April 28, 2017

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by Bertha Henson

SO THE Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) have decided not to appeal against the four-year jail sentence for Joshua Robinson. It has put out a statement to say why: Robinson pleaded guilty which spared the girls the ordeal of going through a trial, the two girls were above 14 which means he did not commit statutory rape, and they had consented to sex.

Not rape. Not outrage of modesty. So the charge against Robinson was sexual penetration of a minor under 16 years of age, which is punishable under section 376A(2) of the Penal Code. The AGC said that this was the most serious charge that the prosecution could have brought on the case. And no, there’s no caning under this clause but a maximum of 10 years jail.

It looks like we weren’t right to say that the girls were sexually assaulted since what he did was not rape nor molest, even though one of them had a mental breakdown after her intimate encounter with Robinson. I suppose the girls were seduced by the American mixed martial arts instructor into consensual sex. Or at least some sexual grooming took place.

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The AGC’s decision isn’t going to please the 26,000 or so people who signed a petition to put Robinson away for longer. It would be quite a wonder, however, if the AGC did appeal. As I said in an earlier column, the AGC would have to concede that it was somehow wrong to ask for a jail-term of four to five years especially since it said it had looked at precedents. Changing its mind and asking for a higher sentence for Robinson means that past offenders had an easier time of it. Recall, for example, the 51 men who charged with having sex with an under-aged prostitute. They were jailed for between four and 20 weeks each.

More importantly, I doubt if the AGC wants to be shown as bowing to popular opinion or “public disquiet”, as Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put it.

After all, this would make a mockery of the Administration of Justice Act because outside forces have caused a change of heart. (What’s pretty amazing is that no one in authority has said that it’s wrong to comment on the case given that the appeal limit is not up.)

What would the AGC do the next time there is a public outcry over a punishment that the layman finds inadequate for the crime?

Don’t get me wrong. As far as I’m concerned, Robinson should be castrated whether the girls consented to sex or not. He’s 39, they’re 15. The age gap should have nailed him, as well as filming of the sexual acts. It seems that there are gaps in the law. The AGC said it would be reviewing the law with the Law ministry.

Commenting on this latest announcement, Mr Shanmugam said: “If we don’t think the sentences, based on precedents, are adequate, then we consider what can be done. I do think that the sentences for such offences committed by Robinson need to be relooked at. That is why I have asked my Ministries to study this.”

Well, at least that’s something. It’s good that the AGC did some explaining of the law although I wished it would have said why it agreed to the sentences being run concurrently instead of consecutively.

Maybe, that’s for the judge to decide and written grounds have yet to be made public. It would make for interesting reading.

 

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by Bertha Henson

IT’S a reflection of how powerful the G is when it gets whacked even for stuff that’s not under its purview. I’m talking about the uproar over the four-year jail sentence for American Joshua Robinson, probably the most high-profile sexual offender in Singapore.

Clearly, people don’t see the line between the executive and judiciary. Or maybe they are too afraid to slam the judge in the case because that might put them in contempt of court. If there’s anything you want to fault the G over, it’s how the Attorney-General’s Chambers had originally asked for a four to five year jail sentence. Even that, however, is debatable since the G maintains that everything is up to the discretion of the AGC.

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Asked about the matter, Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam said: “The decisions on which charges to proceed is a matter within AGC’s discretion. AGC makes the decisions based on precedents, and what kind of sentence is meted out depends on previous cases… Having said that, my understanding is that AGC is looking into this.’’

Robinson, 39, pleaded guilty to nine charges: Three for sexually assaulting the girls, five for making and possessing obscene films and one for showing an obscene film to a six-year-old girl. Another 20 charges were taken into consideration during sentencing. Among the 20 are four more counts of having sex with the minors and 12 for making obscene films.

For the first charge, the maximum penalty is 10 years jail and fine. For possession of obscene films, he could have been jailed up to six months or fined $500 for each film, up to a maximum of up to $20,000. Statutory rapists in the past have gotten sentences that ranged from five to 20.5 years.

Of course, each case is different. The heaviest sentence was 20.5 years jail time and 24 strokes of the cane.

