Sunday, 15 March 2015

Parliament Highlights - 13 Mar 2015

Parliament approves record $79.9b Budget 2015
Govt made deep changes to prepare S'pore for challenges: Ng Eng Hen
By Tham Yuen-c, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

PARLIAMENT yesterday approved a record $79.9 billion Budget, with the Leader of the House, Dr Ng Eng Hen, as well as Speaker Halimah Yacob lauding it as one that will bring Singapore closer to its vision of a fair and inclusive society.

With this Budget, and the three before it, the Government has "surely and steadily" made the deep structural changes needed to prepare Singapore for the challenges ahead, said Dr Ng, who is also Defence Minister.

As he wrapped up nine days of discussions on the Government's spending plans and policies, he said the initiatives introduced in the past four years have strengthened social safety nets and redistributed more wealth to the lower- and middle-income groups.

"This represents a fundamental shift... so that we can maintain our precious social compact and bring opportunities and benefits to all," he added.

Likening Singapore to a fleet of cars and trucks speeding towards growth in the fast lane, he said it was as if coaches had been added in the slower lane to bring along the elderly, disadvantaged and less able.

"The entire fleet must arrive at our destination," he said.

Madam Halimah, who presided over the debate, welcomed the greater stability, security and peace of mind that this would bring Singaporeans.

People would be more willing to embrace the change that economic restructuring will bring "if there is a safety net to catch them if they fall", she said.

Also noting how the shift had sparked an ideological debate, she warned that policies should be determined by how much benefit they bring, and not by what ideological position they conform to.

The Budget had garnered unanimous support, they both said, with the ruling party's Members of Parliament, opposition MPs and Nominated MPs alike backing it.

But the MPs had also raised concerns about whether the Government can afford the spending, added Madam Halimah.

Dr Ng said these MPs "showed good judgment and honesty because it would have been so much easier and populist not to sound these warnings".

He added that whether or not the spending is sustainable will depend on whether Singaporeans can work together to make sure the country continues to thrive.

The Budget, for government spending from April 1, is $11 billion more than last year's.

During their speeches, both Dr Ng and Madam Halimah also praised the performance of the nine Nominated MPs who were sworn in last September.

Dr Ng said they had "added substance and style" with their "passionate and stirring speeches" at their Budget debut.

Madam Halimah said she was also proud to have in lawyer Chia Yong Yong - who has peroneal muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair - an NMP representing the special needs community.

Adding that it is a first, she said: "I am glad our Parliament is truly inclusive and no disability or impairment is an impediment to any Singaporean who wants to contribute and has the people's welfare at heart."

Over the nine days of debate, MPs spoke about the new SkillsFuture scheme that will help people master skills throughout their working lives, stimulating productivity and the need to retain Singapore's historical and cultural traits, including hawker food.

Dr Ng said these topics differed from those in previous Budget debates, as the Government had successfully addressed the past issues such as help for the poor, the old and the lower-skilled, and the influx of foreign workers.

In all, 54 MPs spoke on the Budget statement, while 65 MPs spoke during the debate on the individual ministries' budgets.

Wrapping up, Madam Halimah said the work was not over. "The end of this Budget debate is but the beginning of more concerted efforts to reach out to Singaporeans on these policies."

Committee of Supply DebateMinistry of Social and Family Development

More pre-schools with lower fees in the pipeline
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

PARENTS have been promised more pre-schools with lower fees and better quality, under a new scheme that will subsidise such centres.

The Partner Operator (POP) scheme will require participating childcare centres to cut fees - which must be capped at about $800 a month for full-day childcare - and attain government certification for quality.

In return, they will get government funding totalling about $250 million over five years. The median fee is now $900 a month.

The scheme also aims to encourage small operators to band together and share resources.

While having a variety of learning models is good as children learn differently, a pre-school sector that is too fragmented "does us no good", Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said during the debate on his ministry's budget in Parliament yesterday.

He asked: "Does it make sense for us to have more than 600 sets of curriculum requiring so many teams so much time to develop?"

