Friday, 17 July 2015

Parliament Highlights - 14 Jul 2015

ISEAS to be named after Yusof Ishak on Aug 12
Move pays tribute to Singapore's first president, who championed multiracialism
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2015

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) will be renamed the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on Aug 12, the 105th anniversary of the birth of Singapore's first president.

The move, approved by Parliament, was announced yesterday by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who said that, with the country turning 50 this year, it would be a fitting and timely tribute to the late Yusof Ishak, a pioneer leader who championed multiracialism.

"His convictions and life's work resonate strongly with ISEAS' foundational tenets, and it is befitting that his name will be borne by ISEAS," said Mr Heng.

"His convictions and life’s work resonate strongly with ISEAS’s foundational tenets, and it is befitting that his name will be borne by ISEAS": Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on the proposed Bill to rename ISEAS to ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Mr Yusof was the country's head of state after it achieved self-government in 1959, and six years later became the first president of an independent Singapore.

It was a turbulent time and communal tensions simmered. Mr Yusof, as the president, played a key role in helping to restore the trust and confidence of Singaporeans who lived through events like the 1964 racial riots.

Mr Yusof tirelessly visited constituencies and reached out to different racial and religious groups, noted Mr Heng.

"We are very fortunate that Encik Yusof was Singapore's head of state at our founding moment. That he embodied our sovereignty assured our pioneer generation of Malays that they have a place in Singapore - he assured all races that this would be home for all."

MPs who spoke in support of the renaming also praised Mr Yusof's deep and abiding commitment to racial and religious harmony.

It would be a way to continue his legacy of multiculturalism, said Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC).

Noting that race and religion have been potential pressure points in Singapore's history, Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said: "Encik Yusof showed through his life that, as a Singaporean, he rose above sectarian interests and looked towards larger national interests."

That, he added, was a proud moment for the Malay community.

But Mr Yusof - born in Perak, and whose descendants came from Sumatra, Indonesia - also captured the spirit of the South-east Asian archipelago.

Nominated MP Tan Tai Yong, a historian, said the renaming highlights how Singapore's identity and heritage are deeply rooted in the archipelago. Mr Yusof was therefore a fitting icon, he noted.

ISEAS was established by the Government in 1968, three years after Singapore achieved independence. It has helped deepen understanding of the region and strengthened ties among regional scholars.

Colonial rule in the region was then coming to an end, and freshly independent South-east Asian countries saw regional integration as crucial to their survival.

Singapore, too, was looking to find its place in a region just starting to make its way forward, away from colonial rule.

And pioneer leaders like Mr Yusof and institutions like ISEAS have helped inform Singapore's leaders, Mr Heng noted.

"Naming a highly regarded institution such as ISEAS after Encik Yusof Ishak is our way of thanking and honouring Encik Yusof for his service to Singapore, of committing ourselves anew to the principles of harmony and unity that he held dear," he said.

"To have had Encik Yusof as our Yang di-Pertuan Negara and the first President of Singapore is a cause for gratitude, pride and inspiration. We hope that Singapore and ISEAS will continue to take Encik Yusof's convictions forward."

WP MPs object to change in selection process for board
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2015

Battle lines were unexpectedly drawn yesterday over a Bill to rename the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in honour of Singapore's first president.

Workers' Party (WP) MPs took issue with a clause that would change how the institute's board of trustees would be appointed, leading to a heated exchange with Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.

The face-off grew increasingly tense and drew pointed jibes at the state of affairs of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council, which is run by the WP.

Though the WP MPs made clear that they supported renaming ISEAS the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, they said they would not support the Bill unless the clause was removed.

Neither side budged. The clause stayed. And when a vote was called, the WP MPs said "no".

They also asked that their objection to the clause be recorded.

The clause reduces the number of board members, and gives the education minister the power to nominate representatives to the board. Currently, that responsibility is held by the president of Singapore, along with various bodies like the Shaw Foundation.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim started the protest when she pointed out that the ISEAS (Amendment) Bill was more than a simple name change. It also sought to change the structure of its board in a "very fundamental way", affecting its diversity and autonomy, she said. "Are there plans to turn ISEAS into a body that simply churns out knowledge for the government bureaucracy?" she asked.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Hawazi Daipi accuses The Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim of politicising the motion to rename ISEAS after Singapore's first President, Yusof Ishak. (Note: Part of Mr Hawazi's speech is overlaid by the voice of the translator)
Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Her speech drew a rebuke from Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Hawazi Daipi.

