Thursday, 14 April 2016

Committee of Supply Debate 2016: MSF, MEWR, MOT

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Social and Family Development

KidStart: Disadvantaged kids to get help in $20m programme
1,000 children up to six years old living in five areas to be identified for three-year trial
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

An initiative to give a leg-up to young children from disadvantaged families will be rolled out in five areas in the second half of this year.

The areas are Bukit Merah, Kreta Ayer, Boon Lay, Taman Jurong and Geylang Serai.

Some 1,000 children up to six years old will be "proactively identified" by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) and organisations such as family service centres, hospitals and pre-schools, for the trial of the KidStart scheme.

They could include those who come from families with poor, young or unwed parents, or with parents who are in jail.

The Government has set aside more than $20 million for the three-year trial.

The scheme will coordinate the existing support services provided by different agencies for such children. In addition, it will extend support in areas such as health and learning, and will also monitor the children's progress.

For instance, the children may get basic immunisations and placement in pre-schools.

Their parents will also get help, such as through home visits or parent support groups, so that they can better support the children during their pre-school years and transition to primary school.

These details of the KidStart scheme, first announced by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in his Budget speech last month, were revealed by Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday.

Said Mr Tan during the debate on his ministry's budget: "Some children, possibly because of complex family circumstances, already lag behind developmentally even in their early years... In order to help (them), we have to go upstream and provide additional support."

MP Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC) asked Mr Tan if children older than six years can still be helped on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Tan said KidStart is but one programme and the older children could still be eligible for other aid schemes.

He said his ministry would look at the cases if Dr Neo flagged them.

The ECDA said starting small and being focused will allow it to refine how services are delivered before evaluating if, and how, the scheme can be offered in more areas.

Mr Tan said: "I want this model to work. I want to be able to ramp up and help more children."

While the cost of KidStart works out to an average of $20,000 per child, the ECDA said the actual cost per child will depend on the child's needs and the services required, so this could range "from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars each year".

It has set up a programme office to work with government agencies, social service offices, hospitals and community partners to implement KidStart.

Suitable families will be contacted and asked if they want to take part.

Ms Nur Zalina Ismail, executive principal at a My First Skool childcare centre, said it was important for organisations, such as pre-schools, to work with parents to help their children.

She said: "We should do whatever we can to make sure that no child gets left behind."

Single mum welcomes KidStart scheme to help disadvantaged children
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

Single and unwed, Ms Lina (not her real name) struggles to bring up her six-month-old daughter on her own.

Every month, the 26-year-old pre-school teacher has to pay $500 in rent to her parents for a room, and $500 to settle debts incurred by the child's father.

She broke off her engagement to him before the girl was born.

Yesterday, the Government announced a new scheme to help children from disadvantaged homes, including those of unwed mothers.

Called KidStart, it will go on trial in the second half of this year in five areas, including Ms Lina's Geylang Serai neighbourhood.

It will help children aged up to six with learning and health support, like basic immunisations.

The scheme will also coordinate existing services across agencies, offer parenting workshops and monitor the children's progress.

Ms Lina welcomed it, saying: "It would be good not to have to go to several agencies for help. I hope the parenting courses will be free."

Life is challenging although it is a notch better since she discovered help schemes in the past months.

Recounting her struggles, she said she could not find a full-time job when she was pregnant. After giving birth, she worked from home.

She also could not enrol her daughter in infant care as the fees were beyond her means.

But friends told her of government help schemes like ComCare. "They had received such help. If I had not told them I was a single mum, it would have been even harder to know of these schemes," she told The Straits Times.

She received aid from Medifund, which helps the needy pay healthcare bills, and receives $940 a month from ComCare. She also pays $310 a month for infant care instead of $1,540, after subsidies.

"I hope my child and I can get our own home. I'd like to rent an HDB home but was told we don't have a family nucleus. But my daughter is my family."

Unwed mums to get 16-week maternity leave
By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

Unwed mothers will soon get the same 16-week maternity leave that is given to married mothers. Their children will also get a Child Development Account (CDA), which helps pay for their childcare and healthcare needs.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin announced the extension of these benefits yesterday, in a move to avoid discriminating against these children. These benefits are now given only to married mothers and their children.

The maternity leave benefits will kick in early next year as Parliament will need to change the law first. But the children of unwed mothers will likely be given the CDAs by September this year, Mr Tan added.

"We can do more to support their efforts to care for their children and reduce the disadvantages that their children may face at birth," he said, adding that he has met such mothers, including at his Meet-the-People Sessions. "They are usually vulnerable because they are younger and lower-educated. Some may have been rejected by their own families," he said. "It can be difficult enough to bring up children but to do so single-handedly, without family support, is really tough. Some may have hoped to have a child within marriage, but due to circumstances ended up as unwed parents."

