Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Parliament: Debate over Singapore's foreign talent policy, CECA and securing Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods

Robust debate in Parliament over foreign competition in job market
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2021

Singapore's answer to foreign competition in the local job market cannot be to shut its doors and turn away investors. Instead, the country has to - and will - invest in its people, working to mitigate the downsides of an open economy and striving for growth that will benefit all.

This was the gist of a 10-hour parliamentary debate that ended past midnight, during which four political office-holders rebutted the Progress Singapore Party's (PSP's) assertion that the Government's foreign talent policy has cost citizens jobs.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong acknowledged that an open economy has its downsides, even though the vast majority benefit.

"In the end, the government has the responsibility to govern and to make policy decisions in the best interest of all Singaporeans," he said. "Some decisions will not be so popular, even though we are convinced they are necessary, and must proceed for the good of all."

They were debating the issue of jobs and foreign talent, which PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai and Mr Wong had filed motions on. The minister said he asked to speak as Mr Leong's proposed topic falsely attributed the challenges Singapore faces to free trade agreements (FTAs) and foreigners.

This was why the Government had sought "to explain and reiterate our position on this important matter," he added. "It is important Singaporeans - and the world - understand where we stand."

The minister sharply criticised the racist and xenophobic undertones in the PSP's rhetoric on foreign talent - an allegation the opposition party has repeatedly denied. "Look - if it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it is a duck," Mr Wong said, adding that such irresponsible politics will divide society and spell disaster for Singapore.

Mr Leong had urged the Government to take "urgent and concrete" action to restore balance in the job market - starting by raising qualifying salaries for work pass holders and imposing a monthly levy on Employment Pass (EP) holders.

A lengthy exchange ensued between Mr Leong and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who pressed Mr Leong for his position on various issues, including his support for FTAs such as the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) with India.

He also sought to get Mr Leong to admit that other Singaporeans, like some PSP members, might see his views as racist.

The PSP maintains that foreign PMETs have displaced local ones, he said. But in fact, the number of local PMETs went up by 300,000 over the past decade, while the number of EP and S-Pass holders increased by 110,000.

This trend held true even in sectors that typically hire more EP holders, such as finance, infocomm and professional services. The number of local PMETs in these sectors went up by nearly 155,000 in the past 10 years, compared to 40,000 more EP and S-Pass holders.

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann reiterated that the Government has no "special affinity" for workers from any country - including India - and works to serve Singaporeans' interests.

A total of 18 other MPs spoke on the topic, including Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, who set out the Workers' Party (WP) stance. Such agreements have created jobs and opportunities for both Singaporeans and foreigners, he said. But the party believes it is fair to ask if work passes have been regulated in the best way, and does not assume that good jobs are automatically created as a result of Singapore's pro-trade policies.

Mr Singh added: "We abhor and denounce the racism and xenophobia that has become a part of the public narrative in some quarters. This can never be right, and must also be rejected and condemned."

Parliament voted to pass the ruling party's motion - with the WP registering its dissent - and unanimously rejected the PSP motion.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Can racial harmony in Singapore be fostered by law?

To live in Singapore is to be aware of race. It is on birth certificates, in the pledge, and informs a wide spectrum of government policies from housing to healthcare. It is also a subject Singaporeans would more often than not tread cautiously or tiptoe around, given the sensitivities surrounding the issue. Recently, the topic has come under scrutiny following a series of highly publicised incidents. Insight examines the issue.
By Linette Lai and Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2021

On Wednesday, a 44-year-old man pleaded guilty to a harassment charge for hurling racist, xenophobic insults at a bus driver last year.

Another case involving race heard in court that day involved a 69-year-old taxi driver and two National Environment Agency officers. The driver was jailed two weeks and fined $2,000 for using criminal force on public servants and insulting them with a racial slur.

In another case heard the previous Thursday, a 48-year-old man was sentenced to two weeks and three days' jail for harassing a taxi driver with vulgarities and racially-charged insults.

A new law announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally last Sunday seeks to tackle such offences in a more targeted way, and send a signal on the overriding importance of racial harmony to Singapore.

The proposed Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will consolidate all existing laws dealing with racial issues, which are currently scattered under various pieces of legislation, such as the Penal Code.