He also announced other initiatives to improve the pre-school sector, including a plan to set up larger centres to meet the high demand for childcare, and a professional development programme.

All POPs are expected to reduce fees, even if their current fees are below $800, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) told The Straits Times.

The POP scheme will complement an existing scheme for anchor operators (AOPs). These larger players get priority in securing Housing Board sites for centres, and cap fees at $720 a month.

Non-AOPs that offer at least 300 childcare places each or as a group can apply to join the POP scheme by April 10. ECDA is expected to appoint POPs by the end of the year.

Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong asked Mr Chan if for-profit operators could apply. Mr Chan said they would have to "convince" the authorities they are not using public funds to increase profits.

"I am committed to help operators who put the social mission of caring for our children first... I want to make sure that services are affordable for the families, quality is assured and teachers are paid well, but it will not be my remit to help private operators make profits," he said.

Administration executive Lynnette Loong, 35, hopes her five- year-old son's pre-school will join the scheme, so she can pay less than the current $855 a month."We also have an infant and may have a third child, so all the childcare fees could become quite costly," she said.

Jumbo childcare centres for estates with many young families
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

COMING to housing estates with many young families: Jumbo childcare centres that can each take in 300 to 500 children.

The Government is helping anchor operators (AOPs) to develop bigger childcare centres, providing 2,400 more places over the next few years.

This is to help young families living in areas with high demand for childcare, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said in the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday.

The plan to add 2,400 places goes beyond the original goal of adding 20,000 childcare places between 2013 and 2017 - a target that will be met ahead of schedule. Some 17,000 places have been added so far.

The five appointed AOPs, including NTUC My First Skool, currently get government grants and priority in securing Housing Board sites to set up centres, but they have to keep fees below $720 a month, among other things.

They will get funding help and will be allocated the sites to build the bigger centres. A centre in a HDB void deck can usually admit only about 100 children.

The Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) will give details about the locations of these new large centres later this year.

Mr Chan also announced other initiatives to improve the quality of the pre-school sector.

A three-year Professional Development Programme will be introduced to help pre-school staff develop their careers. ECDA will offer new certifiable courses and cash incentives.

Starting next year, this is for staff who have about three years of experience and are identified by their employers as having the potential to take on bigger job roles.

Childcare centres and kindergartens, which are now regulated under different Acts, will be licensed under a new Early Childhood Development Centres Act.

ECDA will also get more regulatory powers, raising the quality of pre-schools, Mr Chan said.

"Parents will have greater assurance of the standards... Operators will similarly benefit from having a clearer and more consistent requirement, regardless of the type of early childhood services that they provide," he said.

The new Act is expected to be introduced in the second half of the year.

Acting for loved one to be simplified
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

SINGAPORE is going to make it less costly and less tedious for family members of a person with, say, dementia to get the legal right to make financial and other decisions for the individual.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing made this pledge in Parliament yesterday, saying his ministry will work with the courts to simplify the process for people to become deputies, who can act on behalf of the mentally incapacitated.

He said: "Today, families need to go to a court to get an order, and it can be a laborious and expensive process."

The cost can be as much as $5,000 as this would involve engaging doctors and lawyers.

A court application to appoint a deputy is needed when those who have lost their mental faculties did not grant Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) to someone earlier. Deputies have the legal power to make financial decisions, such as the selling of properties or operating of bank accounts, and other care arrangements for a mentally incapacitated person.

This move follows an earlier one last year to make applying for an LPA simpler and cheaper.

Mr Chan announced this planned effort when he told the House that the Mental Capacity Act will be amended to streamline and improve operations of the Office of the Public Guardian, which administers the Act and maintains a register of LPAs.

The amendment is due to take place by the end of this year, when a new law, the Vulnerable Adults Act, will be introduced to protect people abused by family members and adults who cannot protect themselves from harm, owing to mental or physical incapacity or disability.

It will arm social service workers with powers to enter a suspected victim's home to assess the situation and remove him to safety, if necessary. Now, they have no powers to intervene.