"I feel this is not the right time, while we're giving the highest honour to an eminent Singaporean, to politicise the issue by questioning whether ISEAS will become a body that will follow the instructions of the Government," he said.

"I feel quite hurt to hear Ms Sylvia Lim's comments."

He was not alone. Second Minister for Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli posted on his Facebook page that he, too, felt hurt as Ms Lim had "tarnished" the occasion with her questions.

The Workers' Party's Low Thia Khiang: "Is it a disguise in honouring Encik Yusof Ishak by changing the name, for control of ISEAS, by changing the appointment power of the board?"Minister Heng Swee Keat: "Mr Low, I am so surprised and disappointed at what you have just said given your many years in politics."DETAILS: EXCHANGE:
Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Mr Heng, in rounding up the debate, said the clause would bring ISEAS - a statutory board under the Education Ministry - in line with other such bodies whose boards are appointed by their ministers.

The Bill's main aim is to honour Mr Yusof, he stressed. Other clauses are to update provisions in legislation.

Mr Heng also pointed out that Ms Lim had not taken into account other clauses putting in financial provisions on the appointment of auditors, among others.

Pointedly, he said: "I hope that Ms Lim would agree with me that the proper audit of accounts and the timely submission of audited information are important."

Party chief Low Thia Khiang said that, while they support the name change to honour Encik Yusof, "we cannot square with the change(s) that are being 'tompang' (piggybacked) with the name change".

But, Mr Heng argued, "there is nothing whatsoever that is untoward about it".

He added: "The more you speak, the more I feel the Workers' Party has not been very sincere... in saying that you support the Bill."

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, putting an end to the to-ing and fro-ing, said: "We're going around in circles."

The Bill was passed.

Much heat in the House sheds light on deepening political divide
Rachel Chang, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2015

In contrast to the exciting Monday parliamentary sitting that primed the country for a coming General Election, yesterday's session looked set to unfold uneventfully.

The front bench responded to MPs' questions on issues like problem gambling and foreign manpower figures and the House passed two uncontroversial Bills.

Then, the last order of the day - the passing of a Bill to change the name of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) to the ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute, in honour of Singapore's first President - unexpectedly erupted into a heated debate between Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and leaders of the Workers' Party.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim said that the opposition party supported the name change, but objected to a clause in the Bill that would streamline the think-tank's board of directors and have the minister, instead of the President and other bodies, appoint these directors.

"Can ISEAS maintain its autonomy and independence with all the powers concentrated in the minister with this Bill? More worryingly, is the concentration of powers to appoint the board in the minister a sign of things to come? Are there plans to turn ISEAS into a body that simply churns out knowledge for the government bureaucracy?" she asked in unexpectedly dramatic and escalatory fashion.

After all, as Mr Heng noted, ISEAS is a statutory board under the Ministry of Education, and all other statutory boards have board appointment power vested in the minister. The Government saw the clause as a procedural change to bring the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in line with current practice.

But as WP chief Low Thia Khiang revealed, the WP suspected a deeper, darker agenda.

He questioned if the Government was "sincere" in honouring Mr Yusof, or if it was "a disguise for controlling ISEAS".

Mr Low then said, in a statement that noticeably shocked the front bench: "This one makes me think of how eventually the Nanyang University was closed, (how) the board was subsequently changed and closed."

The emotive 1980 closing of Nanyang University, Singapore's only Mandarin-medium university, was a painful episode that created a fissure between the Government then and segments of the Chinese-speaking community - Mr Low included.

Mr Low is the last Nantah parliamentarian and knows well the lingering lament among the Chinese community that its culture and language have become relatively less significant on the national scene. His invoking of Nantah, when the two institutions of ISEAS and Nantah bear no resemblance in either character or circumstance , was pure political theatre.

Mr Heng thought as much, responding that he was "surprised and disappointed"at the reference and emphasising that the Government wants to strengthen ISEAS.