Like the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) which preceded it by three decades, the new law will go beyond punishment to incorporate "softer and gentler touches" that focus on persuasion and rehabilitation.

It comes as race relations have come under stress during the pandemic and, as PM Lee acknowledged, there have been more racist incidents, several of which were widely publicised on social media.

What's new, and why now?

The upcoming law will allow the Government to clearly set out where Singapore stands on racial harmony and consolidate the legislative powers pertaining to race under one legislation, a spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) tells Insight.

It will also introduce additional measures, including non-punitive ones, that will help Singapore to further safeguard racial harmony.

The new law will be a matter of housekeeping, says National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser, who notes that it will handle all forms of racist acts, and could also rationalise and calibrate the punishments associated with various types of offences.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law professor Eugene Tan says that an "omnibus legislation" for race relations is neater and will streamline regulatory measures. He also points out that such a consolidation will give the Government the chance to enhance the legislative arsenal in two ways.

Firstly, it could provide additional power to the authorities to deal with changes such as social media, which has enabled offensive remarks to reach a wider audience. Secondly, it could expand the range of legal options to deal with offenders that go beyond punishment and deterrence towards persuasion and rehabilitation.

This upcoming Act also presents an opportunity to rewrite older legal provisions in a clearer style and add nuance, says Assistant Professor Benjamin Ong from SMU's law school.

In his rally speech, PM Lee said that Singapore's decades of peace have led people to "gradually take racial harmony for granted" - to the extent that some Chinese Singaporeans are unaware of the feelings and experiences of minorities.

He gave examples of how minorities sometimes face difficulties when looking for a job or a home to rent.

A 2019 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) think-tank found that over 51 per cent of Malay respondents felt discriminated against when applying for a job, compared to 47 per cent for Indians and 12 per cent for Chinese.

Researchers also found that 48 per cent of Chinese respondents felt a job applicant's race was important when it comes to hiring someone to work for them, versus 34 per cent for Malays and 26 per cent for Indians.

Earlier in the same year, a YouGov poll found that 49 per cent of Indian respondents faced ethnic discrimination when renting properties, in contrast to 34 per cent for Malays and 18 per cent for Chinese.

The global research firm found that 42 per cent of Chinese respondents saw race as mandatory background information to disclose to landlords, compared to 33 per cent for Malays and 22 per cent for Indians.

Saturday, 4 September 2021

Singapore to offer COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for seniors aged 60 and above, immunocompromised people from September 2021

By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2021

Singapore will give its first Covid-19 vaccine booster shots - to seniors aged 60 and above, residents of aged-care facilities, and those whose immune systems are compromised - from this month, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (Sept 3).

Seniors should receive a booster dose of mRNA vaccine six to nine months after completing their two-dose vaccination regimen, said his ministry.

This means the first batch of seniors aged 60 and above who completed their original vaccination regimen around March this year will be eligible for their third dose later this month, said the Ministry of Health (MOH).

Those who are moderately to severely immunocompromised should receive a third dose of the same mRNA vaccine two months after their second dose, as this ensures they start off with adequate protective immune response to the virus, added the ministry.

These recommendations were made by the Expert Committee on Covid-19 Vaccination, after it reviewed the available evidence, including on the safety and efficacy of booster doses administered around the world.

MOH has agreed with its recommendations to start the booster shot programme for these groups of people, it said in a statement on Friday.

The booster shots for seniors are to ensure continued high levels of protection against infection and severe disease from Covid-19, and to reduce the possibility of spikes in infection and more people falling severely ill.

Migrant and healthcare workers, if they are 60 and above, will also be prioritised for booster shots.

Seniors are at risk of severe Covid-19 infection and may develop a lower immune response from their two-dose vaccination regimen, it said. "This is coupled with the expected decline of their immunity over time, as many were vaccinated earlier."

Mr Ong noted that with the waning immunity provided by vaccines and increasing breakthrough infections, a number of countries have commenced vaccine booster programmes.

"This is to pre-empt a very sharp rise in breakthrough infections, which can still mean, in absolute terms, many people can fall very sick or die... This is especially relevant to the elderly and to other higher-risk groups," said Mr Ong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.

He urged all seniors contacted by their healthcare providers to come forward for their third dose of vaccination.

