Monday, 16 September 2019

How GST vouchers help in various ways

Govt will disburse $1 billion in GST vouchers and Medisave top-ups in 2019, defraying costs
By Lorna Tan, Invest Editor/Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 15 Sep 2019

None of us like forking out more money to the Government than we have to. Since the goods and services tax (GST) came along in 1994, it has been accompanied by a range of offsets to take some of the pain away, especially for lower-income groups.

The latest payout was last month when about 1.4 million Singaporeans received up to $300 each in the form of GST Voucher - Cash. In a few weeks, about 930,000 eligible HDB households will each receive their GST Voucher - U-Save to help offset utilities bills.



The GST Voucher scheme was introduced in 2012 to help the lower-and middle-income households with daily expenses and to defray GST expenses.

It has since become an indispensable source of support, providing assurance that there is government support for GST expenses for individuals and households, particularly those with lower incomes.

If you received the GST Voucher - Cash payout last month, you can expect to get the GST Voucher - Cash (Bicentennial Payment), which provides an additional cash payment of up to $300.

All in, the Government will pay out $1 billion in GST vouchers and Medisave top-ups this year, benefiting 1.7 million Singaporeans.

The Sunday Times highlights the GST Voucher scheme and other government assistance measures.


GST VOUCHERS (CASH, MEDISAVE, U-SAVE)

The GST Voucher scheme has three components:

• GST Voucher - Cash: This goes out every August to defray some of your GST expenses.

• GST Voucher - Medisave top-up: This is credited to the CPF Medisave accounts of eligible Singaporeans aged 65 and above every August. It can be used to pay for their own or their immediate family members' hospitalisation expenses incurred at any of the participating medical institutions under the Medisave scheme. Medisave can also be used to pay for day surgery and approved outpatient treatments.

• GST Voucher - U-Save: This is given out over four payments each year as a rebate to help HDB households offset part of their utility bills. Note that GST Voucher - U-Save payments are credited automatically to the household's utilities account once it is opened.

Each household will get a GST Voucher - U-Save of up to $400 this year, based on the HDB flat type. This includes an additional U-Save of $20 a year from this year to 2021.

The U-Save rebates are paid out in January, April, July and October this year.

Singaporeans will get some or all of these three components depending on their age, income and the valuation of their homes.

People who own more than one property are not eligible for the GST vouchers - Cash, Medisave and U-Save.

The eligibility criteria is available at www.gstvoucher.gov.sg

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Enhanced CPF Housing Grant: Higher grants, more choice for first-time HDB flat buyers from 11 September 2019

More incentives to buy resale flats; income ceiling raised to widen the pool of buyers
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 11 Sep 2019

From today, first-time buyers will get higher grants and more flexibility to choose the size of their flat and where it is located.

The income ceiling for Housing Board flats has also been raised for the first time since 2015, widening the pool of eligible buyers.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said yesterday that the new Enhanced CPF Housing Grant (EHG), which streamlines two older grants, gives couples more flexibility in affording a flat that suits their needs.

It also helps the authorities meet the growing demand for homes without building new flats, which is limited by a lack of land, especially in mature estates, he said.

Instead, the incentive structure has been changed to make it attractive to buy resale flats.

Mr Wong said past incentives, with subsidies and grants, encouraged first-timers to choose new flats, adding: "This is one reason why first-timers often prefer new over resale flats. So, we ought to adjust our grant structure to achieve a better balance."

The changes were hinted at by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally last month, when he said his younger colleagues had ideas to keep flats affordable.

Before this, there were three types of grants: The CPF Housing Grant of $50,000 for resale flats, the Additional CPF Housing Grant (AHG) of up to $40,000 for those earning $5,000 and below, and the Special CPF Housing Grant (SHG) of up to $40,000 for those earning $8,500 and below and were looking to buy four-room or smaller flats in non-mature estates.

Those buying Build-To-Order (BTO) flats may have been eligible for the AHG and SHG, while those buying resale homes could get only the CPF Housing Grant and AHG.

From today (11 Sep), the AHG and SHG will be combined into the EHG of up to $80,000 and available to eligible buyers - including resale flat buyers who did not get the SHG before.

There are also no more restrictions on buyers' choice of flat type and location. "This (dropping of restrictions) means first-timers can get up to $40,000 more when they purchase a new flat," Mr Wong said.

