Friday, 28 February 2014

Proposed anti-harassment law to cover online bullying

Bill to expand and bring legislation for anti-harassment under one roof
By Ian Poh, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2014

A WIDE-RANGING law targeting both online and real-world harassment, including cyber bullying and stalking, will be tabled in Parliament next Monday.

Sexual harassment in and out of the office will be included, along with stalking, which is being introduced as an offence. The proposed law will also cover some acts which originate overseas.

Not only will there be tougher sanctions for offenders, who can be ordered to seek treatment at the Institute of Mental Health, but victims are also given new remedies with the proposed Bill.

They include court protection orders which require harassers to stop doing anything to cause further harm. Victims can also ask the court to order the removal of offending material online, or make offenders put an alert highlighting the inaccurate parts.

Yesterday's announcement by the Law and Home Affairs ministries on the Bill came just over three months after Law Minister K. Shanmugam unveiled plans by the Government to clamp down on such anti-social behaviour.

Last November, he highlighted a 2012 Microsoft study of 25 countries which said Singapore had the second-highest rate of online bullying behind China among young people aged eight to 17.

A government poll last October also showed more than 80 per cent here believed online harassment was a serious issue and that there should be tougher measures to deal with it.

Other countries which have enacted specific laws to protect people from online harassment include Britain and India.

Little India Riot COI: Day 6

Police 'did not want to escalate violence'
Staff Sgt says commander made right call in ordering officers to hold back
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2014

A POLICE staff sergeant responding to unrest in Little India on Dec 8 was so angry when he saw rioters overturning a police car and setting it on fire, that he wanted to move in to arrest them.

But he and his fellow officers held back as ordered because they did not want to risk escalating the violence, the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the riot heard.

"I was shocked (when) I reached there - it didn't look like Singapore," said Staff Sergeant Azmi Mohamed Hamzah, who was testifying at the public hearing yesterday.

Was he "spooked" by the crowd? asked COI chairman and retired Supreme Court judge G. Pannir Selvam.

"Yes, but as time went by, I became agitated when I saw them burn the police car," replied the officer from Bishan Neighbourhood Police Centre.

He was at Hampshire Road with seven other officers when about 10 rioters overturned a police Fast Response Car in front of them. One of the men later threw something into the vehicle to set it on fire.

This angered Staff Sgt Azmi, who started moving towards the rioters. But he was stopped by Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim, commander of Tanglin Police Division.

Asked by State Counsel Joshua Lim if, in hindsight, he agreed with DAC Lu's move, Staff Sgt Azmi said he did. While only 10 men were attacking the police vehicles along Hampshire Road at that point, the policemen were between two big groups of onlookers on either side of the road, he added.

"If they turned hostile, became angry that we took action against this small group that was burning the vehicle, they may have just gone to us, grabbed our revolvers and batons and used it against us," he said. "It was a split-second decision in that chaotic situation - I believe my commander made the right call."

Maids: No day off ? No way!

More maids are changing employers when they are not given Sundays off
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2014

DISPUTES over days off are prompting increasing numbers of maids to end their contracts prematurely and sign up with new employers.

A check by The Straits Times with six maid agencies found that three in 10 maids at these agencies who were transferred in the last four months did so for this reason.

All maids hired or who have their work permits renewed from that date must receive a day off each week, or pay in lieu.

Employers have to shell out about $70 a month, on top of the maids' basic pay of about $450, to get them to work on rest days.

Previously, few maids would cite having no days off as a reason for asking for a new employer, as working without any rest days was the norm, the agencies told The Straits Times.

Indeed, even after the new law took effect, many employers are still rejecting their maids' requests for a day off, leading the maids to seek a transfer to employers who are more willing to accommodate them, the agents said.

Manpower Ministry figures show that only 42 per cent of maids placed by agencies between February 2011 and February last year stayed with the same employer for at least a year.

A standard employment contract is for two years.

Ms Shirley Ng, owner of Orange Employment Agency, said: ''It is hard to change the minds of employers who are not receptive to giving a day off. On the other hand, more maids insist on having days off, which they see as their right.''

The issue of maids ending their contracts early and leaving their employers in the lurch was highlighted in a letter to The Straits Times Forum Page on Monday.

The letter by video editor Choo Sing Nian drew a flurry of online comments from employers who complained about being at the mercy of maids who cite various reasons - from family problems and being unhappy to wanting a weekly day off - for wanting to end their contracts and change employers.