Currently, unwed mothers get eight weeks of paid maternity leave. And their children do not qualify for a CDA, a savings account wherein the Government matches the deposits parents make by up to $6,000. Last month, it said it would deposit $3,000 into the accounts of children born from March 24, even before parents make a deposit.

Mr Tan said the reason for extending the benefits is to support unwed mothers' efforts to provide for their children. At the same time, the move should not "undermine parenthood within marriage", which is "still the prevalent social norm".

After the changes, unwed mothers will still not get the Baby Bonus cash gift and parenthood tax rebates. They also have to wait till they turn 35 to buy a Housing Board flat under the singles scheme.

Unwed mother Bibiana Neo, 33, who had her daughter a year ago, wishes the benefits had come sooner: "The CDA would have helped with infant care."

The Association of Women for Action and Research said the move was "in the right direction". "We hope the Government can go further and look at areas like housing," it added.

Help for those from broken homes to keep family intact
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

A pilot programme is to be rolled out for children of abusive or negligent parents to let them continue to stay at home with their loved ones instead of being sent to a children's home or put up for foster care.

In announcing the move in Parliament yesterday, Minister of Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said it is conventional wisdom that the most ideal environment for children to grow up is in their own homes with their families.

Under the programme, to be launched by December this year, social workers will visit the families every week to understand their strengths and needs.

They will then counsel them, coach the caregivers on parenting skills and connect them to relevant resources in the community.

This "family preservation" service offered by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and voluntary welfare organisations will last for six months to ensure the family is back on an even keel.

For children already in foster care, the ministry will offer a "family reunification" service to pave the way for them to return home to their family. It will last 12 months.

Both services come under the pilot programme, to be called Safe and Strong Families.

It is expected to help 400 families and children in the next three years.

Mr Tan, speaking during the debate on his ministry's budget, said that in the coming years, the ministry will continue to strengthen "these fundamental family relationships''.

"Where relationships have problems, we try to help repair and preserve them. Where they have broken down, we try to minimise the negative impact," he said.

"Central to our work here is the interest of the children and their development," he added.

Currently, about 800 children and young people are living in 23 children's homes, and 350 with foster families.

Also, several agencies provide some form of family preservation or reunification support for such vulnerable families. These include Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre, Gracehaven children's home run by The Salvation Army, and Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home.

But the pilot programme will be a more intensive and targeted home-based service.

Ms Serene Tan, senior social worker at Big Love welcomes it: "Children grow up best with their parents as there is natural bonding and innate attachment."

Also, research in the United States shows more such support reduces the risk of the child being physically or psychologically harmed in the family and increases the likelihood of the child continuing to live with the family.

Her centre has handled about 500 child protection cases in the last three years.

It provides counselling and other home-based services to families torn by financial, addiction, housing and employment problems as well as marital discord or mental health.

Ms Lakshmi Alagappan, deputy head of Gracehaven, said it is vital to have staff whose main task is to help the families, especially the children.

"If the children go back to unstable homes, the issues may escalate and they may have to return to children's homes again."

Teen's attitude and behaviour changed after going back to family
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

When a 13-year-old boy from a children's home was reunited with his family last year, he returned to a home with only a faulty fan, a small table and a rice cooker.

His parents and younger sister slept on the cold hard floor, devoid of any mattresses.

Besides lacking in material things, his parents were also ill-equipped to manage Bryan (not his real name).

Three years ago, Bryan was sent to Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home. He had Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), would not listen to instructions and acted up by throwing tantrums or hurling vulgarities.

His father had spinal cord injuries and could not hold down a job.

His mother was a part-time fast food server and had to care for his sister who has special needs.

The family also often moved from one rental flat to another.

But at the children's home, Bryan was unhappy as he missed his family. Every few months, he would flee from the home and stay in shopping malls and amusement arcades.

Last September, Ms Betty Lim, chief executive of the children's home, found out the family had got a Build-To-Order flat in Sengkang. She swiftly made arrangements to reunite him with his family and provide support for them.

Their home was furnished with donated items such as curtains, cupboards and beds.

Ms Lim and her staff also found the mother a job as a clerk. The family was referred to other community agencies for financial aid, food rations and counselling.

Bryan received tuition from the children's home.

Its staff also visited the familyto equip the parents with better parenting skills.

Bryan's mother, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Soon, 35, said: "Their support was crucial in helping us take that first step in creating a stable environment for Bryan.

"His principal told me they have seen a 180-degree change in Bryan's attitude and behaviour."

