Monday, 15 July 2019

Singapore Together: Redefining the national conversation

Is the latest citizen engagement exercise just another national conversation? Insight looks at why it's set to be different this time.
By Grace Ho, The Sunday Times, 14 Jul 2019

In 1991, then Acting Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo likened the state to a large banyan tree whose reach was so extensive, few other organisms could take root: "The problem now is that under the banyan tree very little else can grow. When state institutions are too pervasive, civic institutions cannot thrive. It's necessary to prune the banyan trees so other plants can grow."

But now it's 2019 and other plants have indeed grown. In fact, there is a variety of civic group "species" ranging from nature and heritage, to gender equality and animal rights.

What's more, the banyan tree of the Government itself has lost some of its "bark". Branches and roots are more intertwined within the ecosystem of all Singapore people.

Rather than standing apart, this outreach has included getting an on-the-ground take from Singaporeans in the form of feedback.

There have been national dialogues including The Next Lap (1991), Singapore 21 (1999), Remaking Singapore (2002), SGfuture (2015) and the biggest, Our Singapore Conversation (OSC).

Unprecedented in scale and reach, OSC was held a year after the watershed 2011 General Election, where the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) garnered its lowest vote share since independence.

And Singapore is now getting set for the latest citizen-state engagement, Singapore Together.

In announcing Singapore Together last month at the REACH-CNA Building Our Future Singapore Together dialogue, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said that he and other ministers would work with Singaporeans to design and implement solutions across a wider range of issues and policy areas. These include environmental sustainability, housing, youth and social mobility.

Sceptics might wonder, though, if this is just going to be another national conversation under a different name.

But, as Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan points out: "It is hard to avoid how closely public engagement initiatives have been linked to critical economic, political or electoral events in the nation's life."

The critical event looming is, of course, the segue to 4G leadership, which Mr Heng is poised to helm.

Insight looks at how this particular outreach is poised to be a sea change in these exercises, why there is a need for new ways to create policy and build trust amid Singapore's changing electorate, and what an expanded "democracy of deeds" - a theme in Mr Heng's outline - could look like.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Coding classes for all upper primary pupils from 2020; Merdeka Generation Digital Clinics to equip seniors with basic digital skills starting from September 2019

Non-examinable 10-hour programme aims to expose them to skills needed in digital economy
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 11 July 2019

All upper primary pupils will take coding enrichment classes from next year to expose them to the skills needed to embrace new opportunities in the digital economy.

Efforts to equip Singapore's seniors with basic digital skills will also be ramped up, along with a continued drive to make it easier for businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to go digital, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said yesterday as he laid out his ministry's upcoming plans.

Another key move is setting up a telecoms cyber-security specialist team to ensure that the country's 5G network is designed to be secure, given that its ability to carry more data increases its vulnerability.

"We want to build a digital economy where every business is digitally empowered, every worker is digitally skilled and every citizen is digitally connected," said Mr Iswaran.

"This is our overall vision for an inclusive digital Singapore that brings benefits to all Singaporeans... We must also excite young Singaporeans about the new opportunities in the digital economy. For a start, we are exposing them to the skill sets that are needed."

This involves a 10-hour coding programme for Primary 6 pupils, which will be piloted at some schools this year, after their Primary School Leaving Examination, before being rolled out to Primary 4 to 6 pupils in all primary schools by next year.

Developed by the Education Ministry and the Infocomm Media Development Authority, and offered as an optional enrichment course since 2014, the Code For Fun programme aims to develop an appreciation for computational thinking and coding concepts, using tools such as simple visual-based programming and robotic kits.

It will not be examinable.

The programme will continue as an option to complement existing computing subjects in secondary schools, helping students to go deeper into coding, while other initiatives for tertiary students will also be enhanced.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards: 13 people with disabilities recognised for their contributions to society

By Rahimah Rashith, The Straits Times, 4 July 2019

When he was five years old, Mr Michael Ngu contracted polio and became paralysed in both legs, but his disability did not stop his dream of becoming an architect.

His career began in the 1980s and for nearly a decade, he worked for celebrated architect I.M. Pei in New York. Today, Mr Ngu, 62, is the president and chief executive of Architects 61, an award-winning local company.

Yesterday, he was one of 13 people with disabilities recognised for their achievements in their fields, as well as for their potential and contributions to society, at the inaugural Goh Chok Tong (GCT) Enable Awards.

"I hope my achievement can be an inspiration to others," said Mr Ngu. "It has been challenging for a person with disabilities to achieve and gain acceptance in society."

Today, Mr Ngu's projects are seen not just in Singapore, but also overseas - in China, India, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.

Closer to home, his firm has had a hand in designing several notable structures including Changi Airport's Terminal 1 and 5, and the Helix Bridge.

