Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Parliament Highlights - 11 May 2015

Warning over private housing glut in Johor
S'porean investors could be hit if property prices fall: Lawrence Wong
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

THE nearly 336,000 private residential properties in the pipeline in Johor state are more than all the private homes currently standing in Singapore.

Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) board member Lawrence Wong gave this perspective in Parliament yesterday when he warned that a glut of private residences in Johor could cause a fall in property values.

Most of these residences are in the Iskandar development zone of southern Johor where many Singaporeans have invested in such properties.

In contrast, latest official figures show Singapore has 327,811 private homes. There are another 83,642 in the pipeline, including executive condominiums.

But some Singaporeans are becoming more cautious, said Mr Wong, who is also Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.

The number of Malaysian properties bought through real estate agencies in Singapore fell from 2,609 in 2013 to 838 last year.

But not everyone recognises the risks of buying property abroad, said Mr Wong, who was speaking on behalf of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the minister in charge of MAS.

Mr Wong said MAS and the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA) will step up efforts to help investors better understand risks in investing in overseas propertyand how to do due diligence.

For example, CEA has issued guidelines on what these investors should look out for. These include rules or restrictions on purchases and ownership of foreign property, and dispute-resolution avenues available.

Prompted by the recent flurry of advertisements on foreign property, the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore said last week that it would implement new guidelines for property investment ads by the year end.

On the same day, the Consumers Association of Singapore warned local buyers of the risk in buying foreign properties.

In Parliament yesterday, Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) asked about the number of Singaporeans who invested in Iskandar properties and the ways that Singapore's banks safeguard themselves against major defaults in property loans by these buyers.

Mr Wong replied that Singapore's banking system does not have a large exposure to such property loans. Overseas property loans form only 2 per cent of the housing loan portfolios of key mortgage lenders in Singapore.

Under the tighter loan rules known as the Total Debt Servicing Ratio framework, lenders must also assess customers' ability to repay their debts when they apply for new property loans.

This applies whether the property is in Singapore or overseas. The assessment must take into account all existing debt, including that for the overseas property.

Mr Wong said: "MAS' stress tests on banks' housing loan portfolios indicate the banks will remain sound even under stressed conditions."

Ms Lee asked if the additional buyer's stamp duty on property purchases in Singapore would be lifted, adding that it has led Singaporeans to put money in overseas properties.

Mr Wong said Singapore's property cooling measures should be looked at separately.

They were introduced to prevent a property bubble emerging amid global conditions such as low interest rates and high liquidity.

Experts advise against flipping of Iskandar property
By Marissa Lee, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

SPECULATORS have dominated Johor's Iskandar housing market in the last few years but a slowdown since the middle of last year amid a surging supply is putting the squeeze on them, consultants said.

They have advised Singaporeans to buy homes there only if they plan to occupy them as gains from house flipping will be hard to realise with so much new stock putting pressure on values.

"In 2012 and 2013, it was a free-for-all and speculation was rife. Even Singaporeans were coming in, buying blindly, and that encouraged developers to launch bigger numbers of units," said Mr V. Sivadas, executive director of PA International Property Consultants.

But Malaysian government cooling measures and stricter bank lending have led to a slowdown in transactions.

Stiff competition among property firms also poses the risk that first-time developers could abandon their projects, said Mr Sivadas.

The high-rise residential sub-market is particularly risky, with oversupply looming strongest there. In Parliament yesterday, Monetary Authority of Singapore board member Lawrence Wong expressed concern that 335,838 private residential units are in the pipeline in Johor state, more than the total number of private homes in Singapore.

Oversupply could be a real threat over the next two to three years, said Mr Tan Ka Leong, director of property consultant WTW Johor Baru. For now, consultants agreed that investors should shop for investment property in Iskandar only if their pockets are deep enough to weather a down market.

Law to regulate taxi booking services
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

WHILE some regulation of third-party taxi booking services is necessary to protect commuter interest and safety, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said a light-touch approach will be adopted in how the Government regulates such service providers operating here.

He said this yesterday before Parliament approved a Bill making it necessary for third-party taxi booking services that have more than 20 participating taxis, to register with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in order to operate in Singapore.

The law requires the service providers to adhere to guidelines such as specifying fares and surcharges to commuters upfront, dispatching only licensed taxis and drivers, and providing LTA with live data on bookings.

Flouting the rules can lead to fines of up to $100,000, suspension or having licences revoked.

"The proposed regulatory framework balances the need for consumer protection with the flexibility needed for innovation in the industry, so that these services can enhance the provision of taxi services in Singapore, and ultimately benefit both commuters and taxi drivers," said Mr Lui.

During the debate on the Bill, Non-Constituency MPs Lina Chiam and Gerald Giam questioned the need to regulate service providers. Both believed the market should decide whether a business was viable or sustainable.

