March 23, 2017

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Black clock showing 8.30

HOUSING and Development Board (HDB) households in People’s Action Party town councils will be paying more in service and conservancy charges. How much? Between $1 and $17 altogether depending on flat type. When? Not clear. But the rise will be staggered over two years. The first increase will take place from June 1 while the next increase is slated for June next year. Why? Higher pest control, cleaning charges as well as the new provision that town councils must set aside money for lift upgrading.

Before re-looking your household budget, wait for the Budget announcement on Monday. The bet is that there will be S&CC rebates that will relieve you for a couple of months or so.

Going by the news yesterday, what else can we expect from the Budget? Motor industry people are wondering what will be announced for vehicles given that next week’s COE tender exercise had been postponed by two days pending “an upcoming announcement”. It usually starts on Monday but it will start on Wednesday next week. Since no details were given, people are speculating like crazy.

Is it to stop private hire car companies from bidding and jacking up the price of COEs? After all, taxi companies were taken out of the public process and given a new scheme. Is it about announcing a lower car ownership rate for the future? Then again, do you need to suspend the bidding exercise for this? Or has it got to do with re-calibrating rebates on vehicles with lower carbon emissions? But the current scheme is supposed to run till June this year…

Before rushing to the showrooms this weekend, maybe we should just wait till Monday.

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Digging into the fine print of news reports, we’ve unearthed a couple of nuggets that you might have missed:

a) Senior Counsel Hri Kumar is no longer a member of the People’s Action Party, reported TODAY. It was announced two days ago that the former PAP MP will be appointed Deputy Attorney-General, sparking talk about what this does for the impartial image of G lawyers. The PAP, however, didn’t say when he quit the party. Was it the year before when he decided not to go for a third term? Or yesterday? Or does that matter?

b) Remember former tour guide Yang Yin, the Chinese national who scammed his way into getting Singapore permanent residency? Well, his PR papers have been revoked, ST reported the Immigration and Customs Authority as saying. This was done on November 1 last year, after he was convicted of cheating a rich Singaporean widow.

c) Complaints about motor vehicles have been going up, from 844 in 2014 to 1,477 last year, mainly about defects in cars. So, too, are complaints about pressure selling tactics in spas and beauty salons. TODAY reported the consumer watchdog, Consumers Association of Singapore (Case), as saying that one tactic was to withhold a customer’s credit or debit card unless he or she said okay to a sale. It’s an unethical practice, but isn’t it also illegal?

d) Muslims will be glad to know that the number of haj places will go up from 680 to 800 a year. Saudi Arabia uses a 1987 formula which sets the quota at 0.1 per cent of the Muslim population. The Muslim population has grown by 20 per cent since then, to 800,000 now, reported TODAY. Now, how did that increase come about? Has the proportion of Muslims in the country increased as well?

 

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Black clock showing 8.30.

NORTH Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s half-brother has been assassinated at the budget terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport, apparently by North Korean agents. Mr Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of former leader Kim Jong Il, was estranged from the reclusive leader and spent much of his time outside the hermit kingdom. He had spoken out against his brother’s regime.

Reports vary. South Korean TV Chosun said that the elder Mr Kim had been attacked by two women with poisoned needles. ST’s online version said that a woman covered his face with a cloth laced with some liquid. And Today reported that he had been splashed in the face with a liquid. By the time he got to the airport clinic, he had a headache and felt dizzy. He then experienced a seizure and died on the way to the hospital. Police are searching for the killers.

The high-profile killing comes as North Korea is embroiled in an international incident for its latest ballistic missile test. Pyongyang rejected criticism by the United Nations, saying that the test was part of its development of self-defence capabilities.

Over here in Singapore, it is Total Defence Day and to mark the occasion, air raid sirens island-wide will sound at 6:20pm in memory of the fall of Singapore 75 years ago.

Some upbeat news about airports is that tourist numbers in 2016 are a new record for Singapore. Tourist arrivals grew by 7.7 per cent to 16.4 million and tourist spending rose 13.9 per cent to $24.8 billion, according to Singapore Tourism Board’s initial estimates.