Mr Chan said these changes are part of a strategy to prepare for an ageing population. "The rate of elderly (people) being abused has been stable over the last few years, but because the number of elderly among us is growing, we must eventually expect that there will be more such cases in time to come," he said.

By 2030, Singapore will have about 900,000 seniors. A recent Institute of Mental Health study found 10 per cent of those aged 60 and older have dementia.

Ms Grace Lin, centre director of Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities, said the changes are crucial. "With an ageing population and shrinking family sizes, such support is important for us in making informed end-of-life decisions to get the care we need."

$4m in grants to improve transport services for the disabled
Three operators will work together on this, liaising with VWOs on details
By Kok Xing Hui And Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

PERSONS with disabilities can look forward to more kerb-to- kerb transport from their homes to community care centres or to special education schools, with $4 million in grants to three transport operators.

The operators are expected to work together to provide transport services, and liaise with voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) on operational details such as the routes and timings.

Currently, VWOs either provide their own in-house transport services or engage transport operators for their clients. However, there is a limited choice of transport providers who are willing to take up these jobs and have the capacity to do so, said the MSF.

"This is partly due to the special attention and care that persons with disabilities require during the journey," said an MSF spokesman.

The grant will help transport operators serve their passengers with greater efficiency. They have also committed to keeping fares affordable. The three operators are the Handicaps Welfare Association, EK Ang Trading and Transport, and Silveray. They were selected for their knowledge of working with people with disabilities, service standards, training and safety standards, as well as their proposed fees.

The ministry will also add 140 more places for adults with disabilities at day activity centres this year. This will bring the total number to almost 1,200 spots. Currently, there are 21 such centres.

Adults with autism will also get a new day activity centre tailored for them this year, and a new home for adults with disabilities will be built by 2018.

She gave an update on the headway made in employment for people with disabilities, saying about 300 were placed in jobs this financial year by SG Enable - an agency that serves people with disabilities - and VWOs.

Last year, more than 5,900 employers received the Special Employment Credit - of up to 16 per cent of monthly incomes - for jobs provided to 7,500 people with disabilities.

Ms Low singled out Ms Annabelle Wong, 21, as an example of how training can give such workers more job options, thus making them a part of the community.

Ms Wong, who is intellectually disabled, secured a job as a crew member at Pizza Hut last year, after getting help from a job coach at SG Enable. She started out cleaning tables, and now attends to customer requests, while also being trained to take orders.

"I like meeting customers and my supervisor gives me a lot of encouragement and support... I am happy now as I can earn an income and I'm also less shy," she told The Straits Times.

More help soon for children with special needs
By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

PARENTS of young children with special needs will soon have more tools and services to help them with their child's development.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) is reviewing existing early intervention services, and intends to roll out a wider range of services by the second half of the year.

"However, our professional manpower is still lacking, and we cannot just replicate and scale up the current model," he added.

A new model will be developed instead. "This new model will involve a common assessment tool, a common tracking tool, a better system to allow those with low to moderate needs to be supported by the up-skilled learning support educators, who are preserving the professionals for those with moderate to high needs," he said.

MSF also said it will improve its hiring and retention of therapists, special needs teachers and learning support educators.

Currently, the Early Intervention Programme for Infant and Children (EIPIC) helps those at risk of developing moderate to severe disabilities, while the Development Support Programme has helped 2,000 preschool children with mild developmental delays.

Last year, 2,200 children benefited from EIPIC - almost double the 1,200 five years ago. MSF aims to provide 3,200 EIPIC places by 2018. Based on 2010 estimates, there are about 7,000 preschool children with special needs.

Said Mr Chan: "The earlier we can help our children with special needs, the better their chances of leading a fulfilling life, just like any other normal Singaporean."

Pay rise in social services to woo talent
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

SOCIAL workers and other social service professionals such as psychologists and therapists can expect a pay rise of 3 to 19 per cent this year - a move to attract people to these jobs and retain them.