The proposed law "deviates from the concept of free market", Mrs Chiam said, adding: "What LTA should be concerned (about) is the safety of passengers who use the taxi booking apps. It should not be concerned whether or not the company is able to financially sustain itself... or whether taxi booking services are 'reliable and efficient'."

Said Mr Giam: "In regulating third-party service providers, the Government should focus more on maximising benefits to consumers and taxi drivers, and less on protecting a particular business model or existing taxi operators."

Others like Ang Mo Kio GRC MPs Seng Han Thong and Ang Hin Kee asked whether the regulations went far enough to protect drivers and ensure that service providers treated them fairly.

"How do we ensure that third- party booking operators are held financially accountable?" Mr Ang asked.

Such providers do not have huge investments in vehicle fleets that can be held financially liable.

Drivers told him of late payment of fares and they also worry that such operators could exit the market with little warning.

He and Mr Seng also voiced concern about chauffeured vehicles and private limousines which compete with taxis because of the third-party booking apps - many of which offer both services.

Mr Lui said there are existing regulations to govern chauffeured vehicle services. They must be pre-booked and cannot be hailed.

Third-party providers must clearly distinguish between such services and taxis.

Mr Lui said the points raised by the MPs illustrate why some regulation is needed. "While we want to try and keep the market competitive (and) we don't want to over-regulate... there has got to be certain minimum thresholds before we allow some of these operators into the system," he said, adding later: "It is no good for the taxi industry in Singapore if we just let any and every applicant... into the market."

Cash only for new govt bond - for now
But Govt will look into allowing use of CPF, SRS savings, says Josephine Teo
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

BUYERS of a new type of government bond to be issued this year can pay only cash for now but the Government may consider allowing the use of Central Provident Fund savings, Senior Minister of State for Finance Josephine Teo said yesterday.

Mrs Teo told Parliament that the Government will also look at letting people use funds from their Supplementary Retirement Scheme (SRS) accounts to buy the Singapore Savings Bonds. These bonds will be launched in the second half of this year as part of moves to make low-cost investment options more widely available to retail investors.

A key feature of the product is that a bondholder can get his money back in any month with no penalty imposed. This means investors do not have to decide upfront the duration of their investment.

Mrs Teo, who was responding to MPs who had asked about allowing CPF or SRS savings for bond purchases, said it "makes sense to start the savings bonds with cash purchases as it complements the CPF scheme".

Each individual can apply for up to $50,000 per bond issue and can hold up to $100,000 worth of the bonds at any point. The Government will review these caps after the programme has been in place for some time, Mrs Teo said.

The interest rates paid by the Singapore Savings Bonds will be higher than that of short-term fixed deposits but lower than that of longer-term CPF funds.

Her remarks came during the second reading of the Government Securities (Amendment) Bill, which was passed yesterday. It allows the Government to impose restrictions on transfers and pledges in future new security issues, a change that will allow the Singapore Savings Bonds to be issued as non-tradable securities. This is necessary to protect investors from capital losses, Mrs Teo said.

Normally, bonds have a fixed interest rate and investors can find themselves out of pocket if they redeem them early and the market price is less than their initial price.

The interest rate for Singapore Savings Bonds will be linked to the long-term Singapore Government Securities (SGS) rates. But unlike SGS bonds, which pay the same interest rates every year, the new product will start with smaller interest rates that will keep rising the longer you hold on to it.

Singapore Savings Bonds will be transferable to beneficiaries if a bondholder dies, Mrs Teo said.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Mr Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) asked if the Government might consider issuing inflation-linked bonds. Mrs Teo said the Singapore Savings Bonds will offer a safe savings option for individuals while also allowing them the flexibility to redeem their bonds in any given month. While the bond is not inflation-linked, the full redemption feature allows bondholders to mitigate the risks of soaring inflation and higher interest rates, she said.

When market interest rates fall, bondholders will benefit. On the other hand, when interest rates rise, bondholders can make use of the early redemption feature to redeem their bonds. They can then reinvest the proceeds in the new issues. Interest received on the bonds will be tax exempt, she added.

Do you fly a drone or own one? Here's what you need to know!The Unmanned Aircraft (Public Safety and Security) Bill...
Posted by The Republic of Singapore Air Force on Thursday, May 14, 2015

MPs united in concerns over drones
Security, privacy issues raised as new law passed
By Lester Hio, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

THE growing popularity of unmanned aircraft, or drones, in Singapore has raised concerns of safety, enforcement and privacy that this new technology brings on its wings.

Members of Parliament, including opposition MPs, shared the Government's concern and yesterday supported its move to regulate their use.

They gave the nod in Parliament to the Unmanned Aircraft (Public Safety and Security) Bill, which sets out guidelines for the safe flying of drones and enforcement against those who violate them. The new law, which amends the Air Navigation Act and Public Order Act, will take effect from next month.

