Wednesday, 22 May 2019

NDP 2019 theme song: Our Singapore

Protecting Singapore’s vulnerable: Will tougher laws make a difference to those at risk?

Recent changes to the Penal Code have introduced tougher penalties against those who abuse domestic workers, children and people with disabilities, and identified new groups of vulnerable persons. Tan Tam Mei and Cara Wong look at whether harsher punishments would translate into better protection for five groups of vulnerable people.
By Tan Tam Mei and Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 21 May 2019

A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest members and Singapore's move to recognise more vulnerable groups who need protection is a reflection of a more compassionate nation, say experts.

Under laws passed in Parliament earlier this month, those who abuse vulnerable victims will face up to twice the maximum punishment for similar crimes against others.

For instance, offenders who cause grievous hurt face up to 10 years' jail with a fine and caning, but if the crime is committed against a vulnerable victim, the jail term can go up to 20 years.

The scope of those considered vulnerable will also be widened under the new laws.

Besides the existing vulnerable categories of domestic workers and people with mental or physical disabilities, three groups will be added: children under 14, victims in close relationships with their offenders, and victims in intimate relationships with their offenders.

The need to deter abuse of the weak through extra legislative protection was first recognised more than 20 years ago.

In 1998, the Penal Code was amended, introducing 11/2 times the maximum punishment for certain offences committed against foreign domestic workers.

Last year, similar enhanced punishments were introduced for abusers of vulnerable adults - defined as those aged 18 and above who are unable to protect themselves due to disabilities - under the Vulnerable Adults Act.

During the Bill's debate, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin said the changes were borne out of the desire to deter abuse.

He also said the move was an opportunity "for this House to register our strongest condemnation against acts that harm the most vulnerable among us".

The new laws are encouraging, said experts like Mr Norman Kee, an early childhood and special needs education lecturer at the National Institute of Education, who was of the opinion that the law now gives these "silent groups" a voice.

He said: "The changes do signal the need to move towards a more humanistic, compassionate and inclusive society... (It is also a) representation of their distressing and 'unbearable' suffering."

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser said the move to recognise victims in intimate or close relationships with their abusers signals that such acts, which are sometimes dismissed as "domestic problems", cannot remain private if they involve abuse.

"It is a recognition that we have a responsibility to raise the alarm and not close one eye... that we must feel outraged and act to prevent or stop abusive behaviour," he said.

But on the ground, welfare and social service groups say the new laws will not necessarily translate into better protection.

Under-reporting is also common when it comes to abuse cases, said the experts who noted that published statistics could represent just the tip of the iceberg.

To be effective, the new laws must come in tandem with measures to protect and educate the victims and those around them, say the various organisations who look out for the vulnerable.

In Parliament, Mr Amrin acknowledged that the law has its limits.

"The law can shape social norms, but it is only one factor," he said, adding that while the legal direction is now clear, the Government needs to work with community partners, including non-governmental organisations, to be effective.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

DPM Heng Swee Keat at the 49th St Gallen Symposium

Dialogue key to fostering trust between Government and people: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent In St Gallen (Switzerland), The Straits Times, 10 May 2019

For Singapore, the key to fostering trust between the Government and the people lies in dialogue, partnership and always keeping the promises it has made to the citizens, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

This is a legacy, he added, handed down from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had said the Government must never, in an election, pledge what it cannot deliver.

"Credibility is important. What we promise, we must do our very best to deliver," said Mr Heng, who had been the late Mr Lee's principal private secretary.

The DPM, whose appointment to the No. 2 position this month signals his standing as the next prime minister, was responding to a question at the 49th St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland on how the Singapore Government builds trust with its citizens when in other countries, this trust has broken down.

One key element is dialogue and interaction with the people by MPs at weekly Meet-the-People Sessions, and via platforms like Our Singapore Conversation, said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

He hoped the next round of the conversation will focus on imbuing in people a take-charge attitude when they see a problem that needs fixing. This, in turn, will require leaders at all levels of Singapore society, he added.

