February 24, 2017

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FINALLY, the PUB has given some answers on the cost of producing water. What was so difficult about that? Does it think that big words such as “resilience”, “sustainability” and “water security” are enough to move people to accept a 30 per cent hike in water price? Or is it waiting for the Committee of Supply debate on the budget of the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources to unveil the figures? In this day and age, it’s not good to let speculation and discontent fester, simply because they can be spread so much faster via the Internet.

So what do we know now? In response to queries from the MSM, it said that in 2000, it cost $0.5 billion to operate the water system. In 2015, it was $1.3 billion. The money was spent on NEWater production, desalination, used water collection and treatment, and the maintenance of the island-wide network of water pipelines, among others. It did not say which contributed the most to rising cost, although one guess would be desalination plants.

PUB also said that from 2000 to 2015, it invested $7 billion in water infrastructure, and it expects to spend another $4 billion on such infrastructure from this year to 2021. What water infrastructure? Presumably the NEWater and desalination plants that are in the pipeline.

ST reported that besides the cost of producing water, it’s also getting more difficult to distribute water. PUB, for instance, can no longer just dig trenches to lay water pipes underground because the country is so built-up. It has to use pipe-jacking, a more expensive method which involves assembling pipes into shafts and then pushing them into position with a hydraulic jack.

In our heart of hearts, we probably know that it’s time for a rise in water prices, especially since it was last raised 17 years ago. The question is why now and why this much? Minister of State for Finance Lawrence Wong said there is never a good time for water price rises, which is true.

But a hiatus of 17 years?

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CIMB economist Song Seng Wun said at a forum yesterday that the fact that “we are finally charging a bit more for water after 17 years reflects that somebody forgot it hasn’t been done yet”.

Going by what experts say, the 30 per cent rise isn’t good enough. It should be way higher, like doubled. Say this to the people though. At forums on the Budget statement yesterday, the water price was a key issue, which is probably to the G’s chagrin since it wants to bill the Budget as a tool to shift the economy into high gear.

Although the argument is about water security (read: what if we get no more water from up north?), the price rise is also to add to the G’s coffers, which is increasingly under strain.

Now before you get your hackles up because the G is “rich”, consider what the experts have to say about the Budget.

Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin was reported in ST as noting that despite projecting a small overall fiscal surplus of $1.91 billion for the 2017 financial year, the G is looking at a primary deficit of $5.62 billion, worse than it was during the 2009 financial crisis.

A primary fiscal deficit does not take into account investment contributions from GIC or Temasek Holdings, and broadly implies that tax revenues are not keeping up with government spending.

He might as well add we can always tweak the formula on investment contributions, but that would be cheating, won’t it?

Economists are asking for more transparency in accounting and even the setting up of an independent agency to look at the effectiveness of G spending.

They have a point: We’ve seen so many announcements about millions and even billions on this or that G scheme over the years but what have they resulted in so far?

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat made no bones about the need to raise revenues, especially since he has ordered G agencies to trim their budgets. So far, he has only talked about making non-GST registered companies which do cross-border businesses here pay the tax. That means the likes of Taobao and Amazon and e-retailers.

But if the G wants to persuade people to part with more money, it has to do better at telling people what things cost. It can start with this: What in heaven’s name is “long-run marginal cost of water supply”, the formula which underpins water prices?

 

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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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Hyundai replaces Yeo's as S.league sponsor for 2017 season
Hyundai replaces Yeo's as S.league sponsor for 2017 season

by Daniel Yap

AFTER a run of 13 years, food and beverage maker Yeo’s will no longer be sponsoring the S. League.

The company confirmed in a statement it would pull out of supporting the 2017 season after weeks of back-and-forth, including reports of Yeo’s desire for a five-year plan for the league, and the league’s lack of such a plan.

New sponsor Hyundai will step in to take Yeo’s place, while co-sponsor Great Eastern has already confirmed its support for the 2017 season. Komoco Motors, the local dealer for Hyundai, with its Chairman Mr Teo Hock Seng has been a long-time patron of Singapore football. Mr Teo was the former chairman of Tampines Rovers FC.

The two-year deal means that the league will now be called the Great Eastern-Hyundai S. League. And after much hand-wringing about long delays in jersey printing due to the late sponsor announcements, the league will kick off this Sunday (Feb 26) at 6pm at the National Stadium with the Great Eastern Community Shield match between defending league champions Albirex Niigata FC (S) and Tampines Rovers FC.