Yesterday, during the debate on the Bill, a main concern of MPs was of operators who do not play by the rules and rogue drones which pose a risk to public safety.

Non-constituency MP Gerald Giam, of the Workers' Party, said the Bill would not stop a "determined terrorist from using a drone to fly explosives, or chemical or biological agents into key installations or large crowds".

He asked if there were systems in place to deal with rogue drones.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC) asked about the extent of enforcement in such circumstances. "Would the authorities be empowered to shoot them down if operators refuse to land them, or if they are beyond control and likely to cause harm and injuries on the ground?"

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who introduced the Bill last month, replied that enforcers will have the powers to assume control of an unmanned aircraft to either fly it, end its flight or land it.

"How this will be done will depend on the circumstances, taking into consideration the need to ensure public safety," he added.

There have been close calls involving drones, with more than 20 incidents reported here since April last year, said Mr Lui. There were two instances when drones dropped on MRT tracks: last month at Commonwealth MRT, and last Saturday at Lakeside MRT. No services were disrupted nor damage caused to the tracks.

Another key issue is privacy. Nominated MP Benedict Tan pointed out there was hardly any mention of it in the Bill.

Mr Giam called for laws to protect a person's privacy from drones being used to take photographs of people or private property without permission, while Mr Gan wanted the flying of drones to be banned in HDB estates as they would intrude on the privacy of flat dwellers.

Mr Lui said enforcement will be taken under existing laws such as the Penal Code and Protection from Harassment Act 2014.

He also assured MPs the committee set up to provide a comprehensive framework for drone use here will examine if present laws are adequate and whether any enhancements are needed.

But while MPs said the new law is timely, they also cautioned it must not be too onerous that it stifles the creative and innovative use of drones. Drones are now being used for commercial purposes, such as in photography, film-making and even to serve food to restaurant diners.

Mr Lui agreed that a "judicious balance" must be struck between security and letting drone operators experiment and innovate.

"It is the challenge and dilemma we face," he added.

Security scares over unmanned aircraft

A SERIES of international security incidents involving drones were cited in Parliament during the debate on regulating unmanned aircraft.
- Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) supported the restrictions on drones in and around sensitive areas such as military bases.
He gave the example of a drone that crashed on the grounds of the White House in the United States in January this year, prompting President Barack Obama to call for more stringent rules on drones.
- Mr Ang also raised the possibility of drones being a public nuisance. He referred to a case of vandalism in New York City last month, when a vandal spray-painted a billboard of a Calvin Klein ad featuring American model Kendall Jenner.
- Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew highlighted the potential security risk posed by drones. Last month, a drone carrying radioactive substance landed on the office roof of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
- Mr Lui also noted a drone crashed in Australia and injured a triathlete in April last year.

Light-touch approach on new technologies
By Rachel Chang, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

THE challenge of legislating evolving technologies was on full display in Parliament yesterday, as the House debated and passed new laws that regulate drones and third-party taxi apps.

Both technologies - flying pilotless vehicles, and services that seamlessly match those in need of a taxi with cabbies - are powerful and have the ability to transform lives and lifestyles.

They are also morphing at speeds which can force many a plodding legislature onto the back foot. There will always be a gap between new technologies and the law's ability to rein them in.

So it was encouraging to see Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew avoid the presumption that he could do so.

Instead he adopted an approach that erred on the side of under-regulation and which provides ample room for development and experimentation.

The light-touch approach on third-party apps like GrabTaxi will be welcomed by Singaporeans familiar with that mix of fury and frustration that the cab system here can invoke.

These apps have been an unequivocal boon for consumers, cabbies and the overall efficiency of the industry here. Passengers can summon a ride with less effort, and drivers avoid empty cruising.

The new regulations will require these apps to register with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and provide some basic services like lost-and-found.

They must also ban bidding and pre-trip tipping.

But the rules do not infringe on their nimbleness, like the practice of surge pricing, which makes rides more expensive when demand is high.

Elsewhere, the reception for these apps has not been so friendly, with Germany and China among the countries which have banned them outright, or placed restrictions on their use.

The Singapore Government's approach is possible because it is not bound either to labour unions or huge taxi companies.

Both of these have an interest in swaying legislation against the disruptive technology to protect their own financial interest, and experience elsewhere has shown that doing so could be to the detriment of passengers.

This is not to say that these apps are faultless.

The aggressive moves of some players to gain market share by exploiting loopholes - brought up by MPs like taxi union adviser Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio GRC) - must be closely watched.

In bringing the apps under the LTA's remit, the law ensures that someone is watching.

Perhaps more importantly, it ensures that the purveyors of the technology know that someone is watching - an awareness that will pre-emptively regulate behaviour.

It is the same for the drones law, which brought regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles, as they are otherwise known, under the remit of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).

Where once operators had to apply for up to three different permits from different agencies, it will now be a one-stop shop.

