Sunday, 15 January 2017

Can Singaporeans read?

Forget self-help books. Read more about the real state of the world.
By Kishore Mahbubani, Published The Straits Times, 14 Jan 2017

A new year has begun. It often begins with new hope. This year, it would be fair to say that for many Singaporeans, it is beginning with more angst than hope.

The world seems to be in a troubled place. Global economic growth is slowing down. In October 2016, International Monetary Fund chief economist and economic counsellor Maurice Obstfeld said: "Taken as a whole, the world economy has moved sideways."

Global trade is not picking up. The developed world is mired in problems. Brexit and the election of Mr Donald Trump to the United States presidency were two big shocks we experienced last year. This year promises to be a rough year for global geopolitics, with Mr Trump having already provoked China even before his inauguration on Jan 20.

Singapore has already felt some effects of this rough patch in US-China relations.

The Global Times of Beijing on Sept 21, 2016, accused Singapore of having "insisted on adding contents which endorsed Philippines' South China Sea arbitration case and attempted to strengthen the contents on the South China Sea in the document" despite "unequivocal opposition from many countries".

Somewhat unusually, a retired Chinese general, Jin Yinan, now a director at the People's Liberation Army's National Defence University, strongly criticised Singapore.

He said that China should make Singapore "pay the price for seriously damaging China's interests", adding: "We understand it has to survive among big countries, but now Singapore is not seeking balance among big countries - it is playing big countries off against each other... this is playing with fire."

READING THE RIGHT STUFF

Many Singaporeans, especially some of our businessmen, were surprised and troubled by this obvious downturn in China-Singapore relations. Some were completely surprised by these events. They did not see them coming. Yet, some of these challenges in China-Singapore relations could have been predicted.

Indeed, they were predicted. I, too, have made such predictions.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Growing Popularity of MOE Kindergartens

Higher demand, enrolment for kindergartens set up by MOE
Curriculum, facilities, affordable fees among reasons cited
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 12 Jan 2017

Ministry of Education (MOE) kindergartens, which had a muted response at the start three years ago, are now seeing higher demand and enrolments.

Last year, there were 1,300 applications for places in the 15 kindergartens, which were set up by MOE to develop fresh approaches and best practices in early education. It was a 50 per cent increase from the 850 applications in 2015.

At four of the 15 kindergartens - at Punggol Green, Punggol View, Sengkang Green and Yishun - parents even had to ballot for places. The number of places varies from 60 to 120 at the centres.

The higher demand has also meant higher enrolment at the kindergartens. Currently, 2,300 children are enrolled in the kindergartens across the island.

This is a big change from the first year, when only about half of the 560 places offered were taken up.

Some parents had then cited the lack of childcare and school bus arrangements as reasons for the lukewarm response.

However, 12 of these centres now also offer before- and after-school care, up to 7pm. The programme, Kindergarten Care, is run by PCF Sparkletots Preschools.

MOE said four in five children enrolled live within 1km of their kindergarten, which indicates that proximity to home is one of the draws.

But several parents interviewed said they were also attracted by the fact that the kindergartens are MOE-run and are housed within primary schools, with good facilities.

A dozen of the centres are housed within primary schools.

Parents also liked the play-based curriculum and that all the three main mother tongue languages - Chinese, Malay and Tamil - were taught at the centres.

They also felt that the teachers were of high quality and the monthly fees of $150 for the four-hour programme were affordable.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

New rules for cyclists and PMD users; Active Mobility Bill passed in Parliament

Registration, plates for e-bikes to boost safety
Move may extend to all motorised PMDs if effective in bid to curb illegal modifications
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 11 Jan 2017

Electric bicycles will soon need to be registered to an owner and have registration plates, as the Government seeks to clamp down on those who illegally modify the devices.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo announced this yesterday in Parliament, which approved a new law to regulate the use of personal mobility devices (PMDs).

The Transport Ministry will give details later and amend related legislation under the Road Traffic Act.

The new registration regime could be extended to all motorised devices if found effective, Mrs Teo said. The move comes after a series of fatal e-bike accidents late last year.

The Transport Ministry had signalled last year that it intended to register e-bikes, but this is the first time it has mentioned that they will need registration plates.

Mrs Teo said e-bikes were being targeted as they "were prone to illegal modification to achieve high speeds on roads".

Speaking during the debate on the Active Mobility Bill, Mrs Teo said cycling and the use of PMDs were an "essential part" of Singapore's drive to go car-lite.

The Bill was passed after a vigorous debate, which saw 13 MPs flag concerns over the safety of pedestrians as these devices gain popularity with Singaporeans young and old.



To boost safety, they gave various suggestions - from improving infrastructure to mandating protective gear such as helmets.