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The S. League is in a bit of a leadership pickle now that CEO Mr Lim Chin has resigned, leaving the reins to director of operations Mr Kok Wai Leong in the interim. The Football Association of Singapore (FAS), which runs the league, is also facing its first open elections in the wake of reports of under-spending on grassroots football, a FIFA order to end political nominees sitting on the council and hold fair elections, and a lack of confidence in the current leadership.

Tote Board funding for the FAS has also now been given to statutory board Sport Singapore to administer, another sign that confidence in FAS management is less than complete. It used to be disbursed directly to the FAS, although it is not unusual for Sport Singapore to administer funds to national sports associations.

Hyundai’s sponsorship also means that chances are now slim that Mr Teo might run for the hot seat of FAS President. Mr Lim Kia Tong, current President of the FAS Provisional Council, former Woodlands Wellington General Manager Mr R Vengadasalam and Hougang United Chairman Mr Bill Ng are rumoured to be in the running for the FAS top spot.

 

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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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by Daniel Yap

MY BIGGEST disappointment with the 2017 budget is not just how “same old” it is, it’s how nothing is being done to overhaul the Baby Bonus Scheme. A same old budget would be fine if things were all working out, but that’s not what Singapore is looking at in the next 10 years.

Taking a page from the “same old” Committee for the Future Economy report is not going to cut it with yet-unsolved issues still staring us in the face. Healthcare costs are rising and will continue to rise. Labour supply is tight.

All talk about a budget for Singapore’s long-term future is rubbish without a clear action plan for Singapore’s dismal total fertility rate, which fell to a pathetic 1.20 in 2016 from an equally low 1.24 in 2015. All this while, we have been rah-rah-ing about a spike in births (although not the birth rate) during the SG50 jubilee year.

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A low birth rate has negative repercussions on a host of national issues: labour supply, immigration, national identity, the ageing population, healthcare, and economic growth, to name a few. Why then is Budget 2017 providing no new ideas for this? Why aren’t we focused on changing up the Marriage and Parenthood Package and Baby Bonus Scheme since it clearly isn’t having the effect we need it to have?

PM Lee has talked about ruthlessly discarding ideas that aren’t working, and after 16 years, haven’t we realised that this is not going the way we want it to?

Has Singapore simply given up? Are we not spending more to highlight the importance of a healthy birth rate?

Or has the G made some quiet internal calculation and realised that it is cheaper to naturalise citizens from abroad, making other nations pay for child-raising, and then Singapore picks the best and reaps the benefits of their productive adult years, leaving only their silver years for the state to pay for?

It is a shrewd but cold way of thinking about it, and a fantastic way to balance the budget – don’t spend on trying to fix what you’re already horrible at. Just work on the economy and on what attracts new citizens, like security and HDB grants. Cover up Singapore’s weak spots by leveraging on its strong points (attractive to migrants). Never mind if the end result is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, right?

Suggestions, anyone?

But what’s the point of a get-by city where the future belongs to someone else’s children? Let’s not treat the situation lightly. Falling birth rates reflect entrenched attitudes that will take Herculean efforts to move. Where are the Herculean ideas?

Here’s one idea: give each Singaporean child a living wage (sometimes called a child benefit or allowance). Say, $500 a month from birth to 18 years (then the boys can start living off their NS allowance). And 20 per cent goes into CPF (because we’re Singaporean like that). Inflation-pegged increases kick in every two years. Two kids could buy you a 2-room HDB flat. At age 18, they would have $27,000 in CPF to pay for university or a house.

It’s a Singaporean version of what some other states are doing – countries like Sweden and Finland have a state child allowance (about S$170 for Sweden, plus a bonus for larger families; Finland pays a child allowance of S$140-250 depending on birth order; Ireland has a child benefit of just over S$200 per child, with a multiplier applied for multiple births). Total fertility rates there hover around 1.8 and 2.0; a healthy situation once you factor in some immigration.

Such a plan will cost us $5.4 billion a year if we have 50,000 babies (right now with 30,000 babies it will cost about $3.3 billion). We’re already spending $2 billion a year on the marriage and parenthood package. The extra billions spent will have a better long-run payoff than GIC’s impressive track record (GIC contributed $15 billion to the 2016 budget).

Want to tweak it further? Consider this – those who want children will want children, and those who don’t will not be convinced. So structure benefits so that parents will plan to have three or more children (i.e. the biggest bonuses kick in at child number three).

The current Baby Bonus is trying most of all to incentivise people to have children in general, and the incremental bonus for the third child and above is small. Make it such that the first two children receive an allowance of $250 each, but the third child receives $1,000. It’s not stingy, but it will definitely tip the balance towards already-parents making the decision to have yet another kid.

