, this won’t affect their fares. Conventional taxi drivers, who often complain about the competition, will be pleased though.

 

In other countries, the employment status of Uber drivers has become a source of contention between drivers and their employer.

In the US, a group of drivers representing 5,000 Uber Technologies drivers in New York filed a lawsuit against Uber last June, accusing the company of depriving drivers of various employment protections by misclassifying them as independent contractors. On one hand, drivers say they were promised decent wages, but a majority of earnings went toward company surcharges and vehicle payment. On the other hand, Uber insists that their drivers are self-employed and hence have no contractual obligation to subsidise rental or surcharges.

By October, two drivers had successfully sued to be considered employees of Uber rather than independent contractors. The court’s decision meant that the two would be entitled to unemployment benefits from their work with Uber, according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

In the UK, a landmark ruling by a London employment tribunal last October ruled that Uber drivers are not self-employed and should be paid “national living wage”.

The ruling by a London employment tribunal involves a case taken by two drivers, Mr James Farrar and Mr Yaseen Aslam, who argued on behalf of a group 19 Uber workers that they were employed by Uber, rather than working for themselves. Uber said in response that it would appeal against the ruling.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
Singapore Parliament.

by Wan Ting Koh

THE public service has been getting a lot of attention from the public lately, all thanks to some Members of Parliament (MPs) who said that the public service seems to have lost its heart.

Today (Mar 3) however, the public service was defended by Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam, the latest in a line of other MPs who have said that the public service has in fact, been doing a good job, even though there is room for improvement.

To Mr Shanmugam, who was speaking in reply to the cuts filed by MPs for the Ministry of Home Affairs, public servants in most cases were oustanding, dedicated, and go well beyond the call of duty and serve with heart.

Mr Shanmugam cited results from the Public Perception Survey, in which he said “gives a perspective to discussions about the public service” at a broader level.

According to the survey which polled 4,800 participants and their thoughts towards the Singapore Police Force (SPF), 87 per cent of the respondents think that the SPF is a “world class crime-fighting organisation”, said Mr Shanmugam. The same survey showed that 90 per cent of respondents believe the police are ready to deal with major law and order incidents.

A total of 88 per cent of participants feel that the police provide high quality service while 92 per cent rated general safety and security in Singapore as “good” or “very good”. Nearly half of those surveyed said that the installation of police cameras at HDB estates made them feel safer, added Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Shanmugam said that the survey results reflected the extraordinary level of faith and trust Singaporeans have in the police force.

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As for issues that arise with the public service, he said that those were the “exception, not the rule”, and that they arise due to “structural reasons”, such as inter-agency issues.

The lengthy conversation about the public service sparked off when several MPs raised concerns about the way they work. On Wednesday, MP Louis Ng said that public servants had turned some people away because they were doing things strictly by the book. He said that the public service had “lost its heart” in the pursuit of efficiency.

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin said that more could be done for the poor, while MP Lee Bee Wah said public servants tend to be more concerned with the “rules of their own agency” than what might benefit Singaporeans. She asked: “Can’t our civil servants be more result-oriented and objective-driven, instead of just guarding your own turf?”

Since then, numerous other MPs like Mr Shanmugam, have put in a good word for the public service. In Parliament yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean said that public officers work tirelessly to serve citizens.

DPM Teo added that public officers needed a little encouragement.

“I hope that members (like Ms Kuik) will rise, from time to time…to also offer encouragement for the good work of the many public officers who have worked hard and gone the extra mile to serve their constituents and Singaporeans,” he said.

Though, he added that no system was perfect, and that “we are constantly striving to do better”.

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Desmond Lee sought a clarification from Ms Kuik, saying that some people might get the wrong impression that the public service had lost its heart based on her speech.

To this, Ms Kuik said: “I actually do not believe that the public service has lost heart, as some reports have said.” She added that she personally knew of “many deeply compassionate civil servants” who had gone the extra mile to help others.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing expressed pride in the civil service on the sidelines of a post-budget dialogue with some 140 professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) yesterday.

He said: “I think overall, if you ask me, I think we have a good Civil Service. I think we have people who go out of their way to do what is right, what is necessary for Singaporeans.”

“There will always be areas where we can improve and I would be the first one to say that, even coming from the Civil Service previously, that is what we always strive to do each and every day.”

 

Here’s a defence of the public service by a former civil servant.

 

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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by Wan Ting Koh

THE long-awaited Guns N’ Roses concert on Saturday (Feb 25) drew barbs for its poor organisation, from a glitchy sound system, to the snaking queue for food and beverages.

One of the biggest gripes was about the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) wristbands that concert-goers needed to pay for food and drinks at the venue. RFID devices, similar to bar codes and magnetic strips, give their objects or users unique serial numbers for easy identification. Apart from the logistics sector, the popular technology has been applied across a range of industries with success.