The income ceiling for the EHG is $9,000, higher than the AHG's cap of $5,000 or the SHG's $8,500.

The caveat for the EHG is that the flat's lease must cover buyers until they are aged 95, in line with the authorities' push to get people to buy homes that can last them for life. Those who do not meet this condition will get a pro-rated amount depending on the lease.

With this change, an eligible first-timer family earning $4,800 a month and buying a new four-room flat in a mature estate from the HDB can get $45,000 in grants, compared with $5,000 previously.

As for resale flat buyers, they may get up to $160,000 in grants - a third more than before. This figure takes in the $50,000 CPF Housing Grant and $30,000 Proximity Housing Grant.

The income ceiling for Singaporean households to buy new flats and executive condominium units will be raised by $2,000 - to $14,000 and $16,000, respectively, to allow more to qualify.

Mr Wong said the HDB will likely increase the BTO supply in 2020 to meet the extra demand for public housing expected to arise from these changes. The board is on track to launch 15,000 flats this year.

Its third BTO launch of the year, initially scheduled for last month, has also been pushed to later this month to allow more home buyers to take advantage of the changes.

Property analysts, buyers and sellers said the new system not only benefits first-time buyers, but also sellers looking to upgrade.

Friday, 6 September 2019

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Singapore University of Social Sciences Ministerial Forum 2019

Fees and bursaries for part-time tertiary students to be reviewed
Education system's biggest challenge is to be effective for continual learning, says PM Lee
By Adrian Lim, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2019

Fees and bursaries for part-time students will be reviewed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday, adding to his announcement at last month's National Day Rally that tertiary education will be more affordable.

And if necessary, these fees and bursaries will be adjusted, he said in a speech at the Singapore University of Social Sciences' (SUSS) inaugural ministerial dialogue.

He noted the Government has not yet revised the fees and bursaries for part-time students, although it had done so for full-time students through higher bursaries for lower-and middle-income university students, and lower fees for general degree programmes at SUSS and the Singapore Institute of Technology.

"We looked at them, but we think that these fees and bursaries should be affordable for working adults," he said, adding that the Government will review the situation and make changes where needed.



The value of lifelong learning and a university education as well as the future of work amid technological disruption were among the issues covered during a lively one-hour dialogue between PM Lee and about 500 SUSS students.

SUSS, which became Singapore's sixth autonomous university in 2017, offers full-time and part-time graduate and under-graduate courses.

PM Lee said the biggest challenge for Singapore's education system is to make it effective for continual learning.

He explained that it is not just a matter of money or about running courses, but having educational programmes that are suited to meet the learning needs and styles of adults - whether they are from Generation X or in their 70s.



Courses offered in polytechnics and universities have to be structured in a modular fashion, and lecturers have to adapt their teaching styles to help older people learn at their own pace, PM Lee noted.

A whole support system must also be in place so employers understand and make adjustments when their workers go for courses, and employees can focus on their jobs and studies and maintain a balance, he added.

"We will do it, we have got SkillsFuture SG. But we are still early on in the journey," he noted.

During the dialogue, PM Lee was asked how Singapore graduates fared against those from around the region, who may be more hungry and willing to work for lower pay.

"I think that we have to be hungry, too. Because if we are not hungry, somebody will steal our lunch," he said.



"It is a competition which we manage in Singapore because the inflow of talent, the inflow of people from other countries to Singapore, we manage, we track carefully their numbers, their standards, their proportions, to make sure they don't crowd Singaporeans out and Singaporeans have opportunities for the jobs."

But if Singaporeans are not up to scratch, companies will go around the region to look for talent, he noted.

Still, he believes Singapore has a workforce which is good, collective and productive - factors which have attracted firms like Finnish oil company Neste to invest here.

But there are not enough Singaporeans, due to the low fertility rate, and fewer are entering the workforce.

"And so, if we don't top ourselves up with talent from overseas... I don't think we will be able to take up all the opportunities which are available to us," he said.

"We open the door, they come, they complement us, we have to work hard. Yes. But we work hard, we hold our own."

One participant at the dialogue asked for advice on his employability as he felt there was a perception that the other universities were better than SUSS.



Responding, PM Lee said that to level the playing field, SUSS must maintain high standards and its graduates must fly the university flag high.

Each time Singapore added a new university, a niche was found for the institution, he said.

