Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Racial Harmony Day: Respect across all races, religions vital for Singapore

By Amanda Lee, TODAY, 22 Jul 2014

Noting that Singapore has thrived due to her openness to international trade flow, knowledge and culture, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat stressed yesterday that it is important for the Republic to continue to embrace diversity.

Speaking at an event at Elias Park Primary School marking the 50th anniversary of the 1964 racial riots, he said this means going beyond understanding the main races here, to “respecting all people, regardless of race, language or religion, who live and work in Singapore”.

“Good relationships can only be built if we better understand those around us,” he said, noting that he was heartened by the results of a recent study on racial and religious harmony.

Conducted by and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), the survey showed that two in three people here feel there is religious harmony and the majority are satisfied with the rights religious groups have.

But the survey also found that there was a growing perception of prejudices across nationalities compared with five years ago, while comfort levels across race and religion appeared to have remained largely unchanged.

While schools and community groups have done a good job in educating subsequent generations about the importance of racial and religious harmony, Mr Heng said there are areas that need to be worked on, such as building interest in intercultural understanding and interaction.

He added: “We have to continue to build strong bonds in our community — bonds of trust, friendship and understanding — to meet the challenges of the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous global environment we face today.”

SMRT fined $1.6 million for four train disruptions

SBS Transit gets $50,000 fine for one incident resulting in power trip
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 22 Jul 2014

SMRT was yesterday hit with a $1.6 million fine by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), over four train service disruptions.

Taken together, it is the second highest fine meted out by the authority on a rail operator after the $2 million incurred, also by SMRT, for two massive breakdowns in December 2011.

The Singapore-listed firm was fined $400,000 and $900,000 for two "serious safety breaches" that occurred on Oct 9 last year and Jan 22 this year respectively.

In these cases, SMRT trains on the East West Line, which were driven manually, damaged a track point after they failed to stop at a red signal light. This led to service disruptions of more than an hour on both occasions.

On top of the drivers failing to stop, the SMRT operations control centre was also slow to respond and hence unable to prevent the trains from damaging the tracks, added the LTA.

SMRT was also fined $200,000 and $100,000 for disruptions in January and May this year respectively. Both occurred on the North South Line, and were caused by human error.

Rival SBS Transit, which runs a smaller rail network, fared better. It has to pay a $50,000 fine for a disruption on March 21 that was caused by staff carrying out maintenance works, which resulted in a power trip.

LTA group director for public transport Yeo Teck Guan said all five incidents were "fully preventable if the operators had exercised due diligence and vigilance".

MAS proposes stronger safeguards for investors

Exotic investments could come under MAS rules
Products like land-banking, gold buy-back schemes may be regulated
By Yasmine Yahya, The Straits Times, 22 Jul 2014

PEDDLERS of esoteric financial products such as forestry investment and gold buy-back schemes have for many years avoided being regulated.

But new proposals by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) unveiled yesterday aim to change that.

The operators of such schemes have stayed unregulated by deliberately structuring their investment products so that they do not fall under the ambit of the Securities and Futures Act.

This could soon change, as the MAS hopes to extend the scope of its powers to cover two more types of investment structures.

The first: buy-back arrangements involving gold, silver and platinum. Under such schemes, an investor buys an amount of precious metal with the agreement that he can sell it back at a higher, agreed-upon price, regardless of market prices. An example of such a scheme is one operated by Genneva Gold, which in 2012 went bust and left more than 10,000 investors stranded.

The second investment structure the MAS is targeting is the collectively managed investment scheme, such as that operated by Profitable Plots, accused in 2012 of cheating investors of more than $3 million.

These schemes allow groups of investors to buy direct stakes in an asset, but their funds are pooled and the asset is managed by the scheme operator, who splits any income or profits among the group.

If the MAS' proposals come to pass, operators of such schemes would have to be licensed, publish proper disclosures and comply with relevant codes under the law before they can market their products to retail investors.

This could mean that retail investors might soon be unable to invest in land-banking schemes, as the existing code on collective investment schemes does not allow investing in vacant land that does not generate income.

"These proposals are somewhat overdue but it's better late than never," said Securities Investors Association ( Singapore) president David Gerald.