MOH said that the additional dose recommendations for immunocompromised individuals, seniors aged 60 years and above, and residents of aged-care facilities are aligned to the vaccination measures adopted in countries such as Israel and Germany.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved a third dose for immunocompromised individuals and is considering its recommendation for seniors, it added.

Among those who will be at the front of the line for booster shots are immunocompromised people, as they have a blunted immune response to vaccination and are at a higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19.

People with weakened immune systems include those who are on cancer treatment, transplant patients, other patients on immunosuppressive therapy, and end-stage kidney disease patients on dialysis.

These individuals will be contacted by their healthcare providers, as they would likely have regular follow-up sessions with their doctors, said Mr Ong.

During the virtual press conference on Friday, he also said the expert committee will continue to review the evidence and data for other groups.

One area which it is studying is the rare, but more severe, adverse reaction to vaccines which occurs mostly in younger age groups.

Another area is the effectiveness of using a different vaccine as a booster from the vaccine used in the first two doses, he said.

Asked why front-line workers – who were the first group to be vaccinated in Singapore – are not the first to receive the booster shots, director of medical services Kenneth Mak said the expert committee had looked at which groups needed additional protection to mount an adequate immune response to the virus.

For immunocompromised patients, they may not have developed even after the first two doses are completed. “This third dose is considered an expanded primary course of vaccination for them,” he said.

As for prioritising those aged 60 and above, Associate Professor Mak said they are more likely to have bad outcomes if they do get infected, such as an increased risk of being admitted to the intensive care unit and needing oxygen support.

While vaccinated migrant workers will also experience waning antibody response, they are generally younger, he noted. But they may also get their booster shots earlier if they are above 60, he added.

Monday, 30 August 2021

National Day Rally 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong addresses concerns over foreigners, lower-wage workers and race
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 30 Aug 2021

Singapore will squarely address the difficult issues of race, religion and fair play in society, as it refocuses on a future with Covid-19 under control.

Building on the nation's hard-won racial harmony and ensuring that economic growth leaves no one behind were key themes of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's 17th National Day Rally yesterday, held both at Mediacorp and on the Zoom videoconferencing platform.

Lower-wage workers, for example, will get more support, with specific policies to raise their income, while discrimination will be tackled.

Touching on the fault lines in society that have been deepened by the pandemic, PM Lee said it was critical that Singapore tackles its social challenges and underlying anxieties, such as the plight of low-wage workers and disquiet over foreign work pass holders.

Many lower-wage workers, for example, were on the front line during the pandemic, which highlighted the importance of jobs such as cleaning, food delivery and security. At the same time, their precarious situation was also laid bare as they have less savings and are more likely to be laid off.

To address this, the Government will extend the Progressive Wage Model to help more workers.

"We will cover more sectors, starting with retail next year, and later food services and waste management," said PM Lee. "We will also cover specific occupations, across all sectors simultaneously, starting with administrative assistants and drivers."

The Government is also studying ways to strengthen job protection for delivery workers and those in similar roles, as they are, for all intents and purposes, just like employees, said PM Lee.

Firms that hire foreign workers will also have to pay all their local workers at least the Local Qualifying Salary, which will be adjusted from time to time.

Currently, these firms are required to pay some of their local employees a qualifying salary of $1,400 a month and not just a token sum to gain access to foreign workers. They will have to extend this to all their local employees.

Middle-income Singaporeans were also facing job anxiety, particularly on account of foreign work pass holders, said PM Lee.

"Concerns over work pass holders are a very delicate subject for a National Day Rally, but I decided I had to talk about it," he said. "We have to acknowledge the problem, so that we can address Singaporeans' legitimate concerns, and defuse resentments over foreigners."

There is a "growing restlessness over foreigners, particularly work pass holders", as middle-income Singaporeans feel increased pressure given the economic uncertainty from Covid-19, said PM Lee.

To ensure that the foreigners who compete for jobs here are of the right standard, Singapore will continue to tighten the criteria for Employment Pass and S Pass holders by raising salary cut-offs.

The Government will also give the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) more teeth by putting its guidelines into law, and will create a tribunal to deal with workplace discrimination.

Flagging another fault line, he said race relations have also come under stress because of Covid-19.