Separately, $6 million a year will be used to help charities strengthen their governance and corporate functions including finance and human resource as they expand and serve more people.

This new Corporate Development Funding scheme will start in July. Each eligible charity will get $150,000 to $300,000 a year to hire three to five experienced corporate staff members.

Social service fellowships will also be offered later in the year for top professionals, including early-intervention teachers and counsellors, to mentor others and set standards for the sector.

These moves, which Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing announced in Parliament yesterday, are aimed at helping the labour-tight sector meet rising demand for social services as the Government steps up aid to the vulnerable.

On pay for social service professionals, he said: "We are seeing signs of improvement but... progress is not even in the sector. This year, we will once again revise the salary for social service professionals for them to be closer to the market benchmark."

Social workers' pay was last raised across the board in 2012, by up to 15 per cent. That year, they saw a median salary increase of 8 per cent, said Mr Chan.

Even so, their pay still lags behind that of their peers in sectors such as health and education.

Under MSF guidelines in 2012, the recommended salary for a social worker fresh out of university was $2,760. The figure for a fresh graduate is now $3,040 - closer to the $3,200 median pay for all new graduates last year.

Low pay and the lack of a structured career pathway have resulted in a high resignation rate in the sector over the years.

The sector, which has about 1,400 accredited professionals, experiences an annual shortfall of around 130 social workers.

Former human resource and operations executive Tan Shi Hua, 28, said she took a pay cut of nearly $1,000 when she joined Fei Yue Family Centre as a social work associate two years ago.

She said: "I wanted to do more meaningful work, but pay was a concern that deterred my peers from other sectors from joining."

Those in the sector say one reason for the low pay is lack of awareness about the professional work scope of social work practitioners or the skills needed. Some bosses might be reluctant to pay competitive wages for staff they see as just full-time volunteers.

To boost workers' professionalism, the new fellowships will spur top workers to help raise standards. They will be appointed for a three-year term, and given an allowance to guide younger staff and devise professional development programmes.

Said senior assistant director Rachel Lee of Fei Yue Family Service Centres: "Once there is assurance of professionalism, workers can be paid fairly. This in turn will attract good people, who will boost the quality of services and raise the image of the sector."

Charities can share pool of specialists
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

THE labour-tight helping profession is turning to the bicycle for inspiration on how to be lean and efficient.

The authorities hope to utilise the "hub-and-spoke" model - inspired by a bicycle wheel - by having a central pool of specialists who will then be deployed to different charities for short stints.

For this purpose, a new Community Psychology Hub will be set up in disability services agency, SG Enable, at Redhill Road in the second half of the year.

"This will allow us to pool the services provided by the finite professional pool and allow our professionals to have better career pathways," said Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF) Chan Chun Sing in Parliament yesterday.

The new hub will attract, develop and deploy psychologists to Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWO) that need them.

This is meant to help small charities which may not have the means and economies of scale to hire, train and ensure adequate career pathways for specialists.

MSF will set aside $8 million over the next three years to support this hub.

While such a hub for psychologists is new, there are two existing hubs run by Thye Hua Kwan and SPD for therapists.

MSF will expand the work of these two hubs and appoint a third by year end to meet the growing demand for therapy services, said Mr Chan yesterday.

The target is to increase the number of funded therapists at the hubs to 125 in two year's time, up from 42 now, with $7 million a year committed for this.

Beyond consolidating resources, there needs to be a central body to coordinate services so that social services reach the people who need them, said Mr Chan.

He envisioned a many "helping hands" approach like "the thousand-arm bodhisattva", where residents and VWOs work alongside the authorities to help the needy.

A network of Social Service Offices, which administers financial aid and runs local programmes, currently does this coordinating work, he said. But its work will be made much easier when an integrated database is rolled out later this year, he added.

Similar to the electronic health system, which allows doctors to call up a patient's records no matter where the patient is treated, such a database would enable social workers to access the case histories of clients.

This mean beneficiaries no longer need to repeat their stories or re-submit documents when they go to a new agency for help.

