Monday 31 October 2011

Firms to charge smokers, obese more for healthcare

By Jilian Mincer, Reuters, 31 Oct 2011

(Reuters) - Like a lot of companies, Veridian Credit Union wants its employees to be healthier. In January, the Waterloo, Iowa-company rolled out a wellness program and voluntary screenings.

It also gave workers a mandate - quit smoking, curb obesity, or you'll be paying higher healthcare costs in 2013. It doesn't yet know by how much, but one thing's for certain - the unhealthy will pay more.

The credit union, which has more than 500 employees, is not alone.

In recent years, a growing number of companies have been encouraging workers to voluntarily improve their health to control escalating insurance costs. And while workers mostly like to see an employer offer smoking cessation classes and weight loss programs, too few are signing up or showing signs of improvement.

So now more employers are trying a different strategy - they're replacing the carrot with a stick and raising costs for workers who can't seem to lower their cholesterol or tackle obesity. They're also coming down hard on smokers. For example, discount store giant Wal-Mart says that starting in 2012 it will charge tobacco users higher premiums but also offer free smoking cessation programs.

Tobacco users consume about 25 percent more healthcare services than non-tobacco users, says Greg Rossiter, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, which insures more than 1 million people, including family members. "The decisions aren't easy, but we need to balance costs and provide quality coverage."

For decades, workers - especially with large employers - have taken many health benefits for granted and until the past few years hardly noticed the price increases.

Lee Kuan Yew dialogue session at Shell Singapore's 120th Anniversary Charity Gala Dinner: Stability 'is key to drawing oil trade'

Singapore provided such security, says Mr Lee
By Teo Wan Gek, The Straits Times, 31 Oct 2011

IN THE face of emerging economies like China and Brazil becoming oil producers and oil hubs, Singapore can continue to stay relevant to the energy industry by keeping its economy growing and building up itself as a financial, logistics and trading hub, said Mr Lee Kuan Yew last night.

Speaking at the 120th anniversary celebration of Shell Singapore, the founding prime minister of Singapore also noted how Singapore provided stability and security to the oil companies, which gave them confidence to site their operations here.

Shell was the first to set up a crude oil refinery on Pulau Bukom in 1961, two years after Singapore attained self-government, Mr Lee noted. Over time, more followed in the footsteps of Shell and set up shop here.

Shell has been in Singapore since 1891, when it acquired 8ha on Pulau Bukom and set up an oil storage installation.

Mr Lee was guest of honour at the oil giant's charity gala dinner at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS).

Shell's global campaign manager for future energy, Mr Warren Fernandez, was the moderator of the 40-minute dialogue.

It was attended by more than 1,000 guests, comprising customers, suppliers, partners, government officials, regional company executives and local Shell staff.

One of the guests asked if the petrochemical hub in the Iskandar region in Johor would complement or pose a serious threat to Singapore.

Mr Lee said Singapore could not prevent Malaysia from building a petrochemical hub.

'They can see how useful our petrochemical hub has been. They have placed a hub next to us, so that ships will call by on them first, before calling by on us,' he said.

'The question is: Which is the more efficient hub, and where do the ships turn around faster?'

After a brief pause, Mr Lee shot back at the guest: 'Have you got my answer?'

The latter replied to laughter from the ballroom: 'Singapore's.'

The evening opened with welcome remarks by chairman of Shell companies in Singapore, Mr Lee Tzu Yang, and Mr Peter Voser, chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell.

Together with their industry partners, Shell raised $1.2 million from the charity drive. All proceeds will be donated to The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds) and Fei Yue Community Services.

Govt, Opposition should participate in solving problems together: PM Lee

by Joanne Chan, TODAY, 31 Oct 2011

PERTH - Parliament is not just a place to hold either the Government or the Opposition to account. Instead, both sides should participate in solving problems together - or Singapore would be worse off for it.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made this point yesterday as he spoke to the Singapore media at the end of the three-day Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Earlier this month, Singapore's Parliament sat for the first time since the May General Election - with a record number of Opposition MPs since the 1960s.