Ms Choo's maid had worked for eight months without complaints but asked to go home earlier this month because one of her children is sick.

Maid agents said domestic workers usually negotiate for a weekly break or change employers after working for about eight months because by then, they would have cleared their debt of about $2,200 in placement fees to recruitment agents.

Ms Carene Chin, managing director of maid agency Homekeeper, said she tries to improve retention rates by telling her clients to be prepared to give their maids regular days off after they have worked for a few months.

However, agents pointed out that many families with elderly family members and young children find it difficult to cope without their maids even for a day.

SMRT: Train signalling issues 'will remain for a while'

This could mean delays as SMRT continues upgrading rail system
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2014

THE signalling issues behind recent MRT delays will continue to pop up occasionally over the next two years at least, which is the minimum time it would take to overhaul the system, said SMRT.

This year, the rail operator has been hit by at least three instances of faulty signalling on the North-South Line, leading to trains slowing down significantly. One occurred at the end of last month, and was followed by two more on Monday and Tuesday.

SMRT spokesman Alina Boey yesterday said a programme to upgrade the signalling system will "address many of the signalling-related incidents that we are facing today".

But the upgrade, which will allow trains to run more frequently, will be completed only in 2016 for the North-South Line and 2018 for the East-West Line.

Signalling faults accounted for nearly a quarter of the SMRT trains pulled out of service last year on these two lines.

On Monday morning, a track circuit failure between Yew Tee and Kranji stations caused trains to slow down. This held up service on stretches of the line on either side of those stations, resulting in thousands of commuters being late for work and school.

The next evening, a code generator fault along the track at Marina Bay station added about 20 minutes of travelling time for commuters going from Ang Mo Kio towards Marina Bay.

Code generators tell trains how fast they can travel. Tuesday's problem meant trains on the affected stretch had to run at slower speeds while SMRT engineers replaced the generator, said Ms Boey.

SMRT is working on interim measures to minimise such incidents even as upgrading works take place, she added.

These include refurbishing train tachogenerators, which indicate how fast a train is going. Faulty tachogenerators provide inaccurate speed readings to the signalling systems, and can cause signalling issues.

SMRT has previously said that such measures would also take about two years to roll out.

Ms Boey added yesterday: "Despite our best efforts, there will still be delays, as it takes time for us to implement these enhancements over the more than a thousand track circuits on the North-South and East-West lines."

ASEAN's open-skies dream

By Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2014

IN A new world being conceived by the end of next year, Singapore Airlines (SIA), SilkAir, Thai Airways and other ASEAN carriers will fly freely across the region to any airport and as often as they want.

Today, such flights are restricted by government-to-government deals that dictate how often carriers can fly between two points and the number of passengers they can carry.

ASEAN's ultimate goal is a single aviation market. Among other things, this would mean that the longstanding walls that now prevent an airline from holding a majority share in a carrier in another ASEAN country will come down. Airlines in the region would then be free to merge across borders if it makes business sense to do so.

But the more immediate goal is less ambitious. It involves allowing ASEAN carriers to fly with fewer restrictions within the region by the end of next year.

The challenge, of course, is in implementation and it is here that plans may go into a tailspin.

In November 2004, the ASEAN transport ministers who met in Cambodia drafted a 10-year plan under which the region's air travel sector would be progressively integrated and liberalised.

Three years later, when transport ministers held their annual meeting in Singapore, they agreed to push for open skies within ASEAN by the end of 2015.

What ASEAN refers to as an "open skies" agreement, however, is limited to what the industry regards as the exercise of unlimited third, fourth and fifth freedoms.

HK 'could face debt crisis within 15 years'

Experts' projection is a call for serious attention: Financial Secretary
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2014

A HEALTH check on Hong Kong's public finances has yielded the grim diagnosis that the city could suffer a structural deficit within 15 years based on current spending trends.

Buffeted by the twin developments of an ageing population, with growing health-care and welfare needs, and a shrinking workforce, Hong Kong will see its spending increase by 5.3 per cent each year, while revenue collected will slow to 4.5 per cent.

The debt crisis could emerge even earlier, in seven years, if the government continues to widen its social coverage as it did in past years.

It is a "clear warning and call for serious attention", he said.