He highlighted some recent incidents, such as that of the polytechnic lecturer who in June accosted an interracial couple on Orchard Road.

PM Lee noted that several of the incidents specifically targeted Indians. This could be due to the large number of Indian work pass holders here, or that the Delta variant of Covid-19 first emerged in India.

"But it is illogical to blame this on Indians, just as it is illogical to blame the Alpha variant on the English, the KTV cluster on Vietnamese, or the initial outbreak in Wuhan on the Chinese," he said.

"We must address the real issues - manage the work pass numbers and concentrations, and improve our border health safeguards. But we should not let our frustrations spill over to affect our racial harmony."

While recent racist incidents have reminded the nation of how fragile Singapore's racial harmony is, they do not negate its multiracial approach to nation building, said Mr Lee.

"Our racial harmony is still a work in progress, and will be so for a long time," he said.

To signal what society here considers right and wrong about racial attitudes and nudge behaviour over time, the Government will pass a Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act that consolidates in one place the state's powers to deal with racial issues.

The new law will build in softer, gentler approaches such as directing an offender to make amends by learning more about the other race and mending ties.

"This softer approach will heal hurt, instead of leaving resentment," said Mr Lee.

In a nod to the ongoing Summer Paralympic Games, Mr Lee congratulated swimmer Yip Pin Xiu for her gold medal in the women's 100m backstroke (S2), and Singapore's paralympians for their good performance in Tokyo.

Mr Lee also paid tribute to front-line workers like contact tracers, ambulance drivers, and vaccination centre workers who helped to bring Covid-19 under control, enabling the country to now look further into its future.

"In ordinary times, we may not realise how strong Singaporeans can be," he said.

"Now, in the crisis of a generation, we have shown ourselves and the world what Singaporeans can do... they are our everyday heroes, and they are us."

Sunday, 29 August 2021

More Housing Board projects to integrate rental flats, improving inclusivity

By Michelle Ng, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2021

More integrated Housing Board blocks that mix rental and purchased flats are in the pipeline, as they provide the opportunity to enhance inclusiveness within housing estates, said Minister of State for National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim.

Around 1,300 public rental flats now under construction across Singapore will be progressively completed by 2025, said Associate Professor Faishal, who is also Minister of State for Home Affairs, in an interview with The Straits Times.

Some of these will be in four integrated blocks spread across three Build-To-Order (BTO) projects, the latest being McNair Heights in Kallang/Whampoa launched in February this year.

Two integrated blocks are in Costa Grove in Pasir Ris, launched in August last year, while one is in Fernvale Glades in Sengkang, launched in November 2017.

"We're ramping up the building of rental flats and increasingly, we're using the interspersed method, where rental flats are mixed with owned flats in an HDB block," said Prof Faishal.

"It brings the level of interaction to a higher level, but we should take the opportunity to enhance inclusiveness while managing the differences in social demographics of the residents."

Currently, there are two such integrated blocks in two BTO projects - one in West Plains @ Bukit Batok and another in Marsiling Greenview in Woodlands.

As at last year, there are around 62,000 rental flats. Not all are occupied, but Prof Faishal said there is a need to continue to ramp up supply of public rental flats.

"A home is important, so having a steady stock on hand will help us provide options to those who need them. There'll be a certain segment of the population, such as low-income seniors, who will need a rental home and we don't want to deprive them of that."

Monthly rent starts from $26 for a one-room unit for those earning $800 or less, and goes up to $275 for a two-room flat for those earning between $801 and $1,500.

The three hallmarks of Singapore's public housing policy are affordability, inclusivity and accessibility, which is uniquely different from some big cities where there is "clear demarcation in the profile of people who live in certain areas", he added. This is why the Government plans to build rental flats in prime areas such as the future Greater Southern Waterfront.

"We'll make sure that the facilities we build there can cater to different needs, and people from all walks of life can go to school and the markets together," he said.

Nonetheless, rental flats are meant to be interim housing for families who may need more time to get their career, family and financial planning sorted out, he said.

The goal is to support as many families as possible to move from rental housing to home ownership in a "realistic and sustainable way", Prof Faishal said.

About 4,600 families in public rental homes have become home owners of HDB flats over the past five years through various housing schemes and grants.