Mrs Teo said the popularity of these devices was a positive development "as active mobility is a key pillar of our vision for transport in Singapore". Such modes of transport were green, convenient and efficient for short distances, she said.

"They are essential to Singapore's transition to car-lite mobility, centred on public transport," she said.

The new law was drafted based on guidelines by an advisory panel last year. It governs how and where bicycles and PMDs such as e-scooters can be used, as well as criteria they must meet, such as weight.

It also legalises the use of bicycles and PMDs on footpaths, cycling paths and shared paths. E-bikes will be allowed only on roads, and cycling and shared paths.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Re-employment age to be raised from 65 to 67 with effect from 1 July 2017

Retirement and Re-employment (Amendment) Bill 2016 passed by Parliament

Older workers can work until age 67 from July
In another change, employers won't be allowed to cut salary of staff who turn 60
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2017

Older workers will be able to work until age 67 from July this year.

If employers cannot find work for such workers in their companies, they can transfer them to their subsidiaries or another employer with the workers' consent, or give them a one-off payment as a last resort.

Employers will also not be allowed to cut the salary of workers who turn 60 from July.

These changes to the Retirement and Re-employment Act, passed in Parliament yesterday, will apply to Singaporeans and permanent residents who turn 65 from July.

Employers will be required to re-hire these workers if they have satisfactory work performance and are healthy and able to continue working.

The move will benefit the increasing ranks of older workers who want to continue to work, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.

The proportion of residents aged 60 and above in the labour force increased from 5.5 per cent in 2006 to 12 per cent in 2015.

"As we live longer, we can expect this proportion to continue to grow," Mr Lim told the House.

Allowing employers to transfer older workers to another employer benefits both workers and employers, he added. "The employee will have more opportunities to be re-employed... The second employer will benefit from hiring an employee with experience," he said.



On removing the law that allows employers to cut the pay of workers at age 60, Mr Lim said that joint efforts by unions, employers and the Government have been successful in getting companies to move away from a wage system where they peg salaries to years of service.

The wage-cut provision was introduced in 1999 when the retirement age was raised from 60 to 62 to help employers manage their wage bills. But by 2011, this was already not practised by 98.5 per cent of companies with employees aged 60 and above, said Mr Lim.

Several MPs also called for safeguards to ensure that employers do not abuse the flexibility the new law gives them.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Return our Terrexes!


Seized Terrexes protected by international law: Ng Eng Hen
Singapore looks forward to return of infantry carriers from Hong Kong, minister tells Parliament
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2017

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday explained why the seizure of the nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex infantry carriers in Hong Kong does not comply with international or Hong Kong law.

He also told Parliament that Singapore looks forward to the carriers being returned.

The vehicles, Dr Ng said, are the property of the Singapore Government. "They are protected by sovereign immunity, even though they were being shipped by commercial carriers. This means that they are immune from any measures of constraint abroad.

"They cannot legally be detained or confiscated by other countries.

"This principle is well established under international law, and we are advised by lawyers that it is also the law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region," Dr Ng said in his reply to MPs' questions.



"The Singapore Government has asserted our sovereign rights over the SAF's Terrexes," he added.

Singapore has informed Hong Kong several times in the past two months that the Terrex vehicles belong to the Singapore Government and are, therefore, immune from any measures of constraint, he said.

"Accordingly, we have requested the Hong Kong authorities to return our property immediately."

He added that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has written to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying to reiterate the same message. Hong Kong has replied that investigations are ongoing and will take some time to be completed, and that the Hong Kong Government will handle the matter in accordance with their laws.

Singapore welcomes this response, Dr Ng said. "Adherence to the rule of law has been the fundamental basis for peace and stability for the last half century in Asia.

"It has enabled countries both large and small to build trust and confidence in one another, cooperate and prosper together," he said.

The nine vehicles were seized by Hong Kong Customs on Nov 23 while in transit on their way back from a military exercise in Taiwan.

Responding to MPs' questions, he reiterated that the Terrex vehicles were used for training and did not contain sensitive equipment. SAF has since done a comprehensive review of its shipping procedures to "reduce the risk of SAF equipment being taken hostage en route".

The Population White Paper - Time to revisit an unpopular policy?

Issues raised in 2013 paper, such as ageing and shrinking workforce, remain urgent and need to be tackled
By Calvin Cheng, Published The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2017

Three years ago in January 2013, the Government released the now infamous Population White Paper. To say the reaction was negative would be an understatement: not only did the White Paper elicit the normal grumblings that Singaporeans are well known for, but it also sparked online protests and real-world ones at Hong Lim Park where one rallying cry was "Singapore for Singaporeans".