In a 90-minute speech focused on competitiveness, Mr Tsang said steps need to be taken to stave off what he called "irreversible fiscal plight" even though public finances remain in good shape in the short term.

"More vigorous" control needs to be exercised over spending priorities. Tax enforcement will be stepped up. Fees will be increased. And a "Future Fund" of HK$220 billion (S$35.9 billion) may be established to be drawn on in times of need.

But Mr Tsang was non-committal on broadening Hong Kong's narrow tax base and increasing tax rates, saying there is "little room" for major tax hikes given the impact on the city's competitiveness and its people.

Any adjustment of Hong Kong's tax regime will be closely watched by Singapore. Both seek to attract companies and individuals with low taxes.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Singapore opens first LNG terminal, plans for 2nd terminal

Second LNG terminal planned to boost energy security
Govt looking at potential sites in eastern S'pore: PM Lee
By Jonathan Kwok, The Straits Times, 26 Feb 2014

SINGAPORE yesterday announced plans to build a second liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal even as the country's first terminal on Jurong Island was officially opened.

LNG is the fuel used to generate most of the electricity used here.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking at the official opening of the Singapore LNG Terminal, said that potential sites in eastern Singapore are being studied for the second terminal.

The new terminal will also support new industrial sites and power plants, he added.

More than 90 per cent of Singapore's electricity is generated using natural gas, which is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than oil.

Having LNG terminals means that Singapore can take in imports from all over the world, in addition to the natural gas coming via pipes from Malaysia and Indonesia.

The terminal, which started operations in May last year, has received shipments from Equatorial Guinea in Africa and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.

The shipments have so far been for domestic use, but the terminal has the infrastructure to reload LNG into other vessels to be shipped elsewhere.

The Singapore LNG Terminal can handle six million tonnes a year. Plans are under way for a fourth tank and additional equipment to lift capacity to at least nine million tonnes a year by 2017. The terminal has space to accommodate seven tanks.

"But that's the limit because of land constraints," said Mr Lee. "Therefore we will build a second LNG terminal."

Little India Riot COI: Day 5

'Not enough officers' to carry out early arrests
Police focused on protecting woman, extricating accident victim, says officer
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 26 Feb 2014

THE police did not have enough officers on the ground to effectively make any arrest when the riot first broke out, said a senior officer who was at the scene of the violence in Little India last year.

Instead, they were focused on two main tasks: forming a human barrier to protect rescuers so they could extricate an accident victim pinned under a bus, and evacuating a woman who seemed to be the target of the angry mob.

These were the two missions Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Jonathan Tang had set when he first arrived at the site of the accident where a private bus had run over and killed a 33-year-old Indian national.

"It's not that we didn't want to deal with these fellows," he said, referring to the rioters. "But in order to deal with them we would have to split our manpower, and I only had so many people then."

ASP Tang, 28, was one of the police officers who first arrived at the junction of Race Course Road and Tekka Lane.

Testifying on day five of the public inquiry into the riot yesterday, he said the death of their countryman seemed to rile up the emotions of the foreign workers gathered nearby.

They then turned on rescuers and police officers who were responding to the traffic accident.

Two auxiliary police officers (APOs) had told the Committee of Inquiry (COI) on Monday that the violence might not have spun out of control had there been more police officers on the ground making arrests earlier.

ASP Tang, however, disagreed, as he believed that any action to arrest the rioters would risk agitating them further.

S'pore on its way to 'super-ageing'

By Lim Yi Han, MyPaper, 26 Feb 2014

SINGAPORE is well on its way to becoming a "super-aged" nation, with two back-to-back reports coming as a stark reminder of the silver tsunami.

A super-aged nation, according to the United Nations, is one where over 20 per cent of the population is aged 65 and above.

Japan is the first country to be accorded the status, and the Republic looks set to follow. By 2030, about one in five people here will be 65 or older.

And by 2050, there will be only two persons of working age for each person aged above 65, according to a report by Allianz Global Investors on Monday.

The investment company, which conducted demographic research, said in the report: "By then, Singapore will not be able to avoid the problems super-aged Japan is already facing. The difference will only be in terms of the timeframe."

Meanwhile, another survey has found that nearly four in five Singaporeans plan to rely on their personal savings and investments as a primary source of income after retirement.

Ironically, many still aim to retire early. The poll by global survey firm Nielsen, released yesterday, found that three in 10 Singaporeans want to retire before 60.