Said Mr Chan: "I am confident that we will achieve the vision of each client having just one record and the sector working on one system... so that be it a hundred or a thousand hands, they are all coordinated and working closely together."

More sessions to help children, parents
Divorce support agencies to advise couples splitting up on key issues
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

COUPLES who are divorcing and have young children, but cannot agree on all matters of the break-up, will have to attend consultation sessions in a bid to better safeguard the well-being of their children.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has appointed four Divorce Support Specialist Agencies, which will run a mandatory parenting session for such parents, Parliamentary Secretary Low Yen Ling told the House.

She was speaking during the debate on her ministry's budget.

"Children are often caught in between their parents when a divorce takes place. It can be a very traumatic experience for them," Ms Low said.

The session will cover issues like the impact of divorce and parental conflicts on children, as well as financial and housing implications, which may affect a child's well-being, she added.

As for the children, MSF is also working with the agencies to introduce a new programme to help affected children learn coping strategies when they get caught between their parents' conflicts.

Three of the agencies are the Care Corner Centre for Co-Parenting in Toa Payoh, the Centre for Family Harmony in Aljunied and the HELP Family Service Centre in Ang Mo Kio. The fourth, the PPIS As-Salaam Family Support Centre in Geylang, caters to Muslim parents.

The setting up of the centres was recommended last year by the Committee for Family Justice, set up in 2013 to improve the way family disputes are managed.

Muslim couples looking to split up already have to attend a mandatory counselling programme under the Syariah Court.

Ms Low also said MSF will enhance support for marriages as well as for parenting.

Couples about to get married can attend a new lunch-time marriage preparation talk at the Registry of Marriages to learn how they can communicate and better manage each other's expectations. They can also attend a new workshop from May.

More support is also on the way for parents to help them understand their children better and get the support they might need.

More than 1,100 parents from 20 primary and secondary schools have attended two new parenting programmes, which will be extended to 30 more schools this year.

"The family as an institution is fundamental to Singapore," said Ms Low.

"MSF pledges to support families throughout their journey, because families form the basis of our strong and cohesive society."

Best support given to all children: Chun Sing
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

THE call to give unwed mothers the same benefits as married mums is valid.

But so is the national policy that supports parenthood in the context of marriage.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing highlighted the delicate task of balancing these requests yesterday in his reply to Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC).

Mr Seah had asked for unwed mothers to be given the same maternity leave and childcare benefits as married mums.

But there is yet another call, Mr Chan said - giving the best support for all Singaporean children regardless of their parentage.

And it is this last area that has got much of the support.

He said: "The bulk of all our support focuses on the child at the centre, because we believe that the child is innocent and should be given the best support possible.

"The best thing and the most important thing that we must do for the child is to provide education opportunities, good healthcare, good social environment for them to be brought up to fulfil his talent as much as possible."

Currently, unwed mothers get eight weeks of paid maternity leave, instead of the 16 weeks that married mums receive.

They also do not get such perks as the Baby Bonus cash gift and parenthood tax rebates.

But their struggles are not unfamiliar to Mr Chan, who was raised by his single mother.

"The journey is not easy and often goes beyond providing sufficient monetary benefits and incentives," he said.

Noting that some countries have decided to forgo support for parents within the context of marriage, he asked how Singapore is to "moderate the gradient" between supporting unwed mothers and married parents.

Acknowledging that the policies may shift as society evolves, Mr Chan said that the current aim of giving social support for all "gives our children the best chance".

Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Low Yen Ling said earlier in the day that single parents who face financial difficulties can turn to measures like ComCare aid and student care assistance.

Earlier this week, Ms Grace Fu, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, said that while unmarried single parents cannot receive benefits that encourage marriage, they can tap others that help them care for their children, such as Medisave grants as well as childcare and infantcare subsidies.

Ms Low also addressed Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam's suggestion to have baby drops for distressed mothers to leave their unwanted babies.