"If such operators were to be regulated, they would think twice before marketing in Singapore and this would raise the overall quality of investment products in Singapore, ensuring that only ethical operators come here."

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Joint responsibility for old age income security

Many of the criticisms aimed at the CPF system are based on a lack of understanding of how it actually works
By Laurence Lien, Published The Straits Times, 21 Jul 2014

AT FIRST, it was not my intention to write about the Central Provident Fund (CPF). But I feel compelled to do so given the persistent lack of clarity about what the real issues are.

Some citizens have asked, is the money still there? Why does the Government need to hang on to our money after age 55? Is it because the money is lost?

As a previous director at the Ministry of Finance overseeing government investments I can only say that no one should worry about that. Unfortunately, the Official Secrets Act does not permit me to say any more than what is publicly known.

The investments of GIC are large and diversified across asset classes and geographical markets. Its 20-year returns - at 6.5 per cent in US dollars and 5 per cent per annum in Singapore dollars - are not substantially different from benchmark returns.

Citizens may not be similarly reassured because the Government has chosen not to release detailed numbers of the Government's balance sheet, including the actual size of GIC's assets under management.

Ironically, in the Singapore Government's case, the reticence is borne out of a desire to be conservative - to reduce the pressure to be profligate - and not a need to hide losses.

However, we have reached a stage of our political maturation process in which the lack of transparency, and perceived lack of public accountability, needs to be addressed. Transparency breeds trust.

Go cashless at hawker centres soon

Nets testing out contactless FlashPay system at some stalls
By Rachael Boon, The Straits Times, 21 Jul 2014

GOING cash-free at hawker centres will soon be a reality as Nets, the Network for Electronic Transfers Singapore, rolls out new initiatives to promote cashless payments.

The company is already testing out contactless FlashPay card systems at 10 stalls at the Beo Crescent Market and Food Centre near Havelock Road, and a hawker centre in Clementi Central is the next in line to use the system.

Contactless payments are transactions made by waving a card over a reader, instead of signing a charge slip or entering a PIN code.

Bedok's upcoming hawker centre at Block 208B along New Upper Changi Road, due to open in October, will be 100 per cent cashless, said Nets chief executive Jeffrey Goh. To pay, consumers simply tap a FlashPay card on a small electronic terminal that hawkers can preload with item prices.

Mr Goh told The Straits Times: "For old hawker centres, we have to go stall to stall to encourage owners to sign up. We have to create awareness, generate acceptance and inspire action."

He notes that it costs about $10,000 to set up this system in a typical hawker centre of 30 stalls. Stall owners can rent the micropayments terminal for $28 each month.

Madam Alison Koh, 52, co-owner of Uncle Lim's Beverages at the Beo Crescent centre, said the $28 fee is reasonable and she likes the convenience.

"You don't have to look for change which includes coins. It saves a lot of time as it is cashless. It is also more hygienic because you don't use wet hands to handle the cash. Our hands tend to get wet especially since we're a drinks stall, and some customers don't like that," she said.

Understanding the poor here

By Jalelah Abu Baker, My Paper, 21 Jul 2014

THEY left behind the comfort of air-conditioning, along with having a room and bed to themselves, to rough it out like paupers.

Since last month, home for Ngee Ann Polytechnic students Nicholas Fheng and Lewin Loh, both 19, has been a bare HDB flat in Bedok South, where they sleep on thin mattresses and buy the cheapest of everything they need.

The mission? To understand and shed light on the plight of those who live on less than $1,500 a month in Singapore, as part of their final-year school project.

This includes having to live on $790 a month, and not being allowed to accept aid from friends or family.

Even scoring an interview with the two ambitious teens was tough, as they have to think twice about answering a phone call on a pre-paid SIM card because it costs more than a text.

They are one week away from completing the two-month project, as part of their business and social enterprise diploma.

"One of the things we have been taught is to understand the needs of the people we want to help. There's no better way to do that than to put ourselves in their shoes," Mr Loh told My Paper during a recent interview at a coffee shop.

Going beyond the paper chase

By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 21 Jul 2014

AROUND the world, young people are yearning to earn a university degree after they leave school.

Many have the mistaken notion that a degree is the passport to securing a good job and hence, a comfortable life.