But Mr Heng was himself not above political broadsides, peppering his responses to the WP with references to the findings of lapses in compliance and governance at the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC).

Defending the changes, he said that they would make the board more effective, asking pointedly: "Does Ms Lim not agree that we should always look for improvements in everything we do, whether we are running town councils or whether we are running the Government?"

Ultimately, the Bill passed, with the WP's opposition to the offending clause placed on official parliamentary record.

It seemed unclear what had been achieved. If the opposition party was out to score political points - as PAP MPs accused it of - why over such an uncontroversial piece of legislation? Points may have been earned from some quarters, but they were certainly also lost from those who will conclude that the WP voted against a Bill to honour a former president.

What the heated debate showed me was that the last four years of having a sizeable WP presence in the House has marked Parliament indelibly and hardened relations between the two parties.

There is little love lost between the two benches, and the upcoming GE is likely to be acrimonious and bruising.

Watching the broadsides fly, I was reminded of an earlier question in the sitting from MP Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) about the lessons which the current crisis in Greece may have for Singapore.

Her question was about financials, but there are also existential points of reflection for Singapore in what is unfolding in Greece - a small state of 11 million surrounded by bigger powers.

Effectively bankrupt, Greece is essentially being forced by its euro zone partners to undertake austerity reforms that were rejected by its own people in a referendum.

Opinion is sharply divided on how much the country itself is to blame for its predicament.

But as Singapore enters election season, it is perhaps more important than ever to remember that it is not the way of the world to allow small states to determine their own destiny.

Singaporeans' votes will matter in deciding the kind of government and direction they want for themselves, a privilege that cannot be taken, even in this modern world, for granted.

That should be something all sides of the political spectrum can agree on and even in the heat of electoral battle, work towards protecting.

Solutions on trial for HDB blocks unsuited for lift upgrading
Pneumatic and belt-driven elevator systems being tested at commercial site and carpark
Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2015

About 200 blocks of HDB flats are not suited to have lifts on every floor, a situation that has led the Ministry of National Development to look at two unconventional lift systems to resolve the problem.

One is a pneumatic vacuum elevator, which relies on air suction to move the lift car up and down and which went on trial at a commercial building in Toa Payoh last month.

The other is a vertical platform lift, which is a belt-driven system often used in private homes. It will be tested at a public carpark later this year.

Yesterday, Parliament was told the ministry would decide in six months to a year whether to put the two systems on trial in HDB blocks.

Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan said a longer trial would allow a better assessment of the reliability of the lifts. Two MPs, Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) and Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), swiftly offered HDB blocks in their divisions for trials.

A smiling Mr Lee took note of their offer and said: "Managing the last 2 per cent (of affected blocks) will be very challenging, very costly and also technically difficult. But we will see how best we can continue to find solutions."

He also added that residents who urgently needed direct lift access because of poor health or infirmity could ask the HDB for help in moving elsewhere or financing a new HDB home.

Mr Lee gave these assurances when replying to MPs' questions on the Lift Upgrading Programme (LUP) and what the ministry was doing for those living in blocks that did not qualify for it. The blocks left out either have too few units to share the cost or they have severe site constraints.

Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) asked why the two lift systems were not tested in the residential blocks.

Mr Lee said the commercial building and the carpark were picked because they were used more regularly, so data could be collected more quickly.

He also said the pneumatic vacuum elevator could work only in buildings about two to three storeys high, which he said might be the solution for low-rise HDB blocks with few units.

But it would travel at about one-quarter the speed of a normal lift, he added.

The $5 billion LUP for older HDB blocks is 14 years old and the programme ended last December. It provided a lift on every floor to 5,000 blocks built before 1990.

Training and support scheme for star athletes on right track
By Choo Yun Ting, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2015

In the afterglow of Singapore's success at last month's SEA Games, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong is convinced that the Government's special sports scheme for potential medal winners is on the right track.

This High Performance Sports system, which gives training and support to develop star athletes, will be fortified further so that Singapore's athletes continue to excel in future SEA Games and on bigger stages such as the Asian Games and the Olympics.

Mr Wong made this commitment in Parliament yesterday when replying to Nominated MP Benedict Tan, a former national sailor, who asked about the ministry's plans to ensure a lasting legacy of the Games' success.