"He no longer shows the symptoms of ODD and takes the initiative to help out with household chores," she added.

Ms Lim said: "Family integration is very important and a lot of children long to go back home but their parents are not ready or able to manage them.

"They need more support," she added.

Public Assistance allowances up to keep pace with costs
By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

From July, Singaporeans who are unable to work and support themselves will get more cash as part of their Public Assistance allowance.

A recipient living alone will get $500 per month from July, $50 more than currently. A two-person household will get $870 per month, up from the current $790.

These details were made public during the debate on the Ministry of Social and Family Development's budget yesterday.

"We are aware that the cost of living is high and our low-income households are struggling," Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin told the House.

The increase "is to keep pace with the cost of living", Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Faishal Ibrahim added.

Those on Public Assistance - also known as ComCare Long Term Assistance - are citizens who cannot work due to old age, illness or disability. They also have little or no means of income or family support.

About 3,800 households, many of them elderly, are expected to benefit from the cash allowance increase.

Apart from the cash allowance, Public Assistance includes assistance for recurring expenses such as medical consumables and household appliances, and free medical treatment at public hospitals and polyclinics.

One recipient is Madam Angela Goh, 90, who has no children and lives alone in a one-room rental flat in Ang Mo Kio. She is glad for the raise, saying it will go a long way in helping her to make ends meet.

"I'm happy about it. The $50 increment is enough since I'm alone and don't have to pay for anyone else," she added in Mandarin.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources

Smoking ban to extend to reservoirs, parks
On list: Over 400 parks, including those in private and public estates
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

Smokers have to stub out in more public places from June.

Reservoirs and more than 400 parks, including those in private and public housing estates, have been added to the list of smoke-free areas.

The parks include those managed by JTC Corporation and town councils, as well as neighbourhood parks managed by the National Parks Board (NParks) in private estates, like Yunnan Park in Jurong West.

The new move comes three years after the smoking ban was extended to common areas, such as void decks, sheltered walkways and linkways, and any area within a 5m radius of a bus stop.

Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor, in announcing the change yesterday, said the Government's long-term goal is to snuff out smoking in all public areas.

This is to protect non-smokers from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke, she said during the parliamentary debate on the budget of the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

Smokers caught lighting up in reservoirs and parks in the first three months will get a warning.

"This is to give members of the public time to adjust to the extension of the smoking prohibition," said the National Environment Agency (NEA).

But smokers who repeatedly flout the law "in spite of prior warnings" can be fined, NEA added.

The fine for smoking in NParks' neighbourhood parks in private housing estates is up to $2,000, while in other prohibited places it is at most $1,000.

Currently, smoking is prohibited in 32,000 places such as shopping malls, cinemas and hospitals. Last year, about 17,000 fines were handed out to smokers.

NEA also said owners of premises affected by the latest extension can set up designated smoking areas in their premises.

It added that it has been working with them to put up "No Smoking" signs, and to re-locate bins with ashtrays or replace them with bins without them.

Separately, premises managed by the Singapore Armed Forces and Ministry of Home Affairs will come under the Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) Act.

The NEA said the new rules will not change how both agencies punish their personnel for smoking on their premises. But civilians caught doing so will have their personal particulars handed to the NEA for enforcement action.

Greener moves for cleaner air
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

The Government will buy only printing paper products that carry the Singapore Green Label come September.

Public agencies will also procure only electrical products certified with "high energy efficiency", starting with air-conditioners, refrigerators, televisions and lamps. For example, only air-conditioners rated at least three-ticks will be allowed.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli made this commitment to signal the public sector's efforts to take the lead in encouraging sustainable practices. A Green Label indicates that suppliers practise sustainable forestry management, which helps tackle the root cause of transboundary haze pollution.

Mr Masagos also announced a key measure to tackle local air pollution: All new motorcycles above 200cc will need to comply with the Euro 4 emission standard from Jan 1, 2018. For new motorcycles under or equal to 200cc, the rules apply from Jan 1, 2020.

Motorcycles are significant contributors to carbon monoxide and ozone, Mr Masagos said.

The Euro 4 standard will reduce emissions of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, which form ozone, by an estimated 50 per cent in new motorcycles, compared to Euro 3.

A study of the pollution caused by diesel vehicles in Singapore is also being done, to analyse the impact on public health and the environment. The results will be used to review vehicle emission policies.

MPs Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC) and Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) asked about ongoing efforts by the National Environment Agency (NEA) to take to task companies responsible for illegal forest fires that caused last year's haze.

Mr Masagos said the NEA has sent Preventive Measures Notices under Singapore's Transboundary Haze Pollution Act to six Indonesia-based companies, asking them to take immediate steps to mitigate fires and prevent a repeat.