So can we whack the AGC then?

The case is a volatile mix. A foreigner who is muscular and trained in the martial arts. Who deals with children. Who takes pictures of sexual acts and keeps the largest stash of porn police have ever seized from an individual – 5,902 obscene films, including 321 films of child pornography.

Who, despite being arrested, continued his deviant behaviour while on bail. Who even preyed on a six-year-old while her father was in close proximity.

What utter brazenness!

It’s no wonder that people are calling for his head. An online petition calling for a higher sentence said: “Is this the message our Singapore Government People’s Action Party is intending to send worldwide: “Spray paint our city or slander our government officials and you get it worse off than if you rape and sexually abuse our children”?

Threaded through the statement is a certain an animus against foreigners here: That they can’t get away with dirtying our city (think Michael Fay and the European graffiti artists) or saying bad things (think foreign journalists and authors), but they can do what they like otherwise. It doesn’t help that some foreigners have been in the news, like Yang Yin, who, on the other hand, got his jail term increased to 11 years in all, instead of six. (Please don’t speculate on whether there are different rules for “white’’ people; that’s unworthy.)

Given the public outrage, should the AGC appeal for a higher sentence even though it more or less got what it wanted? Would bowing to popular opinion be a case of mob justice? Or would it concede that it should have asked for more? Then again, it’s really up to the judge to impose the sentence, whatever the AGC might say.

Gasp! Are we interfering with the administration of justice given that the case is not yet over because there’s still a week to go before the appeal time limit is up? Mr Shanmugam, while conceding that there was “public disquiet’’, said that this wasn’t an appropriate time for him to comment on the case. And probably for the rest of us too.

The AGC has 14 days from the date of sentencing (Mar 2) to appeal. By then, we should know whether it has appealed, as well as why it did so – or didn’t.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Lee Chin Wee

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

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

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

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Nicoll Highway collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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Two deaths at Fusionopolis Way, Buona Vista

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

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

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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A CABBY who lied about being attacked by his Norwegian passenger was sentenced to 19 weeks jail yesterday.

Here’s what his victim, Mr Arne Corneliussen, said about the case: “In the greater scheme of things, he is going through what I went through as well. But I still lost my job, I lost money to him and I also spent a lot on legal fees, so I can’t say I feel like justice was done. He has yet to reach out to me to offer compensation of any sort.”

Cabby Chan Chuan Heng had pinned the blame on Mr Corneliussen, who was jailed 10 weeks and had to pay him $30,000. Later, Mr Corneliussen was re-tried and fined $2,000 for causing hurt. The former DHL director had already served more than half his 10-week sentence.

Mr Corneliussen has a point. How is he going to get his money back? Sue the cabby?

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What was also interesting is how this was missed out earlier in the investigations. According to ST, Chan also deliberately did not submit the in-car camera footage that would have captured the sound of his earlier altercation with Mr Corneliussen, and would have cast the entire incident in a different light.

We move from Singapore and Norway to Singapore and China now…

Nothing was said about the retention of Terrexes in Hong Kong when Singapore’s high-powered team went to Beijing to meet their counterparts for the delayed meeting of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation. Instead Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean emphasised the need to be “forward-looking”. So we don’t know if the Terrexes were discussed or not, although Mr Teo did make clear that Singapore was sticking to its One China policy and that biltateral relations were deep and broad enough to weather disturbances.

Much was made of the composition of his team members, younger ministers whom he brought along to build ties with their generational counterparts in China. In the old fold were Ministers Lim Hng Kiang and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. Cabinet ministers in the young set were Ms Grace Fu, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Lawrence Wong, Mr Ng Chee Meng and Mr Ong Ye Kung. The second liners or junior ministers were Dr Amy Khor (although she can be considered as part of the old fold), Mrs Josephine Teo, Ms Sim Ann and Dr Koh Poh Koon.