What about reforming education, a major reason for people to not have kids, within the next 10 years so that we no longer feel like it’s a pressure-cooker arms-race winner-takes-all mugger-fest that then feeds into our working life?

Instead, all we are talking about now in the kopitiams is a 30 per cent water rate hike, while the G is trying to convince us that this is a budget to “secure our future”. I don’t care much for either narrative.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Black clock showing 8.30.

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.

 

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_Finance_(Singapore)#/media/File:The_Treasury,_Dec_05.JPG
Featured Image by WikiCommons user Sengkang. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

by Bertha Henson

I WONDER who writes Finance Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat’s speeches? It must be the same person who wrote the Committee for the Future Economy report because the Budget speech was full of “developing capabilities”, “innovation”, “internationalisation” and “digitilisation”. So here’s all you need to know about Budget 2017 – and some things to ponder:

 

1. WATER ^&R$$$&&&&###!!!!

Yup, water prices are going up – by quite a hefty 30 per cent. That means your household water bill will go up by up to $18 a month. Again, we’re told that it’s because of higher cost of desalination and NEWater, which industries will now have a new NEWater tax to pay. It’s a two-stage increase, this July and next July. Yup, it’s like the rise in Service and Conservancy Charges (S&CC) in People’s Action Party (PAP) wards, which will also kick in in two stages.

Maybe the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources will shed some light on how the cost of water production is calculated. Are you looking at your water bill yet? Can reduce water usage by 30 per cent?

 

2. THANKS but what will S&CC fees be?

Even if you can’t think about rationing water, there’s some respite for you, especially if you live in smaller flats. U-Save rebates will cover the water bill increase fully or partially. There are also S&CC rebates, again tailored to housing type. Nice, except that the PAP town councils haven’t announced the quantum of S&CC increase yet.

Doubtless, those in bigger flats will be kicking up a fuss about paying more from the middle of the year. Expect to hear more about the sandwich class who is neither rich nor poor.

 

3. DON’T pass it down…

A carbon tax will be put in place from 2019. This concerns industries rather than households; that is, power stations and such like. It’s between $10 and $20 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions. Nothing was said, however, about the big boys passing the cost down to electricity users.

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4. GET a greener, cleaner car

Still, you can do your green part and save some money if you drive a “cleaner” vehicle than the polluter you now own, because incentives have been extended. So ditch the car and keep the money in case your utilities bill suddenly spikes…

 

5. BUT think twice about getting a fancy bike

Everybody who has been speculating about changes to Certificates of Entitlement (COEs) for cars and restrictions on private-hire car companies has got it wrong. It seems some people have been indulging in expensive motorbikes which have an Open Market Value (OMV) of more than $5,000. Every bike buyer will still pay an Additional Registration Fee (ARF) of 15 per cent of the OMV. Yet, if you’re eyeing a new motorbike with an OMV of more than $10,000, please note that the ARF will be set at 100 per cent of the OMV. Why, you ask? Since it doesn’t occupy more space than an ordinary bike? It’s not about road usage. It’s about making sure those who can afford to, pay more in taxes.

 

6. CARING for care-givers

If you’re thinking more social safety nets will be available, you’re out of luck unless you’re caring for disabled family members, dementia sufferers or those with mental health problems. More money is being poured into these areas in an effort to build an inclusive society. You’ll have to wait for details from the different ministries in charge.

 

7. $50 MILLION X 3 for sports

For those who have been grumbling about being unable to play football in your neighbourhood because there’s no field for hire, the G is expanding its Sports-in-Precinct Programme. Some $50 million has been set aside to promote community sports. Another same sum of money, spread over three years, will go towards building more Joseph Schoolings. And finally, the third same sum of money will be forked out by the G to match sports donations dollar-for-dollar. May the sports associations use the money well. Keep your fingers crossed.

 

8. RELIEF for businesses

If you’re running a business, the cap for Corporate Income Tax (CIT) Rebate has been raised from $20,000 to $25,000 for 2017. If you’re in the marine or shipping line, there’s no increase in foreign worker levy as announced. (No surprise since there isn’t much work to go around in this sector.) But if you’re in construction, you’ll definitely get more work because $700 million worth of infrastructure projects have been pushed forward to this year and next. Nothing comes free, however, and the foreign workers levy for construction will go up.

 

9. TRAIN yourself into a “future” job

There was nothing specific for those who have lost their jobs but there will be more on training. An “Attach and Train” scheme will be announced for sectors which have good growth prospects, but where companies aren’t ready to hire yet. Instead, industry partners can send people for training and work attachments. So it looks like you’ll get training on the G’s dime but you might not be guaranteed a job right after.

