June 25, 2017

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by Bertha Henson

SOME 20 years ago, the Lee family found themselves in a quandary, except that they closed ranks then. It had to do with corruption – whether they knew that the apartments they bought from local developer Hotel Properties Ltd. (HPL) came with a hefty discount.

Singapore was surprised when the issue was sprung in Parliament in 1996 with the then Prime Minister (PM) Goh Chok Tong saying that he had launched investigations into rumours regarding the purchases. Both then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave statements in Parliament. People were surprised because they thought the rumours were just that: rumours with no clear originating source. Plus, those were the days when social media wasn’t around to amplify them.

PM Goh said he had found nothing improper, that the Lees did not ask for nor even knew of the discounts, which had since been given to charity. There was a three-day debate in Parliament.

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Now, Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong has told Singapore that he would make a statement in Parliament on July 3 refuting allegations that had been made by his siblings over the past few days. A wan-looking Mr Lee had himself video-taped with a message for the people.

It was a masterly job. He apologised; he said he had tried to keep it private. His parents would be anguished to see what’s been happening, he said. There were hints of frustration and embarrassment in his message which culminated in a fierce declaration to “repair the damage that had been done to Singapore”. This is the first time in a very long time that a prime minister has resorted to doing the equivalent of breaking into a broadcast news cycle to speak to the masses. It shows that he recognised the urgency of responding to the confusion that has taken hold of Singapore over the past few days.

So far, the Prime Minister has commented three times since Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling launched their campaign in the wee hours of June 14. The siblings said their aim was to tell about how their eldest brother was running roughshod over them because he wanted his way over their father’s will, especially over the Oxley Road house. PM Lee, who was holidaying abroad, responded with a post denying the allegations made by the two Lees. He concluded the post saying: “As my siblings know, I am presently overseas on leave with my family. I will consider this matter further after I return this weekend.”

He wasn’t allowed to holiday in peace, however, because his siblings went on to speak to media, made public private correspondence and other aspects of the squabble surfaced, such as PM Lee’s public and private utterances about their father’s wish for the Oxley Road house.

In turn, PM Lee launched a bombshell in the form of a summary of a statutory declaration he made to what the siblings described as a “secret ministerial committee’’. Most intriguing were his doubts that proper procedures had been followed in the drafting of the final will – not just about the demolition clause but also about share portions among the three siblings. Mrs Lee Suet Fern, who was involved/not involved (depending on who you believe) in the last will, became the new focus of attention.

Singaporeans watched all this, puzzled, bemused, and also upset. Some will say it is unseemly for such an illustrious family to bicker so openly over their father’s desires. They would rather close their ears. Others will wonder about whether PM Lee is as power-hungry as his siblings make him out to be. They would want evidence or a firm rebuttal. All, however, know that the dispute is damaging Singapore’s reputation and trust in the government, as PM Lee himself recognises.

Will the parliamentary session put the matter to rest? PM Lee has said that the People’s Action Party (PAP) whip will be lifted. This will be one of those rare occasions when PAP Members of Parliament (MPs) are allowed to speak their minds and vote their hearts. In previous occasions, the whip was lifted to acknowledge that MPs had their own religious beliefs to take into account, such as over abortion and the Human Organ transplant act, or where the legislation might affect their own work as MPs, such as the introduction of nominated MPs.

Doubtless, PM Lee doesn’t want it said that the PAP MPs were merely toeing the party line with soft questions. He has given them permission to speak and it will be for them to act as representatives, not of the party but of the people. He encouraged the non-PAP MPs to speak up too.

It will be an interesting debate not least because the PM seems to be encouraging a parliamentary inquiry into his words and actions, with himself as sole respondent. It will be tough for MPs to take his side given that people will watch for partisan comments and draw what conclusions they will. If, however, there is a sticking point about using parliament as a forum, it is about how comments are ‘privileged’, that is, no one can be sued for what they say in it.

Will a ‘full public airing’ dispel doubts about the political system here? MPs and political observers believe that it will allow the G to publicly address the serious allegations of abuse of power that have been made by the Lee siblings. Notably, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat hopes that this will “dispel doubts, and strengthen confidence in our institutions and system of government”, reported ST.

In the HPL case, Parliamentary hearings successfully quelled public disquiet. The then Nominated MP Walter Woon remarked positively that the debate proved: “That you do not have to give favours to civil servants or politicians, because it is not accepted; and that if there was any impropriety, no matter how high up, it will be rooted out and stamped on.”

Even the opposition MPs reportedly agreed that the discounts were not illegal. The then Singapore Democratic Party MP Ling How Doong said it loud and clear: “I am not taking part in the debate because there is no impropriety. There is no necessity to have this matter brought to Parliament.”

Mr Lee Kuan Yew even framed the occasion into a demonstration of the effectiveness of Singapore’s system of checks and balances: “I take pride and satisfaction that the question of my two purchases and those of the Deputy Prime Minister, my son, has been subjected to, and not exempted from, scrutiny… It is most important that Singapore remain a place where no one is above scrutiny, that any question of integrity of a minister, however senior, that he has gained benefits either through influence or corrupt practices, be investigated”

In the previous case, there was a gatekeeper, which was PM Goh. So, there was someone who could say he had the matter scrutinised, draw a line and declare it closed. There was also no one who could put up a meaningful challenge on the matter, since the allegations were “rumours’’ without a source. In this case, we have two high-profile individuals who do not mince their words.

A parliamentary session will not be as definitive as a court case because it cannot make judgments of guilt or innocence. Perhaps, the debate will be framed in the form of a motion which MPs can vote for or against or abstain, especially since the PAP whip is lifted.