Building trust also involves working in partnership, like what is being done in Singapore's tripartite system, the DPM said.

For instance, when the Government was working on restructuring the economy, it gathered together business leaders, business chambers, large trade associations and unions to talk about what should or can be done, he said.

Trust is also about honesty, even when undertaking difficult decisions, like raising the goods and services tax from 7 per cent to 9 per cent. This is to take place some time between 2021 and 2025.

"Some people said, 'You are mad to announce a tax increase so far ahead'. I said our projection is that we have an ageing population; if we want to keep our healthcare system sustainable, we each have to do more to take care of our seniors."

He added: "We believe it is better to be honest with our citizens than to say we have solved the problem."

Mr Heng was speaking at a public dialogue with the symposium's chairman Dominic Barton, a former managing director of consulting firm McKinsey.

He attended the symposium as part of a five-day study trip to Switzerland, where he visited Swiss companies and research institutes to learn more about productivity, R&D and industry development efforts there.

Rules on CPF usage and HDB housing loans updated to ensure homes for life

Buyers can use more from CPF, get bigger HDB loans if lease covers them till age 95; rules will kick in on 10 May 2019
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2019

As society ages, there is a risk that some people could outlive their home leases. Rules have now been updated to strike a balance between giving property buyers more flexibility, while ensuring their leases are long enough and their retirement funds sufficient.

Buyers can now use more from their Central Provident Fund (CPF) and get bigger Housing Board loans for ageing flats, so long as the property's remaining lease covers the youngest buyer till the age of 95.

The changes, announced yesterday by the ministries of Manpower and National Development, mark a shift in how the Government regulates CPF usage and disburses public housing loans. Instead of looking only at a flat's remaining lease, the focus is on whether a property can last its home owner for life.

But restrictions will still be in place to ensure buyers have sufficient funds for retirement: HDB flats must have at least 20 years left on their leases - down from 30 years - for CPF monies to be used for the purchase. HDB flats are sold with 99-year leases.

Also, CPF members aged 55 and older must have properties with leases that cover them till age 95, before they can withdraw their CPF savings in excess of the Basic Retirement Sum. This effectively means their property must have a remaining lease of at least 40 years, up from the old requirement of 30 years.

"The updated rules will provide more flexibility for Singaporeans to buy a home for life, and will apply to both public and private properties," Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said in a Facebook post last night.

The announcement comes on the back of many public discussions about depleting leases of ageing HDB flats. Apart from announcing steps like a second round of improvements for ageing flats, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last August that the Ministry of National Development (MND) is looking to "improve the liquidity of the resale market, making it easier for people to buy and sell old flats".

OrangeTee & Tie research head Christine Sun said the move would widen the pool of buyers who can use CPF to buy an older flat, and increase demand for such flats.

Some older buyers, who had not been able to use CPF for buying homes, might now be able to do so, she said.

It may also deter younger buyers from purchasing flats whose lease they may outlast.

MND said most buyers will not be affected by the changes, as 98 per cent of HDB households and 99 per cent of private property families have a home that will cover them to age 95. But older buyers can now buy ageing flats and face less restrictions on CPF usage.

Singaporeans living in private property can apply for government help: Indranee Rajah

Asset-rich but cash-poor: Govt aid available to all regardless of housing type
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

Citizens who live in private property can apply for government aid should they need help, said Second Minister for Finance Indranee Rajah yesterday in Parliament.

She also cited broad-based schemes that are for all Singaporeans, regardless of the type of housing they reside in.

These include education assistance and being able to go to polyclinics for healthcare, as well as the Merdeka Generation Package to help citizens born in the 1950s with their healthcare costs.

So, she added, it would be "too much of a generalisation to say that there is nothing for them at all in the Budget".

Ms Indranee was responding to Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), who asked whether the Government could do more to help asset-rich but cash-poor Singaporeans.

Mr Lim cited residents' feedback and said a number of those who live in private homes noted that it was inequitable that they do not qualify for GST Vouchers, among other initiatives.

