Friday, 30 October 2015

Government Priorities: A look at six key areas

Challenges and changes ahead for the new Cabinet
Our correspondents highlight key areas for new Cabinet to focus on
By Zakir Hussain, Deputy Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

A new Cabinet is in place, and the Government will set out its priorities and policies for a new five-year term when Parliament opens in January.

What might be expected, and are there some areas the various ministries should focus on?

In physical infrastructure, expect much of the work that has been planned in building new MRT lines and upgrading the rail network to continue under new Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, even as more could be done to improve public transport.

As for public housing, supply has been ramped up to meet demand under Mr Khaw's leadership at the National Development Ministry. But a new challenge looms, as public housing estates age - how will new minister Lawrence Wong help reshape the HDB heartland?

In education, both new acting ministers Ng Chee Meng, in schools, and Ong Ye Kung, in higher education and skills, will have their hands full leading the task of preparing students across all levels for a more challenging economic landscape, where learning at all ages is key.

This effort continues in manpower, where the focus remains keeping the workforce lean and productive, maintaining a strong Singaporean core, and getting workers and companies ready for the future by making sure they fully tap policies such as SkillsFuture.

Similar attention to effective delivery is expected for social policies, where spending has increased significantly to help elderly and lower-income citizens. Going forward, there appears to be room to better assist those who live alone, as well as caregivers.

The same approach could help on the healthcare front, where greater emphasis needs to be placed on care within the community, and more importantly, on preventing and managing chronic ailments so a greying population can age well.

Six Straits Times correspondents give their views on some of the major challenges, as well as changes, that can be expected in the near future.





Transport: Towards a car-lite Singapore
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

The two previous transport ministers - Mr Lui Tuck Yew and his predecessor, Mr Raymond Lim - made a number of profound changes that should pave the way for a more responsive and more sustainable transport system.

And new Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan has already spelt out his immediate tasks, which include upping the engineering expertise here to tackle the reliability issues faced by the rail network.

Mr Khaw also believes that Singapore should have a lower reliance on cars.

But for this to happen, the country must first be consistent and stay the course when it comes to investing in public transport infrastructure.

This includes keeping to the target of doubling the rail network by 2030, and to not be derailed by financial crises or economic uncertainties along the way.

If Singapore had kept to development plans spelt out 15 to 20 years ago, the rail network would have been far more comprehensive today, and its "car-lite" narrative would be more convincing.

Make no mistake, the Land Transport Authority, as well as all the main contractors and their sub-contractors and suppliers, are all stretched. After all, Singapore is embarking on no fewer than three new rail projects simultaneously. More, if the different stages and extensions of each line, and other improvements, are counted.

In the early days, engineers had to contend with only one - or at the most two - rail projects at any one time. Well, if this is what Singapore must do to play catch-up, so be it. Hopefully, the result will be a transport network that is so convenient and so accessible that having a car is no longer a necessity.

On the fringe, the plan to shift to a new rail financing framework needs more momentum. So far, both SBS Transit and SMRT Corp have not been persuaded to shift the operating contracts of their older lines over to the new framework.

The protracted nature of their discussions with the Transport Ministry suggests that both sides cannot iron out fundamental issues.

It might be good to pause and reflect if Singapore should be making its rail industry contestable - the way it is doing for the bus sector. Although the notion of letting competition motivate operators is appealing, the reality is that the rail business may be too unwieldy for the benefits of this to emerge. The risks associated with such a model are just too high.

It may be better to revisit the proposal to have one rail operator for better economies of scale, and pooling of expertise as well as domain and institutional knowledge.

The best rail systems happen to be those run by a monopoly, duopoly or by the state - think of Hong Kong, Tokyo and Taipei. Although a monopoly goes against popular economic theory, rail may be an exception. To extract the best efficiency out of a sole operator, it should be first delisted, so there are no competing demands from public shareholders.

Then empower regulators to have a stronger hold of that operator, allowing it to take top executives to task in the most direct and severe manner. It is only then that service, reliability and longevity can be improved.