It’s not likely though that matter will end with talk in Parliament. Some action will still need to be taken, like what to do about the house.

 

The famiLEE affair has been brewing for a while now. Read our past articles on the issue:

  1. FamiLEE saga: Some leeway should be given (Jun 19)
  2. FamiLEE saga: 10 things from the academic paper “When I’m dead, demolish it”. (Jun 18)
  3. FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17) 
  4. FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)
  5. FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)
  6. FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16) 
  7. FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)
  8. FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)
  9. FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)
  10. FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)
  11. FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)
  12. FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)
  13. FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)
  14. Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)
  15. Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)
  16. “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14)
  17. Mystery deepens over secret tapes of Lee Kuan Yew (Sep 30, 2016)
  18. Time for the famiLEE to end the public spectacle (Apr 10, 2016)
  19. Dr Lee Wei Ling gagged? (Apr 2, 2016)

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Kwan Jin Yao

THIS week, MPs will debate recommendations to improve parliamentary procedures, such as increasing the minimum amount of time between the introduction of a Bill and when it comes up for debate, and doubling the notice period for an amendment from two to four clear days. But the 10-member Standing Orders Committee – tasked to periodically review the Parliament’s Standing Orders, or the rules which guide parliamentary procedure – rejected the suggestion to lengthen Question Time.

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Question Time allows MPs to ask questions of government ministers, usually on issues or agencies for which the ministers are responsible for. Yet the one-and-a-half hours currently allocated – at the start of each sitting – may not be sufficient for all the questions tabled. Aggregating the parliamentary sittings from October 10, 2016 to April 4, 2017 (and excluding the Committee of Supply debates on March 6 and 7, when no questions for oral answer were tabled), TMG found that on average, of the 33 questions for oral answer at each sitting (the median is 27), only 13 were answered during Question Time (the median is 15). 66 oral questions were unanswered on November 7, 2016, the highest within the aforementioned range of dates.

In other words, on average, about 39 per cent of oral questions are answered during each Question Time. Questions for oral answer which are not answered during the one-and-a-half hours will be postponed or dealt with as questions for written answer.

MP Louis Ng Kok Kwang and nominated MP Kok Heng Leun had mooted the proposal to increase the duration of Question Time, with more time given for timely and important issues, and also for MPs to ask further questions (TODAY, Apr. 26). Because only about one-third of the oral questions are cleared in each parliamentary sitting, Mr Ng – speaking to TMG – said that Question Time should be doubled to three hours, since the Standing Orders Committee noted that the government had previously, on an ad hoc basis, extended the time limit to three hours. “The number of questions per sitting is already limited, so debate itself should not be limited,” he added. “Oral questions dealt with as questions for written answer lack debate, and the biggest benefit [of having a longer Question Time] is that more or follow-up questions can then be replied to by the office-holder.”

Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan Kheng Boon, who served as nominated MP from 2012 to 2014, agreed with the proposal to increase the duration of Question Time. “Typically, in 90 minutes of Question Time, Parliament seldom gets beyond the first 20 questions, leaving 50 to 70 questions filed for oral answers unanswered,” Prof Tan told TMG. While his suggestion of two hours “would still not enable Parliament to get through all the questions”, he added that a longer Question Time “will allow for more questions to be answered, and for more time to be allocated to questions, for a more thorough discussion of the issues.”

And in response to the proposal by Mr Kok and Mr Ng, Leader of the House, Grace Fu – who is part of the Standing Orders Committee – first acknowledged the importance of Question Time, before pointing out that the government had previously extended the time limit to three hours, albeit on an ad hoc basis. The most recent instance was on October 10, 2016, when Question Time was extended by an hour to 4pm for discussions on the rise in cases of online gambling addiction, rewards for Paralympic medallists, as well as the likelihood of an economic recession in Singapore. The committee, furthermore, added that it was prepared “to continue to extend Question Time on an ad hoc basis due to the number of questions and volume of public business” (The Straits Times, Apr. 25)

It is not clear, however, how the government decides when and whether an extension is in order. Based on the importance or timeliness of the issues? Or the number of questions tabled?

Not much can be discerned from the numbers that TMG has aggregated. The last time Question Time was extended – on October 10, 2016 – there were 91 questions for oral answer, and 62 went unanswered. But on November 7, 2016, when 74 per cent of questions for oral answer were not answered (89 questions tabled), and on February 6, 2017, when 79 per cent of the questions for oral answer were not answered (out of 80 questions labeled), Question Time was not extended on both dates.

Along this tangent are the related questions about how the order of the questions is decided, and whether the Parliament – instead of the government – should decide the length of Question Time and how it might be extended.

With more questions than answers, both during and about Question Time, perhaps a broader debate – involving more MPs and their experiences – should be in order.

 

 

Featured image by Flickr user Xiquinho Silva. CC BY 2.0

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skillsfuture_300x250

Photo By Shawn Danker
Singapore Parliament.

by Suhaile Md

THAT foreign maids are not slaves should patently be obvious to any decent person. But clearly that is not the case to some as seen by the maid abuse cases that appear from time to time. So much so that the Minister for Law and Minister for Home Affairs, Mr K Shanmugam, had to say in Parliament on Monday (Apr 3): “They are not slaves.”

While responding to questions on enhancing sentences for child-sex abusers, Mr Shanmugam said that foreign domestic workers (FDWs) are another “separate class of vulnerable victims” whose abusers should also have enhanced sentences. Members of Parliament (MP) Ms Tin Pei Ling and Mr Alex Yam had asked the questions on whether child-sex abusers should get stiffer sentences.