As a result, they feel disadvantaged because of their residence type, he added.

Ms Indranee said the Government has more targeted initiatives, like the GST Vouchers, that subsidise the expenses of the lower-income group, besides broad-based schemes.

"The ones who don't benefit from the broad-based schemes, we would encourage them to apply (when they have) a genuine need because the system does allow for appeals and consideration of particular circumstances," she said.

"They may have specific difficulties. We will address those on a case-by-case basis."

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Singapore Fake news law passed by Parliament on 8 May 2019

Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was passed with 72 Members saying "yes", all nine Members from the opposition Workers' Party (WP) saying "no"
It is not a political tool but about shaping a society that keeps lies out, says Shanmugam
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

After a marathon two-day debate that stretched late into last evening, Parliament passed a comprehensive piece of legislation to combat fake news.

The proposed law is not a political tool for the ruling party to wield power, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, but is about shaping the kind of society that Singapore should be.

Summing up the often fractious debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, he painted a picture of a society in which lies are kept out and there are honest debates among people based on truth and honour.

"(Debates) should be based on a foundation of truth, foundation of honour, and foundation where we keep out the lies, that's what this is about. It's not about the Workers' Party or the PAP or today, it's about Singapore," he said responding to the 31 MPs who spoke during the debate on the draft law aimed at protecting society from fake news that harms public interest.

At around 10.20pm, the Bill was passed with 72 MPs saying "yes", nine Workers' Party (WP) MPs saying "no", and three Nominated MPs abstaining.

WP chief Pritam Singh, whose party had strenuously objected to the new law for giving ministers too much powers, had called for a division in which each MP's vote is recorded. The opposition party wanted the courts, instead of the ministers, to be the arbiters of falsehoods, and accused the Government of creating a self-serving law that can be abused to quash critics.

Rebuttals came from many of the People's Action Party (PAP) MPs as well as Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and Mr Shanmugam, who stressed that a minister's decision under the new law is subject to court appeal and judicial review.

The new law is designed to give the Government the tools to deal with falsehoods on the Internet that can go viral in a matter of minutes and cause untold harm, said Mr Shanmugam, who spent much of his speech addressing WP MPs' claims.

There was no way to guarantee that the courts would be able to respond within hours each time a falsehood needed to be dealt with, he added. He also stressed that the Bill narrows the scope of the Government's powers, instead of broadening them.

"There is no profit of any sort, including political profit, in trying to allow these lies to proliferate and damage our infrastructure of fact. It will damage our institutions and, frankly, no mainstream political party will benefit from it.

"It will damage any party that wants to consider itself mainstream and credible. You've seen what happens in the US, you've seen what happened in the UK, the centre gets hollowed out, it's the extremes that benefit," he said.

MPs had asked for clarifications on technical aspects such as how the law defines falsehoods and public interest, and also raised practical concerns like whether people who inadvertently forward fake news will run afoul of the law.

Mr Shanmugam stressed that orders to put up corrections or remove content would mostly be directed at technology companies.

The man in the street who does not purposely manufacture falsehoods to undermine society need not fear, he added.

During the debate yesterday, Mr Ong addressed the concerns of academics, some of whom had sent him a letter last month about their fears that academic work would be caught under the law.

He said their main concern was that the law would be abused to stifle political discourse "because not all researchers are just researchers, they may also be activists". He assured them that criticism based on facts and not falsehoods would not come under the new law.

Mr Iswaran, meanwhile, spoke about how the Government was fighting the fake news scourge from other fronts, such as working with technology companies on a code of practice that will prevent their platforms from being misused to ramping up media literacy through education.

"Ultimately, our first and most important line of defence against online falsehoods is a well-informed and discerning citizenry, equipped with the tools to combat online falsehoods," he said.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

How AI is powering fake news: 'These people never existed'

'Seeing is believing' no longer holds true as technology makes the job of detecting false content increasingly difficult
By Vikram Khanna, Associate Editor, The Straits Times, 8 May 2019

At the Horasis Global Meeting last month in Cascais, Portugal, which brings together innovators and social scientists from around the world, a researcher in artificial intelligence (AI) showed me about 20 photographs of people's faces on her mobile phone.