SUSS, which focuses on social sciences, gives students skills - conceptually and practically - to tackle important social issues, he added.

"If you can excel in that area, whether you graduate as a lawyer or (from) business, or in social work, or in sociology, or in communications, I think you establish yourself as a (graduate of a) first-class institution," said PM Lee.




Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Changes proposed to Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to allow swifter action, guard against foreign influence

Moves to bolster Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act
Proposed changes would enable threats to be dealt with quicker, curb foreign influence
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2019

Proposed changes to an almost 30-year-old law that would allow the Government to act swiftly against threats to religious harmony and curb foreign influence on religious organisations were introduced in Parliament yesterday.

The changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) would allow restraining orders issued under the Act to take effect immediately. Currently, the Government has to serve a 14-day notice before the order takes effect.

To counter foreign influence, the Bill also proposes that religious organisations ensure key leadership roles are filled by Singaporeans or permanent residents. Such groups must also disclose one-time donations of $10,000 or more from foreigners, and declare any affiliation to foreign individuals or groups in a position to influence them.

The Bill also introduces a Community Remedial Initiative, which will give people who have wounded the feelings of those of another faith the chance to understand the affected community.

The MRHA has never been invoked since 1992, when it first went into effect. But the situation since then has changed significantly, especially with the advent of social media, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

"The MRHA performs an important function of clearly stating the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in order to maintain religious harmony in Singapore," a spokesman said. "This function continues to be important, even if we have not had the need to issue a Restraining Order under the MRHA all these years."

Noting that the scope of restraining orders will be expanded to require offensive online posts to be taken down, the spokesman added: "There is a need to allow the Government to take swift action against inflammatory online publications as they can also affect religious harmony, no different from offline speeches."



If the Bill is passed, restraining orders can also be issued against religious organisations in which foreigners are found to be threatening racial harmony in Singapore.

Such organisations could then be prohibited from receiving donations from foreign donors. The Government could also require the group's governing body to comprise only Singaporeans, and call for it to suspend or remove foreigners from office.

The current process for confirming restraining orders, where the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony makes a recommendation to the President to confirm, vary or cancel the order, will remain unchanged, said MHA.

On introducing safeguards against foreign influence, MHA said Singapore is vulnerable to foreign actors exploiting religious fault lines or imposing values that could undermine religious harmony.

Under the proposed changes, the president, secretary and treasurer - or equivalent roles - of all religious organisations must be Singaporeans or PRs. In addition, the majority of the group's governing body must be Singaporean. These requirements will not apply to foreigners who are religious leaders but hold no formal position in the group's governing body.

There are around 2,500 religious organisations in Singapore.

Monday, 2 September 2019

New Bukit Timah-Rochor Green Corridor to connect Singapore's three national gardens

First phase of 11km corridor will begin with construction of 1.4km elevated linear park
By Tiffany Fumiko Tay, The Straits Times, 1 Sep 2019

A new green corridor will connect Singapore's three national gardens when it is completed in the coming years as part of plans to plug a gap in Singapore's green links.

The 11km Bukit Timah-Rochor Green Corridor, which will run parallel to the Bukit Timah Canal, will give cyclists and pedestrians a continuous path between Jurong Lake Gardens, the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Gardens by the Bay.

Construction of the first phase, a 1.4km elevated linear park that will run above the canal between Bukit Timah and Dunearn roads, will begin in 2021.

There are plans for it to be extended to Kallang Riverside Park in the future.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced this along with updated plans for the Rail Corridor's key Bukit Timah Railway Station node at a community event at the station yesterday.

"The land around the canal is drainage reserve. There's not a lot of land around there to build a nice green park," he said, adding that the elevated park is a way of optimising space in a compact city.

Noting that the new developments will allow Singaporeans to explore the island in different ways, he said: "You can enjoy the rich heritage and biodiversity of the Rail Corridor, and then from this major spine, branch off to explore other recreational connections."


Neram and rain trees are among the species that will line the initial 1.4km of the Bukit Timah-Rochor Green Corridor.

They were selected to create a "riverine rainforest experience" and additional shade for those traversing the section above the canal, said Ms G. Kannagi, director of development management at the National Parks Board (NParks).

Extending the corridor to Kallang would "provide a wonderful opportunity for people from the west to be able to access the city centre in a green setting", she added.

The first stretch of the new corridor will connect to existing overhead bridges as well as the Rail Corridor near the Bukit Timah Railway Station node.