Effective regulation is also needed for the new bus operating model Singapore has just embarked on. Without it, Singapore will end up with service standards that are not commensurate with the bigger bill taxpayers have to foot.

On roads, Singapore needs to optimise efficiency and capacity, given its space constraints. The next-generation Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system will allow this to be done, if only its full potential can be unleashed to charge according to distance and to bring intelligent, real-time traffic information into each and every vehicle.

Next up: taking a long, hard look at the vehicle quota system. With satellite-tracked, distance-based ERP, the lifespan of certificates of entitlement (COEs) could be tied to mileage rather than years. Doing so might just dilute motorists' drive to maximise usage of their cars once they have paid a king's ransom for them.

On the "car-lite" agenda, should Singapore shelve plans to build another highway? Work on the North-South Expressway, which is supposed to run parallel to the Central Expressway, was slated to start this year. But with the resource crunch, it might be delayed. Why not postpone it indefinitely? After all, building an $8 billion highway and going "car-lite" are conflicting messages.

Also, transport economists will point out that a new highway will be choked in no time because of induced demand.

Lastly, Singapore should really fix the taxi industry. Why is it that Singapore has the highest taxi population per capita and yet commuters complain perennially about the difficulty of getting a cab?

Will allowing transport app companies Uber and GrabTaxi to proliferate do the trick? Or will these newcomers eventually be part of the problem once they are entrenched?

Minister Khaw has already assigned Senior Minister of State for Transport Ng Chee Meng to take a closer look at these new players and see if it is necessary to adjust the playing field so that they compete fairly with taxi firms.

The fact that Mr Khaw did this within a week of assuming the transport portfolio shows that he is hitting the ground running, and that he is paying attention to both big and small issues. As far as commuters go, that must be a promising start.





Housing: Reshaping heartland in a big way
By Aaron Low, Deputy Business Editor, The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

It might seem that new National Development Minister Lawrence Wong has a pretty simple job ahead: Staying on the course his predecessor set.

After all, the most pressing challenge for public housing - ramping up supply to meet pent-up demand - has largely been met.

Under former national development minister Khaw Boon Wan, the Housing Board launched more than 100,000 public housing units.

The Government has also put in place cooling measures, managing to tame a red-hot property market that, at one point, seemed to be spiralling out of control.

But for Mr Wong, his bigger task lies down the road, and it is a mammoth one: starting the process to reshape the HDB landscape.

This is because, over the next 10 years or so, flats in many mature estates, such as Toa Payoh and Bedok, which were built in the 1970s and early 1980s, will start to hit the halfway mark of their 99-year leases.

NEW MINISTER'S PRIORITIES

In his first blog post, titled Continue The Tradition; Build The Future, Mr Wong made it quite clear that he has several priorities.

One is to continue ensuring that housing remains affordable and central to the lives of Singaporeans.

His first task on this front is to ensure that the housing market achieves a "soft landing".

This means the housing market should continue to decline, but slowly and gradually, without big shocks that could hurt people with big mortgages.

Soon after the Sept 11 General Election, property analysts started to call for the cooling measures to be lifted to boost the flagging property market.

But it is unlikely he will want to move on this too soon, especially since there are external forces, such as rising interest rates, which could have a severe impact on the property market.

He said as much in comments to the media earlier this month: "The price adjustments that we've seen so far have been moderate compared to the increase in prices that took place very quickly in the past few years. It's still not time yet to unwind the cooling measures. We don't want to risk a premature market rebound."

Then there will be some policies which will need further tweaking, as well as new ones which had been announced just prior to the GE.

These include the Fresh Start Housing Scheme, which gives a bigger financial subsidy to younger, lower-middle income families.

This was introduced during the National Day Rally by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong this year, and Mr Wong will have to see the implementation through.

There is also the move, started by Mr Khaw, to combine the existing two-room flat scheme and studio apartment (SA) scheme under the two-room Flexi Scheme.