Perhaps, he should have brought along a young non-Chinese as well, to make the point that Singapore is multi-racial society that won’t dance to the Chinese tune, now as well as in the future.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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earth by Kevin Gill

THINK that murder mysteries and assassinations are confined to the pages of an Agatha Christie novel? Think again, as fact is stranger than fiction. From alleged Kremlin death plot and attempt on the Libyan Prime Minister’s life to North Korean agents attempting to recover Kim Jong Nam’s body by sneaking into the Kuala Lumpur morgue, this week’s news is thick with blood and political intrigue.

 

1. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Attempted break-in at morgue holding Kim Jong Nam’s body

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Image from Facebook user Johan Manus.

On Tuesday (Feb 21), merely days after Kim Jong Nam was assassinated by two mysterious women, Malaysian police detected an attempt to break into the morgue where Mr Kim’s body was being kept. Police presence at the morgue has been stepped up. Police chief Khalid Abu Bakar claimed that authorities knew the identity of the break-in suspects, but refused to go into detail as to whether they were North Korean.  He said, “We know who they are. No need to tell you (the press).”

The break-ins, however, have intensified speculation that North Korea is behind the assassination. North Korea has repeatedly tried to foil Malaysian attempts to investigate the murder, calling for the immediate release of the two “innocent women” who were arrested in connection with Kim’s death. The isolated nation has refused to even acknowledge that the dead man was Kim Jong Nam, and has accused Malaysia of conducting a politically-motivated investigation to gain favour with the United States and South Korea.

North Korea-Malaysia relations have soured in light of this diplomatic spat. On February 20, the North Korean ambassador was summoned by the Malaysian government, while the Malaysian ambassador to North Korea was also recalled. This story is still developing.

 

2. Moscow, Russia – Kremlin has denied allegations of Montenegro assassination plot

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Montenegrin Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic accused Russia on Sunday (Feb 19) of involvement in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate the Montenegrin prime minister, Milo Dukanovic, in October last year. Russia has strenuously denied any such claims.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in response: “These (are) absurd accusations … We do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, including Montenegro.”

These allegations come as Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, criticised NATO for being a “Cold War institution”. Russia has pointed to the expansion of NATO membership as a key reason why relations have soured with the West and even annexed the former Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014 in response to the toppling of Russia’s ally and then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

The planned Montenegro coup, scheduled for Oct 16 last year and foiled only hours before its execution, was a blatant attempt by Serbian and Russian nationalists to deny the pro-NATO and pro-EU Montenegrin Prime Minister from retaining power.

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3. Tripoli, Libya – Libyan PM survived attack on convoy

Image from Facebook user ALGERIA PRESS SERVICE.
Image from Facebook user ALGERIA PRESS SERVICE.

On Monday (Feb 20), a convoy carrying the Prime Minister of Libya, Fayez al-Sarraj, fell under gunfire as it was passing through the Abu Salim district of Tripoli, the capital. Also among the convoy were Supreme State Council head, Abdel Rahman al Swehli, as well as the commander of Presidential Guard, Najmi al Nakou. They were travelling in armour-plated cars and were unharmed.

However, statements regarding casualties do not tally. The Times of Islamabad reported on February 20 that Mohamed Salem, a spokesman for the Supreme State Council, said two guards were wounded. At the same time, Ashraf al Thulthi, a spokesperson for Mr Fayez’s administration, was reported as saying that “there were no injuries”.

The assassination attempt was a sign of how fragile Mr Fayez’s reign is. Libya has been existing in political turmoil since 2011, with the armed uprising against and death of its dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Subsequently, the Libyan government developed into two rival divisions, one with its seat of power in Tobruk and the other, in Tripoli. In late 2015, the United Nation backed an agreement to form a Government of National Accord, with Mr Fayez at its helm.

Investigations into the identity and backer of the assailants are ongoing.

 

4. Mugla, Turkey – 47 people accused of plotting to kill President Erdogan have gone on trial

Image from Facebook user Movie Box Office Colection & Celebrity News
Image from Facebook user Movie Box Office Colection & Celebrity News.