Two - PT Bumi Sriwijaya Sentosa and PT Wachyuni Mandira - have responded, and NEA is in touch with them to verify their information.

NEA is also reviewing information from Asia Pulp and Paper on its subsidiaries and steps taken by its Indonesian suppliers to put out fires in their concessions.

A foreign director from one of the four firms that have yet to respond was also recently served with a notice when he was in Singapore, asking him to give information and attend an interview related to the ongoing investigations.

Tightening the tap on water wastage: Measures ticking along
By Carolyn Khew, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

To encourage water conservation, national water agency PUB will phase out the sale of less efficient taps and mixers as well as introduce new ratings for washing machines.

A new "four-tick" rating will be introduced next year for washing machines under the Mandatory Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme.

The scheme enables consumers to make informed decisions by choosing more water-efficient water fittings and appliances such as taps and mixers, and flushing cisterns. The more ticks a product has, the more water-efficient it is.

Currently, washing machines sold have either two- or three-tick water efficiency ratings.

The sale and supply of taps and mixers with "zero ticks" will also be disallowed from early next year.

These measures are all part of the Government's plan to manage water demand.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said that extreme weather patterns due to climate change will pose a challenge to Singapore's water sustainability.

While the amount of water used by Singapore residents fell from 160 litres per person per day in 2003, to 150 litres in 2014, the figure rose last year - to about 151 litres of water a day.

Separately, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said that, by 2018, the manufacture, import and export of non-compliant mercury-added batteries will be prohibited.

This refers to those containing more than five parts-per-million mercury per cell.

Singapore generates more than 60,000 tonnes of e-waste each year, and this will only grow as electronic items become more common, Dr Khor added.

A study is under way to look at how feasible system designs can be developed for the collection, recycling and management of e-waste in Singapore.

Field study to assess using special mozzies against dengue
It entails releasing bacteria-carrying male mosquitoes into environment; steps taken to safeguard public health
By Carolyn Khew, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

A field study will be conducted at the end of this year to assess if a special type of mosquito can be a weapon against dengue.

The male Wolbachia-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes will be released into the environment in the small-scale study to be conducted by the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Speaking during the debate on the ministry's budget, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said the Government was not embarking on the study "lightly", and had "studied this for years and taken all steps to ensure that public health and safety will not be compromised".

Only male mosquitoes, which do not bite, will be released.

Wolbachia is a naturally occurring bacteria that can be found in over 60 per cent of insect species, but not in dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

When male mosquitoes carrying the bacteria mate with wild female mosquitoes, they produce eggs that do not hatch. This could help to suppress the number of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the long run. The method has been used in the fight against dengue in countries such as Australia and Brazil.

The study will look at the behaviour of these special mosquitoes in the built-up environment, such as how long they can live in the wild and their flight range. The data collected will help in the design of a future trial. Previously, studies were conducted in the laboratory by the Environmental Health Institute under the NEA.

Based on the NEA's assessment so far, the technology poses no or insignificant risk of negative impact on public health or ecology.

The NEA has appointed a research firm to identify any potential secondary environmental and social impact that may arise.

Dengue expert Tikki Pang said each country's situation is unique and "only time will tell" if the technology will work in Singapore.

"Any tool that helps in the battle against dengue should be considered and tested," added the visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

The announcement comes on the back of a sharp rise in the number of dengue cases this year. A total of 6,338 dengue cases were reported between January and March this year, almost three times as many as the 2,251 cases reported in the same period last year.

The authorities have warned that unless immediate action is taken to suppress the Aedes mosquito population, the number of dengue cases this year may exceed 30,000 - higher than the record set in 2013 when 22,170 cases were reported.

Several MPs also asked about the Government's plan to approve the dengue vaccine for use here.

Mr Masagos replied that it has been closely tracking the development of the vaccine. But as the vaccine is new, "we do not know yet whether its quality is what (the manufacturer) promised it to be".

Serving up help for hawkers and better hawker centres
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

To keep Singapore's hawker culture strong, a committee has been set up to help hawkers and hawker centres evolve.

It will do so by looking into ways to keep hawker businesses viable.

It will also suggest improvements to hawker centres, including increasing productivity, enhancing these centres as spaces for community bonding, and promoting graciousness among people who eat there.

Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor, who leads the Hawker Centre 3.0 committee, said: "It is timely for a comprehensive review of our hawker centres as Singapore moves beyond SG50. Hawker food is close to the heart of many Singaporeans."

