April 28, 2017

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

by Wan Ting Koh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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by The Middle Ground

HOW time flies – it feels as if 2017 just started, yet we’re already done with February! The start of March also marks an important Christian tradition, the observance of Lent.

During Lent, Christians commit to greater spiritual devotion to God and abstain from luxuries (such as avoiding profligate spending). Most adherents, notably the Roman Catholics, also observe Lent by giving up the consumption of meat. The period of Lent traditionally lasts forty days. It begins on Ash Wednesday (Mar 1) and includes the holy week that immediately precedes Easter (Apr 16).

The holy week comprises Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Palm Sunday is widely observed in Singapore where Catholics receive new palm leaves blessed by the priest to bring home. Similarly, on Maundy Thursday, churches are crowded for Maundy Thursday service and the ritual feet washing ceremony, where the priest or Archbishop will wash the feet of some of the parishioners. This particular rite was only limited to men and boys until Pope Francis issued a new rule that women should be able to participate as well.

While the purpose of Lent – to draw oneself closer to God through religious penance and resisting the temptations of the flesh – is shared by many Christian denominations, the means through which Lent is observed differ greatly.

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1. Manilla, Philippines – Dedicated devotees carry heavy crosses, self-flagellate

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Some Catholic devotees in the Philippines mark the last week of Lent by whipping themselves in public or carrying heavy crosses barefoot through the streets of Manilla. A small fraction even engages in gory displays of crucifixion, nailing themselves to wooden crosses. This practice is known in the region as pamagparaya (self-flagellation) and is meant for the adherent to experience a fraction of the suffering that Christ went through.

Devotees often go through pamagparaya to petition for good health, either for themselves or an ailing relative. Some devotees also put themselves through pain as penance for their sins, as an act of religious cleansing.

The Catholic Church has criticised this tradition, claiming that it goes against Catholic teachings that the body is sacred. Other religious critics have further expressed discomfort that particular villages and communities have taken advantage of the public spectacle to attract tourists, monetising this practice.

 

2. Moscow, Russia – Two per cent of Russians intend to fully abide by dietary restrictions throughout Lent

Image by falco, from Pixabay
Image by falco, from Pixabay

Russia is home to the Russian Orthodox Church, and nearly half the Russian population identifies as Christian (various denominations, including Protestant, Catholic, and Russian Orthodox). A poll conducted by the Levada Center reported that two per cent of the Russian population, or three million Russians, intend to fully observe the strict Lenten dietary restrictions from Mar 1 to Apr 16.

According to the Russian Orthodox Church, the strict observance of Lent requires giving up all animal food – meat, eggs, fish, seafood and all dairy products. On the first and last day of Lent, complete fasting is recommended. On the second day, only bread and water are allowed. Throughout this period, believers should refrain from alcohol, with the exception of a little wine on weekends, smoking, sex, swearing, and bad thoughts.

Also reported by the Levada Center: 18 per cent of those polled said they intend to observe Lent partially, for instance by giving up meat. 30 per cent of respondents are prepared to reduce their alcohol consumption during Lent, and 15 per cent will restrict their sex lives.

 

3. Antigua, Guatemala – A grand religious procession to mark the end of Lent

Image by , on Flickr
Image by Arian Zwegers, on Flickr

The Christian faith in Guatemala has its roots in the Spanish conquistadors who spread their faith after invading the territory in the early 1500s. Today, Antiguans mark the end of Lent in distinctive local fashion, by arranging elaborate religious processions which last from dawn to dusk.

During this period, Antigua is well-known for the dozens of large floats which are paraded through the city streets by hundreds of men clad in purple robes. These floats are called “andas”, and either features a statue of Jesus with a cross or a Saint. Andas featuring the Virgin Mary are carried by women dressed in black, and are a rare sight. Before the procession winds its way through the city, the streets are lined with colourful “alfombras” (carpets) that are made from coloured sawdust, grass, fruits, vegetables, flowers and other materials.