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On Saturday however, the RFID wristbands failed to impress. Not that the system was faulty; it was just ineffectively used. Some Guns N’ Roses fans at Changi Exhibition Centre didn’t even get to use the bands. They’d queued for at least an hour for food and drinks only to discover that stocks had run out.

To make matters worse, concert organiser LAMC Productions had not intended to refund unused credits that were loaded at the event site, and the online top-up option had closed 48 hours prior to the event. LAMC has since apologised on its Facebook page and promised that it will be refunding unspent RFID credits.

What is RFID?

RFID technology involves the use of radio waves to read and capture information stored on an object’s tag. The tag has a transmitter and a receiver and its RFID component has two parts: a microchip that stores and processes information, and an antenna to receive and transmit a signal.

To read the information encoded on a tag, the reader emits a signal to the tag using an antenna. The tag responds with the information written in its memory bank. The reader will then transmit the results to an RFID computer program.

Security issues

RFID devices require readers to read its data. But unlike bar codes and magnetic strips, which have to be in view to be scanned, RFID allows for a distance of a few feet between the readers and device and can scan the device even if it’s hidden from view.

RFID technology’s ability to work from a distance also means that it poses a security threat to those who carry RFID-enabled documents with sensitive information, such as credit cards and passports, around. According to news articles, pickpockets armed with the right equipment can use RFID technology to steal your credit card or passport information, simply by being close by.

RFID readers, or even mobile phones with the right apps, can do the deed. If a reader or a smartphone with an RFID app is within range, it can pick up the wireless signals transmitted when that card is being used to buy a product.

Experts suggest using RFID wallets that can block signals to store your credit cards. You can also wrap individual cards in aluminium foil to disrupt the signals.

Digital theft aside, here are some other things that make use of RFID technology:

1. Library books

RFID technology is used to keep track of the books, magazines, and audio-visual materials you borrow from the library. It was first introduced in Bukit Batok Community Library in 1998 to reduce the time taken for users to borrow their books.

RFID tags are attached to library items and are activated when users use the self-checkout machines where the item is read, recorded and processed electronically. Through RFID, library queues were shortened without the need for extra staff to help check out library items. The technology was provided by ST LogiTrack, a joint venture between ST Electronics and ST Logistics.

RFID is also used for book drops and book sortings. In March 2012, the National Library Board (NLB) upgraded the RFID system to handle multiple checkouts simultaneously, so users were able to check out up to six items at a time.

2. Pets

Remember how your dogs need to be licensed in Singapore? That includes having them injected with a microchip so that they are traceable in case of a rabies outbreak. Microchips allow lost dogs to be traced back to their owners through their unique identification numbers. When a lost dog is found, the authorities use readers to detect microchips, usually embedded in the loose skin at a dog’s neck. These microchips transmit information by RFID.

The microchip works through emitting a radio code to a reading device which is able to show a 15-digit identification code. If this code is registered with AVA, the owner’s data would be found within AVA’s database.

From May 2001, dogs imported into Singapore were required to have a microchip implanted in them before they get here, in order to help the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) – to tell that the animal is healthy and has been vaccinated.

3. Malaysia’s Vehicle Entry Permit (VEP) scheme

Apart from the RM20 (S$6.32) road charge that Malaysia levied on Singapore-registered vehicles entering Malaysia from Nov 1 last year, Malaysia also intends to impose a VEP fee at its two land checkpoints with Singapore.

This scheme, announced as early as July 2014, would require Singapore vehicles to register with Malaysia’s Road Traffic Department and to pay a one-time fee of RM10 to install an RFID chip, which would be valid for five years.

According to Malaysia, each vehicle lane at the checkpoints will be equipped with cameras and sensors to read number plates and RFID tags.

The VEP scheme has been delayed repeatedly due to technical issues and registration was delayed last November as the website discontinued registrations. A quick check of the Road Traffic Department website showed that users can now continue to register for the VEP. It is unclear, however, when the VEP scheme would officially kick off.

The website added that the venue and time for RFID tag collection will be announced through online media at a later date.

4. Tray-return system

Over at One North, Timbre+ hawker centre uses an RFID tray-return system in order to encourage diners to return their trays. Diners pay a $1 deposit for an RFID-tagged tray at food stalls. After they finish their meals, diners get their deposits back when they return their trays to the conveyor belt.

The conveyor belt is equipped with an RFID reader which detects that the tray has been returned. A machine then returns the deposit while the tray is moved to the washing station.

The tray-return system cost $280,000, but thanks to the RFID technology, Timbre+ only needs three cleaners instead of eight, as over 95 per cent of diners return their trays after meals.

5. Clothes 

RFID tags are commonly used for clothes in retail stores to prevent shoplifting. Tags which require special equipment to remove are placed on clothes so that sensors at store entrances can detect merchandise that are removed without being paid for.