Indonesian arrivals pipped Chinese visitors, although the Chinese spent more. Accommodation, food and beverage and shopping spending grew the most, while entertainment, sightseeing and gaming spending shrank by 16 per cent in the first nine months of 2016.

With tourism and manufacturing on a rise, is the economy expected to perform better in 2017?

We know for sure, though, that none of these tourist dollars will be going to the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market after July 10. The iconic landmark – Singapore’s last free hawking zone – will be shut down to make way for high-rise residential developments.

The market had already been halved in 2011 to build an MRT station, and hawkers will likewise be left out in the cold this time, with no alternative arrangements made for them to ply their trade.

What else is cold? This morning’s temperatures hit as low as 22.6 degrees celsius in the eastern part of Singapore, in keeping with an earlier National Environment Agency forecast of a possible 22-degree low. Temperature in the central area was about 23 degrees celsius.

Twenty-two Singaporeans who won’t mind the cold are the athletes going to represent our country at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan. The games start on Sunday and Singapore will compete in short-track speed skating, figure skating and ice hockey.

What we want to know is how we can watch the action! Will it be on TV?

 

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CAN we tell when a tree will fall? The National Parks Board (Nparks) was quick to say that all trees in the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ Palm Valley had been inspected and were safe, after a woman was killed and four others were injured by a falling heritage tree on Saturday (Feb 11).

But at the same time, authorities were quick to point out that the fallen 270-year old tree had been inspected in September 2016 and was healthy. So, is the announcement about healthy trees supposed to reassure the public, or is it that any tree could fall, even a seemingly healthy one?

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A North Korean ballistic missile test was testing US President Donald Trump’s reaction to the hermit kingdom. Mr Trump said that the US is “behind Japan, its great ally, 100 per cent”, and issued a joint statement rebuking North Korea for the launch.

White House adviser Stephen Miller also said that the US would “reinforce and strengthen our vital alliances in the Pacific region as part of our strategy to deter and prevent the increasing hostility that we’ve seen in recent years from the North Korean regime.”

The reaction hints at Mr Trump’s willingness to get tougher on Pyongyang than previous administrations did. Which policy levers he will use to put pressure on the North, however, are not yet clear.

Mr Trump also said he will bring down the cost of the wall he wants to build along the Mexican border. The initial cost estimated was for US$21.6 million, much higher than the US$12 million figure that Mr Trump had floated during his presidential campaign trail. He pointed to how the cost of the F-35 and Air Force One projects dropped after he got involved, tweeting that for the wall, the “price will come WAY DOWN!”

Another wall to come down is the one between Singapore’s Jobs Bank website and the Individual Learning Portfolio ran by SkillsFuture Singapore. The new site will integrate training, learning and landing a job, and could provide data on training and job matching, helping to guide individual choices and pathways as well as policy-level decisions. The Jobs Bank will also be enhanced this year based on feedback from users.

 

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by Ryan Ong

PRESIDENT Donald Trump disappointed the markets last week, when his news brief failed to touch on expected stimulus measures. Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a USD$73 billion (SGD$103.7 billion) stimulus measure, in the vain hope he might actually convince a Japanese person to spend a yen someday. And with Singapore’s upcoming Budget 2017, business owners are probably hoping for policies that provide a stimulus. But what exactly is a stimulus?

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by Bertha Henson

SO WE now have plans on how to achieve 2 to 3 per cent growth in the next decade, which the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) said was an “appropriate” and “realistic” target. We should be contented with that pace, unlike the fast growth we’ve achieved in the early years.

The CFE report has phrases which only bureaucrats and PR spinners use, like developing capabilities and promoting synergies. Translation: How to get people and companies to work together so that they can do more. Underpinning all that is an openness to new technologies and developing deeper and new skills.

There’s a lot of nitty-gritty, like having more modular training courses and helping mid-career workers learn while earning a salary. Then there’s the call for a “one-stop” portal that incorporates training, education and career development. Available jobs and job projections might as well be thrown into the mix too.

Yes, people must shift their mindset about learning, which shouldn’t stop after leaving school. The SkillsFuture initiative is one such big change. The programme was lauded by the Economist in its Jan 14 issue. It described this as “the most joined-up approach”, where employers and the G work together to tease out skills that will be relevant in the future.