Mr Ngu has also found time to give back to the community, having served as vice-chairman of the Singapore Cheshire Home, a charity for people with disabilities, and treasurer of the Handcycling Association of Singapore, now known as the Para Cycling Federation of Singapore.

Yesterday's awards ceremony, held at the Istana, was graced by President Halimah Yacob and attended by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

Lauding the award recipients, Madam Halimah said: "Their stories remind us that everyone is unique and differently abled, and can contribute back to society in their own ways. I hope today's awards will inspire everyone to go the distance with our endeavours."

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Career Trial for Jobseekers: More help for those seeking part-time employment

Career Trial's expansion a boon for firms as well as some job-seekers who want flexibility
By Joanna Seow, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Jul 2019

Footwear retailer Skechers has 66 vacancies in retail and logistics that it is looking to fill as it expands, but finding dedicated workers has not been an easy task.

Ms Zann Lee, its regional director for sales and products, said the company has tried to fill the gaps by hiring part-time sales associates through recruitment agencies, but the recruiters promised more flexibility in working arrangements than the company could provide. "The drop-out rates are about 40 per cent," she said.

Many part-timers did not want to work during the busy evening and weekend hours, which is when they are most needed, she said.

Now, Ms Lee hopes to bring some on board through the Career Trial scheme, which lets employers and job-seekers try out a work arrangement for up to three months. The Government foots the bill for a training allowance of between $7.50 and $15 per hour.

This is capped at 480 hours for full-time workers and 80 hours per month for part-timers.

After the trial period, the company may then offer a permanent job or a contract of at least a year.

The scheme was expanded on May 15 to include part-time work, which has attracted at least 13 employers so far, said Workforce Singapore (WSG), the agency which runs the programme. Besides Skechers, these include electronics and furniture retailer Courts, restaurant chain Han's and integrated resort Marina Bay Sands.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower Low Yen Ling said yesterday that the expansion was aimed at benefiting more Singaporeans, such as caregivers and retirees, who want flexibility.

"This also widens the talent pool for our companies, especially companies in the service sector," she said, on the sidelines of the Adapt and Grow career fair at HDB Hub.

There are 750 employers on the scheme, she said, with most of them offering full-time work.

She also said about 30 per cent of the 730 people who found jobs through Career Trial last year claimed a retention bonus of $500, which means they stayed on the job for at least three months.

In the first three months of this year, more than 100 people found full-time jobs through Career Trial, WSG said.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

What makes Changi Airport shine

Nearly four decades on, Changi Airport remains a leading international air hub in an intensely competitive and volatile industry. Jewel reflects the innovative spirit that drives Changi Airport Group's efforts to stay in the top league.
By Liew Mun Leong, Published The Straits Times, 1 July 2019

Today, we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the formation of Changi Airport Group (CAG).

It has been 38 years since Changi Airport started operations on July 1, 1981 and I have been deeply involved in its development from as early as the mid-70s. Despite scepticism from many quarters, our leaders back then believed that the future capacity of Changi Airport should cater for 30 million passengers per annum (mppa). Today, we have superseded this amid strong growth in passenger demand, with a total handling capacity of 85 mppa across our four terminals. How did we achieve this?


From the outset, our leaders had the foresight to invest in the airport. Running an airport is like managing an asset-heavy business. It is also inherently complex. To build more capacity takes a long time and comes with high infrastructural costs.

At the same time, the aviation industry is dynamic and volatile, making it challenging to look to the future even though it is necessary to do so. With the combination of a risk-taking mindset and a team of highly astute and dedicated staff to plan, design and manage the airport, we were fortunate to have done well.

In 2009, our leaders further made the bold move to corporatise the airport by forming CAG as a private company and restructuring the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). CAG was to undertake airport operations and air hub development, while CAAS focused on its regulatory and air traffic management roles. Corporatisation has allowed CAG to be more customer-focused and gives it greater flexibility to respond and innovate in a rapidly changing aviation environment where there is intense competition, especially in the region.

In recent years, many airports have made significant improvements in their operational efficiency and service levels. Transfer passengers account for about 30 per cent of Changi's total traffic, and it is a competitive market, with travellers having the option of different air hubs to stop over or transit. Since the formation of CAG, the number of passengers passing through Changi has gone up from 37 million to 66 million annually. But our efforts to attract passengers and visitors to Singapore continue. This is where the latest addition, Jewel Changi Airport (Jewel), comes in.


Recently, I accompanied the Chinese Ambassador to Singapore, Mr Hong Xiaoyong, on a visit to Jewel. The moment he saw Jewel, he turned to his embassy colleagues and said in Mandarin, "This is innovation in Singapore!" and diplomatically repeated that to me in English.