MPs Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC), Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) and Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) had spoken about the preservation of Singapore's hawker heritage during the debate on the spending plans of the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

Dr Khor said more needed to be done to attract new hawkers, as the median age of cooked food hawkers is 59.

She said the committee will explore ideas, such as structured training programmes for new entrants to the trade.

It is also looking at measures to help hawkers become more productive, such as implementing centralised dish-washing systems in hawker centres or buying and preparation of cooking ingredients in bulk. This can also help cushion increases in costs.

The 14-member committee, which is made up of people from the private and public sectors including food enthusiasts and representatives from the educational institutions, has met a number of times since the start of the year.

It aims to complete its review by early next year, said the National Environment Agency (NEA).

In the coming months, the NEA will review some of their suggestions to see if pilot trials can be conducted.

There are over 14,000 licensed hawkers operating in 109 hawker centres here that are managed by the NEA, of which about 6,000 are selling cooked food.

Committee member Kee Ai Nah, group director of industry and enterprise at Spring Singapore, said hawker businesses must be viable for the hawker heritage to be preserved, and suggested sharing facilities to raise productivity and profitability.Another committee member, Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, felt it is important to create a pleasant dining experience.

Gestures such as clearing the bowls and plates after a meal will ensure hawker centres are "inviting and pleasing for the next patron".

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Transport

Bold targets set for MRT reliability
Transport Minister wants trains to travel about 50 per cent more without disruption taking place
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan has set a bold target for MRT network reliability this year: for trains to travel about 50 per cent further without a disruption taking place.

He told Parliament yesterday the goal is for MRT trains to travel an average of 200,000km between delays of more than five minutes.

Last year, the "mean kilometre before failure" figure was an average of 133,000 train-km travelled between delays, itself an improvement of about 40 per cent from 2014's 93,000km.

Still, Mr Khaw acknowledged that Singapore's MRT is "way below" Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway in terms of reliability, which registered 300,000 train-km before a delay.

"We want to catch up with Hong Kong, and we will," he said during the parliamentary debate on the Transport Ministry's budget.

Addressing concerns raised by MP Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) and Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan over MRT reliability, Mr Khaw spelt out several strategies to tackle this.

Among them, more "condition- monitoring" sensors will be deployed on MRT trains and tracks this year, he said.

Some of these devices - used to monitor train wheels and the power-supplying third rail - are already installed, but more will be added.

"We are moving towards preventive maintenance - that is, we monitor the condition of the assets and do the necessary maintenance before any issues arise," he said.

This year, infra-red sensors will be fitted on the North-East Line to monitor the line's overhead catenary power system, while on the North-South and East-West Line (NSEWL), condition-monitoring tools will be used to collect information on train systems.

"These are all very costly investments, but they are necessary," he said.

About a billion dollars is also being invested in hardware replacement and upgrading, Mr Khaw said.

Within the next two years, the sleepers and third rail on the NSEWL will be replaced, and the signalling system upgraded, which will allow trains to run at shorter intervals.

The skills of rail engineers and maintenance crew are also being beefed up, Mr Khaw said.

"We need a quantum leap both in the numbers and in the capabilities of our rail industry, both to up our existing maintenance standards, and to cope with a rapidly expanding network."

While there are currently 6,000 workers in rail operations and maintenance, it is estimated that another 5,000 more will be needed as the rail network doubles in length to 360km by 2030.

Central to this is the setting up of a Singapore Rail Academy, which will work with operators in areas of training and the accreditation of courses. The academy will also conduct research and development into the design of new MRT systems which are easier to build, maintain and operate.

Professor Cham Tao Soon, the former president of Nanyang Technological University and former Chairman of SIM University, will lead the setting up of this academy.

To give engineers more time to perform maintenance and upgrading, Mr Khaw also called for commuters to allow operators to open some of the MRT lines a bit later in the morning, or to close them earlier at night, though he did not elaborate further.

In closing, Mr Khaw said Singapore's future cannot be car-dominant, and public transport must make a "quantum leap" - through improving the rail system and bus services, and creating a conducive environment to facilitate point-to-point mobility solutions.

He hoped Singaporeans would also be able to feel proud of the MRT system one day. "We can't achieve this overnight. We need some more time but we will get there, during this term of Government. Of this, I am confident," he said.

Bicycles, e-scooters may be allowed on footpaths by year end
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

It could be legal to ride a bicycle or electric scooter on footpaths by the end of this year, after the Government fully accepted an expert panel's recommendations to boost the use of such devices here.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said Singapore has to make a "quantum leap" in improving first and last mile connectivity for commuters, and close the gap with cycling cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

The new rules and guidelines released by the Active Mobility Advisory Panel last month will "significantly improve" the mobility options for everyone, she said in Parliament yesterday during the debate on her ministry's budget.