The report has another “skilling-up” suggestion on expanding the deployment of Full-Time National Servicemen (NSFs) with skills relevant to National Service (NS) vocations. From November last year, Mindef will allow NS enlistees to indicate their preferred vocations. The committee suggested cyber-security as one area. What we can expect: Men who can walk straight into a meaningful job after their stint.

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But there’s still the question of the absolute number of people needed to push the economy. Is a 2 to 3 per cent growth dependent on the current demographics, including the foreign manpower policy? We can have a highly skilled population, but numbers still matter. Re-hiring ages can be pushed back. Stay-at-home mums can be wooed back to work. Flexible work arrangements can entice some people to join the workforce. So what are the excess numbers that can be thrown back to productive work? We need to know this because the economy can’t be powered on skills alone, but also on the number of workers.

Is a 2 to 3 per cent growth dependent on the current demographics, including the foreign manpower policy?

We can tweak (again) all the childbearing and child caring incentives but what have been done so far don’t seemed to have moved the birth rate very much. Yesterday, the baby numbers for 2016 was announced: 33,161 Singaporean babies were born last year, about 600 fewer than in the previous year (2015). The 2015 figure of 33,725 is only around a 1.6 per cent slight increase from 33,193 in 2014.  The country’s total fertility rate, which measures the average number of children per woman is now 1.20.

The population is ageing and we’ve to think about whether economic strategies can fund expanded social policies that will be needed. There’s a reference to this in the report which said that “rising domestic expenditures due to ageing and global changes in tax rules will necessitate a review of Singapore’s tax system.”

What global changes in tax rules? The CFE report cites the OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, which involves developing international standards to tackle tax planning strategies used by companies to exploit tax loopholes. Translation: Stop companies from hiding tax money.

The CFE wants the current tax regime to hold: It must be broad-based, progressive and fair while remaining competitive and pro-growth. In any case, we should gird ourselves for some tax changes which CFE co-chairman Mr Heng Swee Keat promised will only be made after consultation.

 

The big question of foreign manpower

What about the elephant in the room, foreign manpower? Recall that our fast growth in the 1990s was propelled by the influx of foreign workers.

The 2003 Economic Review Committee report said: “We must continue to welcome global talent to augment our indigenous talent pool. While we have many talented Singaporeans, the pool is much smaller than in cities like London, Shanghai, Boston or San Francisco which draw people from larger hinterlands as well as from all over the world. We need a wide range of talent to supplement our own. Our openness to global talent will be a key competitive advantage for a Singapore that aspires to become a leading global city.”

“We need a wide range of talent to supplement our own.”

In the 2010 Economic Strategies Committee report, the tone changed slightly to, “we have become more dependent on foreign workers, who now make up almost one-third of the total workforce. Whilst this is comparable or slightly lower than what is seen in several other global cities, we have to manage this dependence and not let it increase indefinitely.”

This time, there is no mention of foreign manpower in the executive summary. There are some mentions, however, in the reports of the sub-committees:

a. On Future Corporate Capabilities and Innovation

Review current work pass schemes to facilitate entry of more startup founders and key executives who are prepared to anchor their growing businesses in Singapore.

b. On Future of Connectivity

To catalyse our future economy, Singapore must distinguish itself as a place where the entrepreneurs and innovators of tomorrow want to bring their ideas to fruition. In addition to strengthening our local talent pool, our manpower policies and talent attraction schemes must strategically target the right people and businesses to support the future key growth clusters such as the digital economy, advanced manufacturing, urban solutions, healthcare, hub services, and logistics.

c. On Future Jobs and Skills

To meet the needs of the future economy, Singapore must continue to remain open to talent from around the world. The Government’s approach, when processing Employment Pass (EP) applications, has been to assess criteria related to the individual’s salary, education qualifications and experience. Going forward, the Government should consider greater differentiation when granting EPs, to also take into account the firm’s commitment to fair consideration, as well as the economic spin-offs from and growth potential of the firm’s activity.

 

What then of the policy on foreign workers?