The Government is requiring a permit for drones which are above 7kg, those used commercially, or used over sensitive areas.

Several MPs brought up the danger of invasion of privacy. Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) suggested banning them in HDB estates, for fear of residents being spied on.

Drone technology is very new, and poses a legitimate threat to security and privacy.

But its potential to transform - from current uses in surveying disaster areas or spotting oil spills, to the game-changing future possibility of deliveries-via-drone - is important enough that as much space as possible, both physical and symbolic, must be given for their experimentation and development.

Mr Lui has another reason to nurture these various transport technologies.

The Transport Ministry has made clear - although not loudly - that Singapore's vehicle population growth will ultimately be capped at zero in the not-too-distant future, down from the current 0.25 per cent.

Many Singaporeans still seem to believe that the current high prices of certificates of entitlement (COEs) are a seasonal phenomenon, and that they merely need to wait around until COE prices plunge to a 2008 level of $1 again.

That is a pipe dream which the Government is not trying very hard to correct. It's easy to see why: ruling out private car ownership for a large swathe of Singaporeans is an impossible sell, and is likely to be politically costly.

Transport technologies - whether an app that brings a cab to you, or a drone that might one day take delivery vehicles off the roads - is its best bet yet to ease the pain.

Govt's IT networks beefed up after attack
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

A SECURITY breach of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) IT system last year was one of the more serious and advanced attacks against the Government's IT networks.

After it was detected, steps were taken immediately to isolate the affected devices, and security measures were implemented to strengthen the networks.

Information and Communications Minister Yaacob Ibrahim disclosed this yesterday in a written reply to Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), who had asked if there had been any cyber security incidents involving the Government's IT systems.

Dr Yaacob said the Government's IT networks are probed all the time by those trying to gain access to it.

While most of the attempts are unsophisticated, he said, the Government has also detected serious and advanced attacks.

Apart from last year's MFA breach, there were also a series of attacks in 2009 in the run-up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings held in Singapore.

At least seven waves of malicious e-mail attacks were detected, targeting the Apec Organising Committee members and delegates of various Apec countries.

"This is why the Government takes cyber security very seriously, and invests in systems to monitor its IT networks and to detect attacks," said Dr Yaacob.

He added that the high-level Cyber Security Agency works with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) to ensure the security of the Government's networks.

The IDA - the lead agency for protecting the Government's IT systems - also works closely with government agencies to ensure their security practices can adapt to the evolving modus operandi of attackers, he said.

Severe penalties for serious crimes by youth
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

THE worrying behaviour of some Singapore youth came under scrutiny in Parliament yesterday, with MPs asking about penalties and rehabilitative measures for those who make offensive remarks on race and religion or who commit serious crimes.

Youth who make seditious remarks may be counselled on respecting other races and religions, and made to interact with people from different communities through community service and other activities, said Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Low Yen Ling.

They may also receive different penalties, depending on the severity of their offence, she said in response to a question from Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin. These include conditional warnings, probation and being placed in a juvenile rehabilitation centre, reformative training centre or prison.

"These measures encourage offenders to take responsibility for their actions and equip them with the life skills to embark on constructive lifestyles," said Ms Low.

Meanwhile, youth who commit serious crimes like vandalism or hurt to others should be severely punished to send a deterrent message against criminal behaviour, said Second Minister for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli.

While rehabilitative options are available, the courts have also meted out stricter punishments in the case of more serious offences.

Some are "deterrent sentences to send a strong signal that such criminal behaviour will not be condoned nor taken lightly", he said.

When appropriate, the prosecutor may appeal against the sentence if it does not reflect the seriousness of the crime, he added.

He was responding to Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who wanted to know whether existing penalties could deter youth from serious crimes.

Last month, Daryl Lim Jun Liang, 19, was sentenced to 10 days of detention and 150 hours of community service for assaulting foreign workers. The Attorney-General's Chambers has filed an appeal for a harsher sentence.

Mr Masagos did not raise this incident yesterday, but cited two other cases of stiff sentences.

Last year, three men in their 20s were jailed and caned for vandalising public property, while in 2013, three young men were jailed and caned for rioting and slashing a full-time national serviceman in an Orchard Road shopping centre.

"These sentences give the community the assurance that safety and security are being safeguarded," said Mr Masagos.

SMRT's interest in 4th telco 'distracting'
MPs seek assurance that firm will stay focused on core rail business
By Irene Tham, Technology Correspondent, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

TRANSPORT operator SMRT's recent announcement of its interest in the telco business has sparked concerns that it might be distracted from its core duties of improving train services.

Several MPs also said in Parliament yesterday that the fines on public transport operators for service lapses were not sufficient deterrents.