Besides recommending that personal mobility devices (PMDs) be allowed on footpaths, the panel prescribed speed limits on foot and cycling paths, and registration for power-assisted bicycles (PABs) to clamp down on the illegal modification of these devices. PABs, or e-bikes, will be allowed only on cycling and shared paths, and not on footpaths, as they pose a higher safety risk.

Mrs Teo said most of the panel's recommendations would be implemented by the year end. Even as she lauded the suggestions as "fair and balanced", Mrs Teo announced several measures to address safety concerns and ensure PMD users follow the rules. Several MPs had asked if enough was being done to safeguard the vulnerable on footpaths.

Mrs Teo said the Land Transport Authority will set up a dedicated enforcement team to work with the Traffic Police and National Parks Board to ensure reckless cyclists and PMD users are dealt with. There will also be stiffer fines for those who flout the rules.

"For a start, we will focus on hot spots such as crowded bus stops, and use speed guns to help us identify those who are speeding excessively," said Mrs Teo.

As for the registration of e-bikes, her ministry is still working out the details, and hopes to release more information by the year end.

Mrs Teo added that a nationwide Active Mobility campaign will be launched this month to raise awareness of the new policies. This will be complemented with a new Cyclist Education Programme from next month. A network of volunteer "wardens" will also be set up.

Mrs Teo also said a bicycle sharing scheme will be piloted in the Jurong Lake District next year, and the Government will study how it can be expanded to other residential areas.

GrabCar, Uber drivers to be licensed
Transport app drivers will also have to go for medical checks, background screenings
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

Private-hire car services like Uber and GrabCar will now be regulated, but with a "light touch" that will afford these ride-matching start-ups room to grow.

By the first half of next year, their drivers will have to obtain a vocational licence, go for medical tests and background screenings, and comply with a demerit point system.

Cars used for these services must be registered with the Land Transport Authority (LTA), and display a tamper-evident decal for easy identification.

The measures were announced yesterday in Parliament after a six-month review. Worldwide, the transport apps have drawn the ire of cabbies for competing unfairly.

Noting that many countries have taken the "wrong turn" by banning Uber, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said innovation should not be obstructed when it benefits commuters.

During the debate on his ministry's budget, Senior Minister of State for Transport Ng Chee Meng said there are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Uber and GrabCar drivers, who add about a third more cars to the supply of 28,000 taxis during peak hours.

Mr Ng said the new regulations will protect commuters, while allowing the industry to grow.

Drivers will have to pass a 10-hour course to get a licence.

While there is no minimum age, they will need to have held a Class 3/3A driving licence for at least two years. Both permanent residents and work permit holders are eligible, if they work for a chauffeur company. Singaporeans have the option of being a sole owner of their own limousine firm.

Yesterday, Mr Khaw also said that the Government is "mindful of the disruption to incumbents" and will help the taxi industry to make necessary adjustments.

From next month, the Taxi Driver Vocational Licence course will be cut by more than half, from 60 hours to 25 hours, and have its syllabus revised.

Cabbies who are active with no demerit points will also be exempted from refresher courses.

Mr Lim Kell Jay, head of Grab Singapore, said the new rules will free the firm from having to do its own checks, and reduce its costs.

However, the National Taxi Association (NTA) called for the Transport Ministry to take "bolder steps" in regulations, to further level the playing field. NTA executive adviser Ang Hin Kee said the LTA should consider setting standards for insurance coverage and recourse in the event of accidents and disputes.

He said: "In such cases, commuters can approach the taxi operator or its insurer. But for private-hire services, do the commuters look for Uber and GrabCar or the drivers, or the leasing firms? Is there a minimum standard of insurance coverage set by LTA?"

More pedestrian crossings for elderly, those with disabilities
By Zhaki Abdullah, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

More signalised pedestrian crossings will be built in future where possible, to make it easier for the elderly and those with disabilities to cross the road.

Such crossings are less physically taxing compared to overhead bridges or underpasses, said Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo yesterday in Parliament during the debate on her ministry's budget.

That was one of several measures she spelled out yesterday to improve the commuting experience for those two groups of public transport users.

Lifts will be installed at another 50 overhead bridges islandwide, Mrs Teo said. This is on top of those being installed at 41 bridges now.

Priority is given to areas frequented by the elderly or those with disabilities, such as near healthcare institutions and welfare homes, she said.

The Land Transport Authority is putting in more seats at new MRT stations for seniors to rest, she added.

More elderly-friendly seats will be installed at the platforms of 17 MRT stations when they are upgraded from later this year, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

MP Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) called for the authorities to be sensitive to the travel needs of the elderly.