However, Mr Shanmugam emphasised that the above was his own opinion. The laws are currently being reviewed and he did not want to “prejudge the issue”.

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Past cases of abuse

Just last week, a husband-wife pair was sentenced to jail for sustained abuse on their two maids for years. They slapped, punched, kicked, and hit their domestic worker with canes and bamboo sticks as well. The husband was sentenced to two years and four months’ jail for being the instigator while the wife got two months’ jail.

Many other cases made the news in recent years. One foreign domestic worker had a heated spoon pressed against her arms and face. In another case, a mother-daughter pair left their maid with a permanent disability in the left ear. The culprits were sentenced to jail between 12 and 16 months. In yet another case, a maid was hit with a hammer for not cleaning the toilet properly.

However, the Penal Code was amended in 1998 to deal specifically with abusive employers of maids. Section 73 was inserted to stiffen the punishments meted out to maid abusers. For specific offences, like hurting a maid or molesting her, the maximum penalties are one and a half times that of the general penalties a culprit would face had the victim been the general public.

Said then Labour Minister Dr Lee Boon Yang: “I want to tell employers: Your maid lives in your house 24 hours a day, isolated from society. She is female and particularly vulnerable to abuse. If you take advantage of this, the law must come down hard on you.”

A similar sentiment was echoed by Mr Shanmugam on Monday: “They come here, they do the work because we don’t have enough people, and they have to be treated with certain dignity and a certain respect of the law. They are not slaves.”

Other considerations

No decent person will disagree with the good Minister’s sentiments. That said, what constitutes abuse? Could the bar for what counts as “abuse” be set too high given the context in which maids operate?

Working in an environment that is verbally hostile, being subjected to condescension and humiliation, day in and out, is a form of abuse that leaves no marks a physical health check at the clinic can catch. Some maids have their movement and outside contact restricted by their employers. It’s one thing to work for a demanding boss at the office and completely another to live with one – there’s no escape.

While an office worker can complain to the human resources department or change jobs, there is no such recourse for domestic workers. They are not allowed to change employers, unless the current boss agrees to to it. Would a mean-spirited employer allow that? Not likely, so it’s a ticket home.

Perhaps the review might take that into consideration.

It’s early days yet

Still, as Mr Shanmugam emphasised in Parliament, he could not reveal details. He only spoke in his personal capacity. After all, the issues of sentencing and charges are “independent decisions by the Attorney-General’s office”, and “not within the control of the Government”, said the Minister.

That was also his response to Ms Tin Pei Ling’s follow up query on whether the Minister could say if the review would end with tougher sentencing for child-sex abusers. However, he did add that the review would not have taken place in the first place if “everything was okay as is”.

The review comes on the back of the recent case in which child-sex offender, Joshua Robinson, was sentenced on March 2, to four years’ jail. He was found guilty for underage sex with two 15-year-old girls, showing an obscene film to a six-year-old, and possessing over 300 child pornography videos. Many in the public questioned if the sentence was adequate. However given legal precedents, the prosecution decided not to file an appeal.

The review is expected to complete at the end of this year, said the Minister.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
Singapore Parliament.

by The Middle Ground

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to Facebook on Saturday evening (March 4) to praise the quality of Mr Kok Heng Leun’s speech in Parliament, as well as those of Nominated MP Randolph Tan, Nominated MP Ganesh Rajaram, and even WP chief Low Thia Khiang

Of the NMPs, Mr Lee said: They are not in politics, and would not otherwise have had a voice in Parliament. But they have brought their expertise and experience to bear, and enriched the public discourse,” and that their speeches “exemplify the purpose of the Nominated MP scheme”.

He said NMP Kok Heng Leun “spoke on how arts and culture can help bond and build resilience in our society, at a time of upheaval and uncertainty”.

He said that “some opposition MPs made good speeches” and ended his Facebook post by saying that “this is how Parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Sometimes we fall short of this ideal, but in the case of these four speeches, we have not done badly”.

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Here is Mr Kok’s speech in full:

UPHEAVALS, DISPLACEMENT and THE ART OF RESILIENCE

Thank you Minister Heng for preparing this budget for 2017.

I recall my experience last year, the first time I stood before the House to speak about the budget. I had noted that culture was not mentioned in the speech. This year, I am thankful and happy that the arts and culture are mentioned, although in only one paragraph… on the good news of the boost of the Cultural Matching Fund.

So, for the next few minutes, I would like make art and culture my subject: Upheavals, Displacement and The Art of Resilience.

UPHEAVALS

We are all acutely aware that we live in a complex world today. We have been forewarned that the times ahead will be difficult. There will be displacements to our seemingly orderly lives.

Last month, I attended a seminar organised by the Salzburg Global Seminar. This organization was set up 70 years ago after World War Two, gathering thinkers, practitioners and policy-­‐makers to consider world issues, articulate problems and propose broad strategies to deal with these problems. For the 2017 iteration, 40 fellows from various part of the world (including myself) participated in the seminar, which was held in a beautiful palace, the Schloss Leopoldskron. The palace is famous because it is the location site of one of the beloved musical film, The Sound of Music.

During the seminar, while overlooking the idyllic lake, we shared and listened to stories and experiences that were at times harrowing, heartbreaking and deeply disturbing.

One fellow from Uganda shared that her brother was abducted by rebels, and how her family had to keep silent, despite knowing that he would become a child soldier. Another participant shared about the unbearable lightness of existence—the result of her experience of war and blood shed.