Mr Lee noted that the opposition MPs had put a lot of effort into their Parliamentary speeches. However, it remains to be seen if they will participate in helping to solve problems, Mr Lee said.

Said Mr Lee: "This is not just a show, it's not just theatre. This (Parliament) is a place where we are discussing very serious business and where we have to make very difficult choices for Singaporeans on behalf of our voters.

Mr Lee reiterated that the responsibility of an MP "is not just to repeat what others say… it's also to think for yourself, to have views of your own, and to express those views fearlessly".

Said Mr Lee: "The Government is not the emperor, it cannot chop your head off. But to dare to stand up and say something which is true but may be difficult, spiky, which the population may not wish to hear… that takes courage."

"And I think as Government, it's our responsibility to speak the truth to Singaporeans and I think it's the Opposition's responsibility also to acknowledge the truth and to speak it, whether or not it's politically advantageous to them."

Sunday 30 October 2011

Sociological Study on Littering in Singapore

Add garbage bins, chuck banners
Study distinguishes litter-control methods that work from the ineffective ones
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2011

Bin there, done that.

Researchers wanted to know what it was exactly that would lead people to litter less.

Well, a year-long study which ended last year, has come up with the answer.

Adding more bins had the best effect, nearly halving the rate of littering.

The most ineffective method was the use of banners reminding people not to litter.

The 'dustbin test' carried out at four town centres was part of a sociological study conducted by the National Environment Agency, with experts from the National University of Singapore led by sociologist Paulin Straughan.

The study, which ran from 2009 to 2010, has been published. Copies of the book were distributed to schools and public libraries yesterday.

A soft copy can be viewed at Public Hygiene Council.

Its key findings: 62.6 per cent of the 4,500 people surveyed say they never litter; 1.2 per cent are hardcore litterbugs who admit to dropping their trash most of the time; and 36.2 per cent do it out of convenience.

Smokers insisted that it was culturally acceptable to flick their cigarette butts away after smoking, and students and young people were more likely to litter.

To cut down littering, the researchers tested four different litter-control methods at four town centres: more bins; banners encouraging binning; having more uniformed NEA officers around; and stationing volunteers to spread environmental messages.

They found that having more bins cut littering most at Tampines while using volunteers cut littering in Bedok by about 30 per cent.

Banners, generally, failed to have an effect.

'Singaporeans may be suffering from campaign fatigue, being tired of being told what they should do as good citizens,' the study suggested.

Paradoxically, having enforcement officers around reinforced the idea that littering was okay.

Singaporeans do tend to litter and the presence of enforcement officers only serves to remind them that this is the fact, the study suggested.

Also, enforcement officers cannot be everywhere, so 'their ability to discourage littering is outweighed by the fact that their presence also encourages littering'.

The study also showed that some communities are just cleaner. For instance, Tampines town centre was much cleaner than the town centres in Yishun and Bedok.

No one knows why this is so, but Associate Professor Straughan suggested that people might feel more guilty about littering if a place was well maintained.

Queenstown gets park on former KTM railway land

Park is the first project on former KTM land to be announced
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2011

By next April, Queenstown residents will have a 1.3ha neighbourhood park built on former Malayan Railway land.

The Rumah Tinggi park is the first project giving former railway land a new lease of life to be announced.

It will be a central neighbourhood green space, and will free up smaller parks elsewhere in the neighbourhood for sorely-needed carpark spaces, said Queenstown MP Chia Shi-Lu.

The tract is long and lean, with a wide space at one end.

When ready, it will be punctuated by playgrounds, adult fitness facilities and community gardens, and perhaps even have a boardwalk rending through.

But the design is not final, said Dr Chia, who is meeting residents on Saturday to tell them the news and solicit suggestions on what they want to see in the park.

What to do with all 170ha of former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) land, which reverted to Singapore on July 1, has been the subject of national debate since a landmark resolution of the 1990 Points of Agreement was reached last year.