IMPROVING HDB 'OLD TOWNS'

As for reshaping the HDB landscape, Mr Wong hinted at it in the blog post when he wrote: "Improving our HDB towns built in the 70s and 80s to meet changing needs will also be my focus, so that Singapore remains an endearing home for everyone, always."

The question is, what will the Government do with the flats that reach the halfway point on their 99-year leases? This is the typical age of flats which get redeveloped into new ones.

There is the option of leaving the flats to age naturally and run down their lease, in which case the initial investment by the flat owner will become zero.

Politically, however, allowing this to happen might be tricky, even if the leases will have another 50 years to run.

It is quite unlikely that the Government will allow large numbers of flat owners to be left without homes when their leases run out.

This is almost unthinkable as home ownership is a key pillar of Singapore's political and social culture.

The more likely thing to happen is that the Government will start to ramp up the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers), introduced by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1995.

This allows the Government to tear down old blocks of flats to make way for new ones. Residents will be rehoused by the Government in nearby estates and given compensation for their homes.

In the past 20 years since Sers was announced, 72 sites have been completed, as at February this year, while another seven are in progress.

Given the scale of the project, with thousands of flats that would need to be torn down and rebuilt, logistics and planning become paramount.

In other words, Mr Wong's biggest challenge will be to ensure that he starts to plan for this huge task which will take years, if not decades, to complete.

But this also means that he will be given a unique opportunity to reshape the HDB heartland in a big way.





Education: Teaching 21st century skills
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

Two years ago in his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the way the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) score is calculated will be changed as the Government moves to cut excessive competition among young children. Instead of an aggregate T-score which sorts children too finely, pupils will get a grade band. These grades will be converted into points for admission into secondary school.

Parents welcomed the change, as many felt the current system added to their children's stress over the exam that they sit at age 12.

But two years on, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has yet to reveal details of the new scoring system and when it will come into effect. Parents were disappointed when Mr Heng Swee Keat, in his last major interview as Education Minister in August, said the makeover of the PSLE is still some time away, with the announcement to come next year at the earliest.

But even as Mr Ng Chee Meng, the Acting Education Minister (Schools), works out the details, the more important question to ask is whether the PSLE should be done away with altogether.

A poll commissioned by The Straits Times last year found that only two in five Singaporeans thought the examination was necessary. One in five stated outright it was redundant, while the others were neutral.

Some notable education experts, too, have raised the same question. One is Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond. During a lecture here two years ago, she praised Singapore's education system, but when asked about the PSLE, she said the debate on the exam had raised two important questions. The first was the purpose of the exam and whether it was being used in the right way. The second was whether it was appropriate for children to take a high-stakes examination at age 12.

For policymakers, while the PSLE may be an efficient way to allocate priority for secondary school selection, a question that rears its head is: Does it stand in the way of more important objectives in education - to move parents' focus away from academic grades to educating the whole child?

Also, is it a fair means of assessment for children who suffer exam anxiety? What about late bloomers?

And what about the fact that the PSLE doesn't test 21st century skills that MOE is stressing, such as the ability to work in teams and connect with people from other cultures?

SKILLSFUTURE - WHAT NEXT?

The other big issue in education that requires further work is SkillsFuture, a national movement started last year to provide Singaporeans with opportunities to develop to their fullest potential throughout life.

MOE officials have stressed that, increasingly, just having a degree won't do. It is not that qualifications don't matter. They must be the right qualifications that will enable young people to go further in their chosen careers. And this must be combined with deep skills and on-the-job experience.

The Earn and Learn scheme, where Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic grads can work and further their qualifications at the same time, was one of the initiatives launched under SkillsFuture.

Mr Ong Ye Kung, the Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), recently said the pathways provided under SkillsFuture are part of the Government's effort to offer diverse choices to Singaporeans. He stressed that the education system is evolving to take into account the aspirations and talents of Singaporeans, but added that this has to also take into account economic and social changes taking place around the world as they have significant implications on higher education.

For example, the traditional lines between products and services are eroding. Mr Ong noted: "Today, one can offer a taxi service without owning any vehicles, offer hotel services without owning any rooms or buildings. And soon we may have a big successful university that has no classrooms."