Our American friends said they feared waking up to another executive order that would bring the U.S. closer to isolation. Yet, within the same country, we heard about another crisis, this time from a Native American, through songs and rituals, demonstrated the solidarity of her relatives in their bid to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

There were also stories about other urgent global issues, from climate change to social and income inequality. So many issues, so many crises and so many stories of upheavals, which resulted in a huge sense of loss and displacement.

DISPLACEMENT

As I listened to these sharings, I realised that back in sunny Singapore, although we are cushioned from the immediacy of these crises, we cannot deny that they will undoubtedly impact us. For many Singaporeans, myself included , the Rohingya crisis seems far away, when in actual fact, it is really close, refugees in Johor, needing help and support.

A community that is hurt and injured is a world that is not at peace.

Let us also not be complacent and imagine that such upheavals is too far away, or will never happen to us.

For now, while we may not experience such gut-­‐wrenching upheavals, we have our own issues of displacement: Migrant workers who have come to Singapore to make a living despite their personal sense of dislocation; single parents and their children who do not enjoy the same benefits of other traditional family units, and who struggle to make ends meet; workers who feel that their jobs are at risk because technological advancements and artificial intelligence might make their roles obsolete, losing their sense of place at home, in the society, and with themselves.

Displacement comes with change. In physics, displacement maps out the relative change of the position of an object, moving from one point to another. But it does not reflect the distance and time one need to take to move from this point to the other. Just like in real life.

For some it is a straight line, quick and fast. Or others, it is a path with a lot of derailments, bringing them through ups and downs, and in some instances, they never arrive.

Naturally, we want the change that we experience to be good, that it bring us forward and upwards, in a straight line—in other words, positive displacement. But most of the time, negative displacement within our society is real and undeniable. With the widening income gap, the lower to middle income groups constantly feel the squeeze as they try to keep up with change.

At the same time, their lack of resources has resulted in derailment. When they are reminded to catch up or be left behind, it sounds as if the problem is that of a personal failing in their lack of trying, rather than a systemic one.

Change favours the privileged. Privilege comes in different forms. All of us here are privileged because we have the power to affect change. Or so I’d like to believe. You can be privileged in terms of wealth or education… or even as a race. It is thus the responsibility of those who are privileged to speak up for those who are not – those who do not earn as much, those who are not as educated, those who are sidelined by our laws.

In a society that celebrates achievement and progress, no one wants to be seen as a failure. Failure results in alienation. People who feel alienated, who feel helpless, become angry. We see the outcomes of such unhappiness on social media, often resulting in an echo chamber effect, reinforcing collective discontentment.

The frustration that stems from material, emotional and psychological insecurity creates a further polarisation of society. We begin to fear the other. This pervasive sense of threat is dangerous. It not only prevents us from being empathetic and compassionate, but encourages selfishness, and can even make violence and brutality justifiable in extreme situations.

STATE STRATEGIES

The government is aware of these concerns and addresses them through pro-­‐business policies and enhancing the safety net. In an immediate term, pro-­‐business policies may retain create and jobs, but it might not ensure a trickle-­‐down effect on the economy to individuals. Standards of living may still stagnate.

While the government’s extended social safety net will help, with no substantial increase in income, the reliance on social support may be protracted. But self-­‐esteem is directly related to self-­‐reliance. Rather than hoping the safety net is wide enough to catch them, people would generally prefer to lead a self-­‐sustainable, dignified life, earning a respectable wage that ensures their independence. The late British sociologist, Peter Townsend, once said,

“It may be worth reflecting, if indeed a little sadly, that possibly the ultimate test of the quality of a free, democratic and prosperous society is to be found in the standards of freedom, democracy and prosperity enjoyed by its weakest members.”

I and many others believe this to be true, and in difficult times, we must be ever more attentive to those amongst us who fall through the cracks.

As such, I wish to hear more from the Minister on how the livable wages of the middle income and lower income can be raised.

This brings me to the next point: while the Committee for Future Economy focused on economic strategies, it is essential that a study on the cultural impact of these economic strategies be made. Every economic structural change affects individuals, family, society, politics, infrastructure, environment, the tangible and intangible heritage, and the arts—in other words, the culture of our society and the city state as a whole.

We must take a proactive approach to anticipate the impact of these structural changes, rather than react to them when they arise. To give an example: technological advancement has progressed so rapidly beyond our imaginations that we as humans are trying to grasp hold of the changes and manage them well without falling behind. Another example is that the impact of the expansionary immigration policy of the 90s to early 2000 could be mitigated if we had done a cultural impact study earlier. Cultural impact of economic strategies will therefore put us in good stead to manage changes and their effects on society.

I would now like to unpack a term I have heard numerous times in the House since our debate began: “deep skills”.

What is deep skill without deep thinking?

What is crucial here is a culture of creative and critical thinking. Such a culture cannot manifest overnight through new state funding schemes. There is no better time than now to scrutinise our current education system, and incorporate opportunities for creative and critical thinking within it, to develop our next generation and generations to come. The government can create scaffolds and support structures for innovation, but the root source of innovation lies in the people.

We often talk about software or HEART-­‐ware, as opposed to HARD-­‐ ware. Software is not just about skills, it’s about human interaction. How lacking are we these days, in the art of conversation? We have reduced our exchanges to monosyllables: ‘Can’. ‘Want’. ‘K’. I’m not talking about language. I’m talking about connecting.

How do employers and employees connect? How do strangers converse? How do we settle a public disagreement in a multiracial and multi-­‐religious society? How do we manage the increasing moral panic? How do we not see ourselve as helpless individuals, alienated, or a powerless observer to surrounding injustice? How do we see ourselves as active change agents for our society and the world?