Some 500 Singaporeans took part in the Internet poll between August and September last year.

The survey also found that Singaporeans' biggest fear about ageing is not having enough money to pay medical bills. Other worries include not being able to look after themselves and losing physical agility when they age.

Saving up for the golden years instead of splurging on a lavish lifestyle before retirement is important, said Mr Gerard Ee, chairman of the Council for Third Age, which advocates active ageing and lifelong learning.

"The worrying thing is that people are not doing enough to save for the future," Mr Ee told MyPaper. "We need to strategically plan, what do you live on to support yourself for the next 20 years after retirement?"

Singapore is not like Hong Kong, which also has an ageing population. Hong Kong is dynamic and is supported by people from China, said Mr Ee. "Singapore is very contained."

Govt to manage possible hike in healthcare demand

Budget measures could ultimately lead to higher costs
By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 26 Feb 2014

Acknowledging that Budget measures to help Singaporeans meet the rising healthcare costs could lead to a spike in demand and result in costs going up further, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday his ministry is looking to manage the situation — in particular, the demand for hospital care amid the ongoing bed crunch.

Apart from doing more in the areas of step-down care and home care, the Ministry of Health (MOH) will seek to ensure that only patients who are assessed by medical professionals to require acute care will remain in hospitals.

Speaking to reporters after the recording of the Budget Forum in Mandarin organised by MediaCorp, Mr Gan said: “One important aspect the Ministry of Health is looking at is how to manage healthcare costs, because with more funding, the risk is it will drive up demand. If we want to manage costs, we have to look at a holistic approach.”

Among the strategies that the MOH will be adopting is “proper gatekeeping to ensure that access to high-end acute care is on a needs basis, assessed by medical professionals ... if you do not need to be in an acute hospital, then you ought not to be in (it)”, Mr Gan said.

The MOH will also be enhancing support for community step-down care such as nursing homes and home care services. More details will be provided during the ministry’s Committee of Supply debate next month.

Last Friday, the Government continued its push to help the less well-off under measures unveiled in the Budget, with a particular focus on healthcare, which was identified as the main driver of higher social spending by Singapore over the next 10 to 15 years.

The centrepiece was the S$9 billion Pioneer Generation Package which will provide greater outpatient subsidies, Medisave top-ups and MediShield Life subsidies for seniors born in 1949 or earlier, and who became citizens before 1987. Singaporeans aged 55 and above this year who do not qualify for the Pioneer Generation Package will receive a Medisave top-up of between S$100 and S$200 a year over the next five years.

Little peace of mind with MediShield integrated plans

By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2014

THE more I look into the MediShield integrated plans (IP), the more concerned I get that by the time I'm old, frail and in need of hospital care, the insurance policy I've been paying for years in the hope of good medical coverage will let me down.

Like many people, I'm insurance-naive.

I assumed that when I signed on the dotted line for coverage by a particular plan, I would at least get the coverage the insurer had promised at the time I joined.

Yes, I know insurance premiums will go up as the cost of medical care rises. That I can live with.

What I find most disturbing is the way the insurer can decide to remove some of the coverage promised - without my explicit consent.

Isn't an insurance policy a contract between the insurer and the insured? Shouldn't both parties have to agree to changes?

I now find to my dismay that I have indeed agreed to the new terms by continuing with the policy - the contract is renewed every year when I pay my premium. Should I disagree with the new terms, I can decide not to re-contract.

But is that really an option?

Of course not.

No support, so no dialysis

Some kidney patients refuse treatment and choose to die
By Salma Khalik and Lee Jian Xuan, The Straits Times, 24 Feb 2014

EVERY year, some people choose death over dialysis when their kidneys fail.

Without dialysis to clear toxins in their body, they are unlikely to survive long.

But there are others who are forced to forgo dialysis because they cannot afford it, or because their families said no.

At the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), 24 patients suitable for dialysis declined the procedure in 2011.

Instead, they were placed under palliative care to ease their suffering as they died.

Out of this group, 10 turned down dialysis because they did not have anyone to take them for the treatment or help them with home dialysis.

Two among them wanted the treatment, but their families refused.

Another four turned down the procedure because they did not want to be a burden to their families as they were "old already".

Six rejected dialysis because it was too expensive.

The rest of the KTPH patients declined for various personal reasons, including fear of pain.