However, a mindset change is needed - many students and parents continue to believe only a university degree will secure them a good future.

There have been some takers for the Earn and Learn schemes, but not in big numbers, such as the 39 who started on the logistics programme launched earlier this month. Probe the participants further and many will admit that they hope to go on to university once they complete the 12-month programme, where they earn $1,800 to $2,000 monthly salaries while studying for a specialist diploma.

"It's still not a degree," one participant said.

Going by application numbers to the six local universities this year and the increasing number of Singaporeans heading overseas, the degree chase is still on. Many quote job surveys which show a pay gap between degree holders and non-degree holders.

Since last year, the Government has taken steps to offer civil servants without degrees the same prospects as those who are university graduates.

These moves show that the Government is walking the talk. But private sector employers still have different - and higher - pay scales for graduates, and vary pay according to applicants' degree class.

The Government has to look into how these practices can be changed. And employers should also be encouraged to change their practice of paying less to non-graduates who perform the same job as graduates. Instead, they should pay and promote based on job scope and performance.





Manpower: A lean, productive workforce
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

Amid the changes announced in the new Cabinet line-up, one area stood out - for not standing out. This was the manpower sector, in which there was no change to the two top ministerial appointments.

Mr Lim Swee Say was reappointed Manpower Minister, and labour chief Chan Chun Sing the Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. Both had taken on these roles in May.

The continuity in their appointments shows the direction of manpower policies over the current term of government: What started or was announced last term will continue to run their course.

This means the focus is on keeping the workforce lean and productive, maintaining its strong Singaporean core, raising the quality of foreign workers, and getting workers and companies ready for the future.

With no big policy shifts expected, the Government and its union and employer partners will have to coordinate their efforts to ensure policies like SkillsFuture, Silver Support and an employment tribunal are put in place effectively to prepare for an uncertain economic landscape.

But both ministers will still have their work cut out for them. Their biggest headache is how to turbocharge the productivity drive, which has been stuck in reverse gear for some years. Beyond the next few years, a bigger problem looms: Dramatically fewer local workers are coming on stream for jobs.

Growth in local-worker employment will be slashed to about 20,000 a year towards the end of this decade - less than a quarter of the 95,000 growth figure last year. Eventually, the number of local job entrants will hit a peak and more workers may eventually exit the workforce than those entering - even as controls remain tight on the inflow of foreign workers.

The priority of the Manpower Ministry (MOM) and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is to overcome these structural changes in the labour force. If mishandled, the economy - which this year has shown subdued growth - can suffer because workers are an essential part of it.

PRODUCTIVITY GETS A RESET

In 2010, Singapore set an ambitious target of 2 to 3 per cent productivity growth annually between 2010 and 2019. Productivity rose in 2010, 2011 and 2013 - but fell in 2012 and last year. Worryingly, labour productivity fell 0.5 per cent for January to June this year, down in all sectors, including manufacturing, construction and services. The MOM has conceded that there is a low likelihood of a significant uplift in productivity for the rest of the year.

One way the Government hopes to inject a new burst of energy into the productivity drive is through the national SkillsFuture movement.

The SkillsFuture Council, formed last year to spearhead efforts towards an integrated system of education, training and career progression, is headed by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and comprises unionists, business leaders and government officials.

A key scheme it is rolling out is SkillsFuture Credit. All Singaporeans aged 25 and older will receive $500 to enrol in courses to upgrade their skills from next year.

The move puts the responsibility of skills upgrading in the hands of local workers. While $500 may not appear to be much, consider this: If their course receives a 90 per cent government subsidy, they can attend a $5,000 course for free.

But it is one thing to put the training money in the workers' hands; it is quite another to help them use it wisely to boost their skills and their firms' productivity. This is an area that the authorities and unions ought to address. So far, they have not said how they would do so.

Still, the strategic shift of the productivity focus from companies to workers is an important one.