So the CFE acknowledges the need for foreign input. In fact, they are necessary for the development of “deep skills”. A BT columnist noted that many of the “deep skills”  such as data science, cyber security expertise, artificial intelligence, robotics, are at a nascent stage in Singapore but are already available elsewhere at advanced levels.

“We can ill afford to wait until our domestic skills in these relatively new areas are mature enough to be internationally competitive, which could take years. The disruptors of our businesses – who use the best skills in the world – are already at our gates. We, too, need state-of-the-art deep skills, now and in significant numbers, in our companies, financial institutions and government agencies,” he said.

He is right. It will take time to build skills locally. Singapore needs a jump-start. We’re already looking at a mismatch between available skills and jobs. You can’t train retrenched PMETs as quickly as you can find a foreigner to fill a skilled job. Perhaps, you can, if the whole society has imbibed a training culture that allows workers to move between jobs seamlessly. That isn’t going to happen any time soon.

You can’t train retrenched PMETs as quickly as you can find a foreigner to fill a skilled job.

The CFE must already know that deep skills are present elsewhere and while the G might throw money and incentives to get local start-ups going, they would be just too small in number to generate more good jobs for the future.

When asked about the role of foreign manpower, the other CFE co-chairman, Mr S Iswaran said: “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.”

Translation: We will train our people well, but also hire foreigners to fill places locals can’t fill. He might be talking about construction workers and domestic helpers!

Is the coyness due to worry about the political cost of raising the foreign talent issue? This G has never shied away from making tough decisions. Unlike in the past, however, these decisions will need to be accompanied by plenty of political persuasion and assurances.

One way is to penalise companies which don’t hire many locals and which won’t add very much to the “future” economy. Instead, welcome those who have a strategy on manpower hiring and transferring of skills. Then we might be pleasantly surprised if growth surpasses the 2 to 3 per cent projected.

There’s just one big problem: Other countries want them too.

 

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IF CHANGES to the water tariff come as a surprise, it shouldn’t. Minister of Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli flagged this in a speech last month when he opened Singapore’s fifth NEWater plant in Changi.

This is what he said:

“To ensure that water supply remains financially sustainable, the Government reviews the water price regularly. We seek to ensure that every part of our water system is well maintained and replaced where necessary, and new infrastructure is developed to meet demand and strengthen resilience against weather or unforeseen circumstances. Our price has always reflected the cost of water so that consumers appreciate the scarcity value of water. In my encounter with water ministers from countries where water is not priced properly, they lament that water is often wasted, there is no fund to fix leakages and new plants are not built for decades. We will make adjustments in water charges when necessary.”

The trouble is, nobody really noticed that last line because the speech was packed with information on the new plant and new water technologies being tested. Singapore should be proud of its efforts in manufacturing water. We might be water-scarce but we’re a water hub with 180 local and international water companies and more than 20 R&D centres. No doubt water manufacture costs a pretty penny and we’re already investing in three more desalination plants by 2020.

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The issue takes on greater urgency because the Linggui reservoir in Johor, where we draw water from, isn’t reliable. That is, it is dependent on the weather. And what is not stated is what would happen if politicians up north decide to make some noise about tearing up agreements and keep the water for themselves. That’s why we’re so big on water security. In 2015, the World Resources Institute ranked Singapore highest in water risk alongside six other countries, most of which are in the Middle East.

Singapore residents can probably see the big water picture but it doesn’t mean they won’t start counting the pennies. They will want to know how the maths work out.

Excluding taxes, water costs a household $1.17 to $1.40 per cubic metre. This changes when waterborne and water conservation taxes, the latter which goes up when households consume more, are taken into account. Including a 30 per cent water conservation tax, it will cost S$1.52 per cubic metre for households consuming less than 40 cubic metres a month.

According to national water agency PUB, Singapore prices water to reflect its long-run marginal cost, or the cost of producing the next drop of potable water.

So what does this mean? How much does it cost to produce de-salinated water compared to buying water? What sort of money has been set aside as a kind of “sinking fund” to ensure maintenance and improvement of current water plants? Doubtless, there will be questions raised also about waterborne tax and water conservation tax – and why GST is imposed on the final PUB bill, which already includes those two taxes. Everything has to be laid out clearly again.