Countries with such services have reported mixed results, Ms Low said, with some experiencing the "downside of encouraging baby abandonment".

In Singapore, these mothers can turn to hotlines, counselling and residential services for help to carry their pregnancy to full term, she added.

Over 3,200 families on HOPE scheme since 2004
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

MORE than 3,200 households have been placed on a scheme that gives them financial aid to keep their families small since its introduction in 2004.

About four in 10 of families on the Home Ownership Plus Education scheme (HOPE) have seen an increase in their household income, and the employment rate of the mothers has doubled from 30 per cent to 60 per cent, Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Low Yen Ling said in Parliament yesterday.

This is because low-income families get generous subsidies - $60,000 in housing grants, a $1,000 utilities grant and up to $16,000 in training and employment incentives - if they keep to having two children and fewer.

Over the years, members of the public and MPs have raised concerns that needy mothers face the temptation of aborting their third child to remain on the scheme.

"I believe that a good policy is one that carries moral weight, but not one that places a difficult moral burden on those that it seeks to help," said Mr Yam, citing the case of his resident, who is considering aborting her third child so she can still receive the subsidies.

"How many children have we potentially lost? How can we better improve this scheme that was set up to provide hope, not take it away?" he said.

Responding, Ms Low said couples who decide to have a third child can withdraw from the scheme at any time and tap other assistance schemes instead.

"They will continue to be eligible for additional pre-school and studentcare subsidies, as well as other forms of social assistance, depending on their needs. They are also eligible for the Baby Bonus scheme," she said.

Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing also assured MPs that should a couple need to withdraw because of a third child, the benefits given will not be taken back and there will be no penalties. "The aim of the scheme is to encourage low-income families to better plan for the future... and if they cannot stay on the scheme, we will transit them to other help schemes."

Coordinating the 'many helping hands'

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing on the term "Many Helping Hands", which refers to the State working with different groups in the community to help the poor and vulnerable:

"When I first came on board, some of you told me that the term was almost a bad word. It was as if the Government washed its hands of (the task), or didn't want to do anything... I want the 'Many Helping Hands' approach to be like the thousand-arm Bodhisattva, or the Qian Shou Guan Yin (Thousand-arm Goddess of Mercy).

We can have many hands, but we must have a body and a central nervous system to coordinate the helping hands. We must also be close to the ground and be able to listen to and discern the needs of the people on the ground...

This is the reason we have set up the SSO (social service office) network. Going forward, it will also act as a nerve system to help coordinate case management.

It will coordinate not just the work between the different voluntary welfare organisations, but also the back-end support by the different ministries and agencies, so that a family who needs help need only access one point of contact...

So I do not, and will not, and never want to hear that our 'Many Helping Hands' approach is not coordinated at all.

In fact, I always aspire to the image of the thousand-arm Buddha where he's compassionate, reaches the ground and hears the cries of help from all those around.

We may never reach that level but we must strive so that the hands - be it a hundred hands, thousand hands - are all coordinated, all working closely together, all with their ears to the ground to meet the needs of our fellow Singaporeans."

Little fanfare, but debate should be cheered as a success
By Fiona Chan, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

AFTER a much-lauded Budget speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam last month, the nine days of debate that followed on the Government's spending plans were almost anti-climatic.

Indeed, the 2015 Budget was passed in Parliament yesterday "without much fanfare", as Leader of the House and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in a Facebook post after wrapping up the debate in Parliament.

Government and opposition MPs, elected and nominated ones alike, were united in their approval of what Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob described at the debate's closing as a Budget that "has indeed lived up to its name of being a Jubilee Budget to prepare us for the future and to build a fair and inclusive society".

Far from being an indictment on the proceedings, the absence of fractiousness should be seen as an accomplishment, for a few reasons.

First, it represents a rare departure from the "acrimony" in other countries, where every call on an already stretched purse is bitterly fought over, as Dr Ng put it.

"We are among the very few countries that can not only increase our social spending but also set aside sums for the future," he added, pointing to forward-looking plans like the expansion of Changi Airport.