While RFID tags are used in retails stores to prevent shoplifting, a gym started applying the same concept to its gym clothes and towels in 2015 to prevent users from “accidentally” bringing home their linen.

Fitness First started tagging its clothes and towels as it was losing some 10 towels a month. These towels cost between $3 and $10 each, depending on their size and quality. The RFID tags work the same way for the gym towels as they do for merchandise at retail stores.

A user who walks out of the club with these RFID-tagged items will trigger alarm beeps and flashing lights at the club entrance so that staff will be alerted.

 

Featured image RFID Logo by Flickr user Christiaan ColenCC BY-SA 2.0

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by Wan Ting Koh

SO THE Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN’s) naval facility will soon be named after a ship. More precisely, it will go by the name of a ship – the Republic of Singapore Ship (RSS) Singapura – which will come before its original name, Changi Naval Base. Instead of Changi Naval Base, you’ll have to say this mouthful: RSS Singapura – Changi Naval Base.

But for all the grandiosity of a name change – an initiative meant to commemorate the RSN’s 50th anniversary – netizens and forum writers have split into three camps: with those who support the new name due to the naval base’s history, those who don’t, and those who think it’s a waste of time.

The RSS Singapura is one of the RSN’s first vessels and was one of the three ships the Singapore Naval Volunteer Force (SNVF) started with. The other two were the RSS Panglima and the RSS Bedok. The SNVF was the predecessor of the RSN and was formed from the Singapore division of the Royal Malaysian Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1966, months after Singapore’s separation from Malaysia.

The RSS Singapura, a 1,890-ton ship, was assigned to the SNVF as a training vessel after the split. It was not always a training vessel though. The RSS Singapura was a former Japanese-owned minelayer known as Wakataka. It was turned over to the British Royal Navy as a prize of war in 1947 and it was eventually assigned to the SNVF.

The ship was berthed at Telok Ayer Basin and the SNVF used it as its headquarters from 1966 to 1968. At one point, it almost became a floating night club and restaurant, according to a 1967 report.

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As for the 86 hectares naval base, its groundbreaking ceremony was officiated by then Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence Mr Teo Chee Hean in January 1998. During his speech, Mr Teo said that the location of the base at the eastern end of Singapore would enhance the protection of Singapore’s waters, together with the Tuas Naval Base at the western end. Changi Naval Base was officially opened in 2004 and is located a 15-minute drive away from the Changi Airport.

An ST article quoted a former naval volunteer reserve officer expressing his approval of the name change. Mr Adrian Villanueva, 77, a business consultant who got married on the RSS Singapura, said that the new name was “excellent for a naval base”. “The RSS Singapura was used as a headquarters and for training, and for functions to host dignitaries and naval officers,” he added.

However, not all were keen on the new name, which would take effect from May 15.

In a Feb 18 forum letter, Dr Sunny Koh flagged two problems – the confusing focus of the new name and its lack of practicality.

He wrote that the new name might shift attention from the base itself to the ship, creating a clash between the two words, “Singapura” and “Changi”. He added: “If so, this will force a contest between two historically powerful words, and not everyone will agree that the ship triumphs over the base.”

He said that the name will be shortened to either “RSS Singapura” or “Changi Naval Base” by people who refer to it in everyday situations. Not to mention that the abbreviation RSSSCNB would be “unwieldy”.

Dr Koh also questioned how the ship is related to the naval base. The RSS Singapura was berthed at Telok Ayer Basin and used by the SNVF as its headquarters from 1966 to 1968, he said, but the naval base was only officially opened in 2004.

However, Mr Villanueva disagreed with him. In a forum letter published on Feb 22, he wrote that the new name is in line with naval tradition where bases are named after ships. He raised several examples: The barracks at the Royal Navy Base in Sembawang were named after HMS Terror in 1945; the Royal Malaysian Navy Base in Woodlands was known as KD Malaya; and the RSN’s training school in Changi was named RSS Panglima in 2006.

He said: “Dr Sunny Goh seems to lack knowledge of historical naval tradition in naming ships and naval establishments.”

Mr Villanueva said that the RSS Singapura had a connection to the naval base too. According to him, after RSS Singapura was scrapped in 1968, the SNVF relocated to Pulau Blakang Mati (now known as Sentosa), where the RSN was established. RSN eventually moved to Changi Naval Base.

Said Mr Villanueva: “The name RSS Singapura should be contained in the naval base’s name, in line with naval tradition and as befitting our guardians of the seas.”

Online, the announced name change resulted in three main types of reactions: those who agreed with Mr Villaneuva, those who thought a naval base ought not to be named after a ship, and those who felt the change was much ado about nothing.

Supporters of the name change, like netizen Marc Toh, said that the naming of naval shore installations after ships is a “long established Royal Navy tradition”. 