By 2023, around 1,000 families will be offered help to do the same.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

NDP 2021: Singapore’s National Day Parade to mark 56 years of independence

Heartfelt ode to the Singapore spirit
Scaled-down NDP a celebration of people's resilience amid the pandemic
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 22 Aug 2021

Singapore held a scaled-down National Day Parade (NDP) yesterday, in a show that celebrated people's resilience in overcoming the challenges the pandemic threw at them.

About 600 people took to the Marina Bay floating platform yesterday evening, as an animated film drew parallels of how Singaporeans of different generations had overcome adversity over the years.

Initially meant to be held on National Day, the NDP was postponed as Singapore tightened Covid-19 restrictions for a month in July. Most measures have been relaxed, with people returning to their offices last week and eateries welcoming diners again, as the nation moves towards living with Covid-19 as an endemic disease.

Despite having just a handful of combined rehearsals, and only a third of the usual number of performers at the platform, the show helmed by creative director and film-maker Boo Junfeng went off without a hitch.

Earlier, men and women in uniform marched in with their trademark precision in the parade segment, which was reviewed by President Halimah Yacob. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other Cabinet ministers and MPs were among the 1,000 invited guests in attendance, along with "everyday heroes" who were invited as they had served on the front lines or as community volunteers.

Among them were healthcare workers, teachers, cleaners and social workers. Shortly after 7pm, the parade gave a salute to these heroes for keeping Singapore going during the pandemic.

Primary school teacher Noorshirin Musa, who is in her late 40s and was among those invited to attend the parade yesterday, said the pandemic has resulted in challenges for parents and students, as well as teachers. "It was a very tough time for all of us. But I'm glad that we have come back to a more normal life," she said.

This was the 10th NDP held at the platform since it was built in 2007. Strict Covid-19 precautions were taken to ensure the parade was possible. For instance, all participants had to be fully vaccinated and were required to undergo antigen rapid tests before each combined rehearsal.

The NDP took place after the authorities announced on Thursday that Singapore will move ahead with further easing of community measures, such as increasing the maximum size of events with live performances to 1,000 attendees, if they are all vaccinated.

The feature film in the four-act show told fictional and real-life stories of Singaporeans who persevered despite hardship, including the late medical social worker Daisy Vaithilingam, who established Singapore's first fostering scheme for children.

Performers from institutions such as the National University of Singapore and the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore joined the show virtually.

Team Singapore athletes, some of whom competed in the recent Tokyo Olympics, appeared near the finale. They included swimmer Joseph Schooling and fencer Kiria Tikanah.

The show culminated with singers Linying, Sezairi Sezali, Shabir Tabare Alam and Shye-Anne Brown singing this year's theme song, The Road Ahead.

The audience joined in the chorus "we did it before, and we'll do it again", rounding off a night that encapsulated what it meant to adapt and thrive against the odds.

Singapore sought to retain its connectivity amid COVID-19 crisis: Ong Ye Kung

Singapore tried whatever it could to revive travel with borders closed: Health Minister Ong Ye Kung at Eurocham Dialogue, 20 August 2021
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2021

Even as its borders remained closed to most of the world, Singapore did whatever it could to revive travel and maintain its hub status over the past 18 months.

This included allowing senior executives from major companies to fly in and out of Singapore if they stuck to controlled itineraries and underwent frequent Covid-19 testing in lieu of quarantine, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.

These privileges were also extended to key personnel and board members of companies, as well as experts needed to maintain, repair or install critical equipment.

"To manage transmission risk, we had to limit the number of such travellers," Mr Ong told audience members at a virtual dialogue with the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.

As hard as it tried, the Economic Development Board could not satisfy the demand, he said. "It had to be selective, giving priority to those with a large base of employees in Singapore."

In his speech, Mr Ong gave an overview of Singapore's efforts to stay open and connected to the world despite the pandemic.

For instance, manufacturers were initially concerned about potential disruptions to the supply chain. The country responded by making efforts to keep supply lines open and maintain smooth port and air cargo operations.

"We never locked down; we never closed in," the minister said, adding that Singapore did not impose export controls even when mask supplies were low, with manufacturers continually able to access raw materials and components.