THE ART OF RESILIENCE

This leads me to my next point on resilience. To manage change and displacement, we as a society must become stronger; we must actively develop the art of resilience. In trying times, resilience in individuals is key in helping us repulse fear, resist and reject the injustice and oppressive status quo. Resilience embraces difficult yet transformative changes. It takes courage and conviction; it encourages objective and critical thinking. At the same time, it enables empathy, compassion and a greater sense of hope.

I have attended a number of forum last year’s and there was always this call to artist to response to this trying times.

In Salzburg Global Seminar, policy makers, thinkers, NGOs and rep from C40 etc made the call for arts to be the active change agent and building resilience.

In Weimar, a conference on Sharing and Exchange, political scientists, economists, philosophers also stress the importance of collaboration and inter-­‐cultural exchanges.

In Malta, NGOs, CEOs of arts council around the world made the call for resilience and more arts to heal, to repair, to imagine.

As an arts practitioner, I can attest to the fact that the arts can develop resilience, because it opens us up to critical thinking processes, be it as a spectator or audience, participant or creator.

To give an example: Mr Ong, an audience member of my community forum theatre play, shared:

“I used to be a very impatient person. But after watching forum theatre play, when I get into a disagreement with my spouse, I will remember you, Heng Leun. I remember when you will conduct a forum theatre play, and when a crisis happens, you will say, ‘Stop! Take this moment to think, to reflect.’ So I do it. I stop. I think. I reflect. It makes me less impatient, and of course with that, there is less arguments and more discussion.”

For creators, the arts is a means for articulating difficulties otherwise left unvoiced and seething beneath the surface. Take for instance my friend from Uganda, Beatrice Lamwaka, who wrote stories that helped her heal from her pain and trauma of living through arduous times. I urge you to read her award-­‐winning work Butterfly Dream, which can be found on the internet.

At home, we have witnessed the lyrical poetry of our migrant workers in Singapore, who have given us an unflinching glimpse into their lives here. Take Bikas Nath from Bangladesh, a poet and shipyard worker who won first prize at the 2016 Migrant Workers Poetry Competition. He shared that when he is lonely, “the pen and paper are my friends. So when I have the time, I try to write down my feelings.” I quote from his award-­‐winning poem, “Why Migrant?”:
.

I long to run back

into the warm embrace of my homeland

Among loved ones

Laugh over a steaming cup of home-­‐made tea

to the sound of the impatient strumming of a guitar somewhere

Wearing my blue school uniform

I want to lose myself

Back into my childhood

Like a stubborn child on a rainy monsoon day

Hiding under the safety of Taro leaves in the swamp
.

What the arts offer is a world of imagination, and in that, the seed of hope. In art-­‐making, an individual encounters the power of art to heal, repair, and bring hope in difficult times.

Aside from individual resilience, we need to build on community resilience. By that, I mean a community that comes together to listen to differences, mediate and recognise that each differing point of view deserves respect and understanding. The resilient community will never neglect the individual voice within the sea of voices.

Again, the arts compel us to be engaged through active listening and collaboration, which are essential building blocks that inform creation. Active listening allows us to develop empathy and to experience views beyond our comfort zone and echo chambers. I therefore urge the House, that WE, continue to listen and give, with respect. More communication, more openness. Less groupthink, less judgement.

Beyond our own communities, we must also build on inter-­‐ community resilience, so that we do not become insular and self-­‐ serving. We live in an inter-­‐connected world, and we therefore need to look out for others, because their circumstances will have an effect on us. To develop inter-­‐comunity resilience, we must create platforms for active engagement between communities that allow for good, honest and deep dialogues. The arts is one such platform that not only entertains but also educates. It presents scenarios within safe spaces for the public, making us aware of narratives that are often concealed in our midst, and inspiring us to be the change we want to see in society

Similarly, in building inter-­‐community resilience, we need to build such safe spaces where rules of engagement are adhered to, to ensure that our dialogues remain respectful yet robust, critical yet compassionate, passionate yet measured and non-­‐violent.

therefore urge the House, that WE, continue to listen and give, with respect. More communication, more openness. Less groupthink, less judgement

Beyond our own communities, we must also build on inter-­‐ community resilience, so that we do not become insular and self-­‐ serving. We live in an inter-­‐connected world, and we therefore need to look out for others, because their circumstances will have an effect on us. To develop inter-­‐community resilience, we must create platforms for active engagement between communities that allow for good, honest and deep dialogues. The arts is one such platform that not only entertains but also educates. It presents scenarios within safe spaces for the public, making us aware of narratives that are often concealed in our midst, and inspiring us to be the change we want to see in society

Similarly, in building inter-­‐community resilience, we need to build such safe spaces where rules of engagement are adhered to, to ensure that our dialogues remain respectful yet robust, critical yet compassionate, passionate yet measured and non-­‐violent.

LEADERSHIP

It cannot be stressed enough that leadership plays an important role in motivating and inspiring citizens to take greater responsibility for our shared growth, instead of just focusing on individual success stories. This means being politically motivated to gain a better

distribution of wealth and success. It cannot be achieved merely through business-­‐oriented measures or short-­‐term handouts. Rather, in developing long-­‐term strategies to reduce the income gap, our leaders can reignite self-­‐belief, meaningfulness and dignity in the people.

Likewise, an enlightened leadership must respect the differences that exist within our society—not tolerating, not co-­‐existing with, but embracing and celebrating diversity and plurality of views, lifestyles and people. In an era where there is increased polarisation sparked off by religion, politics and class, our leaders have ever more important roles as beacons of reason and mediation. To be resilient is to never allow communities to splinter into us vs. them ideologies, but rather, to make people see that there is a “u” in “us”. We are in this together

As we move our nation forward with the proposals by the Committee of Future Economy, let us remember to become positive forces of change, to find new ways of seeing and listening, and to always be resilient and compassionate to those who fall through the cracks of the system. If we are to become a community of hope in these difficult times, we cannot merely focus on straightforward success stories, but must engage with those who feel most sidelined and marginalised, so that we can become more robust and resilient, together, and never alone.