Specifically, the penalty system, which was revised in February last year, allows the Land Transport Authority to fine operators up to 10 per cent of their annual rail fare revenue for service lapses. But Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew clarified that the fine is calculated based on the annual revenue of the affected rail line, not that of the operator.

He made the point in his reply to Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong questioned the effectiveness of the fine, which she said is "limited" and "quite minuscule".

Mr Lui disagreed. He said the North-South and East-West lines are considered one line. If a breakdown along the line is severe enough, it could attract "a very, very hefty fine well beyond a million dollars", he added.

MPs also asked for ways to ensure that SMRT's management stays focused on its core business even though its other businesses are more profitable.

"So how does the Government ensure the management's attention is not distracted given that other businesses are giving the company more profitability?" said Mr Baey, referring to SMRT's retail business and potential telco business.

Mr Lui replied: "First, we look in particular at the use of manpower with regard to SMRT Trains, which is the entity that we regulate. So if, for example, we see senior manpower being taken out from SMRT Trains to be used to support their venture with the fourth telco, we will be very concerned."

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) said the profits from SMRT's other businesses should be used to subsidise public transport fares to benefit commuters. She asked if the Public Transport Council (PTC) would consider changing its fare formula to take this into account when deciding whether to adjust fares.

Mr Lui said an operator that is doing well is required to contribute to the Public Transport Fund.

So far, $7.5 million has been tapped from the fund during each of the last two fare hikes to give transport vouchers to lower-income families to help defray their transport costs.

"Both SBS Transit and SMRT made a contribution last year (for the) first time. This year, when we had the fare increase in April, they made a larger contribution to the Public Transport Fund," said Mr Lui.

Last month, SMRT said it had the option to invest up to $34.5 million in Singapore's telco contender OMGtel, on condition the latter wins the fourth telco licence. They would explore business opportunities from SMRT's "extensive media presence and commuter reach", among others.

The fourth telco licence, also coveted by fibre broadband operator MyRepublic, has yet to be awarded by the Infocomm Development Authority.

OMGtel is owned by Consistel, which builds and hosts all the wireless systems - including Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G equipment - in the Sports Hub.

No need for central authority to screen foreign degrees for public service: DPM Teo
Channel NewsAsia, 11 May 2015

Every public service agency is in the best position to decide on the relevance and appropriateness of a candidate’s degree to recruit the best person for a job, while considering other credentials and job requirements, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

Mr Teo, who is Minister-in-Charge of Civil Service and Home Affairs Minister, gave a written answer to a parliamentary question by Member of Parliament Png Eng Huat - asking if the Public Service Division would consider setting up a central authority to screen foreign degrees for public service employment. This is in light of the "proliferation of degree programmes and degrees of varying qualities offered in the education industry", Mr Png had said.

“In assessing foreign degrees, the Public Service Division’s guidance to agencies is to check whether the foreign degree is accredited by the home government where the degree originates,” said Mr Teo.

As for professional qualifications obtained from foreign institutions, the qualifications must be recognised by the relevant professional bodies in Singapore to be considered for the relevant public service post, Mr Teo added. "This is a practical approach and not something a central authority can do," he stated.

The Deputy Prime Minister also said hiring by public service agencies is not based on academic qualifications alone. "We take into account other important factors such as relevant work experience, personal attributes and motivations, and commitment to public service. For a mid-career candidate, relevant work experience is more important than academic qualifications for a good job fit," he said. "Therefore, the extent to which a candidate’s degree, whether local or foreign, is considered in the hiring decision will differ from job to job, and person to person."

Work pass, PR applicants who lie to be 'dealt with firmly'
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

PEOPLE who provide false information - such as lying about their educational qualifications - in applying for Singapore citizenship, permanent residency (PR) or work passes will be "dealt with firmly", two ministers said yesterday.

This comes after claims of new citizens and permanent residents obtaining fake degrees circulated on forums, social media and alternative news sites last month.

In cases where citizenship or permanent residency has already been granted, this may be revoked, Second Minister for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said in Parliament.

He was replying to Workers' Party (WP) MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang), who had asked about the process that the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) uses to verify the validity of educational qualifications listed in the applications.

* Employment pass applicants that give false info will be dealt with firmly: Lim Swee Say

For those who are found to have submitted forged documents or lied to obtain employment passes or S Passes, they may be fined up to $20,000 or jailed up to two years, and will be banned from working in Singapore, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.

His ministry also completely disregards qualifications obtained from unaccredited institutions, also known as "degree mills". Applicants with such degrees "will have to meet more stringent criteria in terms of experience and salary" to qualify for work passes.

He was responding to a similar question from Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, also from the WP, about checks that the ministry conducts on the academic qualifications of work pass applicants.

But both Mr Masagos and Mr Lim stressed that academic qualifications are not the "sole determining factor" in granting citizenship, PR status, or work passes. Mr Masagos said citizenship or PR applicants are also assessed on factors such as economic contributions, age and family profile.