 

Another netizen, Victor Huang, said that the name would remind people of “RSN’s history and proud tradition”.

 

Others, like netizen Brenden Allan, pointed out that naval bases and ships are two different things.

 

Then, there were others who felt that the name change is pointless. Netizen Teow Loo Shuin said as much.

 

Others said it is more than pointless – it is also a waste of money.

A Hardware Zone forum user, who went by the name of fortunecat, said that money would be required to implement the new name, considering the changes needed for signboards and documents.

screenshot of forum post

Even if the name change is making the news, at least RSS Singapura isn’t creating the waves that swept over another name which made headlines last week. (Hint: It was an exhibition about the Japanese Occupation.)

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Wan Ting Koh

IT WAS a question raised earlier this month when the media reported first that some 20 chickens in Sin Ming area were culled after noise complaints. It was asked again this afternoon. Were there red junglefowl, an endangered species native to Singapore and the ancestor to the common chicken, in the vicinity of the ill-fated chickens?

The Member of Parliament who asked is the founder of Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), Mr Louis Ng. Mr Ng said he had seen photos of the chickens at Sin Ming area and that some of them were the red junglefowl.

In reply, Minister of State for National Development Dr Koh Poh Koon said that the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), which was responsible for the culling, would need to conduct genetic studies to ascertain the species of the birds found in the Sin Ming area. He added: “So I think this is the point that is difficult for us to ascertain the truth just by speaking like this in this House.”

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But Dr Koh’s point does seem to contradict media reports where AVA said that the free-ranging chickens that have been seen on mainland Singapore are not red junglefowl – something which Mr Ng pointed out. Said Mr Ng: “Just to clarify; because AVA had mentioned earlier that the free ranging chickens seen on mainland Singapore are not the red jungle fowl. That statement is inaccurate.”

Was AVA unsure? Why the need for genetic studies?

So what about those birds wandering around Sin Ming that looked like red junglefowl? A documentary narrated by renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough showed what looked like red junglefowl in the Sin Ming area. These birds have grey legs and white ear patches, as compared to the free-ranging chicken which usually has yellow legs. The birds in the video were also caught in flight, something that common chickens are unable to do.

Earlier this month, AVA said it had culled 24 free-roaming chickens in Sin Ming after getting 20 complaints from residents last year about noise from the birds. The news triggered a public outcry with some asking why AVA didn’t relocate the birds instead. AVA director-general Dr Yap Him Hoo later said in a letter that the culling was due to public health concerns, particularly, the risk of bird flu that the chickens pose to humans.

Dr Koh touched more on this issue today. He said that free-ranging chickens have a higher risk than other birds, such as mynah birds and pigeons, of being infected with and transmitting the bird flu virus to humans.

Non-constituency MP Dr Daniel Goh and Mr Ng asked what threshold of chicken population was acceptable before the authorities would step in to do some population control. Dr Koh did not give a definite answer.

Dr Koh said that AVA conducts ground surveillance to determine the level of risk the free-ranging birds pose to the public. In the case of the Sin Ming chickens, AVA found that the population of birds had more than doubled from 20 in 2014 to more than 50 in 2015. He added that AVA reduced the population of chickens close to “baseline level”, even though there was no “magic number” to tell when the authorities should intervene. Even though there are no guidelines for the numbers, AVA took the approach to reduce the risk of bird flu to an “acceptable level”, said Dr Koh.

When asked by Mr Ng about the actual number of complainants, rather than the number of complaints, Dr Koh said that there were three in 2014, compared with five in 2015 and 13 last year.

Though there were calls for AVA to move the chickens to other areas, such as Pulau Ubin, Dr Koh said that placing common chickens there would contaminate the gene pool of the existing red junglefowl population.

AVA will continue to undertake research with academics, experts and other stakeholders to manage the population of free-ranging chickens and other birds, said Dr Koh. “Culling will only be done as the very last resort,” he said.

On the Sin Ming birds, Dr Koh said AVA had initiated a study with the National University of Singapore (NUS) in January 2016 to better understand the ecology and population of selected bird species in Singapore, one of which was free-ranging chickens.

It’s disappointing that the Parliament session cast little light on the issue. With the contradictory messages coming from the authorities, comms need to be cleaned up first before we can make sense of this clucking mess.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user inmemo. (CC0 1.0)

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by Wan Ting Koh

FINANCE Minister Heng Swee Keat was asked earlier at a press conference to identify a key big idea in the economic report produced by the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE). He didn’t name any but chose to re-frame the question – how Singapore can remain relevant to the world – a question which he pointed out, was not new.

Said Mr Heng: “We just have to keep ourselves very focused on how we are relevant to the world… Significant changes are going around in the world that we have to stay open and stay connected to the region and the global economy. And the way that we navigate this change is to build very deep capabilities.”