She asked me to guess which of those faces belonged to actual people.

They all looked lifelike to me, down to fine details like wrinkles, skin tones, hair texture and candid expressions.

So I said, of course, those must be real people. I was wrong.

All the photos were fake - they were photos of people who never existed.

They had been created by a new kind of AI developed by a company called Nvidia and made public.

Earlier this year, a website called was launched, which uses the technology to show faces of never-existent people, all of which look real.

See the sample images on this page and judge for yourself.

I knew there were apps like FaceApp which uses AI to transform anyone's face, making it look older or younger, adding a smile, or changing a hairstyle, as well as various selfie-editing apps.

But what I just saw was something different.

It was the creation of real-looking people out of thin air.

It was proof that AI can now have imagination and can come up with convincing results, unsupervised.

The same technology can generate imagined images of anything: pets, cars, homes and beautiful art out of rough sketches.

It can also create original poetry.

All of that is already available. Some of these imagined, synthetic renderings can be helpful, for instance, to designers, architects, interior decorators and artists, enabling them to experiment and generate new ideas.


But they can also have unintended consequences, some of which can be dangerous.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Law Minister K. Shanmugam responds to key issues on fake news Bill

Shanmugam spells out how law on fake news will work
A minister who takes action will have to give his reasons as to why info is false: Shanmugam
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 May 2019

A minister who acts against false or misleading information on the Internet under the proposed fake news law will have to give his reasons as to why the information is false, said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam.

This will be spelt out in the subsidiary legislation of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, and is something the Government had intended to do all along, he added.

Speaking to The Straits Times on Thursday ahead of next week's Parliament session when the Bill will be debated, Mr Shanmugam sought to dispel the misconception that ministers will be able to arbitrarily make decisions without having to explain them.

The proposed law gives ministers powers to fight online falsehoods that harm public interest.

For instance, they can ask websites and social media platforms to put up corrections alongside untruths or take down the information completely, among other things.

Critics have said this would give ministers too much latitude to define what is true or false.

Mr Shanmugam said: "It will be part of the law that when you say something is false, you give reasons why you say it is false. All along we had intended to do it. This is going to be in subsidiary legislation; that's why it was not in the Bill."

He added: "It's common sense. How do you say something is false without setting out what the facts are, right?"

The subsidiary legislation will also set out the timelines for how fast the ministers and courts must respond when people want to challenge a decision. Last month, he had said the Government will make the appeals process fast and relatively inexpensive for individuals.

For technology firms and platforms, the appeal process will also be expedited but "they should pay normal fees", he added.

He emphasised that the law will focus mainly on these companies, which will be required to carry corrections or cut off a user's ability to profit from online advertisements, for instance. "They will be the ones who will be required to carry the clarification because it doesn't make sense to go and ask 20,000 people to carry clarifications. So that is the focus," he said.

When asked if the Government would trawl the Internet for fake news, he said it will not set up a body to do so. "There's no specific mechanism that will be set up to go and monitor. If it is fake news and of public importance, then one way or another, members of the public might alert us, it will come around and if we get to know about it, then we will deal with it," he added.

Since the Bill was introduced on April 1, the Government has received feedback from different groups, including academics, journalists and technology companies.

One of their anxieties is that the Government may treat critical opinions as fact and use the law to censor them. Some have suggested putting into writing that the law does not cover opinions, viewpoints and criticism, while others have asked for examples of falsehoods to be enumerated.

Mr Shanmugam said that while the Government does not plan to change the Bill, he will address the issues in Parliament.

"Instead of putting it in legislation, we will say that in Parliament. And it will go on record in the Hansard," he said, adding that this will be used by the courts for interpretation, during a court challenge or judicial review.

"So the feedback would be useful, in clarifying in public what the law doesn't cover."