645 firms taken to task for not paying salaries
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

Of these, 49 were taken to court, new Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say told Parliament yesterday. The rest were given warning letters or advisories.

Mr Lim said his ministry investigates every salary claim and has stepped up its enforcement efforts since 2014. "We take a particularly serious view of employers who wilfully refuse to pay."

The Employment Act, amended last year, imposes heavy penalties on employers who default on the salaries of their workers.

Mandatory minimum and higher maximum fines were also introduced for first-time as well as repeat offenders.

The ministry's officers have been given more enforcement and investigatory powers. They can enter workplaces to carry out inspections and arrest those believed to be guilty of not paying their workers, said Mr Lim.

He was replying to Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) who had asked if the ministry would consider stronger sanctions against employers who fail to pay or wrongfully withhold the wages of their employees.

The labour court, which settles payment disputes between employers and employees, saw about 1,630 cases last year.

In two-thirds of them, the workers got full payment. The rest received partial or no payment because their companies were in financial trouble.

To minimise the number of non-payment cases, the ministry, with its tripartite partners, is looking into ways to "enhance the protection for the workers in a more holistic manner", Mr Lim said.

600 foreign worker dwellings in Geylang inspected in past 6 months: Lim Swee Say
Channel NewsAsia, 12 May 2015

Agencies have inspected more than 600 units known to be housing foreign workers in Geylang in the past six months, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say on Monday (May 11) in a written reply to Parliament.

He added that errant owners or operators of overcrowded properties, as well as negligent employers uncovered as a result of the inspections are being taken to task.

Mr Lim was responding to a question by Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef on whether there is a plan with multi-agency input to review and improve the conditions of foreign worker dwellings at Lorongs 1 to 42 of Geylang.

This comes after two foreign workers were killed in a fire in a private residential unit in Lorong 6, Geylang in April. Four foreign workers died in another apartment fire in Lorong 4, Geylang four months earlier as well.

Mr Lim said private residential properties, including those in Geylang, are covered by existing rules that regulate the rental of properties to both locals and foreigners, to safeguard the well-being of tenants and reduce overcrowding in neighbourhoods.

"These rules include standards pertaining to maximum occupancy, fire safety as well as illegal subletting and conversion of premises. The Government takes a serious view of persons who breach these rules," said Mr Lim.

He added that under the Planning Act, those who house more than eight tenants in private residential properties can be fined up to S$200,000, while under the Fire Safety Act, owners who make unauthorised changes that compromises fire safety at their premises - such as illegal partitions - may be fined up to S$200,000, jailed up to two years, or both.

"Correspondingly, the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) requires employers to ensure that their workers are housed in conditions that comply with the relevant agencies’ rules. Employers who neglect this would have violated Work Pass conditions and are subject to a maximum penalty of S$10,000 or 12 months’ imprisonment per offence and may be banned from hiring foreign workers," said Mr Lim.

He noted that special attention is paid to higher risk areas such as Geylang, and public officers can enter premises under specific circumstances to conduct inspections.

"MOM, SCDF, SPF and URA regularly conduct joint enforcement; and this can be stepped up when necessary," Mr Lim said.


In his reply, Mr Lim also said the Manpower Ministry is looking to raise public awareness to change behaviour on the ground. To do so, public notices will be placed around Geylang so foreign workers and the public will be reminded of URA's rules, said Mr Lim.

"MOM will also be sending advisory letters to employers, especially those, whose workers stay in Geylang to remind them to ensure that their workers’ housing complies with the relevant rules," Mr Lim added.

He also urged those with information on overcrowded premises to contact the authorities, so investigations and enforcement actions can be taken.

Legal changes to help bankrupts, spur prudence
Bankruptcy Act amendments tabled after public consultation
By Wong Wei Han, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

PROPOSED changes to Singapore's bankruptcy laws are aimed at creating an environment where bankrupts can more easily get back on their financial feet.

The changes were tabled in Parliament for their first reading yesterday after a public consultation that has been held since January.

The Bill to amend the Bankruptcy Act will make it harder to have a person declared bankrupt but easier for a bankrupt to exit bankruptcy once their obligations have been fulfilled.

The new regime will include four key changes. One is to raise the minimum debt level for people to be made bankrupt from $10,000 to $15,000. This is to encourage creditors and debtors to resolve more debts without resorting to a bankruptcy application.

A second change will allow bankrupts to get out of bankruptcy according to a set timeframe.

For instance, a first-time bankrupt who has paid fully his "target contribution" will be discharged after three years if his creditors have no objection. The target contribution is the total sum a bankrupt must repayto be eligible for discharge. The amount is determined by bankruptcy trustees.

If creditors object to the discharge after five years, a bankrupt who has paid his target contribution will still be discharged, unless the High Court upholds the creditors' objection. For repeat bankrupts, the exit points are pushed back by two years.