His co-chair, Trade and Industry Minister S Iswaran, named the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA) initiative, which offers tertiary institutions and companies more opportunities to link up with overseas partners, as one idea. He also said, however, that he didn’t think “novelty in itself defines the value of a report like this or any other government measure”.

So there you have it.

The much-awaited report, which numbered 109 pages, doesn’t have any specifics that would enthuse anyone. It seems to be a reiteration on the need to keep the economy open in the face of anti-globalisation sentiment, keeping enterprises and workers in pace with the changes through acquiring deeper skills, and collaboration among stakeholders, including trade associations and business chambers.

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If there was one point which stood out, it was about the tax system. The report said that rising domestic expenditures due to ageing and global change in tax rules will necessitate a review of the tax system. When asked for more details, Mr Heng said that specific changes will only be made after consultation processes.

The CFE report was supposed to be a follow-up on the Economic Strategies Committee report in 2010, which emphasised productivity-based growth, setting a target of 2 to 3 per cent per year.

Productivity didn’t figure in this report. When asked about other metrics to measure success, Mr Heng said that one could look into sector-by-sector growth in greater detail.

Likewise, while the 2010 report emphasised the need to make Singapore a home for “talent”, including foreign talent, this report was quiet on the matter. Asked about the role of foreign manpower, Mr Iswaran said that emphasis was not on nationality, but the productivity of the worker, adding that the “cumulative stock of foreign workers” in Singapore continues to grow even though there has been a “re-calibration” over the years.

“The policy on foreign workers has to complement the needs of economy and also balance that with the needs of our population. So it’s about investing in our people, and making sure that their skills and capabilities are up to mark so that they can participate in opportunities, but also recognising that there may be certain gaps in the market,” said Mr Iswaran.

Rather, more sobering is how the CFE had put 2 to 3 per cent as the annual expected GDP growth rate for this decade while the earlier committee said 3 to 5 per cent. It seems the CFE had taken into account the rising protectionistic tide since then, as well as the gloomier global outlook. Mr Iswaran said that the GDP growth was “not unlike what other economies achieve” and was an “appropriate and realistic indication” of GDP.

Why isn’t manufacturing taking up more than 20 per cent of the economy since it has been on the rebound? The sector had its strongest performance of the last year in the last three months before the year ended and manufacturing data from the Economic Development Board (EDB) showed that manufacturing output increased 21.3 per cent in December.

Said Mr Iswaran: “On manufacturing, I don’t think we are wedded to a number as a proportion of the GDP, that would be the wrong way to go about it… But we have good reasons to believe manufacturing continues to have [an] important role in [the] economy, we already have [a] strong base of companies and industries… to build on.”

What are we to take away from the report then?

Past reviews led to growth in areas such as investments overseas, and in Singapore’s links to other global financial centres and trading hubs. This time, the report is more concerned about getting people and businesses ready to capture opportunities as they arise.

Mr Tan Chong Meng, who is group chief executive officer of PSA International, said that the report addressed how Singapore would be ready for future changes. “Looking at how to do things, question is are we willing, are our people ready, and can we do it fast enough?
To this end, there was some focus on the impact of digitisation and proposals to capitalise on digital technologies, such as by providing Small Medium Enterprises with support to better understand these technologies and pushing for national initiatives like the National Trade Platform and National Payments Council. These were announced the Budget last year and in November last year respectively. To encourage Singaporeans to gain deeper skills, the report suggested setting up an online one-stop education, training and career guidance portal.

To support the development of promising industries, the report said that the G should consider “using lead demand”, adding that new enterprises with short track records would benefit from citing the G as its reference customer. This was the case for example, with water and defence technology industries.

One announcement made in the last Budget got extra attention from the CFE: Industry Transformation Maps (ITM) that will address issues within each industry and encourage collaboration between the G, firms and other stakeholders. Six ITMs have been rolled out so far, including those for hotels, retail, and logistics. “The CFE recommends that the early learning points from the first batch of ITMs be used to strengthen succeeding ITMs,” the report said, including how each ITM should continue to be customised for the particular industry and that related industries should have linkages to build “cluster-level” capabilities.
The report seems therefore, an endorsement of current strategies than containing any radical proposal. And no, it didn’t suggest that another casino be built.

 

The CFE was convened in January last year to map Singapore’s economic strategies for the future. The committee comprises of 30 members from different industries that operate in global and domestic markets. Here are the nine members of the panel in today’s conference:

The five ministers:

Mr Heng Swee Keat, Finance Minister

Mr S Iswaran, Minister for Trade and Industry

Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for National Development

Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher education and skills)

The four speakers from private companies:

Mr Teo Siong Seng, Chairman for Singapore Business Federation

Mr Bill Chang, Chief executive of group enterprise of Singtel

Mr Tan Chong Meng, PSA International group chief executive officer

Ms Mariam Jaafar, Partner and managing director of The Boston Consulting Group

 

The CFE suggested that the user experience and functionality of national jobs bank be improved. Here’s what we found out about it: 70,000 jobs on offer – but which is the right one for you?