In Mugla, a province of Turkey, the trial of 47 assassin-suspects has begun on Monday (Feb 20) in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s conference hall. These 47 have been accused of targeting the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

That night, a section of the Turkish military took to the streets of several major cities with tanks and air bombardments in a coordinated attack. The president was staying in a hotel at the port town of Marmaris then. Fifteen minutes after he left the premises, the hotel was bombed. Meanwhile, loyalist soldiers, police forces and thousands of ordinary citizens resisted the coup after news spread via social media. After a few hours, the government was able to declare victory.  However, at least 248 people died and around 2,200 were wounded.

According to the Turkish government, the mastermind of the coup attempt was Mr Fethullah Gulen, a businessman and influential Turkish preacher on self-imposed exile in the United States (US) since 1999. Mr Gulen has denied any involvement and remained in the US.

Al Jazeera reported that the chief prosecutor of the trial, Mr Necip Topuz, has described the case as “historically important” since it is the only coup-related case where the president is the plaintiff. The trial is expected to last through the year.

 

5. Manila, Philippines – Duterte accused of ordering journalist Jun Pala’s death

Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A former police officer from Davao City in the Philippines has accused President Rodrigo Duterte as the mastermind behind the killing of a journalist, Jun Pala. Mr Duterte, who was then the chief executive of Davao City, allegedly founded the “Davao Death Squad” in 1988 and ordered the killing of criminals and troublesome political enemies.

On September 6, 2003, Mr Pala was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle while walking home from work. Mr Duterte denied involvement in the killing, but he also claimed to know who was behind Mr Pala’s death. Mr Pala had clashed with Duterte on many occasions – one of which involved Mr Duterte’s positive relationship with the New People’s Army (a communist insurgency), while Mr Pala was reportedly part of the Alsa Masa, an anti-communist group accused of human rights abuses in the 1980s.

As president, Mr Duterte has endorsed the killing of corrupt journalists and stands accused of waging a bloody war against drug gangs and peddlers in the Philippines.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin Gill. (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

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Black strap watch with gold face showing 8.30.

WHENEVER there’s money to be given out, you can bet somebody will find a way to get hold of it via dubious means. Remember how companies took advantage of Productivity and Innovation Credit schemes to get cash? Now, that $500 SkillsFuture credit dangling in front of each adult Singaporeans is too tempting for some.

Some people – about 4,400 people – decided to pluck such tempting fruit by submitting false claims for a SkillsFuture course they didn’t attend. It’s intriguing because they all went to the same course by the same service provider – which remains un-named. MSM reported how the scam was uncovered because of data analytics which flagged a sudden spike in claims. The total amount claimed: $2.2 million.

Now the question is whether the system worked before – or after – the claims have been processed and money given out. Well, some 4,400 people are richer by $500 each, more than a GST voucher for most. The G has sent the people letters to return the money in 30 days, but it didn’t say what will happen to those who don’t.

SkillsFuture Singapore said its course directory and claims process were designed to be simple, inclusive and user-friendly, to encourage usage. “It is regrettable that some individuals have abused the system and submitted false claims,” the agency said.

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Investigations are still going on but it’s a wonder how 4,400 people can somehow be making claims for the same course. Was there a mastermind or did they somehow get wind of money to be made this way? If so, how did they get the supporting documents, like receipts for the course fees, to make the claims?

The other theory of course is that they have been unwitting accomplices who had their names used without their consent. If so, no one came forward to say so. Cash in hand is not to be sniffed at?

According to TODAY, SkillsFuture Singapore was asked if there is a risk of the claims system. Its reply: “The SkillsFuture Credit System has never been compromised … SSG’s enforcement system involves data analytics to detect anomalies, regular audits of training providers, and manual audits of individual claims. These measures have allowed SSG to uncover false SkillsFuture Credit claims. We will continue to strengthen the sensitivity of our data analytics system in flagging out anomalies.”

What a thing to say! If giving out $2.2m is not a compromise of the claims system, then what is it?

Still on training – but something that doesn’t look like it can be abused: two universities here are offering work-study degree programmes for its students. The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and SIM University have 65 such places which integrate work and training.

Did your eyes glaze over because you’ve heard about such programmes before? The difference is that the students will be spending a lot more time in a hands-on job, like up to four days a week, than in class. Free labour for companies? Nope. They will be contract staff and it will be for employers to decide if they should be given permanent positions after their graduation.