 

4. Mompox, Colombia – A night in the cemetery 

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

At around 6pm on Holy Wednesday, Mompox residents dress in their finest clothing and gather in the town cemetery to commence a ceremony known as the Serenade to the Deceased – a fusion of Catholic traditions with magic and paganism.

Residents light candles to illuminate the cemetery and stay there overnight, sitting in front of graves of deceased loved ones. They place flowers on the graves and serenade the dead. This lasts till the early hours of the morning, when funeral music is played to bring an end to the ceremony.

 

5. Washington, United States – St. Patrick’s Day to coincide with Lent period
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Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

This year, St. Patrick’s Day – a celebratory holiday where corned beef and cabbage is traditionally eaten – falls on a Friday (Mar 17), clashing with the commonly-held Lenten rule of requiring Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays.

St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday once every seven years, and this coincidence has not gone unnoticed by some American bishops. Many had already issued dispensations for Catholics in their dioceses allowing them to eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day. However, they also advised Catholics to do an additional act of charity or penance in exchange for eating meat.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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by Alvin Pang

WE PUBLISH here a reply to MPs who suggested that the public service has lost its heart, which was reported in TODAY.

Public service is hard work. I should know. I’ve worked alongside (and lived with) public officers my whole life. I have relatives who were teachers, counter officers, cleaning staff, and I’ve been in the service myself. I’ve manned hotlines. Written papers. Sat in meetings. Put together events, both public and closed door. I’ve analysed, deliberated, drafted, vetted, edited, planned, soothed, cajoled, compromised, stayed back to finish. I still work with many public sector clients today. I’ve spoken with or interviewed folks from all across the Service. So I should know. But the fact is, I don’t.

Because while I have had the privilege to study, behind the scenes, everything public servants do to carry out their duties with integrity, excellence, and a sense of service to Singapore – all the little things within their mandate and control to make life run smoothly for the rest of us, often even before we realise a need – while I have seen these things firsthand as a beneficiary and as an observer, it isn’t in the end my head on the chopping block, every day, out in the frontlines or in front of the auditor’s panel.

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It isn’t me, in the end, who has to implement, in good faith and to the best of my professional judgement, policies that delimit what should and should not be done. Policies that include precisely the sort of checks and balances and constraints on jurisdiction and action that the public has called for to head off potential abuse. I am not the one who has to deal with increasingly demanding and sometimes churlish behaviour from members of the public, often asking to be excepted from the established guidelines.

Think about it: most of us only interact with government services when we have to, and it’s not always for a pleasant task. There’s a bill to be paid, a tax to be declared, a summons to answer, or a rule to be complied with. We may be facing some sort of loss, or a loved one may be in distress and we’re not exactly in our best mood. We want things our way. It’s public servants who have to address our concerns, smile, stay calm and shepherd the process to a reasonable conclusion that is satisfactory, yet at the same time legitimate and fair, according to rules they didn’t make – and now some of the ones who did help make the rules are suggesting they may have lost their compassion. Well, where’s the compassion for the hard-working public servant, who are also Singaporeans, also our loved ones: our parents, spouses, aunts and uncles, children, friends – who labour over things most of us don’t even know needed to be done, so that we can go about our lives and not get in one another’s way too much?

The Public Service hasn’t lost its heart. It is the heart of government. It’s the part of the state that plays an active, hands-on role in improving people’s lives; that translates policy theory into practice. I am not saying public servants are saints. I am saying they are human, and are trying to do their jobs. I am saying they are vulnerable to being made the strawmen and scapegoats when their hands are tied, albeit often for sound reasons.

The Public Service has not lost its heart. But I worry it may lose heart. So I suggest we go talk to someone we know who works in the sector. Find out how they operate and make decisions. What their day is like. What they care about. And worry about. Then think again about who exactly in Singapore is lacking in compassion. Let’s make sure it isn’t ourselves.

 

Alvin Pang is a poet, editor, and former teacher and civil servant.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Green alarm clock showing 8.30.

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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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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8:30 am clock face

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?

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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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.

 

Featured image courtesy of the Football Association of Singapore.

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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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