Separately, Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera asked if there could be two lifts at all MRT stations in future. The ageing population would place more pressure on existing lifts, he said. In response, Mrs Teo said her ministry was looking into equipping all new stations with two sets of lifts.

Moving on to enhancing the walking experience for pedestrians, she said all MRT and LRT stations will be connected by sheltered walkways to nearby schools and healthcare facilities by 2018.

New stations are designed with such considerations in mind, she said, citing how Downtown Line 2 stations will have 13km of sheltered walkways, while Downtown Line 3 stations will have 16km of such walkways.

Responding to Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) who asked if a covered walkway would be built between Simei MRT station and Changi General Hospital, Mrs Teo said this would be completed by next year.

MP Lee Yi Shyan (East Coast GRC) asked if there were plans for more underground spaces and walkways to make the city more walkable , citing the examples of Montreal and Toronto in Canada.

Both cities have more than 30km of underground tunnels linking numerous commercial and residential properties, he said.

Closer to home, Tokyo and Taipei have underground walkway infrastructures that make those cities walkable, he added.

Mrs Teo said the Government is trying to connect the expanding transport network to more buildings via underground links.

Driving to a future with fewer cars
Khaw flags shrinking of carparks, pricier parking among ways to wean people off cars
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

There could be less space for parking, which will be more expensive, in future, as Singapore adjusts its policies and norms to be in line with other global cities, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament yesterday.

This was a key part of the "quantum leap" the country needed to make to go car-lite, he said.

In future, developers would also have to submit a "Walking and Cycling plan" for approval, to show their buildings provide safe and convenient access, and infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said this would improve accessibility so walking would be a more attractive commuting option. "Sometimes, large plots of privately owned land and buildings can get in the way of a more direct walking route," she said.

In the bigger picture, these measures would help Singapore reduce its reliance on the car.

Mr Khaw also said Singapore needed to rethink its car and parking policies, as it was already housing one million vehicles - a population that was nearing its peak.

"London, Paris and many Japanese cities have introduced car- free days, and reduced carparking norms," he said. "These are measures to help reset their motorists' attitudes towards cars. We should gradually adjust too."

Just a day earlier, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong pointed out that public parking charges in Singapore were lower than in other cities and might have to be raised.

This is the first time that two ministries have made overtures to raise parking charges to curb car use.

Transport expert Henri Blas from global engineering group Aecom felt this was a good move. He said that while it might be expensive to own a car due to the vehicle quota system, the system facilitates use of cars after they are bought.

"If you look at the Central Business District, actual provision of parking is very good and cost of parking is low compared to other cities," he said.

He pointed out that cities like Paris have reduced parking provision by as much as 20 per cent, and this could be reasonable here too.

Mr Khaw also said yesterday that in the next 15 years, the transport landscape would change dramatically, with more active mobility, first-and-last-mile connectivity, on-demand point-to-point transport options and greater pedestrianisation.

He added that learning to drive and owning a car might be a thing of the past, and Singapore needed to prepare for such a future now.

The Japanese have observed a loss of interest in cars among their young and have coined a term - "kuruma banare" or demotorisation - for the phenomenon.

"Indeed, why is there a need to own a car, when you can easily summon up a driverless pod (a small autonomous vehicle) with a few strokes on your mobile?" he said.

"Private cars will likely start to go the way of horse carriages, if not in 15 years, definitely in 20 or 25 years' time... We need to prepare Singapore, Singaporeans and our industries for this brave new world."

Rail reliability, reliance and the riding culture
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

Even as he expects overall MRT reliability to improve dramatically this year, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan warns that a project to replace the older lines' signalling system could result in a spike in major disruptions.

In his Committee of Supply address yesterday, Mr Khaw said the distance between breakdowns is targeted to rise to 200,000 train-km, from 133,000 train-km last year - a 50 per cent improvement. But going by statistics, improvement in this metric does not necessarily translate to a reduction in major breakdowns - the kind that is most disruptive to commuters.

Last year's 133,000 train-km figure was 129 per cent better than 2011's figure.

And yet, there were 14 major breakdowns - 56 per cent more than 2011's nine.

Yesterday, he said "expanding capacity can impact reliability". For example, the North-South, East-West lines' signalling system - which determines the interval between trains - will be replaced this year and next.

The minister said similar projects in Taipei and London had resulted in "many delays and disruptions".

In the case of London, the network took two years to settle down.

This echoes a prophetic observation about reliability from his first blog entry as Transport Minister last September.

"Things may even get worse before they get better," he wrote.

The other thing that Singaporeans may have to brace themselves for is a possible spike in accidents on pedestrian paths.