Team Singapore won 84 golds and a total of 274 medals at the recent SEA Games, its best haul ever at the biennial games.

Mr Wong identified three areas of the High Performance Sports system that will be strengthened.

First of all, the ministry will find more ways to improve the training and development of national athletes through coaching, high-performance programmes, and enhanced sports science and sports analytics support from the Singapore Sports Institute.

Second, the ministry's review of the Singapore Sports School will seek to improve the development of youth athletes.

Third, it will strive to increase the support of employers for national athletes juggling sports and work.

Mr Wong noted that the SEA Games drew strong community interest. More than half a million people attended the sporting events and activities, and broadcasts of the events on the SEA Games YouTube channel attracted more than 60 million views.

"We will build on that interest by... providing Singaporeans a wider array of sporting events to attend," said Mr Wong, citing the Fina World Junior Swimming Championship in October and the Netball Nations Cup in December.

The goal is to promote a culture of attending sporting events with friends and family and, in doing so, inspire people to lead a sporting lifestyle, he added.

To encourage this lifestyle, the ActiveSG programme, which was introduced in April last year, will be enhanced. About 815,000 people have signed up for it, Mr Wong said when replying to Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC).

This sports movement will continue working with schools and employers to increase opportunities for sports participation in the community, he added.

Mr Wong also said he was most heartened by the strong show of the Singapore spirit at the SEA Games, highlighting the sportsmanship exhibited by national athletes, and volunteers who stayed back to clean the venues after events.

"We will strengthen sports volunteerism as one of the legacies of the SEA Games," he said.

The Asean Para Games, which Singapore will host in December, will be another opportunity for sports to rally the nation, he added.

Record resale price for coffee shop 'an outlier'
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2015

The recent record resale price of $31 million for a Bukit Batok coffee shop and the $23.8 million transaction in 2013 for another coffee shop in Hougang are outliers, and their sellers are not speculators, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan told Parliament.

He was replying to a question from Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam on whether the Government was concerned about the high transaction prices, and what measures it was taking to mitigate their impact on rentals and cooked food prices.

The sale of Yong Xing Coffee Shop at Bukit Batok Street 11 made headlines last month. Its seller had bought the 4,521 sq ft coffee shop for $3.4 million nearly 20 years ago.

Mr Khaw noted that since January 2010, there had been 32 resales involving eating houses of comparable sizes: 10 were below $5 million, 12 between $5 million and $10 million, and eight between $10 million and $15 million.

"The two transactions at Hougang and Bukit Batok were outliers, but these were market transactions between private entities," he added. "If they overpay and need to charge above market price, they risk losing their customers and becoming insolvent."

Mr Khaw said the Government wanted to ensure HDB residents had access to affordable food, and outlined three ways it did so.

First, HDB no longer sells its eating houses but only lets them out. Second, it ensures there is a sufficient supply of eating houses to maintain competition. In Bukit Batok, there are three other eating houses near Yong Xing Coffee Shop. Third, HDB continues to build new eating houses.

It will build 62 new ones in the next three years, and will ramp up supply if there is demand.

In addition, the National Environment Agency will be building 20 new hawker centres by 2027.

Mr Giam asked if the Government would consider stepping in to prevent speculation and requiring HDB eating houses to be sold back only to HDB so as to control rents and food prices.

Mr Khaw ruled out the idea of speculation in the case of the Bukit Batok coffee shop, noting that the seller had been there 20 years. The seller in Hougang had also been there at least 10 years.

As for forcing shops to be sold back to HDB, Mr Khaw said he did not think he could do so legally.

More chances for bankrupts to start anew
New discharge framework sets clearer schedules for them to meet repayment goals
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2015

Bankrupts in Singapore now have a clear time frame to meet specific repayment goals in order to be discharged, under changes to the law passed in Parliament yesterday.

Under a new discharge framework, a first-time bankrupt who has fully paid a "target contribution" will be discharged after three years if more than half of his creditors have no objection.

This target contribution is the total sum, determined by bankruptcy trustees, that a bankrupt must repay to be eligible for discharge.

After five years, creditors will have to obtain a court order if they wish to block the discharge of a bankrupt who has paid his target contribution in full .