The Nature Society has spearheaded a lobbying effort for the former train route to become a largely contiguous green corridor.

But some of the land sits in prime districts, such as Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah, and are of substantial commercial value.

Other stakeholders want to see the land used to enhance infrastructure in the form of wider roads or an MRT track.

The final word on how most of the railway land will be used will likely come only with the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Draft Master Plan in 2013.

Dr Chia believes that the authorities have been swift in giving the go-ahead to the Queenstown park because of the plot's odd shape and location.

'There's not much else they can do with the land, because it's sandwiched between industrial and residential buildings,' he pointed out.

The land sits in a valley. On one side is the Alexandra Road Ikea and car showrooms; on the other are blocks of HDB flats.

Other MPs are in the midst of negotiations with the authorities for the use of KTM land in their wards.

Grounded by Qantas

PM Lee highlights two lessons for Singapore
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 31 Oct 2011

PERTH: Drawing lessons for Singapore from the current face-off between the management of Qantas Airlines and its staff, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this highlights the importance of business competitiveness as well as a close relationship among companies, unions and the Government.

He was speaking to Singapore media at the close of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) here yesterday.

Asked if there were any takeaways from Qantas' situation for Singapore, he said: 'It shows how important it is for all companies to be competitive and for employers, unions and government to work closely together to manage the problem.'

Qantas, he noted, faces a competitiveness problem - it is losing A$200 million (S$266 million) a year and its operating costs are 20 per cent higher than those of other airlines.

When the management could not resolve the issue with unions, they took the 'drastic step' of grounding flights.

On its part, the Australian government has been unable to resolve the situation, and can only order workers back to work while giving them more time to talk.

'It is a very painful adjustment and they have not been able to reach an agreement,' Mr Lee observed.

In recent weeks, Qantas employees have gone on strike over wage and job cuts, work conditions and outsourcing of jobs.

On Saturday, the management retaliated by taking the unprecedented step of grounding all its flights worldwide.

An unhappy Australian government called for an emergency arbitration hearing by an independent tribunal to resolve the matter. Early this morning, the tribunal ordered an end to the dispute.

'We have to make sure we stay competitive because if we allow ourselves to become non-competitive, we will be in as unhappy a position,' said PM Lee.

Asked about Singapore employers' complaints about the Government's recent curbs on foreign worker supply, he said he was aware of their pain and the business opportunities lost.

He acknowledged that it would be particularly painful for the many small and medium enterprises and local companies which had previously depended on foreign workers.

But there is no easy choice, he said.

'Because it's not as if you send away all the foreign workers or keep out all the foreign workers, then we live in paradise. There is a price, and it's a quite a high price to pay. As we try to manage the population in Singapore, we are going to also accept a lower growth rate,' he said.

Emphasising the trade-offs, he said that having fewer foreign workers in Singapore will lead to slower growth - if Singapore achieves 3 per cent or 4 per cent growth in a year, 'we should consider it not a bad year'.

'We've been used to 5, 6, 7 per cent, or even more, in the past, but it's (now) a different phase. When you're an adolescent, you grow and shoot up inches every year; but when you're mature, you hope to grow, not necessarily taller, but wiser and better. We have to make that change of gear,' he said.

Singapore's rules liberate, they don't oppress

When people curse Singapore for being overburdened with laws and restrictions, they forget how good we have it
By Glenn Connley, CNN, 21 Feb 2011

We’ve all seen the T-shirts: “Singapore is a fine country.”

You know how the old joke goes, come to Singapore where you get fined for everything: spitting, chewing, littering, eating, drinking, smoking, farting, forgetting to flush … you name it.

I suppose it’s a little bit funny. But it’s a gross exaggeration. In fact, these days, it’s practically a myth. In cases where rules still exist to curb marginally harmful anti-social behaviour, they are rarely, if ever, enforced. 