OLDER WORKERS IN SPOTLIGHT

Elsewhere in the labour force, there is also another shift taking place - towards older workers.

By 2017, the Government will update the law to raise the re-employment age from the current 65 to 67. After the higher age ceiling kicks in, bosses must rehire healthy workers who have performed satisfactorily until they reach the age of 67, or give them a one-off payment.

MOM, NTUC and their tripartite partner, the Singapore National Employers Federation, still have some time to prepare firms for the change.

While older workers who want to keep their jobs will cheer the raising of the re-employment age, those who prefer to retire will be waiting in anticipation for two announcements related to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and the Silver Support Scheme.

By the end of this year, the government-appointed panel that is reviewing the CPF system will release its final recommendations on tweaks to provide more flexibility in how CPF monies are invested.

In August, Parliament passed the Silver Support Scheme Bill to provide elderly Singaporeans with between $300 and $750 every three months. It kicks in next year. The move, with changes to the CPF system, will address the financial worries of older Singaporeans in their twilight years.

Professionals, managers and executives (PMEs), meanwhile, are eager to see a new employment claims tribunal set up. In April last year, MOM mooted a tribunal to handle pay disputes of all workers, regardless of how much they earn.

It was meant to address a gripe among PMEs: Only workers covered by the Employment Act and those earning less than $4,500 a month can seek MOM's help with salary disputes. PMEs can pursue breached employment contracts only by filing civil suits, which are often expensive and protracted.

Eighteen months later, MOM is tight-lipped on details. To help PMEs, the tribunal should be set up sooner rather than later.





Health: Hep C, eldercare and rising costs
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

It may be just under three months before the Ministry of Health (MOH) lays out to Parliament its plans for the next five years, but already, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong finds himself in the hot seat with an urgent issue to address - the outbreak of hepatitis C at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

Twenty-three patients who had been warded at SGH between April and June this year have been diagnosed with the same family of hepatitis C virus. Two more patients have tested positive for hepatitis C, and SGH is studying if they are part of the same cluster. If so, the number infected would be 25.

Eight patients have since died, with five of the deaths linked to the virus. The ministry has set up an independent review committee to look into not just how the infection occurred, but also the actions of the hospital and the ministry following its discovery. The committee includes international experts.


SGH has also filed a police report so that the police can ascertain whether there was any foul play involved in the spread of the virus in the hospital.


Less pressing, but still requiring addressing over the longer term, are the growing healthcare demands of the population.

This was seen earlier in a shortage of hospital beds that resulted in patients being housed in tents, three to a cubicle meant for one, and along corridors. With the opening of the 700-bed Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, that problem has eased somewhat. More community, as well as general, hospitals are being built and set to open this year and next, which should address the immediate problem.

But building more hospitals is not the only solution, given Singapore's rapidly ageing population and the demands that will place on the healthcare system.

Greater emphasis needs to be placed on care within the community and, even more importantly, on preventing and managing chronic ailments so the population can age healthily, remain independent and not become a drain on healthcare financing.

Singaporeans' life expectancy has been going up by roughly three years every decade.

MOH's $3 billion Action Plan for Successful Ageing could go some way in this direction - if it is properly implemented and gets buy-in from seniors.

Mr Gan is right when he said: "We need to plan ahead to ensure that Singaporeans need not worry about getting old, but instead embrace new opportunities that come with longevity."

Another area that could be addressed is the provision of free, or at least subsidised, vaccines for adults and seniors.

Most developed countries recommend, or even provide, vaccinations against pneumococcal diseases, shingles and influenza.

Although they tend to be less effective in older people, studies have shown that there are still cost benefits to the nation, aside from reducing pain and death among those affected.

THE CHALLENGE OF RISING COSTS

The other major piece on Mr Gan's plate is healthcare financing, amid higher demands from an ageing population.

MediShield Life will be launched next month, and lays a good foundation to ensure people can afford basic medical care.

However, two in three people today are on medical insurance that offers them coverage at private - rather than subsidised - levels.