I responded that Jewel is indeed a bold innovation in ideas and technology and briefed him on how it was originally an open-air carpark with 800 lots built about 40 years ago for hourly parking using paper coupon payment. I am familiar with the history of the site because I was the engineer in charge of building the carpark back then. The open-air carpark has now been converted into a high value, multi-functional commercial asset with extended airport functions, shopping, restaurant outlets, an airport hotel, recreational facilities and attractions, including 2,500 carpark lots.

The unveiling of Jewel on April 17 is a clear demonstration of our continual innovative efforts to ensure that Changi Airport remains a leading international air hub. I have been involved with the building of Changi Airport from its early phases in 1975, but Jewel is truly one of the highlights of my professional career.

Its birth began at least nine years ago. Changi was critically short of parking lots at Terminal 1 (T1). As T1 was hemmed by T2 and T3, expansion was possible only at the open-air carpark in front of T1. Airport land is precious and we wanted to create greater economic value in the use of the 3ha (about the size of four football fields), which lies at the heart of Changi Airport, surrounded by the three terminals.

However, we rejected the obvious solution of simply building a multi-storey carpark in front of T1, an approach which has been conveniently adopted by quite a few major airports in the rest of the world.

CAG chief executive Lee Seow Hiang came up to me one day with the idea of constructing a commercial building with additional carpark spaces on the site. The proposed building could be integrated with an expanded T1 and open the flexibility for us to re-imagine what an airport infrastructure could be.

Frankly, at the time I was sceptical if the idea could work financially. But I left it to Mr Lee and his team to innovate and develop his new "dream". A bid was eventually called for design proposals to develop the site and several parties took part in the competition. Finally, a bold and highly imaginative glass dome conceptualised and designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie was selected.

Throughout, there was one key strategic goal - to upgrade and maintain the attractiveness of Changi Airport as an international air hub by entertaining and providing stopover passengers with more "pleasurable transit time" when passing through Changi. We also wanted to better serve growing passenger segments such as those who travel to Singapore to connect to cruises and ferries. With this, we also wanted Jewel to be a space for all Singaporeans to enjoy bonding with family and friends.

Friday, 28 June 2019

GST Voucher 2019: 1.7 million Singaporeans to get $1 billion in GST vouchers, Medisave top-ups

By Tee Zhuo, The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2019

About 1.7 million Singaporeans will benefit from $1 billion in goods and services tax (GST) vouchers and Medisave top-ups in the coming months.

In a statement yesterday, the Ministry of Finance said eligible Singaporeans will receive text messages or letters to inform them of their benefits by July 5.

They will receive the benefits between next month and November.

Those belonging to the Pioneer Generation and Merdeka Generation will receive their benefits next month, while about 1.4 million Singaporeans will receive GST vouchers, in cash, of up to $300 each in August.

About 520,000 Singaporeans aged 65 and above this year will receive up to $450 each in GST vouchers, for their Medisave accounts, in August as well.

Those born on or before Dec 31, 1969 - or those aged 50 and above this year - and who do not receive benefits for the Pioneer or Merdeka generations, will each get an annual $100 top-up to their Medisave accounts from this year to 2023.

This will be credited into their Medisave accounts in August, and is part of the five-year Medisave top-up scheme announced at this year's Budget.

From November, 1.4 million people will also get an additional cash payment of up to $300 each as a Bicentennial Payment GST voucher, under the Bicentennial Bonus package that was announced in this year's Budget.

The package includes top-ups to Edusave or post-secondary education accounts of Singaporeans aged seven to 20 that will be made by the end of this month, and a personal income tax rebate.

It also includes a Workfare cash bonus for lower-wage workers who received Workfare Income Supplement payouts for the 2018 work year, and a Central Provident Fund top-up for lower-income Singaporeans with low balances, both to be paid to citizens by the end of this year.

Singaporeans can check their GST voucher benefits online at through SingPass.

PM Lee Hsien Loong's dialogue at the Smart Nation Summit on 26 Jun 2019

3 ingredients necessary to succeed in smart nation vision: PM Lee Hsien Loong
Strength in engineering, leaders who understand tech, a society that doesn't fear science or tech
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2019

It is no secret that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is a techie.

Yesterday, he revealed that he puts his tech skills to good use as a mystery shopper on government websites, in a bid to help the Government improve its online services.

"Our mystery shoppers to government websites are kept busy, and once in a while, I join them myself," he quipped, to laughter. "It is not just improving the software, but rethinking and streamlining the underlying processes to focus on the essential requirements, and deliver the services in a customer-oriented way."

PM Lee was speaking at yesterday's Smart Nation Summit about what the Government has done so far to realise Singapore's Smart Nation vision outlined five years ago.

While the country has a strong base to become a Smart Nation - a technologically literate population, good IT infrastructure, and the Government taking the lead - there are areas in which it can do better, he said.

He cited three ingredients he said were necessary for Singapore to succeed in its vision to use technology to improve the quality of life for all.