The Government yesterday accepted the recommendations of the Active Mobility Advisory Panel headed by MP Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC).

Among the panel's chief recommendations is legalising cycling on pedestrian walkways.

As much as the majority of Singaporeans see the need to ensure the safety of cyclists or even the need to promote cycling as a mode of commuting, they must also realise that having more bikes on pedestrian paths will lead to more accidents.

That is just the law of probability.

You can have enforcement and education, something the Traffic Police do tirelessly for our roads, but accidents will still happen.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo noted that the panel had made "very difficult trade-offs" to arrive at its recommendations.

One wonders if the tradeoffs included a foreseeable rise in a still undisclosed number of accidents involving pedestrians.

Mrs Teo rightly pointed out that in Japan, an acute sense of civic-mindedness allows cyclists and pedestrians to share space harmoniously.

She said with time, Singapore will be like that.

In the meantime, pedestrians - especially the very young and old - should excercise more caution.

A small nation needs to think big
By Lydia Lim, Associate Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2016

Yesterday's debate was telling in showing how a small nation like Singapore cannot afford to be consumed by petty matters, such as some commuters' bizarre complaint about MRT stations' lack of shade from the morning sun, which one MP saw it fit to raise during Parliament's scrutiny of the Transport Ministry's budget.

Far bigger challenges loom.

These include the global one of climate change, as well as regional sources of stress over the management of airspace, water scarcity and the haze.

For a sense of what is at stake, consider Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli's reply to MPs' questions on climate change.

He said Singapore is so small that global models of tropical weather do not produce meaningful results that its scientists can use to map out future scenarios.

So the team at the Centre for Climate Research Singapore did their own studies.

They worked for two years to simulate a hundred years of temperature, rainfall, wind and sea-level projections for the city state and the region. Their findings are that by the last few decades of this century, sea levels are projected to rise by between 0.25m and 0.76m; temperatures may increase by 1.4 to 4.6 deg C; and Singapore will experience more intense rainfall.

The Government is acting now to mitigate these effects.

It has invited researchers to propose ways to reduce ambient temperature in housing estates by 4 deg C.

It is building structures to protect the coastline and raising coastal roads to guard against sea-level rises.

And it is setting aside funds for these and other efforts to deal with the effects of climate change.

Mr Masagos' own worry centres on the impact of extreme weather patterns on the sustainability of Singapore's water supply.

He told Parliament: "The drier weather this couple of years saw the water level in Linggiu Reservoir drop to historic lows, from about 80 per cent at the start of 2015 to 36.9 per cent as we speak. This has impacted the reliability of imported water that supplies half our current needs.

"Fortunately, because we have diversified our water sources, we have been able to mitigate the impact of the drier weather."

The Linggiu Reservoir in Johor is, as Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) observed, five times larger than all of Singapore's 17 freshwater reservoirs combined.

Singapore is now building its fifth Newater factory to treat and reclaim used water, and is exploring the development of a fifth desalination plant on Jurong Island.

Still, it cannot afford to be complacent, Mr Masagos said.

He cited a study published last month by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which predicted that one billion more people in Asia may experience severe water stress by 2050 due to a confluence of factors that include economic and population growth as well as climate change.

Elsewhere, such shortages have led to tense competition between neighbour states.

Unlike Mr Masagos, though, Singaporeans do not seem overly worried about their future water supply. In a recent survey, air pollution emerged as their top environmental concern, followed by cleanliness of public areas and vector-borne diseases.

Four MPs spoke on the haze, expressing outrage and seeking updates on actions taken against companies that profit commercially from the forest fires in Indonesia.

In transboundary pollution, the lack of physical space is a drawback, and it also weighs heavy on Singapore's ambition to keep flying high as an aviation hub, despite being circumscribed by larger neighbours.

Since 1946, Singapore's air traffic controllers have handled flights that pass through its Flight Information Region(FIR) - assigned to it by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Singapore's FIR crosses state boundaries because, as Senior Minister of State (Transport) Josephine Teo explained, the ICAO assigns FIRs based on technical and operational considerations, to ensure air traffic safety and efficiency.

Some 650,000 flights pass through Singapore's FIR annually and that figure is set to rise to more than a million by 2025.

Singapore has invested heavily in training air traffic controllers and in state-of-the-art equipment, Mrs Teo said.

And yet, if Indonesia were one day to address ICAO's concerns on safety and technical issues, what impact would that have on Singapore's status as an air hub, Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) asked.

That is a challenge Singapore will have to deal with. Should it arise, the little red dot must show it can take the heat and that its people will not wilt in the glare of a little morning sun.

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