The average water consumption per person per day here is about 151 litres, and the PUB’s target is to reduce it to 147 litres per day by 2020, and 140 litres per day by 2030. Singapore consumes about 430 million gallons of water per day, with homes consuming 45 per cent and the non-domestic sector taking up the rest.

Mr Masagos says water is underpriced, while consumption can be lessened. We need more details on the cost of water production because comparing prices among countries doesn’t make much sense as different countries have different demand and supply needs.

Here are two graphs produced by ST over the two days:

 

http://www.straitstimes.com/sites/default/files/articles/2017/02/09/st_20170209_water09_2928799.jpg

Are we comparing apples against apples? And is there really a way to compare water tariffs with having to look at caveats such as “excluding taxes” and water waste treatment? Also, doesn’t the type of industries in each country also affect consumption of water?

Let’s hope some answers are given in the Budget announcement on Feb 20.

 

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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 Bertha Henson

WHAT if someone who doesn’t look Malay and speaks bad Malay, but Malay is clearly stated on his or her identity card and both parents are Malay, wants to stand in a presidential election reserved for Malays? What if he or she doesn’t belong to the Sunni majority? What if he or she is married to a non-Malay who doesn’t practise Islam?

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, talks about taking an “inclusive approach” in the presidential election. By that, he means that the Community Committee screening candidates will probably be more indulgent towards those who declare their affiliations to a community.

“By adopting an inclusive approach, we are allowing more people to be identified with a certain community. Our approach is quite different from the approach suggested by some other members who want to be even more clearly defined as to who forms what community,” he said.

By that, he means that the Community Committee screening candidates will probably be more indulgent towards those who declare their affiliations to a community.

Nicely said but the G cannot suppress more visceral, even primitive, feelings from surfacing just on its say-so. You can just imagine what voters will say, especially now that there will be a photograph of the candidate on ballot slips: “But he doesn’t look like a Malay!” Or what television viewers well-versed in the language will say about his vocal skills when he goes on television to make his pitch.

That’s the problem when race is a factor during elections. Mr Chan said that the Group Representation Constituency format which includes a minority member hasn’t faced such problems. But the GRC is a slate of candidates presented to a constituency. There might be rumblings if the non-Chinese candidate in a GRC doesn’t look the part, but it’s a whole different ball game when someone is put before the whole electorate as belonging to a certain race. The Malays might say: “Okay, he’s Malay”. The Chinese and Indians will wonder: “What sort of Malay is this?”

As Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh said: “Should there be residual doubts about how the Community Committee makes its decisions, the presidency could be anything but a unifying office not just for Singaporeans in general, but the respective minority race in particular.” He had asked about religion and language being part of the mix in determining ethnic identity.

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There’s the flip side too. What about a Chinese candidate who doesn’t speak Mandarin and looks more like a Malay than a Chinese? The G can argue that the candidate is standing in an “open” election so it doesn’t matter, but that somewhat overturns the principle that “all communities” must be represented, no? After all, there is a Chinese sub-committee for screening as well.

There’s the other opt-out option: the candidate who is standing in an “open election” can declare that he DOESN’T belong to any race according to changes to the Presidential Elections Act approved yesterday. That makes everything even weirder. So a candidate can deny the CIMO category on his pink IC, yet presume to speak for all races, none of which he belongs to?

According to ST, MP Vikram Nair asked if the “other minority communities” would be a catch-all for those who do not fit into the Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnicities? Mr Chan replied that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had made clear in Parliament last November that this referred to groups with some degree of history, permanence and established presence in Singapore, such as the Eurasian community. A check with Hansard showed that Mr Teo also said that a person who does not fall within one of the three racial groupings may still contest in open elections. So that means an American-born Caucasian who became a Singapore citizen can still stand for election, although what this does to the five-term hiatus trigger for a reserved election is not said. It doesn’t matter?