Singapore's fiscal prudence, and the largesse it has allowed, is already well known.

But the uniqueness of the Republic's financial strength - which makes its Budget trade-offs each year less contentious than those of other countries - bears repeating especially in the context of the higher future spending that several MPs expressed concern about over the past two weeks.

Ensuring the sustainability of Singapore's finances will require toeing a line not too far "left" as to slip into overspending, as Nominated MP (NMP) Chia Yong Yong warned, nor too far "right" such that not enough is done for the needy, as NMP K. Karthikeyan cautioned.

Singaporeans must also not take for granted the economic growth and prosperity that makes it possible for the country to balance its Budget, a point that Dr Ng made yesterday.

The second reason why the relative congeniality of this year's debates is a triumph is that it shows the Government's progress in answering cries for more help since the 2011 General Election.

State intervention has brought down housing and transport costs since 2013, while worries over the cost of living have been alleviated with unprecedented - even, previously, unthinkable - initiatives such as MediShield Life, the Pioneer Generation Package and Silver Support Scheme.

Given this flurry of activity, it is unsurprising that "fewer MPs asked this year if the Government was doing enough for the poor, for older Singaporeans and lower- skilled workers", said Dr Ng. He noted that concerns over healthcare and foreign workers also fell.

Indeed, the tone that ran throughout the whole Budget debate was one of having completed much of the heavy lifting as laid out in the strategic directions set by the current leadership.

Plans have been made to plug gaps in bread-and-butter issues - including adding more public transport options, childcare places and hospital beds; raising wages and support for those who need a hand; and making the Central Provident Fund system more flexible - though the implementation will still take years in some cases.

The Government has also delivered on its promise of a better social compact with stronger safety nets, which Madam Halimah noted would enable Singaporeans to better embrace the changes that will be inevitable as the economy matures and the population ages.

Of course, policymaking and budgeting are eternal works in progress. And in this SG50 year, the various ministries not only caught up with the public's demands but also looked to future challenges and crafted new visions.

During the debate over his ministry's budget yesterday, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing talked about legislation for vulnerable adults, ahead of an expected rise in elderly abuse.

Earlier in the week, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat outlined an ambitious mission to prioritise lifelong learning and skills over short-term studying and grades, while Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin spoke of maximising each Singaporean's potential by levelling the playing field in working life through initiatives such as SkillsFuture.

The scheme, which will give all adult Singaporeans $500 in credits for training courses, was one of the most discussed over the past nine days - a sign of the excitement it has brought to workers seeking a better future.

Without much to gripe about over bread-and-butter issues, many MPs focused their speeches on higher-order concerns such as Singapore's "soul". They wanted to know how Singaporeans could be prouder of their history, more self-aware, and more caring.

Ministers responded with new programmes to boost heritage research and involve the community more in anti-littering drives, among other things.

"All these calls represented earnest aspirations for a better Singapore and much work remains to be done," Dr Ng said yesterday.

It may not have been the most electrifying Budget debate, but it was a mature and balanced one befitting Singapore's move into middle age. And it belied the excitement that lies ahead, now that the ground has been laid for a more resilient and liveable country.

To paraphrase a quote from Mr Chan, the Golden Jubilee Budget sets the scene "not just to celebrate SG50 this year, but to celebrate SG100 in time to come".

Bring on the next 50 years. Singapore has much to look forward to.

Two Bills to enable acquisition of underground space passed
By Cheryl Ong, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

THE way has been paved for the acquisition of underground space in the Government's move to develop a subterranean master plan.

Under two Bills passed into law yesterday, landholders have ownership rights to space 30m below a level known as the Singapore height datum - a flat islandwide plane not varying according to land contours and pegged to the mean historical sea level.

Space beneath that will belong to the State.

Compensation will also be given to landowners, should the Government occupy their land temporarily - typically up to three years - for public works.

Taking the House through the Bills, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said that the Government will have the powers and "flexibility" to develop public projects that require only a specific stratum of space, without acquiring the site.