An orchard featuring cempedak, binjai and other fruit trees, amenities such as toilets and bicycle racks and a heritage gallery housed in the conserved railway station are among plans for the node.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Lower pre-school fees and more help with fertility treatments to encourage marriage and parenthood from 2020

Full-day childcare may cost only $3 a month for needy; more help too with fertility treatments
By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2019

Pre-school expenses will be cut for many and more help will be offered with fertility treatments - even for older couples - as part of the latest moves to encourage more Singaporeans to start families.

From next year, lower-income families may only need to pay as little as $3 a month for full-day childcare. The monthly household income ceiling for additional childcare and kindergarten subsidies is also being raised to $12,000.



Meanwhile, there will be no more age limit for women undergoing assisted reproductive technology (ART) treatments from January. It currently stands at 45 years old.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, who oversees population matters, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee and Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor announced the measures at a My First Skool pre-school in Punggol yesterday.

With the higher subsidies from next year, more families could find themselves paying between $3 and $390 a month for full-day childcare at pre-schools run by anchor operators that charge monthly fees of $770.

With the measures, eight in 10 young children should have a place in more affordable government-supported pre-schools by around 2025.

This is similar to the proportion that receives government help in the housing and healthcare sectors.

Mr Lee said fee caps will also be lowered at government-supported pre-schools as their share of the sector expands. In time, this would allow working families with a child in full-day childcare to pay about $300 per month, even without additional subsidy.

In 2021, the partner operator scheme will also be expanded to more childcare operators beyond the existing 23. For the first time, it will also include a small number of kindergartens which offer quality programmes.


Subsidy amounts for families at different income tiers will go up. From next year, the monthly household income ceiling for additional kindergarten subsidies and childcare subsidies will be raised from $6,000 and $7,500 respectively to $12,000 so that it benefits 30,000 more households.

Currently, 41,000 families receive these means-tested subsidies.

Low-income families will pay even less, with those earning $3,000 or less per month paying just $3 per month for full-day childcare at anchor operators, or $1 per month for kindergartens run by anchor operators and the Education Ministry.

Mrs Teo noted that there is strong interest among Singaporeans to marry and have children. "But it is also a fact that our people are marrying later. And they're also starting families and they're having children later," she said.

She encouraged couples to marry earlier and start trying to conceive earlier, so that they would be more successful in having children.

Nonetheless, older couples trying for babies will also get more support from January next year, amid fewer marriages last year and an eight-year low in the number of babies born here last year.



The Health Ministry will remove the age limit for women undergoing ART treatments.

There will also be no cap on the number of cycles they can go for.

In addition, couples undergoing intra-uterine insemination procedures - a less invasive fertility treatment than ART - will benefit from government co-funding of up to 75 per cent, capped at $1,000 per treatment cycle, for three such cycles.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Higher tuition fee bursaries for students from needy families from Academic Year 2020

Needy students to get more help for tertiary education
Increase in bursaries next year will slash tuition fees for students from lower-income households
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 23 Aug 2019

A series of measures announced yesterday will make tertiary education more accessible and affordable for needy students and give an added push to social mobility.

Most students from lower-income households in universities and polytechnics will see a big portion of their tuition fees slashed, with bursary amounts set to go up next year.

This is to ensure that as more Singaporeans from less well-off households make it to the polytechnics and universities, tuition costs do not hinder them from furthering their education or constrain their choice of courses.

Once the higher bursaries kick in, polytechnic students who come from the lowest 20 per cent of household income groups will pay no more than $150 of the $2,900 annual fees - $400 less than what they now pay each year. All in, 33,000 polytechnic students are expected to benefit from the bursary hikes.

At the university level, the most needy students will pay only $2,000 a year, compared with the $4,200 they pay now. The full fee for a general degree is $8,200.

Government bursaries for new and existing medical and dentistry undergraduates will also be increased, with students from families in the bottom 20 per cent income group having to pay only $5,000 a year - compared with the full fees of $28,900 at the National University of Singapore and $34,700 at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Announcing the measures, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said: "We want to make sure that... we do not deter students from lower-income backgrounds from studying medicine and dentistry."

A total of 21,000 undergraduates, including those doing medicine, are expected to benefit. The government spending on bursaries for undergraduates and diploma students will increase by $44 million in total - from $123 million to $167 million.