The serious side to the fine joke is that it represents an entirely inaccurate attitude which many in the big wide world out there continue to hold about Singapore: that its desperately oppressed citizens live under the heavy burden of rules which govern even the most intimate aspects of their daily lives.

How do I say this without offending? It’s total BS.

An extension to this misnomer is when foreign commentators –- some of whom have never set foot outside  Changi Airport - take pot shots at Singapore’s harsh penalties for violations like vandalism or crimes against property which, in their countries, are considered minor offences.

More tapping Medisave for cervical cancer vaccine

The vaccine is a course of three jabs that cost a total of $450. Each dose costs $150. 
AsiaOne, 28 Sep 2011

More young girls and women are tapping into their Medisave funds to pay for cervical cancer vaccine.

The vaccine is a course of three jabs that cost a total of $450. Each dose costs $150.

Since last November, 6,300 females aged nine to 26 have drawn on their immediate family members' or their own Medisave funds for the vaccine, reported The Straits Times.

About $1.6 million had been taken out of such medical saving accounts for injections of Gardasil and Cervarix.

The two vaccines give protection against two types of human papillomavirus (HPV), which is responsible for most cancers in the neck of the womb.

Cervical cancer is the sixth most common cancer among Singapore women.

"If using my Medisave wasn't allowed, I would have sat on it longer," said Ms Cheo Ying Hui, 24, to The Straits Times.

An additional 1,000 doses have been sold every month in the recent months. About 35,800 doses were sold between last November and June this year, against 27,800 doses sold between March and October last year.

Professor Roy Chan, director of National Skin Centre also said that the number of women taking the vaccine has doubled every year since 2008.

Being able to use Medisave to pay for the vaccine has also made Cervarix available in polyclinics, said a spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline, manufacturer of the vaccine.

Presently, the Ministry of Education does not include this vaccine in the vaccination programme for Singapore schools.

A spokesman from the ministry was, however, 'encouraged' by the response to the vaccines so far and has advised primary-care doctors to urge their young female patients to go for it.

From next year, the withdrawal limit for Medisave funds to pay for outpatient expenses, including the cervical cancer vaccine, will be raised from $300 to $400.

Chronic Disease Management Programme (CDMP) - Use of medisave

The Chronic Disease Management Programme (CDMP) was launched on 1 October 2006 to improve care for persons with chronic diseases and to lower long-term healthcare costs.

Among the chronic medical conditions, six (6) chronic diseases namely Diabetes, Hypertension (High Blood Pressure), Lipid disorders (High Blood Cholestrol), Stroke, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Asthma are included under this scheme.

The treatment for chronic diseases is costly when administered collectively over a long period. In Singapore, as part of the national effort to improve the management of chronic diseases, the Chronic Disease Management Programme (CDMP) was introduced by the Ministry of Health to improve the level of care and to reduce the healthcare cost for persons with chronic diseases when they seek medical treatment.

CDMP is an evidence-based structured Disease Management Programme. Under the CDMP, patients can draw on their Medisave account to help reduce out-of-pocket payments for outpatient treatment for their chronic diseases. With effect from April 2008, the use of Medisave for CDMP is applicable for the following medical conditions:

- Diabetes Mellitus
- High Blood Pressure
- High Blood Cholesterol
- Stroke
- Asthma
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Saturday 29 October 2011

No go for getai at some HDB carparks

Harder to get permits, due to space crunch
By Shuli Sudderuddin, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2011

THE space crunch at HDB carparks is making community events there a thing of the past.

A Straits Times check with the organisers of such events showed that HDB carparks are no longer the venue of choice because obtaining the permit to use such places is getting too difficult.

The Housing Board said its carparks are provided primarily for the parking of residents' cars, so it will consider allowing the space for other uses only if residents' needs are met first.

Community events and the getai variety shows held during the seventh month of the lunar calendar have thus been shunted to alternative venues, such as open fields.

The crunch has come about because the number of HDB parking spaces grew only 3.2 per cent - from 539,800 to 557,000 - between 2005 and June this year.