In Pig Earth, part of a trilogy written by later John Berger, about peasant’s trying to survive under capitalism, there is a scene of a old peasant playing a mouth organ in the mountain, while he was trying to save an old cow. And John Berger wrote, “All music is about survival, addressed to survivors.” Hence, by extension, all art is about survival, addressed to survivors.

And only with that, I support the bill. Thank you.

 

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by The Middle Ground 

WHAT’S good about Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Randolph Tan’s speech? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to Facebook on Saturday evening (March 4), and said that his speech, as well as those of NMP Koh Heng Luen, NMP Ganesh Rajaram, and even WP chief Low Thia Khiang, showed the quality of Singapore’s Parliamentary debate, even though the House is not as dramatic as it is in some other countries.

Of the NMPs, Mr Lee said: “They are not in politics, and would not otherwise have had a voice in Parliament. But they have brought their expertise and experience to bear, and enriched the public discourse,” and that their speeches “exemplify the purpose of the Nominated MP scheme”.

He commented that NMP Randolph Tan is “tracking our restructuring efforts closely”. He ended his Facebook post by expressing that “this is how Parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Sometimes we fall short of this ideal, but in the case of these four speeches, we have not done badly”.

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Here is Mr Randolph Tan’s speech in full:

Budget 2017 Debate

Speech by Randolph Tan, Nominated Member

Mdm Speaker, thank you, for allowing me to join in this debate.

Madam, I strongly support the current Budget proposals. They address ongoing challenges in the economic restructuring process and, despite the changes the last year has brought, reiterate the vision of a secure future that Minister Heng has set out from last year’s Budget.

The circumstances we face are undoubtedly unique, but there are important lessons from the experience of other countries that we only ignore at our peril. We could just as easily become trapped in our own lost decade, exhausting our limited resources on a dispersed agenda without heed to strengthening our economic foundations. Our priority, therefore, should be to provide a footing for future generations that is even more secure than the one we now have.

Madam, to me, this Budget is about seeing beyond the uncertainty, taking leadership responsibility in issues that matter, and possessing the courage of our conviction to complete the restructuring task at hand.

This Budget takes a strong lead in shaping the environmental agenda. We have enjoyed our entitlements of clean air and clean water for as long as we remember. But the unwelcome reality brought about by changes in our world is that not only are both in short supply, the two are growing sources of contention in an increasingly fractious world. Singapore has developed a lead in clean water technology and we can do the same with green technologies in general. A fundamental element in managing the competing access to clean water and air is to correctly price their availability. The long-term consequences of mispricing water and pollution are severe and incompatible with the direction we intend to take for our future economy, as well as for our society. We should not leave future generations unprepared to confront a problem that is developing now.

The issue is not how much clean water we still have or where the current threats to our environmental air quality lie. The issue is much broader and has to do with our collective responsibility for the environment and societal development. Hence, I would like to urge the Minister to consider price corrections in other areas in urgent need of attention as well. Areas such as electronic waste generation, should be incorporated into a comprehensive strategy for responsible environmental advocacy. By ensuring that pricing is imposed on both water and pollution, Singapore is not just taking a responsible leadership role in pushing forward the agenda for dealing with climate change, we will also be putting in place incentives for nurturing the development of technologies whose global economic potential is rapidly expanding. These lie on the path of our future economy.

Madam, there are some areas, however, where I feel that further clarification on how the long-term vision could be achieved would be useful. The first of these is our manpower policy. We should strengthen the connection between our manpower policy and our skills framework.

Foreign workforce growth has been slowing since 2011. Although the recent weakening in demand has been partly due to economic conditions, there is little doubt that the primary mechanism bringing about this shift is the system of levies and dependency ratio ceilings (DRCs).

Our policy on foreign manpower should not just be about restrictions. It should be about promoting long-term economic competitiveness for the benefit of our overall workforce. In order to realise this objective, we must be open to the type of skills we lack and incorporate foreign manpower contributions into a comprehensive strategy for filling our skills gaps.

The indications are that we have made promising improvements in this direction. In the third quarter of 2016, the number of work permit holders in manufacturing and construction declined, contributing to a rare quarterly contraction in total employment in Singapore. As a result, preliminary statistics from MOM show foreign employment (excluding foreign domestic workers) shrinking over the course of 2016 as a whole, the first time this has occurred since the global financial crisis for the whole year. At the same time, labour productivity measures depict improving performance. Full year 2016 figures show real value-added per worker hitting 1%, after having remained stubbornly negative in the preceding two years. And the quarterly statistics show the improvement was sustained throughout, with fourth quarter real value-added per worker hitting 2.4%. What is reassuring is that these changes occurred gradually, despite the fluid environment and turbulent global backdrop.

The work is far from done, and the productivity challenge is an ongoing one. The delicate balance of maintaining robust domestic employment, ensuring global standards of openness to deep and diverse skills, and injecting momentum into the productivity drive is a challenge that all countries face.

Given the limitations of our domestic labour market, the magnitude of the challenge we face in Singapore is far greater. That is why robust yet flexible policy instruments are so important. There is no doubt that our foreign manpower management policy has encountered enormous challenges. This should not detract from the tremendous success it represents as well. Compared to many other countries, we have taken a lead in this area and we should recognise its effectiveness.