 

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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Man in a purple shirt sitter and pondering while two businessmen walk by, at the CBD.

by Wan Ting Koh

IT’S all about workers’ rights early this year, with a few prominent cases making headlines and even into Parliament. The issues all revolve around what is fair for an employee – whether it concerns his or her termination, taking sick leave, or even whether he or she is getting paid.

In Parliament this afternoon (Feb 7), MP Tan Wu Meng asked for updates on the Surbana Jurong terminations, with NCMP Daniel Goh following up on what constitutes due and fair process in dismissing employees due to poor performance, and how employees can seek redress.

Surbana Jurong, a Temasek Holdings-owned infrastructure consultancy, came under the spotlight last month for terminating 54 of its employees, a practice which it said was part of a performance review. The lay-offs raised concerns that the company was retrenching workers under the banner of poor performance so that it wouldn’t have to pay additional compensation to its employees.

Surbana has insisted that the terminations were not a retrenchment exercise. Its chief executive Wong Heang Fine sent an email to staff following news of the terminations, informing them that the company “cannot allow a small proportion of poor performers to be a drag on the rest of the organisation”.

“We cannot allow our 1 per cent of poor performers to continue to affect the rest of the 99 per cent of staff who are performing,” he said in the email.

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After their dismissal, terminated employees took the issue to two unions, the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union and the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union, and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Surbana later acknowledged in a joint statement with the unions that the process “could have been better managed”. It added that it would work closely with the unions to provide an “equitable and mutually agreeable arrangement” for the affected workers and to help them find new jobs.

When asked for an update on the Surbana case, Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say said that the company and unions have reached a “fair settlement” of ex gratia payments. This means that Surbana will pay a sum of money to affected workers even though there is no obligation for it. Mr Lim added that Surbana’s mass termination and then public labelling of the employees as poor performers were “unacceptable”.

There may be other factors such as working environment and HR practices, said Mr Lim, adding that a poor performance in one company doesn’t mean it will be the same for the next company.

Mr Lim said that companies dismissing employees over poor performance have to substantiate their claim with documented evidence. “If the employer cannot substantiate, he may be ordered to reinstate the employee or pay compensation,” said Mr Lim. He added that employees who feel that they’ve been unfairly terminated may approach MOM, which will ask the companies for proof.

Being prematurely dismissed is one matter. What if you’re not being paid your salary?

 

Salary issues

Some 6,000 salary non-payment and short payment cases were lodged by employees last year and in 2015. Mr Lim gave the breakdown of cases in a written answer to NMP Kok Heng Leun’s parliamentary question last month about how many such cases had been referred to the Labour Court.

Of the 3,000 cases referred, 1,400 cases had the Labour Court issuing court orders in favour of employees. Out of these, 800 cases saw employees being paid within 14 days while 250 cases had employees who were paid after 14 days. A total of 350 cases were defaulted as the 200 companies involved were in financial straits or had ceased operations.

Some 25 employers were charged in court for more egregious offences each year for the past two years, Mr Lim added. These charges may include failure to pay salaries on time, or not paying a dismissed employee within three days of termination, and each charge carries a fine of not more than $15,000, or a jail term not exceeding six months, or both.

 

Sick leave entitlement

Employers are expected to excuse employees with sick leave or hospitalisation leave from work too. MOM called these “basic protections” after several Singapore Airlines (SIA) employees claimed that taking sick leave would affect their chances of promotion. Their allegations came after SIA stewardess, Ms Vanessa Yeap, 38, was found dead in a San Francisco hotel room on Jan 31 (United States time). She was reportedly ill two days before her death.

According to crew members interviewed by ST, every employee has 10 incentive points each year and these are docked when the employee submit medical certificates for common illnesses. All points are lost when the member of the staff accumulates 12 medical certificates.

Points are considered in the staff’s annual appraisals, though they account for less than 5 per cent of the weightage.

When contacted by ST, SIA said that operating with a medical certificate is a disciplinary lapse. It declined to say how it measured performance of its staff, but said that it takes into account many other factors apart from crew attendance.

It said: “As with all other businesses, employee productivity and attendance at work are important for a successful airline operation. Although crew attendance is a component in the performance management process, we would like to emphasise that crew performance is measured across many other factors.”

In response to concerns, MOM issued a statement yesterday saying it expects all employers to excuse their employees from work if they have a medical certificate.

It added: “Paid sick and hospitalisation leave is a basic protection under the Employment Act and is also a core benefit in collective agreements… employers should avoid penalising an employee solely based on his consumption of sick leave.”

According to ST, MOM is in touch with the SIA Staff Union and SIA’s management over the issue.