Minister for Higher Education Ong Ye Kung who announced this yesterday noted that with more people getting into universities, “employers need to ensure a good match between talents and skills of the graduates they hire and organisational needs.”

In other words, when the Singapore graduate cohort hits 40 per cent, employers need to be able to tell one grad from another and this scheme will give some students a cutting edge. The universities are beginning to look like polytechnics, aren’t they? It will be more so when the other universities add this scheme to their current internship and exchange programmes.

What sorts of courses are being offered? They include information security, software engineering, hospitality business, electrical power engineering, civil engineering and finance and business analytics.

Now why would anyone want an arts and social science degree?

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Daniel Yap

TWO op-eds on tobacco in the run-up to Budget 2017 caught my eye.

The first is one by the economist Mr Donald Low in the Business Times on Feb 17, calling for a “grand bargain” – an exchange of cigarettes for reduced-risk tobacco products.

The second is by Dr Chia Kee Seng, professor and dean at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore, and Dr Kenneth Warner, Avedis Donabedian Distinguished University Professor of Public Health at the Michigan School of Public Health, University of Michigan, published in Straits Times (ST) on Feb 18.

The two doctors called for an end to the scourge of smoking, pitching once again the G’s already-proposed measures of age limits, flavour bans and packaging changes as the way forward. These ideas are already being implemented by other nations.

Both pieces agree on this point – courageous action must be taken to mitigate the high cost of tobacco on our society. But do Singapore’s policymakers have the courage to save lives?

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Singapore’s tobacco policy of ever-higher taxation, bans and graphic marketing has not put a significant dent in the smoker population in Singapore over the last decade. Smoking prevalence has hovered between 12 and 16 per cent, with male smoker prevalence around 25 per cent.

One should note first that in Singapore, one-fourth of those below 18, the current legal age, had already tried smoking. It stands to reason that more laws will not stop this segment of curious youth from engaging in risky, illegal behaviour. And with the youth segment being the true “gateway” to smoking (a huge majority of smokers get hooked before the age of 21), it seems that more laws alone are unlikely to put a significant dent in the smoking rate.

The Health Ministry has set an ambitious target of 10 per cent smoking prevalence by 2020. It is admirable, maybe even attainable, but it is a big reach nonetheless. Dr Chia and Dr Warner pointed to New Zealand, Finland, Canada, Sweden and France as countries that have set a goal for a smoke-free society in eight to 23 years.

What is notable is that these countries, and many others at the forefront of the anti-smoking movement, allow reduced-risk tobacco products as a way for smokers to either quit or at least reduce the cost of smoking to society.

Singapore remains stubbornly behind the times in this area, maintaining a ban against reduced-risk products and constantly citing worry about a “gateway effect” where e-cigarettes, snus (chewing tobacco popular in Sweden and Finland), and heat-not-burn products would lead youth and non-smokers to pick up smoking.

Studies in the United Kingdom (UK) over the last few years, however, have shown that the gate swings almost uniformly in one direction: helping smokers quit (and typically become e-cigarette smokers) rather than enticing youth or non-smokers to “upgrade” to smoking. You can find the Department of Health’s findings published here.

 

Taking on some risks for greater good

That’s where Mr Low’s “grand bargain” comes in.

Based on the UK research, would it not be more prudent to lift the ban on reduced-risk products while at the same time clamping down on smoking tobacco? No doubt e-cigarettes are harmful to health, but this is a risk mitigation situation, much like how the G wants gamblers to put their money with well-regulated casinos or with entities like Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club, which will redistribute to social causes.

We must remember why we want to bring the smoking rate down: the health and social costs of smoking are high. If there is a way to reduce the costs by allowing alternative products, why not? Reduced-risk products can continue to be regulated and taxed as cigarettes currently are. And with alternatives in place, we can look to the other side of the “grand bargain” – cutting down on smoking, perhaps even to the point of banning it altogether.

It seems that harsher laws against smoking would be most effective in tandem with the availability of alternative tobacco or nicotine products, with a complete smoking ban as the end game.