Going forward, we should re-orientate our policy to move away from restricting inflows and focus on growing skills sets that our domestic workforce alone will be too slow to achieve on its own. This idea is not new. The “triple weak” system promulgated by the Minister for Manpower for monitoring companies’ with poor hiring practices already contains essentially the same key ingredients, which is that companies should be assessed on a multi-dimensional metric, rather than a single- dimensional measure.

The predecessor to the CFE, the Economic Strategies Committee, originally proposed the system of levies and DRCs. The CFE has developed the principle further. In its report, it recognises the need for foreign talent with specialised skills sets and calls to develop a more differentiated foreign workforce policy. To achieve this differentiation, instead of using the number of workers as the basic unit of measure, we should measure skills instead, and determine levies based on the extent of the skills gap that an employer encounters within the existing domestic workforce, as well as the changes in the gap over time.

The measurement of skills sets and skills levels should be carried out in coordination with the skills framework constructs being developed by SkillsFuture Singapore. The resulting system should be validated by the needs of the Industrial Transformation Maps (ITMs), merged with the current levels of foreign workforce passes, and used to assess the extent to which gaps at the company as well as sectoral level can or cannot be filled by the existing local workforce supply. Such a system can also be used to track whether the gaps are effectively closed over time through training, and how fast this is occurring.

The system of foreign manpower levies and DRCs forms a clear set of rules for managing foreign manpower participation. In recent years, including the current Budget proposal, the system has been used to moderate the impact of manpower cost pressures when economic conditions are poor. As a counter-cyclical tool, the system of levies and DRCs can be adjusted by sector. On this basis, levy rises in the marine and process sectors have been frozen, while those in construction have been allowed to proceed as earlier announced. And compared to alternatives, such as the CPF cuts that were used in the past, this approach is much more amenable to fine-tuning.

My second concern is about the challenges of scale that we, in Singapore, almost uniquely in world, face. Whether we are prepared for the reality of competing against countries much larger than us, this is something that we will have to deal with as a result of the proposals set out in this Budget. This Budget makes a significant push for internationalisation. This will increase the companies and local talent being given greater exposure to global competition and will serve us well in the long run. While programmes, such as the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA), can help Singaporeans gain a foothold in overseas markets, as well as a better appreciation of our global competition, there are adjustments that individuals have to make. Hence, the transformative impact of the GIA will take some years to become visible.

The issue of scale has always been something of a challenge for Singapore’s economy. We have pushed near to saturation point in many of our efforts, but the competition can harness vastly larger numbers without batting an eyelid. This fact is visible in every aspect in which we compete internationally, from trade figures to our workforce composition, to even our robot density.

In 1984, China’s share of manufacturing exports in the world’s total, 1.1%, equalled ours. In 2015, as the world’s leading exporter, China’s share had grown 16 times, to almost twice that of its nearest rival, Germany. Our share, of course, has also grown, more than doubling to 2.3%. Between 1984 and 2015, the share of the US in world manufacturing exports fell by a third. These developments have redefined the global economic balance. They have also brought about the tremendous groundswell of reaction that ranges from the Brexit vote outcome to the repudiation of the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In 2015, world manufacturing exports shrank more than 8% in nominal terms.

Singapore’s trade performance suffered as a result.

The options we have in reacting to these changes are determined not just by our preference, but also by the choices made by the countries we compete against.

China is also the world leader in high-technology manufacturing exports.

However, Singapore’s share of global high-technology exports is about a quarter of China’s, which makes this sector more important to us than general manufacturing.

Across all regions of the world and in many countries, the proportion of manufacturing classified as high technological activity is on the rise. A comparison across countries reveals a visible correlation between this rise and the increasing use of robotics.

As the Minister for Finance Mr Heng had already pointed out last year, China is the world’s largest buyer of robots. And other countries are keeping pace, including Singapore. According to a recent update from the International Federation of Robotics, between 2010 and 2015, the operational stock of industrial robots in Asia rose 70%. The same report placed Singapore within the top ranks of countries in the world, in terms of robotics density, just behind South Korea, and nearly five times ahead of the average global density.

Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are just two of the things that are often mentioned in the same breath as Uber and Grab when discussing technological changes and disruption. These two groups are obviously very different. However, what concerns those who cite them as examples in the same breadth is not necessarily their economic or technological novelty but the loss of control workers feel in facing the rise of these innovations. This fear of loss of control is the most important reason why ordinary workers today identify with the notion of being caught up in an industrial revolution beyond their control, no different from the original one.

Research supported by the International Federation of Robotics argues that while there have been job losses, their magnitudes are small, compared to the increase in employment over the same period.

Regardless of whether one believes in net gain or loss of jobs due to the introduction of new technologies, such as robotics, there is little doubt that existing jobs will have to give way to new ones and the workforce must, therefore, be prepared to adjust to this reality.

Although we cannot be certain about the precise rate and impact of the change on all jobs, the pattern of change and the nature of jobs of the future are becoming increasingly evident. Job creation is increasingly concentrated in domains requiring high intensity of knowledge and skills. In R&D, for instance, across countries and with very few exceptions, the number of personnel has seen strong upward trends. This is true both in absolute terms and as a ratio of the population.

Singapore, of course, as usual, faces the limitation of size that our competitors do not. Between 1996 and 2012, the number of persons employed in R&D in Singapore rose 265%, way ahead of the 50% gain in the US, 160% gain in China, and even 216% gain in South Korea.