 

10. GET ready for more taxes

Mr Heng got pretty sombre as he reached the end of the speech to talk about the “sustainability of the fiscal system”. That is, do we have enough money to pay for what we will need in the future? Healthcare spending has doubled to $10 billion last year over the past five years. Then there’s the more-than-$20 billion investment in transport infrastructure in the next five years.

All ministries and G agencies have to adjust their budgets downwards by 2 per cent. Besides scrimping, we’ve got to get more money somehow, somewhere. How? He said countries have been re-looking at their GST systems to make sure local GST-registered companies don’t lose out to foreign-based ones, especially those which do a lot of business locally. So maybe the tax axe will NOT fall on us so soon…

 

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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.

 

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by Bertha Henson

HAVE you received your latest CPF statement? Extremely colourful, isn’t it? Easy to read with pie-charts that tell you what’s in your CPF account. So much better than reading numbers in a table! I like my PUB bill as well. Not the $ figures of course, but how it now comes with a chart of past consumption. I give myself a pat every time I see that the bill has come down and try to cast my mind back to what I did differently at home.

These are small improvements in G communications that I appreciate. It is personal and more importantly, clear. If only credit card companies would attach a chart of your spending patterns in its statement! Getting cardholders to save money, however, isn’t part of its KPIs. I wish hospital bills could also be easy to read with all its subsidies, discounts and what you can deduct from Medisave or use from Medishield. In this case, however, hospitals are pretty good at having its staff members sit down with patients to explain a bill line by line. It’s the same for the Pioneer Generation Package, which has had ambassadors move round the homes to explain the benefits.

Of course, there are people who say that this is a waste of effort because your SingPass would tell you all you needed to know about your transactions with the G. But you only log in if you have an immediate problem to solve or need the information quickly, don’t you? It’s a service, while the other forms I’ve stated above can be classified as “outreach”.

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If the G is getting better at communicating at the personal level, including using dialect to reach the older folk, the same can’t be said for some of the bigger news developments recently.

I pick three issues:

 

a) The Committee on the Future Economy

Nearly everybody says it’s underwhelming. That’s because expectations have been raised so high that the CFE report was viewed as the panacea for all our economic ills. The language doesn’t help erase the perception that the committee of mainly Establishment faces have run out of new ideas to power the Singapore economy. To talk about developing synergies and deeper capacities is simply so much jargon to the layman. The CFE would do better to draw a map and show how the different parts of its report would work for Singapore.

To put a good face on things, you have people dissing the perception that the CFE must have new directives and those who have been looking forward to them are silly: Don’t they know that there can’t be prescriptions for such volatile times?

If the CFE report is supposed to be a clarion call to Singaporeans and companies here to gear up and seize the day, it didn’t work. It’s been 10 days since the CFE report and it’s a long time for people who wonder if today’s Budget statement would do better.

 

b) The culling of chickens

Who would have thought that Parliament will be talking cock today? But the AVA really cocked up its communication process in dealing with complaints from Sin Ming residents over the chicken ranging over their premises. In fact, it merely added to the divide between animal lovers and affected residents. To have one person talking about dealing with noise and another who said that it was also because of bird flu threats showed that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

This is strange because the G is usually pretty good at giving a full reply for its actions, including throwing in the kitchen sink whether it’s needed or not. If the G thought that it was merely responding to complaints and putting up a consultative front, it didn’t work. What is worse is the attempt to shoot the messenger for getting it wrong. So what will be said in Parliament today?

 

c) Syonan Gallery

There was an 82-year old ST forum page letter writer who said that the justification for the name of the exhibition on the Japanese Occupation years was “nonsense”. He’s right. Those who pointed to other memorials elsewhere were misinformed. You don’t see the Jews using a name associated with Hitler to remember the Holocaust or Al-Queda attached to any 9/11 monument. The attempt to cast those who hated the name as people who wanted to bury the past was cack-handed. It showed a lack of empathy with grassroots sentiment on something as emotional as war. What would it have cost the G to change the name, even if the signboards are up, if it makes everybody happy? Face? A sign of weakness? Its decision to rename is the right one and I prefer to see it as political courage to change its mind. But the more important issue was this: how is it that the G and whoever advised them on the gallery name can be so out of touch with the ground as to even propose the name?

Anyway, let’s look forward to the Budget statement today. I have, however, one appeal for Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat: Speak the people’s language, please. The CFE report isn’t a good enough reassurance for the future. Really.

 

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