I have always maintained that highlighting race as a quality for eligibility is a dangerous thing. Merit and credentials for the job should be good enough. The G might think that it is catering to communities’ wishes and that we should acknowledge that race is never too far from the surface.  What it has done, however, is simply to entrench the differences among Singaporeans rather than lay stress on commonalities.

Merit and credentials for the job should be good enough.

This is, I supposed, part of the activist approach to managing race relations that Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam talked about at a forum last week. “It is anything but laissez-faire. And I think one of the reasons you’re seeing the reactions you’re seeing in the West today is because of a laissez-faire approach to ethnic relations.” He pointed as examples of activism the HDB integration policy to prevent ethnic enclaves from forming, and the wearing of school uniforms. He didn’t mention the presidency in his speech but it can safely be presumed that it is another such action.

The thing is, those examples can also be viewed as not giving in to racial sentiments and to make sure that Singapore looks like one country regardless of race. The presidency brings race right smack into an individual’s face, multiplied by the number of voters.

In a column published in ST today, an ST journalist said that it would be “a pity” if questions like those Mr Singh raised surfaced again “among a vocal few”, “[for] it would detract from the presidency as a unifying symbol, and the fact that a president, regardless of which community he is from, is, above all, a president for all Singaporeans.”

It is, of course, too late to do anything about the presidency. Come September, we will have a Malay president. The majority Chinese population, most of whom are probably not following the issue will wake up one day and suddenly realise that a Malay has walked into the top post without opposition, or that he has a choice between two Malays.

The same questions will be asked all over again. And they might not be as polite as questions asked in Parliament.

 

Read our past reports on the elected presidency here:

  1. Constitutional changes: More NCMPs, smaller GRCs and changes to elected presidency
  2. Elected Presidency: Sacred cow or sacrificial lamb?
  3. Proposed changes to the EP: All you need to know
  4. EP changes: Can we not have reserve elections next year?
  5. EP changes: Is shareholder equity the best way to judge a potential President?
  6. EP changes: When to stop clipping the President’s wings
  7. White Paper on EP changes: Council of (powerful and private) Presidential Advisers
  8. White Paper on EP changes: Not cast in stone
  9. White Paper on EP changes: A bigger presidential pool
  10. White Paper on EP changes: The short version
  11. Elected President: Debate on changes starts today and we hope it won’t end soon…
  12. Next Presidential Election for Malay candidates
  13. Elected Presidency: All tied up with a multi-racial bow
  14. Senate, not elected presidency, the way to go: Workers’ Party
  15. Elected Presidency: Who cares?
  16. September date with a Malay president

 

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Morning Call, 0830, clock

IF THE changes to the Town Council Act which were introduced in Parliament yesterday had already been in place, the Workers’ Party would be in deep trouble.

Among other changes, managing agents will be barred from taking on key positions in their town councils. If you recall, a husband and wife team of managing agents also held executive positions in the WP-held Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC). Town councils would also have to keep a register of conflicts of interest by staff – or face fines.

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Then there is the issue of when town councils should submit their annual audited financial statements. AHPETC had been tardy on at least four occasions. Under the changes, it would have to be done within six months from the end of the financial year.

The number of sanctions which attract penalties has gone up from three to another nine. The current Act imposes fines for failure to provide information to an auditor, misuse of sinking and operating funds, and flouting rules relating to the Lift Upgrading Programme. Now they extend to a whole lot of areas, including not co-operating with G officials empowered to enforce compliance.

The Bill goes into great detail on the powers of such appointed inspectors. It makes it plain that town councillors have to respond to inspectors’ request for answers, documents, equipment and to allow them to enter premises. Anyone who suppresses information or makes false statements “shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both”. There is no longer any town council cover for individuals. There will be “personal liability” if individuals are found to have been involved in the commission of any offence.

The Bill also touches on when and how the G can decide to move in to “officially manage” a town council. This marks a change from past statements that the G wouldn’t bail out town councils which are in trouble. In this sense, it is rather like the Charities Act where the Charities Commissioner can move in to manage a troubled charity for a certain period of time.

We can expect fireworks when the second reading of the Bill is up for debate in Parliament.

 

Read more about the Town Council Act here: Cleaning up the Town Council Act. It’s about time!

 

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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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