Under the law, employees with three months of service get five days of sick leave and 15 days of hospitalisation leave.

 

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by Wan Ting Koh

MOST times, the G is pretty coy about telling when an election will take place. This time, it’s actually given the month: September. That’s when the Presidential Election (PE) will be held.

It’s a surprise given that President Tony Tan’s term ends on Aug 31. All past presidential elections have been held before the expiration of the six-year term. The writ was issued in the first week of August and elections held in the final week.

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Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Chan Chun Sing, told Parliament earlier today that the Attorney-General has green-lighted the move. He didn’t say what this was based on but a look at the Presidential Elections Act threw this up:

Any poll for the election of the President shall be conducted as follows:

  1. (a) Where the office of the President becomes vacant prior to the expiration of the term of office of the incumbent, within six months after the date the office of President becomes vacant; or
  2. (b) In any other case, not more than three months before the date of expiration of the term of office of the incumbent.

So it’s probably the first limb which, put in another way, says that the office of President can stay vacant for six months if it was vacated before the term expires. Get it?

But why the change?

Mr Chan said this re-setting of the clock means that future presidential election campaigns will fall after the National Day period. He didn’t elaborate, but presumably, the G wants a clear period of celebration as well as a National Day rally speech that will not be complicated by an on-going election.

Presumably, the election cannot be brought forward to, say, July, because the new process would take a “slightly longer time”. To those who ask why not go with the simpler solution of letting Dr Tan carry on until the election, the answer is: That would be un-constitutional.

A caretaker president can do the job in the interim, which is allowed for under Article 22N, he said. That would be Mr J Y Pillay, who is the head of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). If, for some reason, he can’t take it up, the role falls to the Speaker of Parliament Madam Halimah Yacob.

There was a moment of levity when Mr Chan addressed Madam Halimah as Madam President. A slip of the tongue but it won’t be lost on political observers who are speculating on which Malay candidate will toss his or her hat in the ring as this PE is reserved for Malays. Madam Halimah is among the front-runners.

His other reason for the delay was the longer and more complicated process of electing a president under changes proposed to the office which cleared Parliament in November last year.

Chief among the change would be the need for aspiring candidates to clear a community committee, much like that set up to vet candidate for Group Representation Constituency.

Two interesting points:

  1. Besides sub-committees to screen those who declare themselves Malays or Indians or belong to the Others category, there is a Chinese sub-committee.
  2. A person can also declare that he is NOT a Malay, Chinese, Indian or belonging to any other minority race. This is only for “open elections”, that is, not reserved for the minorities.

There is also a statutory declaration that candidates must make to show that they understood the custodial role of the President. Clearly, there will be no repeat of the last presidential election in 2011 where candidates touted the office as a second locus of power to check the G.

And instead of three days in the past, candidates applying for the certificate of eligibility have until five days after the writ of election is issued to submit their applications. The minimum interval between the issue of the writ of election and nomination day has also increased from five to 10 days, to give the Presidential Election Committee more time to assess applications.

Also, Mr Chan alerted aspiring candidates to a change in election campaign procedures. No rally sites will be set aside for them but they are free to secure sites for rallies themselves and apply for police permits. This, in an attempt to de-politicise the office. Instead, candidates will be given more airtime on TV to reach out to voters.

No MP raised questions about the timing but focused on points such as:

1. Candidates of mixed descent 

Both MP Vikram Nair and Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Thomas Chua asked which ethnic community a candidate with mixed parentage would be considered under. Mr Nair said that candidates with mixed heritage can belong to both communities, and asked if it was possible to choose the ethnicity that fit the requirements of a reserved election.

Mr Chua said that if an outstanding individual of two ethnicities was willing to serve, both community groups would be “proud of him”. He added that he hoped the committee would be able to make the “correct decision” based on ethnicity.

To this, Mr Chan replied that for a candidate of mixed heritage, the relevant community committee would adopt an “inclusive attitude” when assessing the individual.

 

2. Assessment of candidate

Opposition MP Pritam Singh said that article 8G was “scant on details” as to how the Community Committee would assess candidates. He asked if a candidate’s competency in Mother Tongue would be considered by the sub-committee as a criteria relevant to his or her race.

Ethnicity of the candidate’s spouse was also a concern for Mr Singh, who asked if this was a factor that would be taken into consideration. The reason he asked, was that if the candidate’s spouse were of a different race, the spouse might not see himself or herself as part of the candidate’s community.

However, Mr Chan said that the committee should consider the candidate’s eligibility “holistically”, rather than home in on one factor. Whether a naturalised citizen or a born-and-bred Singaporean should be president is up to the electorate, said Mr Chan. He added that Singapore did not practice the concept of the “First Lady” constitutionally, but that it was used customarily.