Since then, populist anti-immigrant anger has swept through several developed countries in the West. The political tidal wave produced Brexit in Britain and helped propel Mr Donald Trump to victory in last November's United States presidential election.

Since 2013, the Singapore Government has, out of political necessity, rolled back immigration and tightened the inflow of foreign labour; for all intents and purposes, it seems that the Population White Paper is on ice and few politicians now mention it in public.

If these developments are being read by Singapore critics of the Population White Paper as vindication of their opposition to it, they would be wrong.

POPULATION ASSUMPTIONS STILL HOLD TRUE

Firstly, and most importantly, every single assumption that led to the proposals in the White Paper still holds true. Our population is still ageing and baby boomers are still entering retirement. The number of working-age Singaporeans will still start to decrease from 2020, which is now three years away, not seven. The citizen population will still start to decline in 2025 - now eight years away, not 12. The total fertility rate has barely budged despite various efforts.

Disastrously, some things have actually got worse. The White Paper said that in order to achieve an average of 3 to 5 per cent gross domestic product growth up to 2020, Singapore will need 2 to 3 per cent annual productivity growth, whilst maintaining 1 to 2 per cent workforce growth. The recent cuts in foreign manpower put downward pressure on total workforce growth, which has to be made up for by even higher productivity growth. That is not happening; productivity growth has instead stagnated, with 2015 even seeing a fall in productivity of 0.1 per cent.

It is worth reiterating at this juncture: None of the assumptions in the Population White Paper has changed, and on some, the outlook has worsened, not got better.

SkillsFuture Credit saw 126,000 users in first year

126,000 learn new skills using SkillsFuture Credit
IT courses most popular; more partners such as INSEAD to offer training under scheme
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2017

A national programme to spur Singaporeans to pick up skills and encourage lifelong learning saw more than 126,000 people using it in its first year.

They studied a wide spectrum of subjects ranging from programming and data analysis to baking bread and offering advice on wine.

In the coming months, more partners such as graduate business school INSEAD will come on board to offer courses under the SkillsFuture Credit scheme.

It was introduced last January for more than two million people, and gives Singaporeans aged 25 and older an initial $500 credit to pay for courses. The credits do not expire and will be topped up periodically, so they can be accumulated for more expensive courses.

SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) revealed in an update yesterday that 34 per cent of those who tapped the initiative last year used it more than once. About 63 per cent of the users were aged 40 and older.

Information and communications technology was the most popular training area across all age groups. Older Singaporeans tapped their credits to learn simple skills such as using basic computer functions, while younger Singaporeans enrolled for courses on emerging skills such as data analytics.

Other popular areas included languages, security and investigation, and productivity and innovation.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Hard decisions needed for Singapore to stay competitive

I agree with Editor-At-Large Han Fook Kwang's view that the instincts of our people have changed ("Does Singapore have the mettle to survive tough times ahead?"; Jan 1).

Our instincts have become flabby as a result of "years of stability and abundance and from having an overly-protective government which took care of most things".

We have also become complacent because of a collective hubris about our place in the world.

We have to give value for money and remain cost-competitive against not only our fast-developing neighbours, but also the rest of the world.

There are several ideas to consider:
- It is time to soften the Singapore dollar. It may not be a bad thing if imported goods and holidays become more expensive, as it will spur Singaporeans to work both harder and smarter to attain these things. In doing so, our productivity will increase.
- As the Government is the biggest landowner in Singapore, it can influence land and rental prices across the country, and should take measures to lower the cost of doing business here.
- It is important to wean our young working adults off the subsidy mentality. For example, housing grants for couples to buy executive condominiums (ECs) are an unworthy expense, as our HDB flats are excellent. Ending EC housing grants will spur them to make their own money in order to enjoy the good things in life.
- If there is no increase in fertility rate, the maternity and paternity leave policies should be re-examined as these, together with leave for reservist training, are making investors think twice about setting up or continuing their operations here.
These are some of the hard truths that must be addressed.

We must stay paranoid if we are to keep ahead and prevent others from eating our lunch.

Anne Chong Su Yan (Dr)
ST Forum, 8 Jan 2017

Drift towards populism 'not inevitable': DPM Tharman

Govts must offer hope and real solutions by helping people regenerate careers, and those left behind: Tharman
By Charissa Yong, The Sunday Times, 8 Jan 2017

Political upsets like Brexit and Mr Donald Trump's election last year stem from changes within societies that have been going on for decades, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.

While Singapore has experienced some of these disquieting trends, he believes policies here and in some other societies made a difference in addressing their impact.

He cited four global trends: stagnant wages, declining social mobility, the sense of togetherness in society eroding, and politics and the media becoming more polarised.