Bankrupts will be automatically discharged after seven years, or nine for repeat bankruptcies.

The new timeframe adopts a gentler approach than that of existing rules, under which there are no specific exit points from bankruptcy, and discharge is granted only by the High Court or Official Assignee on a case-by-case basis.

"(The change) will create a more rehabilitative regime, giving bankrupts time frames and the incentive to seek gainful employment as a means of achieving their discharge," the Ministry of Law said.

But a third change will ensure that the records of those who have not fully paid the target contribution will remain permanently on a public register. Currently, all bankruptcy records are removed five years after discharge.

Lastly, new rules are also being introduced to "ensure better utilisation of public resources and encourage creditors to exercise financial prudence when extending credit", the Law Ministry added.

Institutional creditors, such as banks or companies with annual sales of over $100 million and more than 200 employees, must spend their own money to appoint a private trustee, who will administer their debtors' bankruptcy.

This will ease the strain on the Official Assignee, a High Court office which handles more than 90 per cent of bankruptcies here.

As at March 31, 22,370 cases of bankruptcies were on the books. Since 2011, 1,500 to 1,900 new bankruptcy orders have been filed annually. Some 51 per cent of existing bankruptcies were initiated by financial institution creditors, which have been resistant to the added costs of private trustees.

But the Law Ministry said higher administration costs "may not be undesirable" as they could lead to more prudent lending.

Still, banks such as OCBC said the new rules will not have any significant impact on credit assessment policies. "Various factors are taken into consideration before we make a bankruptcy application... We have a structured way of recovering our loans - a bankruptcy proceeding is just one tool," said OCBC head of consumer credit risk Joseph Wong.

MAS gets nod to share info with foreign bodies
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

A NEW law gives Singapore's banking regulator more powers to share information on the policing of money laundering and terrorism financing with foreign supervisory bodies.

But only "bona fide" requests will be acceded to and the information shared will be kept confidential, Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) board member Lawrence Wong said in Parliament yesterday.

Mr Wong, who is the Culture, Community and Youth Minister, gave this assurance to Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC), Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam and Nominated MP Benedict Tan during the debate on the MAS (Amendment) Bill.

The Bill, passed in Parliament yesterday, gives the MAS the authority to inspect a wider range of financial institutions for money laundering and terrorism financing breaches.

They include non-bank credit card and charge card issuers.

The new law also sets out requirements for financial institutions to conduct customer due diligence and to retain these records.

These changes will align Singapore's regime with international standards set by the Financial Action Task Force, the global standard-setter for anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing.

But MPs were concerned that the changes might affect Singapore's position in the banking and financial sector, where client confidentiality and trust are paramount. Banking confidentiality, which has been an "important foundation of success, continues to be critical", Dr Tan said.

"We must safeguard against spurious international requests, and also safeguard bona fide client confidentiality," he added.

Mrs Chiam asked if the changes might put banks in a position of conflict between growing their business and being subject to regulatory requirements.

Replying, Mr Wong said: "All the banks and financial institutions around the world understand that there's a need in today's environment... to be able to identify and verify customers' identity, to screen customers against sanctions lists and other published databases.

"This is not an imposition or additional requirement. This is basic to what a bank should do and it is essential in preserving trust and integrity in order to develop the banking sector."

While customer information might be given to foreign supervisory bodies in some cases, the requested information will generally relate to the financial institution's policies and procedures, or lapses that may be identified through inspection, Mr Wong said.

To ensure the requests are bona fide, the foreign supervisor must be specific about the purpose of the request, the nature of the assistance and the relevance of the requested information.

'No plans' for more casino licences for now
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

SINGAPORE has "no plans" currently to offer additional casino licences when the moratorium on such licences expires in 2017, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan said yesterday.

The Government will instead focus on working with the two integrated resorts (IRs) to ensure their attractions and services continue to meet the needs of Singaporeans and enhance the country's tourism appeal, he added in Parliament.

Singapore put in place a 10-year moratorium on new casino licences in 2007, following the two awarded for the Marina Bay and Sentosa sites. The two casinos were granted exclusive rights in Singapore from 2007 to 2017, partly so that their operators - Las Vegas Sands and Genting Singapore - could get a head start in recouping their large investments.

Responding to a question from Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam on whether the Government has received any requests from existing or new casino operators to issue more licences after 2017, Mr Lee reiterated the Government's stance of working with the existing operators to improve their offerings.

Mr Lee said the two IRs have contributed between 1.5 and 2 per cent of GDP, and created more than 20,000 jobs.

He also noted that many economies in the region have been building casinos: the Philippines will have five IRs by 2019, and South Korea will also have five by 2018. Japan and Taiwan have also expressed interest in building IRs.

"This is the international competitive landscape in terms of major cities improving their tourism attractions, so this will be one set of considerations that we have to take into consideration as and when we consider the next steps," he said.