In Singapore, dialysis centres are run either by for-profit private companies, where it costs $2,500 to more than $4,000 a month, or by voluntary welfare organisations which charge highly subsidised rates.

But patients have to be means-tested to qualify for the subsidy.

Medical insurance coverage ranges from a third to full reimbursement.

Professor A. Vathsala, head of nephrology at the National University Hospital (NUH), said patients who do not undergo dialysis have a median survival of six months.

These findings appeared in the December edition of the Annals, a publication of the Academy of Medicine.

The median age of the 24 patients was 71, with the youngest at 45 years old.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

February 2014 sets record as driest month since 1869

Rain fell on just seven days; Feb also the windiest in three decades
By David Ee, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

BONE-DRY February has entered the record books as the country's driest month in nearly 150 years, and the windiest in three decades, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA).

A paltry 0.2mm of rain was recorded last month at Changi climate station.

This is the least that has fallen since 1869, and is well below the previous record of 6.3mm recorded in February 2010 and the mean February rainfall of 161mm.

Rain fell on just seven days, with about half of the NEA's 64 rainfall stations recording under 10mm of rain. Average wind speeds, meanwhile, gusted at 13.3kmh, versus the February average of 8.8kmh.

The second month of the year typically has cool, windy and drier weather, owing to the dry phase of the north-east monsoon.

Indeed, last month was also one of the least humid, the NEA said yesterday. The mean daily relative humidity of 74.5 per cent was the lowest ever, shaving the previous record of 74.6 per cent measured last June.

Humidity in Singapore usually averages between 82 and 87 per cent. But mean daily maximum temperatures edged up nearly a degree to 31.9 deg C.

National University of Singapore weather researcher Winston Chow said the extent of dryness last month was "worrying", but without more research cannot be seen as a sign of things to come.

At Changi Sailing Club, the winds were a boon for sailors but caused havoc at the Coachman Inn Restaurant. Manager Steven Lim said: "We had tablecloths blowing away, glasses breaking."

Yet diners made the most of the breeze so business went up by 30 per cent, he said.

The dry spell lasted 27 days from Jan 13 to Feb 8, making it one of the longest on record.

The NEA said the country is in a second dry spell now, defined as a period of more than 14 days with less than 1mm of rain, taking into account readings at all of its rainfall stations.

The brief showers on Monday "were not widespread enough" to break the dry spell, it said, without explaining fully.

National water agency PUB has sent 25,000 circulars asking organisations to save water.

MINDEF equips camps with more medical devices

It buys 1,900 defibrillators, on top of more than 1,000 already purchased
By Hoe Pei Shan, The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2014

THE Ministry of Defence has purchased 1,900 more automated external defibrillators (AEDs) on top of "more than 1,000" it has already bought to equip its 30 military camps.

MINDEF revealed the figures to The Straits Times yesterday after it launched a drive to install defibrillators at Singapore Armed Forces camps last June.

The new batch was bought earlier this month from Irish manufacturer HeartSine, which said in a statement: "Due to the increasing number of sudden cardiac arrest fatalities in army camps... MINDEF sought to implement a comprehensive AED programme."

Between 2007 and 2012, there were two reported fatal heart attacks involving national servicemen.In the last six months, at least two other servicemen reportedly suffered cardiac arrests. One ended up in an intensive care unit and the other died a few days after.

All 30 military camps now have the defibrillators, which help to "jump-start" the heart by evaluating its rhythm and jolting it into action with an electric current.

They have been installed in areas where physical training is conducted such as gymnasiums, swimming pools and running tracks. They are also located in busy locations like dining halls.

Since 2010, all full-time servicemen have been trained in basic life support and certified to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation and to use AEDs.

Little India Riot COI: Day 4

'We felt outnumbered by mob and in danger'
If arrests came earlier, unrest may have been quelled: Auxiliary cops
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2014

THE violence in Little India may not have spun out of control had there been more police officers on the ground making arrests earlier.

That was the opinion of two auxiliary police officers who testified on day four of the Committee of Inquiry into the Dec 8 riot.

The two officers from security firm Certis Cisco told how they felt outnumbered and in danger of being overrun by a crowd of what seemed to them like 1,000 rioters.

Constable Nathan Chandra Sekaran, 35, recounted how, armed with a baton and pistol, he and two unarmed protection officers answered a request for assistance from a fellow Certis Cisco team at about 9.20pm on Dec 8.