 

3. On how to count a reserved election

Opposition MP Sylvia Lim asked why the five-term provision for a reserved election started from Mr Wee Kim Wee’s term rather than from Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who succeeded Mr Wee in 1993. If Mr Ong were considered the first elected president, only four terms would have passed and the provision for reserved election would not be triggered, she said.

Said Ms Lim: “We were told that the advice was to count from President Wee Kim Wee who was then the first president to exercise the powers of an elected president. This advice was surprising and illogical to many Singaporeans given that President Wee Kim Wee was never elected to office.”

She suggested that the count was politically motivated, adding that the G “appeared reluctant” to release the result of its consultation with the Attorney-General on the matter. Ms Lim’s words drew a barbed reply from Mr Chan who said that Mr Wee was “the first president to exercise the powers under the new Elected Presidency act.”

Said Mr Chan to Ms Lim: “Are you suggesting the Attorney-General (AG) did not give the government the appropriate advice? Or that the Prime Minister has not been truthful with the Attorney-General’s advice?” He added that Ms Lim could challenge AG’s advice in court and that it was a serious issue to “cast aspersions” on the Prime Minister’s integrity. Whether the G chose to release AG’s advice was also up to its discretion, said Mr Chan.

Nine MPs spoke in all, including Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean who had a brief exchange with opposition MP Leon Perera on whether Mr Perera had agreed to an Elected Presidency during the debate of the Bill last November. For the record, Mr Perera insisted that he had not, saying that the “totality” of what he said indicated his support for an Appointed Presidency. He repeated The Workers’ Party’s (WP) argument that an Elected Presidency would only lead to politicisation.

Clearly not au fait with parliamentary procedures, NMP Kok Heng Leun tried to abstain from giving his decision during the third reading of the Bill at 6pm today, but was told by Madam Halimah that he could only vote for or against it. So Mr Kok chose to oppose the Bill.

He was one of the 10 who voiced their opposition. The other nine were all from the WP.

So it’s all systems go now for a changed presidency.

 

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by Wan Ting Koh

RED junglefowls, the endangered ascendant of chickens, do dwell in mainland Singapore alongside common chickens, contrary to reports saying that only common wild chickens roam the lands here.

The evidence lies in a 2015 documentary about Singapore’s wildlife, narrated by renown naturalist David Attenborough. Video footage of the documentary shows a flock of wild red junglefowl foraging in the grassy areas in Sin Ming.

Chickens made MSM headlines recently after a TODAY report on Feb 1 said that the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) had the chickens in the Sin Ming area culled, following complaints from residents over the last year. A total of 20 complaints had been filed, most relating to the noise the chickens caused.

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The 24 doomed chickens were found in Thomson View and Blocks 452 to 454 Sin Ming Avenue, and were NOT red junglefowl, the TODAY report had said.

A separate TODAY report, referring to a response by the AVA, said that the free-ranging chickens that are sometimes seen on mainland Singapore are not red junglefowl, even though they might look like them. An ST report quoted the authorities as saying that purebred red junglefowls are known to occur only in Pulau Ubin and the Western Catchment area.

But the documentary shows otherwise.

The video, which can be found on Toggle, is the second episode of Wild City, a documentary showcasing the wildlife in Singapore’s urban areas. Slightly after the 17-minute mark, the video shows a flock of birds which resemble chickens foraging in the grass beside a road in Sin Ming. These birds have the distinctive traits that identify them as red junglefowl: Grey legs and white ear patches, as compared to common chickens which usually have yellow legs.

The birds in the video are also caught in flight, something that common chickens are unable to do. In fact, the TODAY article had quoted resident who complained about the chickens flying. Ms Stella Hosoucheng, a 63-year-old who works in customer service, had said: “The noise and they fly! I can hear them crowing early in the morning… and obviously I don’t like them.”

It sounds as if there were red junglefowl in Sin Ming. So were the culled birds really junglefowl or common chickens? We have contacted AVA to ask for their response to this issue.

As for the ill-fated chickens, they were “humanely euthanised” as relocation options were not available in land-scarce Singapore, AVA said.

News about the culled chickens sparked a wave of protests online, with most calling the killing heartless and unnecessary.

Facebook user Azlina Sulaiman‎ said on AVA’s Facebook page that the G’s reason for culling the chickens was “pathetic”.

Others turned the spotlight on the residents who complained, saying that the chickens weren’t really a threat to the community. Facebook user Jeremy Shiu said that the complaints showed a lack of care toward the environment and nature.

Others asked why the chickens were not simply relocated. Facebook user Yen Chua said that the chickens could have been moved to “one of our many islands”.

However, an expert has said that from an environmental perspective, AVA did the right thing. Assistant Professor Frank Rheindt, from the National University of Singapore’s department of biological sciences said that it would not be feasible to move the chickens to Pulau Ubin – if they were common chickens – as they might have contaminated the “gene pool of the wild stock of junglefowl” there.

 

You can watch the full video here:

 

 

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