Temasek's contribution sought for govt coffers
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

A CONSTITUTIONAL change was sought yesterday to make Temasek Holdings a bigger contributor to the Government's coffers, as Singapore prepares for more social and infrastructure spending.

The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill - one of six new Bills tabled in Parliament yesterday - will allow the Government to include Temasek in its Net Investment Returns framework.

Set up in 2009, the framework allows the Government to spend up to half of the long-term investment returns on the net assets managed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore and GIC. Yesterday's proposed amendment will bring Temasek into the fold.

Another Bill was introduced yesterday to rename the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) to Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute, in honour of Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak. The name change for the think-tank at the National University of Singapore was first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at last year's National Day Rally.

Meanwhile, the Maritime Offences (Amendment) Bill was also introduced to strengthen protection for fixed platforms, such as oil rigs, that are permanently attached to the seabed.

Two other Bills tabled yesterday dealt with finance and insurance professionals.

One was aimed at amending the Financial Advisers Act, to tighten regulations on financial advisers and extend the Act to cover their supervisors as well.

The other sought to change the Insurance Act to allow it to regulate the payment of fees by insurers to financial advisers, among other things.

The sixth Bill introduced yesterday was designed to ease some of Singapore's bankruptcy laws.

Qualifying criteria for Silver Support
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 12 May 2015

IN DECIDING if a person qualifies for a new scheme to help the elderly poor, his total Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions will be taken into consideration.

Those with lower CPF contributions before the age of 55 will be more likely to qualify for the Silver Support Scheme, unveiled in this year's Budget, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said.

The scheme aims to boost the incomes of the poorest 20 per cent to 30 per cent of Singaporeans aged 65 and older. To make sure the scheme targets the most needy seniors, the Government will take into account a person's lifetime wages, the level of household support they have, and the type of home they live in, Mr Lim said in a written reply to a question from Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC). Mr de Souza had asked for a clarification on what "lifetime wages" means.

To determine lifetime wages, the Government will use a person's total CPF contributions as a proxy, Mr Lim said. He added that CPF contributions made after the age of 55 will not be included, so as not to discourage Singaporeans from continuing to work in their later years.

Steady increase in clinics participating in CDMP, CHAS: MOH
Channel NewsAsia, 11 May 2015

There are currently 1,000 clinics registered in the Chronic Disease Management Programme (CDMP), and 850 general practitioners (GPs) and 550 dental clinics participating in the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) since the programmes were implementated, said Minister of State for Health Dr Lam Pin Min in Parliament on Monday (May 11).

"This makes up more than half of all private medical clinics providing primary care, and more than three quarters of all private dental clinics island-wide," he said, calling the rise a "steady increase".

Dr Lam was answering a question from MP for Marine Parade GRC Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef about whether there are plans to make enrolment into CDMP and CHAS compulsory for GPs, family medicine practitioners and dental practitioners.

While the Ministry of Health currently does not have plans to make enrolment compulsory, Dr Lam said “we strongly encourage primary care providers to join the schemes”.

“This enables Singaporeans to access subsidised care and tap on Medisave at more primary care providers, improving the accessibility of affordable primary care. It also enables our GPs and Family Physicians (FPs) to participate more actively in the management of chronic diseases.”

MOH will continue to work with the Agency for Integrated Care to encourage more clinics to participate in CDMP and CHAS, Dr Lam said.

47 households booked 2-room BTO flats for under S$40,000 from 2012-2014: MND
Channel NewsAsia, 12 May 2015

Between 2012 and 2014, a total of 47 households booked two-room Build-to-Order (BTO) flats for less than S$40,000, of which three households did so for less than S$20,000, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan on Monday (May 11).

In a written reply to a parliamentary question, Mr Khaw also revealed that during the same period, 283 households booked three-room BTO flats for less than S$120,000, of which 27 households did so for less than S$100,000. Also, 1,721 households booked four-room BTO flats for under S$250,000.

Mr Khaw added that these prices were after subsidies given to eligible households. These households could get up to S$40,000 in Additional CPF Housing Grant and S$20,000 in Special CPF Housing Grant.

4-person Singapore households spend S$1,250 a month on essentials: Survey
Channel NewsAsia, 11 May 2015

Based on the latest Household Expenditure Survey conducted in 2012/13, the Average Household Expenditure on Basic Needs (AHEBN) for a four-person household was about S$1,250.

The AHEBN is an estimate of how much households spend per month on essential needs such as food, clothing and shelter.

This was revealed in Parliament by Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan on Monday (May 11), in response to a request by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Gerald Giam for an update.

The data used to compile the AHEBN is primarily from the Household Expenditure Survey (HES), which is conducted once every five years.

The HES does not collect information on whether households include people with disabilities, he added. Also, the AHEBN is also not available for other household types besides household size.

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