After seven years, a bankrupt who has not paid the target contribution in full will still be eligible for discharge. A court order must be obtained to prevent the discharge.

Speaking at the start of the debate on the Bankruptcy (Amendment) Bill, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said: "The Bill strikes a balance between the need to hold the bankrupt accountable, while ensuring that bankrupts have the opportunity to make a fresh start in their financial affairs after a reasonable period of time."

As for repeat bankrupts, the timelines are pushed back by two years.

In addition, those who pay their target contributions in full will be removed from the public register of undischarged and discharged bankrupts five years after their discharge. Those who do not make full payment will remain on the register permanently. "This will also allow future creditors to make informed decisions on whether to extend credit," Ms Indranee said.

Previously, discharge from bankruptcy was granted only by the High Court or Official Assignee on a case-by-case basis.

Other key changes include:

• Raising the debt threshold for obtaining a bankruptcy order from $10,000 to $15,000.

• Allowing creditors to make an expedited bankruptcy application.

• Requiring institutional creditors such as banks to appoint a private trustee at their own expense to administer the bankruptcy.

Ms Indranee noted that the $10,000 debt threshold was set in 1999, adding that it was "timely to review the threshold given the rate of inflation over the past years".

Also, creditors no longer have to wait 21 days after issuing a statutory demand for repayment before making a bankruptcy application, if they can show that "there is a risk that the debtor could dissipate his assets during this 21-day period".

The expedited bankruptcy application will allow creditors to preserve assets of the debtor that can be used for repayment.

As for the administering of bankruptcies, Ms Indranee said the current practice, where the Official Assignee is trustee in over 99 per cent of cases, sees the state bearing "the cost of resolving debts entered into between private parties, and often, for the benefit of private parties".

Banks and companies with annual sales of over $100 million and more than 200 employees will now have to spend their own money to appoint a private trustee.

This will encourage them " to carefully consider whether to apply for a bankruptcy order", she added.

According to the Law Ministry, there were 22,194 cases of bankruptcies as of May 31. Since 2011, about 1,500 to 2,000 new bankruptcy orders have been filed annually.

Five MPs spoke on the Bill over two days. Nominated MP Thomas Chua said the Bill would strengthen the spirit of risk-taking as those who failed in business can be discharged from bankruptcy within the set time frame and apply the lessons learnt to their next venture.

Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) urged the Government to step up public education on the risks of taking unnecessary loans as "prevention is better than cure".

Greek default: No cause for alarm here
By Jose Hong, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2015

Greece's recent default of its debt repayment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has had no negative financial impact on Singapore but the authorities here remain watchful of developments and possible knock-on effects these could have, Monetary Authority of Singapore board member Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

But there are also lessons that can be learnt from the nation's crisis.

Mr Wong, who is Culture, Community and Youth Minister, was replying to Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC), who asked about the impact of Greece's default on Singapore, the region and the global economy.

Although Greece has defaulted on a total of €2 billion (S$3 billion) to the IMF as of Monday, Mr Wong said the IMF had procedures and sufficient funds to minimise any negative impact on member-states.

This is not the first time a state has missed payments to the global lender, but "no country has had to face what is, in effect, expulsion from the IMF due to persistent arrears, and no losses have been realised on IMF loans", Mr Wong said.

The IMF also has considerable reserves with which to protect its lenders and members. A contributing member is financially exposed to the organisation itself rather than to the countries it lends to - thus shielding IMF members like Singapore from the Greek default.

Singapore is also protected from the Greek crisis by its limited links with the country. Greece accounts for only 0.1 per cent of banking system assets here and just below 0.2 per cent of Singapore's total trade.

To Ms Ng's question on his assessment of the risk of economic contagion, Mr Wong cited how even European banks have substantially minimised their exposure to Greece. So the impact of the crisis beyond Europe is containable.

He said countries should ensure Budget policies are sustainable and that they live within their means. This means avoiding populist spending or providing benefits that are financed solely through indefinite debt accumulation.

They should also not lose their competitiveness. In the lead-up to the crisis, the growth of wages and benefits in Greece far exceeded productivity gains. The resultant severe drop in competitiveness diminished its growth prospects and compounded its debt.

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