A similarly configured team of three officers arrived minutes later and, along with the original team, the nine officers formed a "human shield" to push back the crowd. The mob had been trying to get to Madam Wong Geck Woon, the timekeeper on a bus which had run over and killed 33-year-old Sakthivel Kumaravelu.

Some workers blamed her for his death and were already attacking the bus in an attempt to get at her, shouting that they were going to burn it.

The crowd of roughly 200 that had gathered shortly after the accident soon swelled to what Mr Nathan estimated to be 1,000.

Moonlighting 'barbers' get caught

3 foreign workers arrested for work permit violations
By Kash Cheong And Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 24 Feb 2014

FOREIGN workers who were moonlighting as barbers dropped their tools and fled when officers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and National Environment Agency (NEA) raided the Tuas area yesterday.

Three illegal barbers - two Indians and one Bangladeshi - were arrested for contravening work permit and environmental health regulations.

The barbers, who are actually construction workers, usually turned to their sideline on Sundays when they are free.

With simple tools such as scissors, combs and shavers, they set up makeshift stalls along the pavement of Tuas South Avenue 1, where fellow workers could get a haircut for just $4.

But what would have been a field day for business turned into a nightmare for them yesterday, when more than 15 MOM and NEA officers swooped in at around 12pm.

On seeing the officers, the barbers and two customers took to their heels.

But one customer, Mr Mahamud Kondoka, sat through the whole raid, wearing a barber's gown.

The 45-year-old construction worker said he did not know that such makeshift barbers were illegal.

"I come here to cut hair because it is cheap," said Mr Mahamud, who lives in a dormitory nearby.

When interviewed, the three arrested barbers said they were moonlighting to earn extra money for themselves or their families.

One of them, Mr Turuvala Viswanadham, 24, said: "I cut hair for extra money to makan (eat) or drink."

MTI warns against profiteering from hike in liquor duties

It will monitor market for unfair or coordinated price increases
By Pearl Lee, Laura Ng And Vanessa Chng

THE Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) yesterday warned businesses against profiteering from the increase in liquor duties.

MTI will work closely with the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) and the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) to "monitor the market for any unfair pricing and coordinated price hikes which are anti-competitive", it said in a statement last night.

Meanwhile, four supermarket chains have stopped bulk purchases of the alcoholic beverages at their outlets, for which they have not increased prices.

Yesterday, MTI said its statement was in response to recent media reports that said retailers might raise prices due to the rise in liquor duties. It took issue, in particular, with a comment made last Saturday by Mr Thomas Foo, chairman of Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant and Bar-Owners Association, who said the price of a bottle of beer costing around $6 might go up by $1.

Instead, MTI noted that even if the additional duty is fully passed on to consumers, the price of a typical 323ml can of beer should increase by about 20 cents, while that of a typical bottle of beer should increase by only about 40 cents at coffee shops, based on Ministry of Finance figures.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan said: "While we fully expect liquor prices to adjust as a result of the increase in excise duties, sellers should not take advantage of this to raise prices unreasonably."

MTI will work closely with CASE and CCS to "monitor the market for any unfair pricing and coordinated price hikes which are anti-competitive", he added.

"Consumers should exercise their rights to walk away from merchants pricing alcohol unreasonably," he added.

CASE president Lim Biow Chuan said: "Retailers should not take advantage of the hike in liquor duties to profit by increasing prices beyond the tax amount."

NTUC wants more tweaks to CPF contributions

Unions 'very happy' with Budget, but hope CPF rates will go up more
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2014

EVEN though the labour movement is "very happy" with the changes announced in the Budget, it hopes to see more changes to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) system, said labour chief Lim Swee Say yesterday.

Top of its wish list is a further raising of older workers' CPF contribution rates, so that they are on a par with that of younger workers.

Workers above 50 to 55 years old will see their total CPF rates rising to 35 per cent from January next year, but this is still two percentage points lower than that for workers aged 50 and under, who get contributions of 37 per cent.

"Early restoration of the remaining two percentage points... will be very helpful to workers," said Mr Lim, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general.

The labour movement also wants the current monthly salary ceiling for CPF contribution rates of $5,000 to be reviewed.

And in the longer term, CPF rates for all workers should also be reviewed, added Mr Lim.

He would not be drawn into setting targets or spelling out a time frame for these changes, saying only that the target contribution rate of 36 per cent, which was set more than 10 years ago, "may no longer be relevant".