Mr Ong also announced increased opportunities for the 30 per cent of Institute of Technical Education graduates who currently do not progress beyond their Nitec qualification. To support them, the Ministry of Education will provide more places in a range of programmes such as ITE's SkillsFuture Work-Study diplomas and full-time Higher Nitec courses. There will also be more places provided in the polytechnics for applicants with work experience.

The plan: All Nitec graduates from ITE will have the chance to attain a higher qualification by 2030.

Sharing the thinking behind the moves, Mr Ong revealed that 15 years ago, only 38 per cent of students from the bottom 30 per cent of households by way of socio-economic status progressed to the polytechnics. Now, 52 per cent from the group make it to the polytechnics.



For the universities, the proportion has gone up from 13 per cent to 21 per cent.

He said universities have an important role to play in social integration and in enabling social mobility.

Education is an upgrading force, he said, with each generation doing better than the previous one.

"It is fundamental to our social mobility," Mr Ong stressed, adding that bursaries had to be increased to help lower-income groups gain from education. "Cost cannot be an impediment for families with hard work and talent and aptitude to upgrade their lives and get a better future for themselves," said Mr Ong.



Grab driver V. Perumal, 54, whose youngest son will study engineering at Nanyang Technological University next year, said he is heartened by the bursary increase.

"Both my wife and I were so happy when our son told us he got into NTU to study engineering, but at the same time we have been having sleepless nights worrying about the fees.

"I have been looking at how we can borrow some money. But now, we are very relieved."

Friday, 23 August 2019

Tripartite Workgroup on Older Workers: A look at the changes to help older workers

Older workers will soon be able to work longer if they wish. The retirement age will gradually go up from 62 to 65, and re-employment age from 67 to 70, between 2022 and 2030. Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution rates will also rise over the next decade for workers aged 55 to 70. Manpower Correspondent Joanna Seow explains the changes.
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 22 Aug 2019

Q HOW DID THE CHANGES COME ABOUT?

A The Tripartite Workgroup on Older Workers was formed in May last year to look at issues concerning older workers. It has representatives from the Government, employers and unions, which is important as employers and workers have different concerns.

For instance, older workers may want the option to work as long as they want, but companies may be worried about ensuring they can contribute productively and also about footing their insurance bills.

The group heard from more than 1,500 people, and the proposals were what was eventually agreed on by both the employer and union sides. It released its report on Monday.


Q WHY THE NEED FOR THESE CHANGES?

A Singapore's population is greying very fast. By the end of the next decade, 2030, the number of Singaporeans aged 65 and above will almost double to reach 900,000.

The Government wants to get people and companies prepared, both mentally and financially.

A higher retirement age does not mean people must work until that age. They can retire any time they want, but companies cannot dismiss them because of age before the retirement age. So, raising the retirement age extends the protection for older workers.

Businesses will eventually have no choice but to employ more older workers because of demographics. Having this push should encourage them to start looking at how to better allocate resources so their older workers can continue contributing meaningfully to them.




Q WHY THE HIGHER CPF CONTRIBUTIONS, AND WILL THEY COST BUSINESSES?

A Higher CPF contributions are meant to help workers save more for their retirement and CPF Life payouts as they can earn up to 6 per cent interest. The additional contributions will go into the Special Account, which accrues the highest possible interest.

For the first increase in CPF rates in 2021, employers and workers will each increase their contribution by either 0.5 percentage point or 1 percentage point for workers aged 55 to 70, based on the worker's age.

For someone who was 55 in January this year and earns $3,000 monthly, both he and his employer contribute 13 per cent, or $390 a month, to his CPF savings. In January 2021, the contribution rates for each party would go up to 14 per cent, or $420 a month. That is $360 more in contributions each year.

To help businesses cope, the Government will announce a support package next year.





Q HOW CAN COMPANIES HELP OLDER WORKERS WORK LONGER?

A They can redesign more manual jobs so that technology does the tough part and older workers can do higher value-add work. There are also firms which have implemented wellness programmes like health screenings and nutrition advice to help their workers stay healthy.

Some progressive companies have already gone ahead to raise or remove their retirement age. Also, insurance firm Prudential recently announced it will contribute more to older workers' CPF accounts if the workers also contribute more. Workers can choose whether to prioritise having cash for immediate spending or building up more retirement savings in their CPF accounts.