But as a result of our population limitations, our R&D personnel numbers are already among the highest in the world on a ratio basis. China’s ratio is only one sixth of ours, despite boasting the largest number of R&D personnel globally today. This means that in Singapore, we have a far smaller pool of workers from which to draw, and if we continue to grow the numbers in order to keep up with global competition, domestic sectors in need of skilled manpower will be squeezed further. The only solution is for our workforce to push beyond the existing frontiers of skills acquisition that other countries take for granted. To remain competitive despite our limitations, our workforce must be prepared for a continuing process of advancement and workplace transformation.

Madam, Budget 2017’s push to develop Singaporean workers into regional and global leaders will take us out of our comfort zones. Singaporean workers, many of whom juggle their regular jobs with important roles, such as family caregivers, will have to add regular overseas postings to the list. This is what we have to do as an innovation in order to overcome the limits of scale.

Given our size, we are already at the boundaries of what we can reasonably achieve if we go by norms. Both in R&D personnel and in robot density, we are already at the limits. Countries whose sizes are multiples of ours have a lot more scope for expansion in absolute terms, and will reap further economies of scale. Internationalisation will, therefore, expand the potential space within which our companies and workers operate, but not completely overcome the fundamental disadvantage of scale that Singapore has always faced.

It is not just workers who will be challenged. SMEs will also feel the discomfort in operating outside of their comfort zones. The question I am trying to ask is: are the internationalisation initiatives a realistic option for local companies who do not have the basic capacity to scale up beyond their set-up in Singapore?

Madam, my last concern is about the timeline for restructuring. The timeline this time around will, I believe, turn out to be the greatest challenge. Many of the past restructuring efforts had tangible end-points such as the challenge of a recession that it could take reference from.This particular restructuring is a long drawn out process, and it is going to be challenging to focus minds on the intangible aspects of the strategy. Although the restructuring is aimed at addressing the challenges caused by disruption, as the timeline for restructuring lengthens, it will heighten uncertainty among companies and workers. For some, the distinction between restructuring and disruption could begin to blur.

The completion of this restructuring will not be readily marked by new buildings or highways. Instead, it is a process of transformation. Success will probably mean not just an end-point but an on-going process of change.

Hence, in closing, I would like to thank Finance Minister Heng for staying the course in this restructuring journey as well as for providing a personal model of resilience through adversity.

 

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by Bertha Henson

TODAY, MPs will be talking about the Budget that was announced on Feb 20. Here’s a speech which I am hoping NOT to hear. At the very least, MPs should move away from the clichés.

 

Madam Speaker, I applaud the Finance Minister for a comprehensive budget that positions Singapore securely not only for today, but for the future. With the world in turmoil, Brexit and the protectionistic stance of the Trump administration in the United States, it is right that we take steps to make sure that Singapore remains competitive in an uncertain environment.

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We live in a small country. We have no natural resources. We can only rely on our people. We must do our best to harness our collective energies and look for synergies that will increase our competitive advantage. In this regard, the Global Innovation Alliance is a step in the right direction.

The budget is a good follow up to the report from the Committee for the Future Economy, which the good minister, despite recovering from a stroke, chaired. The report had many good points, such as strengthening enterprise capacities, enabling innovation and growth through partnership, and developing a vibrant and connected city.

Some people have described the Budget as underwhelming. They expect more specific measures or a magic bullet. This is understandable. The focus of the Budget is on transforming the economy so that we can seize opportunities that come our way. We must be agile. Nimble. Flexible. This Budget is to help us achieve this goal.

The Budget’s emphasis on the future economy is therefore appropriate and timely. The sharing economy is on the rise as demonstrated by the presence of Uber and Grab. But it also causes disruptions. We must strike a balance between welcoming new technologies and ensuring that Singaporeans are not left behind. People must be trained and re-trained. I note that many schemes have been put in place. More should be done to make sure that people know what are the resources available to them and how to access them.

Although the G and the National Trades Union Congress have done a great job in ensuring that the unemployment rate remains among the lowest in the world, according to a REACH survey, PMETs worry about their job security. (Insert clichéd anecdote here) We must deal with the problem of skills mismatch, by offering more incentives for training. The SkillsFuture system is one way to change the cultural mindset. It is an excellent scheme. Can more be done to get more people to sign up for courses? Can we be more flexible?

Our small and medium-sized businesses, however, are complaining about the lack of relief in the Budget. Although the Minister has been generous in extending and enhancing the corporate tax rebate, can he re-look other fees and charges as well as rents? Our SMEs are the backbone of the economy. We must help them restructure their operations, upgrade their processes and utilise robotic technologies so that they can compete in the global marketplace. The Industry Transformation Programmes launched last year will help them. I note that this will be extended to more industries. This is a welcome move.

I am also cheered that this is a green Budget. It has incentives for those who use cleaner cars and green technology. It is important that we understand the threat of climate change especially to a small country like Singapore. I look forward to the day when all the buildings in Singapore are environmentally-friendly. We have already done much in this area. However, more can be done.

As for social policies, I am pleased that the Budget is an inclusive budget with help for the disabled and caregivers. This shows that this is a Budget with a heart.

Now, I turn to the rise in water price. People are not happy. This is natural as no one likes a price increase. As Mr Lawrence Wong said, there is no ideal time to raise prices. It is important to educate the people on water security and to treasure the resource. I welcome the G’s move to phase in the increase in two stages so that people have more time to get used to the new price. The rebates will also go some way to lessen the impact on lower income families.

Madam Speaker, it might be timely to introduce incentives to get people to save water. We need both a carrot and stick approach. People who save water deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. This will impress on them the importance of conserving this scarce resource.

In conclusion, this Budget is a blueprint/roadmap for the future. Not only for our future but for the future of our children and our children’s children.

 

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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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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.

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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