The number of HDB households owning a car, however, leapt 26.3 per cent to 310,400 over the same period; the number of households with more than one car shot up 76.5 per cent to 45,900.

Meanwhile, taxi driver Tan Eng Hwee may have organised his last seventh-month event at the carpark near Block 717, Yishun Ring Road this year.

That carpark has 678 parking spaces, and nearly all those for season parking have been taken.

Mr Tan, who heads his area's seventh-month committee, said: 'It's sad because I've been organising it for the last five or six years and it's been always been held at the carpark.'

He has since appealed to the HDB to be allowed to use the carpark once more next year and is waiting to hear from it; he has also sought the help of his Member of Parliament Lee Bee Wah.

But things do not look promising.

An HDB spokesman said: 'With the growing parking demand in recent years, residents say they've had difficulty finding parking spaces during the celebrations. In response to their feedback, we've decided to cease allowing other uses of this carpark.'

Event organiser Maureen Sng, 58, has already been barred from using the carpark at Tampines Street 81 for the last three years or so.

The upshot of the change for her is that the birthday of underworld deities Tua Di Ya Pek has become twice as costly to organise.

She said: 'We moved the celebration to an open field two or three blocks away. We can put up a bigger tent in the field, but we need to put planks on the ground, so the event now costs $30,000.'

Mr Goh Lay Seng, who chairs the Wu Long Gong Taoist group, said: 'We know HDB probably won't approve our applications so we don't even take the chance now.'

Some are getting frustrated with the lack of alternative spaces. Getai and event organiser Peter Loh, director of Whirltones Entertainment Enterprise, said he has held only a handful of events at carparks in the last two years, down from 50 a year.

'I can understand people need space to park, but this also means that lots of groups have nowhere to go,' he said.

Whenever such events get the go-ahead to be held at carparks, however, it is clear the residents are inconvenienced.

Plastic bags and NTUC Fairprice

FairPrice took the lead in reducing plastic bag usage

WE THANK Ms Catherine Ho Shull for her concerns on the environment ('Time to say a firm 'no' to plastic bags'; Tuesday) and would like to share FairPrice's position on this issue.

The production, use and disposal of plastic bags, if not managed properly, can cause severe environmental damage. Research shows that one key factor contributing to the damaging effects of plastic bags is littering, which can clog drainage systems and contribute to flooding.

Plastic waste is also a main component of waste floating in the sea, which can kill marine animals if ingested.

So the issue is about responsible disposal and reducing excessive consumption of plastic bags. While there are consumers who litter plastic bags, many reuse the bags to line garbage bins and pick up after pets, for instance.

Without free bags from retailers, consumers will be forced to buy them.

Western nations such as Ireland, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany have introduced a national ban or taxes to reduce the use of plastic bags.

Asian nations like China and Malaysia, and cities like Hong Kong have imposed a similar ban, backed by law.

In the absence of similar legislation in Singapore, FairPrice took the lead in 2007 to reduce plastic bag consumption when we introduced the FairPrice Green Rewards Scheme.

Under this scheme, customers who use their own bags to pack purchases receive a rebate of 10 cents for a minimum purchase of $10.

This encouragement has made headway and we have saved some five to six million bags annually in the recent two years. We remain the only Singaporean supermarket to have such a scheme.

Our annual FairPrice Cares Campaign is another initiative where we pledge a donation to a charity for every customer who uses a recycled bag to pack her purchases during the campaign.

While more customers are bringing their own bags, it is a habit that will take time to nurture.

We will continue to work with organisations such as the Singapore Environment Council to encourage customers to reduce plastic bag consumption. We hope more customers can join us in our efforts to protect our environment.

Seah Kian Peng
CEO (Singapore)
NTUC FairPrice Cooperative
ST Forum, 29 Oct 2011

Your TV Star is not really the tour Guide

Premium fee was for tour specials, not the celebrity, explains travel agency

TUESDAY'S report ('Stars spend too little time with us, say some tourists') missed the relevance of celebrity-led tours as well as the reasons for the $300 premium each person had to pay and the $50 travel voucher offered to tour member Cheo Meng Soon.