First, Singapore must have very strong engineering capabilities, and must be able to attract and recruit engineers of the same calibre as those working in the best tech companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, he said.

Second, Singapore will also need more leaders and managers who know "what is real, what is snake oil, what is a buzzword and what is a promising solution", both in the Government and in the private sector.

Third, said PM Lee, society needs to embrace science and technology, and not fear it.

"The Singapore ethos of our society has to be rational and transparent, able to examine and solve any problem rationally, be prepared to apply solutions which work even if they are unconventional and use new approaches," he added.

"People have to understand the risks of technology, whether it's cyber security, whether it's privacy, or online falsehoods. But our people must not be anti-tech or anti-science, because that would hold back progress and it will be the end of us."

He cited the Digital Readiness Blueprint launched by the Ministry of Communications and Information last year to improve Singaporeans' access to technology and help them learn how to use digital technology safely.

Singapore's Smart Nation push, said PM Lee, is not about flaunting glitzy technology.

"It is applying technology to solve real problems that will make a difference to people's lives, across the whole of society," he added at the event at Sands Expo and Convention Centre at Marina Bay Sands.

To this end, the Government has been building the basic infrastructure on which applications and services can be developed, such as the National Digital Identity, which will allow people to log in securely to access government services online.

The Government has also launched projects to address concrete problems, and started experimental projects for Singapore to learn quickly about whether novel technology, such as artificial intelligence, will fail or succeed here.

Noting the popularity of services such as online passport applications and tax payments, PM Lee said: "But we can do much better, certainly for government services."

While the Government was an early adopter and was one of the first governments in the world to computerise, digitise its data and move services online, it now has many legacy systems that need to be upgraded, PM Lee said.

He added that the Government also has to keep up with technology to transform how it develops applications and delivers services, for instance by using cloud services or centralising development, instead of having every agency build its own website or system at great expense.

PM Lee called on the private sector to play its part, adding that there are many opportunities, especially in the financial services sector.

Wrapping up his speech, he said: "We are determined to achieve our Smart Nation vision. It is an essential strategy if Singapore is to remain an outstanding metropolis, abreast of the other centres of human creativity and enterprise."

In a dialogue after his speech, in response to a question on how the Government will ensure no one is left behind, he stressed the importance of helping older Singaporeans access services online. "We have to make a big effort to carry them along, make sure that they feel they get the help they need and they don't feel they are left behind."

Asked what young Singaporeans can do to capitalise on the growing tech sector, PM Lee advised them to take advantage of the educational opportunities available before they "go out and change the world".

"First, master a trade, don't lightly drop out of university. I mean, if you're going to be Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, by all means... if not, master a skill, make the most of it. At some stage, if you want to start something, I say go for it," he said, referring to the founders of Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, respectively, who cut short their education to start their companies.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

NEETs among Singapore youth: Jobless and feeling hopeless

Experts flag vulnerability, struggles of group not in education, employment or training.
By Yuen Sin, The Sunday Times, 23 Jun 2019

For the past 1 ½ years, 24-year-old Benjamin has been spending his days at home.

He is not in school. He is not working. He is not undergoing training.

He whiles away the time reading the newspapers, browsing the Internet or listening to the radio, keeping his expenses to a minimum. Occasionally, he ventures out to run errands with his parents, who pay for his meals and other necessities.

Benjamin, who does not want his real name used due to the stigma associated with his condition, has a diploma in media and communication from Singapore Polytechnic.

But he became fearful about looking for jobs after unsuccessful applications to about 10 post-production companies. He has also had negative experiences during previous internships, including being fired at an events company for being slow at simple tasks such as packing items into containers.

Last year, he fell into depression.

Benjamin is among a growing group of youth aged 15 to 24 in Singapore who are defined as NEET (not in education, employment or training) by organisations such as the World Bank and International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The latest available data - from the National Youth Survey in 2016 - showed that there are 20,100 NEETs here, making up 4.1 per cent of the resident youth population.

This is an uptick from 19,700 in 2013, comprising 3.7 per cent of the resident youth population.

The survey was conducted by the National Youth Council, with input from the Ministry of Manpower and the National Population and Talent Division. It polled a representative sample of 3,531 youth in 2016, and 2,843 youth in 2013.

Unlike the youth unemployment rate - which captures the number of jobless among those actively searching for work, NEET data includes those who have dropped out of the labour force altogether.

This is thus a more comprehensive measure of the economically idle among young Singaporeans, said the survey report.

NEETs are a vulnerable segment of the youth population, said the ILO, as they are at risk of both labour market and social exclusion.

Singapore's NEET rate is low by global standards. NEET rates in other developed countries such as Germany and Finland in 2016 ranged from 6.5 to 9.9 per cent.

But higher job expectations, on top of uncertain economic conditions, may have led to a growth in this NEET rate - which experts say is likely to go higher.