With thousands of workers unable to disembark at certain ports during the height of the pandemic - effectively trapping them at sea - Singapore developed a process to facilitate crew changes.

To date, more than 160,000 crew changes have taken place here, with the Government and industry collaborating on a global effort to vaccinate sea crew coming through the country's ports.

When Malaysia imposed its first movement control order at very short notice, many workers were stranded. Singapore made arrangements for them to find accommodation here and ensured the continued flow of supplies from north to south.

But the biggest challenge Singapore faced was the disruption to travel, which dealt a major blow to the country as people-to-people exchanges dried up, Mr Ong said.

"We are a hub and a key node in the world. If people from different parts of the world cannot come here to do business, exchange ideas, collaborate, create sparks and make things happen, we are diminished."

The minister detailed the various snags on Singapore's path to reopen its borders, starting with the demise of the travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong.

The bubble was slated to launch last November, then postponed to May. In May, it was derailed again, and Transport Minister S. Iswaran said on Thursday that the plan would be scrapped altogether, as both cities are taking different strategies to tackle the virus.

Mr Ong said: "It would have been a very meaningful scheme between two international cities and financial services hubs. But the stars were never aligned, and the bubble could not take off."

Another roadblock came after Singapore planned to ease travel restrictions for certain countries. Community cases spiked at Jurong Fishery Port here, and the plans were shelved as the Republic raced to vaccinate more people.

Now, with more of the population vaccinated, Singapore is once again working to reopen its borders, Mr Ong said.

The measures it took - including the painful ones - have helped keep the pandemic at bay, the minister added.

This was possible because of trust built between the people and the Government, he said.

"As a result, whenever we face challenges, people collectively come together to do their part, even making sacrifices, for the larger good and for the long term."

Thursday, 19 August 2021

MediShield Life coverage enhanced for cancer treatment from September 2022; to cover drug bills of nearly 90% of subsidised patients

Move to rein in cost of cancer care to help more patients
Insurance, MediSave to fully cover outpatient treatment for 90% of subsidised cancer patients
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2021

More subsidised cancer patients here will get help paying for their outpatient treatments from next year, with changes to the national health insurance scheme.

More cancer drugs will be subsidised and the income criteria will be raised so that more people can get subsidies for certain high-cost drugs under the Medication Assistance Fund (MAF).

With these changes to MediShield Life coverage, 90 per cent of subsidised cancer patients will have their outpatient treatments fully paid for by insurance and MediSave from September next year - up from 70 per cent today.

The move will also have the effect of reining in soaring cancer drug prices.

The MediShield Life Council had set up a committee to look into the high cost of cancer care, and had recommended that the Ministry of Health (MOH) create a list of cost-effective outpatient cancer drug treatments to be covered by MediShield Life.

About 90 per cent of existing treatments in the public sector have been included in the list.

Based on this list of clinically proven treatments, the revised claim limits can range from $200 to $9,600 a month - depending on the drug used - when the changes kick in.

Currently, patients can claim only up to $3,000 a month for all cancer outpatient treatments. "This has the unintended effect of raising cancer drug prices to maximise the claims," said MOH.

The ministry explained that since MediShield Life has been reimbursing $3,000 a month for outpatient cancer treatments, some drug companies have kept their prices high, knowing that the cost would be covered by insurance.

As a result, Singapore has been paying up to double the price paid by Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan for some drugs.

Having differentiated cost limits has enabled Singapore to negotiate better rates. On average, cancer drug prices have gone down by about 30 per cent. One drug for kidney cancer dropped in price, from $22,570 a month to $11,340 a month.

The move will address the issue of rising costs, since spending on cancer drugs here has been rising at an annual average rate of 20 per cent, compared with 6 per cent for other drugs, said MOH.

MOH also said 55 more drugs will be eligible for subsidies, bringing the total to 150 drugs.

The subsidised list is published on the MOH website and updated every four months. Oncologists may ask for drugs not on the list to be evaluated.

Meanwhile, about 3,000 more people will become eligible for subsidies under MAF, with the criteria being raised from a per capita household income of $2,800 a month to $6,500 a month.

While most existing cancer drug treatments will continue to be covered, some patients may find they can no longer claim for their current medication. The changes will kick in only in September next year to allow such patients to complete their current course of treatment and adjust their plans.