That may have been true in the past, but as the world grapples with an increasingly technology-driven economy, governments have realised that it is no longer paper qualifications that will get young people jobs, but rather, "deep skills", which refer to having specialised practical expertise, or being really good in areas that are in high demand.

Policymakers are looking for ways to attract young people to focus on job-relevant skills instead of going for general garden-variety degrees.

In the last decade, undergraduate numbers have doubled, leading to an oversupply of graduates whose academic skills do not meet real needs in the job market.

Economists have warned against a graduate glut, which is being seen in societies such as South Korea and Taiwan, which have "over-educated and under-employed" people.

In Singapore, degree holders, among all qualification groups, have in the last two years found themselves the most vulnerable to losing their jobs.

The problems are similar worldwide: Many prefer academic education to a vocational path as they think it will pay off and few want to get their hands dirty. So essential jobs in sectors such as transport, manufacturing, health care and retail that keep the economy turning remain unfilled.

Monday, 21 July 2014

NLB Saga: Let's not open the doors to 'culture wars'

Differences in values and views shouldn't be depicted as battles of good versus evil
By Lydia Lim, Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 20 Jul 2014

A friend once told me how excited she was to take part in a demonstration during her travels in America, because she had never seen or experienced one here.

Those were the days when protests were in short supply in Singapore.

Not any more.

Now, mass gatherings of citizens intent on making their views on contentious issues known and heard have become a regular affair at Hong Lim Park and even spilled over to other parts of Singapore.

Indeed, since the start of June, there has been a spike in such activities. In just five weeks, there have been two protests against the Central Provident Fund (CPF) scheme and one against the Prime Minister at Hong Lim Park.

On the last Saturday of June, the park also played host to the annual Pink Dot picnic, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) event held to celebrate the "freedom to love" regardless of sexual orientation.

That same weekend, some mosques and churches were the sites of a Wear White campaign that saw Muslims and Christians donning white to counter Pink Dot and oppose the LGBT lifestyle.

Over the past fortnight, the action shifted to the National Library. The atrium of its Victoria Street building was where hundreds of parents and children gathered for a read-in last Sunday to protest against the removal of three children's books, after public complaints that they contained homosexual content.

Are these signs of a maturing democracy? After decades of a much-whispered-about "climate of fear", isn't it a welcome change that a growing number of Singaporeans are now unafraid to make public their stand on issues?


But I worry that the shift now taking place is one towards a culture of protest and purges that depicts differences in values and of viewpoints as battles of good versus evil.

Spoof it, mock it, but NCPG says ad featuring 'Andy' and bet on Germany works

NCPG believes World Cup ad on gambling led to more awareness, requests for counselling
By Priscilla Goy And Cheryl Faith Wee, The Sunday Times, 20 Jul 2014

The World Cup advertisement by the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) may have been spoofed around the world, but the council believes it has done its job.

NCPG said its 24-hour helpline received 105 problem gambling-related calls a day after the World Cup final on July 14. This was twice the average and the highest for a single day.

There was also a 20 per cent increase in the number of requests for counselling services last month, compared to May.

Said NCPG chairman Lim Hock San: "Despite the memes and jokes, we believe that the audience understood our message. They are now aware of NCPG and who to call if they encounter issues of problem gambling."

The ad, which was shown during the live telecast of the matches here and displayed on the NCPG website, features a boy named Andy, who sadly tells his friends that all of his savings were used by his father to bet on Germany.

But it started to be lampooned after Germany's 7-1 semi-final thrashing of host Brazil.

AVA reviewing animal welfare codes

By Cheryl Faith Wee, The Sunday Times, 20 Jul 2014

Pet owners here should provide their pets with a balanced diet and fresh drinking water, monitor their health regularly and not leave them in vehicles in conditions that cause heat stress or distress.

These are just a few of the guidelines from the codes of animal welfare for pet owners and businesses, submitted to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) for review by a group looking into the issue here.

"The codes were formulated because there was no clear, agreed definition of what is deemed as good welfare standards," said Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC and a member of the group called the Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration Committee for Animal Welfare (MSCC).

Animal abuse cases here have gone up 28.3 per cent from 377 in 2008 to 484 in 2012, according to AVA figures. Animal cruelty is now prosecuted under the Animals and Birds Act, but critics said its provisions are vague on how cruelty is defined.