Perhaps Singapore can lead the world in this area as well, and become a smoke-free nation by 2030? What will it cost us? Likely nothing more than converting smokers to lower-risk non-smoking tobacco and nicotine products. Courageous policy-making like this, I think, is the best care that this nation can provide for the long-term health of its smokers – and non-smokers too.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user markusspiske. (CC0 1.0)

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DON’T expect the property market to change much after Budget 2017 and in the years to come. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong cautioned that existing property curbs will “stay for some time” and that Singapore has achieved a “soft landing” for the market with its measures – just the outcome it had been looking for.

The additional CPF housing grant announced on Monday (Feb 20) is also unlikely to have a significant effect on property prices, given that it is a buyer’s market and if sellers raise prices, buyers will simply move on to a better offer elsewhere. Volumes are expected to go up.

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Now is probably not the best time to ride your soon-to-be-expensive motorcycle into Malaysia. The trip back might be extra long as newly-deployed automated MBIKE customs lanes on the Johor side have malfunctioned for the second day in a row, causing hours-long tailbacks.

The Johor Immigration Department said that the breakdowns were caused by motorcyclists tailgating and damaging the gantries. The department also said that 38 motorcyclists had been detained for going through the gantries without providing their passports to the Immigration Department.

Coldhearted – some people are going around impersonating Singapore Heart Foundation volunteers, and armed with flag day stickers too! The Heart Foundation has made a police report about the miscreants, who were operating around Bugis Junction.

Bona fide Heart Foundation fundraisers are required to carry an identification badge and a copy of the Collectors Certificate of Authority issued by the National Council of Social Service, so if you’re in doubt, ask.

Heartbreaking – the body of hiker Steward Lee, reported missing by his family on Friday, has been found hanging at the top floor of multi-storey car park Block 468A Segar Road on Monday (Feb 20) night.

A widely shared appeal for information by his sister on social media kicked off a 70-man search through Mr Lee’s favourite nature reserves on Sunday. Police have classified the case as unnatural death and are investigating.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Black clock showing 8.30.

A GRAINY picture of an alleged Kim Jong Nam assassin has emerged. She sports a top that says “LOL” and was caught on camera at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2.

Malaysian authorities say that they have arrested a 28-year-old woman with a Vietnamese passport over the assassination of North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, and are still looking for four men and one woman. It is unclear if the woman arrested is the one on the camera footage.

Then North Korean officials tried to block the autopsy of the late Mr Kim. They wanted to claim the body to be repatriated to North Korea but Malaysia would have none of it, although they did not say whether they would send the body to Mr Kim’s family, who are in Macau.

Fatal accidents have fallen in 2016 in all categories except those involving the elderly, says the annual Road Traffic Situation report. Accidents involving elderly pedestrians shot up by 19.6 per cent, and elderly pedestrian fatalities were up by 21.7 per cent, with 16 of the 28 deaths happening while they were jaywalking.

Speeding violations fell by 7.8 per cent to 172,192 last year and speed-related accidents fell 10.4 per cent to 1,081. But the Traffic Police want to do more: New Average Speed Cameras that track a vehicle’s speed over a stretch of up to 5km will be deployed on Singapore’s roads to “shape” driver behaviour.

PM Lee Hsien Loong has weighed in on the Syonan Gallery naming spat, saying that “we cannot erase our history or bury the past” and that the gallery was a “reminder of a traumatic period in our history and the suffering our pioneers experienced when Singapore lost its freedom and even its name.”

Signs in front of the building have been modified to show the full name of the exhibit, which is Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies.

Does the name ruffle feathers? Sure it does. That’s the point, isn’t it? To be constantly reminded and constantly uncomfortable with a dark spot in our past so that we take pains to avoid it in the future. Does it honour or commemorate the Japanese Occupation? Hardly.

Perhaps critics of the gallery name should go to hell, by which we mean another in-your-face exhibit – at Haw Par Villa. That exhibit, though also “offensively” named is certainly not a tribute to hell, but a warning against reckless behaviour and a pointer to good living. Don’t believe? Just ask your grandmother.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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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.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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