The MediShield Life Review Committee has asked the ministry to work on a standard B1 medical insurance plan, given the grave concerns many people expressed about soaring private premiums and differing coverage by the five private insurers that offer MediShield top-up coverage.

This will hopefully materialise soon, as many are eagerly awaiting some control over a market that few understand, or are able to navigate.

The more important job for the minister, however, is keeping a lid on rising costs.

Medical insurance claims have been going up at double-digit rates every year for the past several years.

MOH has promised to keep premiums for Medi- Shield Life unchanged for the first five years. But this does not change the fact that healthcare costs will continue to rise in those five years.

If left unchecked, such spiralling premium increases could easily bankrupt the national health insurance, since total claims paid out could double every eight to 10 years.





Social welfare: Pressure on family mounting
By Janice Tai, The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

Over the past few years, social spending has increased significantly to help the elderly, and lower- and middle-income groups, in the face of rising income inequality and an ageing population.

Examples include the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package and long-term investments in the pre-school sector. Overall, they make a fairly decent "social safety net".

But that alone will not be enough, because social welfare is never just about transactions or the size of grants. It is about building resilience and self-reliance among the vulnerable so that they feel confident enough to take charge of their lives.

So while there is no change in the ministerial appointment for social and family development after the general election, its relatively new minister, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, faces new challenges in supporting the vulnerable, because pressures on the family and individuals are mounting.

Indeed, the mantra of "family as the first line of support" is increasingly being tested.

Two groups, in particular, are feeling the stress: older people who live alone or do not have family members to care for them, and caregivers who are struggling.

The share of one-person households and those headed by a married couple who are childless or not living with their children has gone up from one in five in 2000, to one in four last year. A third of these two household types had at least one member aged 65 and above.

Given that most care for older persons happens in the context of family, this group may receive little care.

Their visits to the doctor may be subsidised or even free, but who will take them there? They may get cans of tuna or Milo given by charities to make a simple lunch, but who will eat with them or talk to them over lunch?

Issues such as social isolation and loneliness are real and here to stay.

The rest of the households may have caregivers, but they are not having an easy time. The pressure on the "sandwiched generation" - people looking after both their children and ageing parents - is great. They have to shoulder both the financial aspect of care, and the physical and psychosocial facets, too.

The latest 2010 National Health Survey that captured caregiver data for the first time showed that about 210,000 people aged 18 to 69 provided regular care to family and friends.

This number is expected to rise.

A study by Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School revealed that nearly half of 1,190 caregivers surveyed have jobs. Yet, they spend 38 hours every week on caregiving, and are more likely to experience higher caregiver stress and depression.

How can the state support them better? Would monetising family caregiving work? Countries such as Finland give a monthly informal care allowance as ageing in the community takes priority.

These are questions that could be addressed.

Besides re-examining care provision within the family as society ages, there is also a need to review the coordination of support services in the community.

On this front, former Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing started two significant projects to ensure social services are delivered conveniently and efficiently.

The first was to launch a network of social service offices islandwide so that, together with family service centres, there will be help within 2km of where 95 per cent of needy residents live or work.

The second was to develop a national database of information on aid recipients, or the social service sector's equivalent of the National Electronic Health Records for healthcare institutions, to facilitate multi-agency collaborations and spare clients having to repeat their stories each time they go to a different agency.

Mr Tan will have to see these large-scale projects through.

Beyond that, he will also have to work more closely with the health ministry or form a joint committee to prevent overlapping of services and duplication of manpower when meeting social and medical needs.

In tackling the needs of a greying population, social and health issues are often interwined. That is why countries such as Sweden and Finland have one central ministry, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.

Yes, there are a plethora of social and healthcare services already existing in the community, but they are neither integrated nor robust enough to enable ageing in the community. So there is much for Mr Tan to work on.

The balancing act also has to go beyond health and social issues to the economics behind them.

No country has been able to offer free healthcare and social services without raising taxes for middle-income earners.

So the appointment of Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as the Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies is timely, and his clout in this area may heighten expectations on sustainable social development spending.


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