"The only surprise is how long it has taken for those underlying domestic changes in society to be reflected in politics," he told 350 people at a global affairs conference, Has The Game Changed?, hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. While last year's populist upsets, driven by anti-globalisation, have created a despondency about global cooperation, Mr Tharman said: "The real challenge is not about globalisation. The real challenge is in domestic policy responses."



He added: "There are countries where you don't get the same trends played out, although globalisation happens in the same way."

He cited how in Sweden and Singapore, middle-income workers' pay went up by more than that in other advanced economies. But lower- and middle-class workers' wages in America, parts of Europe, Britain and Japan have stagnated.

In America, in 1970, 90 per cent of 30-year-olds had real incomes above what their parents had at 30. Today, the figure is only half, and it affects people's sense of hope.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Construction industry set for brighter 2017

The Straits Times, 7 Jan 2017

The economic slowdown has taken a toll on the construction sector, with the total value of construction demand falling for a second consecutive year in 2016.

Preliminary estimates by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) yesterday indicated that total construction demand last year amounted to $26.1 billion, down from $27 billion in 2015.

However, a surge in public-sector building jobs this year could help to reverse the falling trend.

Public-sector construction demand - or the value of contracts expected to be awarded this year - is projected to grow to between $20 billion and $24 billion, the BCA said.

This would be a significant increase from the $15.8 billion or so recorded last year.

The BCA estimated that private-sector construction demand is likely to be between $8 billion and $11 billion this year.

Young suspects to be accompanied by adults during police interviews from April 2017: MHA

Volunteers to offer minors support in police interviews
Appropriate Adult Scheme for suspects aged below 16 to be launched in phases from April
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 7 Jan 2017

Young suspects aged below 16 who have to be interviewed by the police will get support from independent volunteers, in a new scheme following a review of criminal investigation procedures.

These volunteers, who will be present during the interviews, will look out for signs of distress in the suspects and provide them with emotional support.

But they must remain neutral and not provide legal advice or disrupt the course of justice in any way.



Their role comes under an Appropriate Adult (AA) Scheme for minors, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced yesterday.

Similar to an existing AA scheme for offenders with intellectual or mental disabilities, it will be launched in phases from April and be fully implemented by mid-2019.

The first phase, expected to cost around $400,000, will start with about 100 volunteers at the Bedok Division, Criminal Investigation Department of the police and the investigation division of the Central Narcotics Bureau.

The Ministry of Education (MOE), which took part in the review, said it will also introduce more measures to support students under investigation.

When a student is taken from school, these steps include getting a familiar staff member to accompany him or her in the police vehicle, said an MOE spokesman. The companion could be the student's teacher, year head or school counsellor.

Besides informing parents of the arrest as soon as possible, schools will keep in touch "to work out follow-up steps", such as monitoring the child's well-being and offering counselling support, said MOE.

While young suspects will mostly be interviewed in an AA's presence, in exceptional cases, the police may start interviews first, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam. For example, officers may need to speak to suspects quickly to assess if there are accomplices.

More than 7,000 young suspects were arrested by the police between 2011 and 2015 for offences including rioting. But only 15 per cent of such cases were prosecuted in court, said Mr Shanmugam.

MHA added that there is a need to uphold public interest in solving and preventing crime, while balancing the interests of young suspects.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Raffles Country Club to make way for KL-Singapore High-Speed Rail

Second golf club to make way for high-speed rail
Raffles Country Club land will also be used for MRT; site to be handed over by July 31, 2018
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2017

Raffles Country Club, a 36-hole golfing venue in the west of Singapore, will make way for a massive depot and stable for the upcoming Cross Island MRT line and the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail (HSR) project.

The plot - the single largest to be acquired by the Government in recent years - is more than twice the size of Jurong Country Club, which will make way for the HSR terminus.

The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) served the 143ha club an acquisition notice yesterday.

The club will have to hand over the site owned by JTC Corp by July 31 next year.

The SLA and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) described the club site as "the most suitable location".

LTA deputy chief executive Chua Chong Kheng said: "Given its size and location, there really isn't any other option for us."



The HSR link between Malaysia and Singapore will take the form of a high bridge to be built west of the Tuas Second Link - a stone's throw from Raffles Country Club. The bridge will run 25m above the water for 3km across the Strait of Johor.

From there, the tracks will continue on a flyover across the Ayer Rajah Expressway onto Raffles Country Club, a plot measuring 2km end to end.

Within the existing club grounds, the tracks will go underground towards a passenger terminus on the site of Jurong Country Club.

The Raffles Country Club site will be able to house a spare HSR train, and will allow trains to cross from one track to the other when operations commence by the end of 2026.

To optimise land use, the LTA said a western depot for the upcoming Cross Island MRT line - slated to open in 2030 - will be built on the Raffles Country Club site too.