Some MPs supported the Bills but still raised issues, including the valuation of underground space and how compensation should be applied.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) questioned professionals' ability to value subterranean space.

Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong asked if the Government would assist landowners whose businesses have suffered from temporary occupation of their land. He was also concerned that any request for the Government to acquire the site, in the event of a substantial impairment, would be irrevocable even if the offer is below a "fair value".

Replying, Ms Indranee said that there are "existing methodologies" that have been used to value underground space, as in the case of the Ion Orchard shopping mall.

As for business losses, other factors such as a loss of goodwill and an economic downturn could be factors. "So, it's a very difficult set of factors to assess business loss and loss of goodwill."

Finally, she said people could "play fast and loose" if a request to buy temporarily-occupied land were not irrevocable.

Ms Indranee said: "The intention behind the Act is to really assist somebody who... has found that the whole of his land is substantially impaired and he cannot use it for more than a year... There is an established set of principles which will allow the appeals board to determine what is the market value of the land."

Ban on sale of police items worries retailers
By Isaac Neo, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

SHOPKEEPERS at the Beach Road Army Market are worried about a drop in business once they can no longer sell uniforms and other items, such as badges, carrying police insignia.

Anyone found guilty can be fined up to $10,000 and/or sent to jail for up to three years.

A Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman told The Straits Times that it was looking to implement the ban by  the middle of this year.

That is when retailers will have to stop selling police items, even if they still have them in stock.

The items will be available for purchase only in police camps.

The Beach Road Army Market is famous for shops that sell army, police and Singapore Civil Defence Force gear, as well as camping equipment.

Madam Guan Ying, a tenant The Straits Times spoke to yesterday, said that she still had a "few thousand shirts" left in stock.

"How do they expect us to sell all in time?" said the 65-year-old, adding that police officers have been visiting the retailers over the past few months to remind them not to bring in new stock.

Mr John Low, 40, is worried about losing part of his clientele: national servicemen in the police force who book out on weekends.

"The most important issue is our livelihood. How is the Government going to help? Will they pay for the cost of the shirts?" he said.

Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked if retailers could be given time to sell off their stock to police NSmen.

"There are retailers who are stuck with stocks of these products, and they are unsure of what they should do to avoid committing an offence once this Bill is passed," he said. "Could an interim period be given to sell off this stock to full-time national servicemen, provided they provide proof of their identity?"

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also Minister for Home Affairs, said police have been engaging retailers since late last year, and will continue to do so in the coming months.

"The retailers said that the early notice has been helpful, as they would stop bringing in new stock and take the next few months to clear existing stock. So they have had some time," he said.

He also explained that the rationale behind the move was to protect the public. "Police logos, insignia and uniforms, if misused, may result in serious consequences, given the considerable powers vested with the police."

President approves 2015 Budget
The Straits Times, 19 Mar 2015

PRESIDENT Tony Tan Keng Yam has approved the Government's Budget for this financial year, which begins on April 1.

Dr Tan said in a Facebook post yesterday that the Council of Presidential Advisers had considered the proposed Budget and recommended he gives his assent on the basis that the Budget is unlikely to draw on past reserves.

Dr Tan said he and the council had also been given a detailed briefing by the Finance Ministry.

The President can veto Budgets that are likely to dip into accumulated reserves.

Dr Tan's assent paves the way for the ministries and other agencies to meet their estimated spending for the financial year ending on March 31, 2016.

The spending plans were approved in Parliament last Friday, after MPs spent nine days scrutinising the budgets of the Government and the ministries.

Dr Tan wrote: "This is a Budget that invests in Singapore's future. The Budget includes considerable development spending on healthcare and transport, and measures to push on with the restructuring of our economy."

He added: "The Government also introduced new programmes that would address the long-term needs of our people."

The plans and programmes will raise spending by about 1 per cent of gross domestic product.

The Government can draw up to $76.9 billion from the Consolidated Fund and up to $30.8 billion from the Development Fund.

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