"Union leaders are asking... maybe it is now timely for tripartite partners to sit down and look ahead to the next five, 10 years. What should the CPF contribution target be?" he asked.

Mr Lim said that while union leaders understand that CPF rates cannot be raised in a hurry, they have to go up eventually.

"The new target must be higher because of longer lifespans and greater needs for housing and health-care costs," he noted.

CPF contribution rates were last reviewed in 2003. The monthly CPF contribution ceiling was last raised in 2011, from $4,500 to $5,000.

Mr Lim's call comes three days after Budget Day, when the Government announced CPF rate hikes of between 1 and 2.5 percentage points for workers, with the bulk of the hikes going into medical and retirement needs.

In his speech, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that no further changes to the total CPF rates are expected soon.

But he also noted: "In the longer term, any further changes will have to be carefully considered by the tripartite partners, taking into account economic conditions, business costs and competitiveness."

Last week, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin also urged caution over raising CPF rates too quickly, saying that it would hurt Singapore's economic competitiveness.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Govt 'considering' lease buyback for bigger HDB flats

By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 24 Feb 2014

SENIORS living in bigger Housing Board flats may soon have the option of converting a part of the lease on their flat into cash, to allow them to age in place.

This is after National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday that the Government is considering expanding the criteria for the lease buyback scheme which is currently only for those living in three-room and smaller flats.

He was responding to questions from reporters, on the sidelines of a post-Budget forum.

Although the scheme has not been very popular, Mr Khaw said it provides more options for seniors, and that he had received many requests for four-room and five-room flats to be allowed too. "I do not regard the low take-up rate as a failure. I would just say that what it means is, people are not financially desperate to need to take advantage of those options."

He added: "The options are there for those who need it. But that doesn't mean that we will stop at three-room flats. We can always consider."

The lease buyback scheme, introduced in 2009 and enhanced last year, lets home owners sell part of their lease back to the Government for cash, but this is only for three-room and smaller flats currently.

Some 240 seniors tapped the scheme last year after the rules were relaxed, up from 471 in total between 2009 and 2012.

Mr Khaw also downplayed expectations of a big housing announcement during the Budget debate which starts next week.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Reactions to Budget 2014

Not populist by any stretch
By Siew Kum Hong, Published MyPaper, 24 Feb 2014

THIS year's Budget saw the Government continue, if not accelerate, the trend of increased social spending over the past few years. Apart from the usual measured help to address social inequity and issues like rising health-care costs, the Government also introduced the generous Pioneer Generation Package (PGP).

But almost inevitably, muttering about "vote buying" surfaced soon after the Budget speech ended. I was not surprised, but I will confess to being a little disappointed.

In the first place, this is almost certainly not an election budget. One of the most interesting things about the PGP is how it will be funded, via an $8 billion endowment funded by the Government's current surpluses.

Election budgets in Singapore are usually marked by big-ticket cash giveaways for voters, but such schemes must be funded through current surpluses. The PGP will seriously restrict this Government's ability to fund such giveaways.

And seriously, which government looking to pick up votes would take the unpopular decision to increase sin taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and gambling?

More importantly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Government introducing policies that are good for Singaporeans, even if Singaporeans like them and may become more likely to thank the ruling party at the ballot box.

There is a fine, but very crucial, difference between popular and populist policies: The motivation behind the policies.

The former are good policies that happen to be popular; the latter are policies that are made for the primary purpose of winning votes, regardless of whether they are good policies.

And the Budget announcements on Friday fall squarely into the category of good policies. Growing social inequity and the rising cost of living mean that there is a legitimate and increasing need for social spending; indeed, there is a strong argument that the increased social expenditures in recent years are merely to compensate for significant under-investment in the previous decades.

To accuse the Government of populism or vote-buying, when it makes good policy that Singaporeans also happen to like, says more about the speaker than it does about the Government.

Singaporeans can, and should, criticise the Government and hold it to account when it makes mistakes or bad policies. But not everything that the Government does is bad, erroneous or misguided. And we need to recognise that and act accordingly, if political discourse in this country is to progress and mature.

Such knee-jerk cynicism could also inadvertently make it harder for the ruling party to pursue good and popular policies in the future, if the party has to cater to its conservative base, which is known to have an ideological aversion to populism and an almost macho desire for making "hard choices", as opposed to simply the "right choices".

We must recognise that we all benefit when the government of the day, whoever it may be, makes good policies. Isn't it all the better when those are also policies that we like?

Malaysia to boost cash handouts to the poor

But critics say the $1.7b scheme drains govt coffers, creates culture of dependency
By Yong Yen Nie, The Sunday Times, 23 Feb 2014

Malaysia is increasing its annual cash handouts to lower-income groups over the next few years under a scheme that the government says will help them cope with higher costs of living, but which is panned by critics as one that will drain government coffers and raise a culture of dependency.

The People's Aid 1Malaysia scheme, known by its Malay acronym BR1M, will cost the government RM4.6 billion (S$1.7 billion) to help 7.9 million people this year.

This year's one-off payout ranges from RM250 to RM650 per person or per household - depending on income.

The recipients include singles earning less than RM2,000 a month and households with monthly incomes below RM4,000.

The payout will be raised progressively to RM1,200 a year per eligible household by 2019, Prime Minister Najib Razak said.

He also said the blanket subsidy system of the past had benefited the rich more. For example, those driving big cars get more of the fuel subsidy every time they fill up their tanks, compared to the poor who use small cars.

"People driving big cars get RM2,400 (annual) subsidy, while those driving small cars get only RM900. Is that fair?" he asked 3,000 BR1M recipients at a ceremony yesterday.

"The government will change the policy on subsidy, which is from bulk subsidy to targeted subsidy to ensure that the implementation of the subsidy is fair," he said.

Weighing the cost of Jakarta's MRT system

By John Mcbeth, The Straits Times, 22 Feb 2014

MANY of the stately trees that once lined Jalan Sudirman, Jakarta's busy main thoroughfare, disappeared so quietly in recent weeks that it is clear workers used the early morning hours to commit environmental carnage.

Sadly, it is the necessary price the City of Tough Love has had to pay for the building of a new mass rail transit (MRT) system, the single biggest infrastructure project in the now-traffic-clogged metropolis in its 400-year history.

Starting with an initial over-and-under 27km corridor stretching from the southern suburb of Lebak Bulus to North Jakarta's historic Kota district, the MRT network will eventually cover 108km when it is completed in 2030.

It is long overdue. Jakarta is the largest city in the Asian region that still does not have a modern rail-based people-mover. Transportation experts are predicting total gridlock by 2020 unless it can get commuters out of their cars and onto public transport.

Health, wellness and financial schemes for cabbies

The National Taxi Association (NTA) thanks Mr Robert Lim for his many useful suggestions ("Offer free health screening, awards and perks to improve cabbies' welfare"; last Sunday). We will study them carefully as part of our feedback process.

We have about 180 full-time taxi drivers who volunteer their time as elected representatives to help members with workplace grievances and organise events.

Through regular engagements with taxi drivers on platforms like our coffee-shop talk sessions and focus group discussions, the NTA gathers feedback on the issues and worries they face.

As drivers ourselves, we empathise with the concerns affecting cabbies' daily living.

Some of the recent issues raised by the NTA include the call to review the taxi industry holistically, relaxation of Central Business District rules, the Electronic Road Pricing discount pass, fare and rental review, and further tweaking of taxi availability indicators.

One area of focus is the cabbies' health and wellness.

Being self-employed, we need to save up for our medical needs. Thus, it was a breakthrough when the NTA managed to get taxi operators on board the Drive And Save scheme in 2011, by co-contributing to cabbies' Medisave accounts.

The NTA also partners Parkway Shenton, Raffles Medical, NTUC Unity Healthcare and Q&M Dental to offer affordable medical treatment and services to our members and their families.

To keep our members fit and healthy, sporting and wellness programmes like bowling, badminton and brisk walking are organised regularly.

Through our collaboration with various local attractions, such as the Science Centre, Wild Wild Wet and Resorts World Sentosa, our members are offered discounted rates to enjoy the facilities with their families.

Also, to help relieve cabbies' worries relating to rising school expenses for their children, 3,100 eligible members and their children receive about $580,000 worth of financial assistance through U Care Back to School vouchers and U-Stretch vouchers annually.

There is still a lot more we can do, and we hope to continue doing so for our members. We look forward to working with all our partners and key stakeholders to bring about positive changes to the lives of our cabbies.

Gerald Chan
National Taxi Association
ST Forum, 23 Feb 2014