Celebrities are not licensed to lead or guide a tour. The role of the celebrity, in this case MediaCorp host Guo Liang, was limited to mingling with the tour members as required by the reality travel programme, My Star Guide 6 on Channel 8, that was filmed concurrently on the same tour, as advertised.

The point was reiterated during inquiry, booking, pre-departure briefing and the tour.

Contrary to Mr Cheo's view that the tour's logistics was not planned properly, every coach had a professional tour leader from Singapore and a qualified local tour guide.

Tour members in each coach, including Mr Cheo and his companion, were allocated a fair share of time to be spent with the celebrity.

The $300 premium was not a consideration for the celebrity but the fee for premier inclusions, namely eight highlight meals and eight additional attractions in north-east China as well as two nights' accommodation at a five-star hotel in Hong Kong, all of which were not part of a regular itinerary.

The $50 travel voucher Mr Cheo received subsequently was our gesture of goodwill for his feedback and was neither to compensate him nor an admission of liability.

The tour itinerary was publicised accurately and we addressed Mr Cheo's concerns fairly and promptly.

We take pride in our record of satisfying and delighting our clients for the past 46 years.

The many positive views from clients and the fact that most of our customers are repeat clients are perhaps the best testimony of our record.

Mary Kheng (Ms)
Director, Business Development
Chan Brothers Travel
ST Forum, 29 Oct 2011

All fired up in the House

The Parliament that emerged from May's watershed election held its first debate last week.What has changed?
By Elgin Toh , Teo Wan Gek, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2011

NUMBERS matter.

Any doubt of this would have been put to rest at last week's opening debate of the 12th Parliament, where an increase in opposition MPs from three to nine led to energy levels shooting through the roof.

Observers and veteran MPs said the proceedings were feistier, the exchanges sharper and the positions tougher.

Reflecting the more free-wheeling nature of debate, parliamentarians even spoke out of turn occasionally, in their eagerness to have their voices heard.

De facto opposition leader Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) interrupted People's Action Party (PAP) MPs in the midst of their speeches at least thrice, sometimes half in jest.

In another instance that raised eyebrows, the PAP frontbench made it difficult for Workers' Party (WP) Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Gerald Giam to rebut PAP MP Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) on whether the Government was accountable to opposition MPs. Mr Giam was cut off in mid-sentence twice by raised voices of disagreement from the PAP frontbench.

The Parliament of Singapore has not yet gone down the route of its more boisterous counterparts elsewhere. Shoes and other curious objects - like bananas, as was the case in Taiwan's legislature earlier this month - do not yet get flung across the legislative Chamber.

But already, strong words and barbed comments are starting to make their way from the noisy fields of election rallies into the solemn halls of lawmaking.

One exchange saw Law Minister K. Shanmugam telling WP's Pritam Singh that 'there are no games that need to be played', and the latter retorting: 'Is the minister suggesting that I'm lying?'

Might temperatures rise further yet?

'It's still early days,' says Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC).

'We are seeing many more exchanges, but that's because there are more opposition MPs. It's still too early to say if this will translate into any other kind of substantial change.'

Drawing party lines

THE numbers themselves tell a story.

The corresponding five-day debate at the opening of Parliament in 2006 saw just 11 points of clarification or verbal skirmishes between a PAP MP and an opposition MP.

This year there were 29.

Tellingly, the number of times a PAP backbencher stood up after a minister's speech to seek clarification went down from 12 in 2006 to zero this year.

Observers such as former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong say that with the cross-party battle heating up, PAP MPs might have been keen to close ranks.

'Perhaps they don't want to be seen as embarrassing the ministers,' he says.

But PAP backbenchers themselves insist that they have not given up their time-honoured tradition of criticising government policies in their speeches.

Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) hammered away on housing policy for low-income families. Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked piercingly if government ministries were contributing to the problem of stagnant wages for low-skilled, contract workers.

And Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC) pulled no punches on what he considered the state's indefensible treatment of single mothers.

'PAP MPs were getting their points across in no less feisty fashion than the opposition MPs,' says Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).

Agreeing with him is Mr Tan Chuan- Jin, who was appointed Minister of State for Manpower and National Development right after his first general election and soon found himself having to defend government positions.

'Our PAP backbenchers pushed us hard on a wide range of issues... And looking through Hansard, I realise that they have been raising a number of these issues quite robustly even in the previous Parliament,' he says, referring to the archive of parliamentary debate transcripts.

But intra-party debate was never going to match the excitement stirred by inter-party debate.

After the most fiercely fought general election since Independence, the first parliamentary session was closely watched for the tone it might be setting for politics over the next five years.

'Everyone was expecting a high level of debate and tension,' says Ms Low Yen Ling (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

With nine opposition members in the House, each day saw between one and three rise to critique government policies and positions.

These were met with steady waves of rebuttals from the PAP front and backbench.

Some came swiftly - before an MP even had a chance to sit down after his speech. Others took a little longer to craft.

In a remarkable show of force after WP NCMP Yee Jenn Jong spoke on education, housing and the plight of small and medium enterprises, five office-holders from the Government - a senior parliamentary secretary, two ministers of state, a senior minister of state and a Cabinet minister - returned fire from all directions.

When Mr Tan pointed out that the Government had been ramping up the supply of flats, Mr Yee said 'it reflects that the Government has started to listen to the voices of the people after the last general election' - sparking an uproar from among the PAP MPs and a strong retort from Mr Tan.

'I fail to understand how, as a result of your entry into Parliament, we've suddenly started responding on that front. We have been providing good public housing for our people for many years,' said Mr Tan.

Indeed, some analysts even argue that the attention the opposition MPs were getting might have inadvertently given them more air time than their nine seats warranted.

Take for example the issue of gross national happiness index. Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) spoke about it briefly, but no fewer than seven PAP MPs chose to rebut her.

They included National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who spoke at length about Bhutan, where the index originated, and why 'Bhutan is not Shangri-La on earth'.

Parliament watchers in the Chamber noticed notes being passed between the PAP frontbench and backbench after opposition MPs' speeches, sparking talk that MPs were being told how to respond.

But Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) tells Insight that most rebuttals by PAP backbenchers are not centrally coordinated: 'Whoever has a point to make just makes it on his own accord.'

The sharp exchanges over the five days of debate have also led some to point out the first signs of a potentially worrying trend - criticism for criticism's sake and attacks motivated more by partisanship than substantive differences.

On these, neither the PAP nor the opposition emerges entirely spotless.

'At times, the debate became a matter of who can get the last word,' rues Mr Zaqy. 'I would like to see more MPs making substantive arguments rather than simply trying to hit one another to score political points,' he adds.

Agreeing, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, says the debate reminded him of the difference between a politician and a statesman. 'The former is fast to claim credit and fast to distance himself from tough positions. The latter is slow to claim credit, firm in beliefs and bears responsibility for his actions.'

Both sides could yet seek a more constructive form of debate, going forward.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a speech on the third day, applauded by many as a sincere attempt to forge a consensual, cooperative style of politics.

He said he looked forward to 'joining issue with the opposition' and called on them to go beyond criticisms and to put forward serious alternative proposals.

He also noted that the opposition MPs had declared that they wanted to be 'responsible and constructive'.

'We'll hold them to their word,' he said.

Responding, Mr Low later said, on the fifth and final day of the debate, that the WP lacked resources and information to develop alternative policies, but would do its best to scrutinise policies and be the voice of the people.

Still, there are grounds for optimism.

On the whole, the debates, while vigorous, remained relatively civil.

Mr Liang calls it 'constructive on both sides'. Dr Reuben Wong of the National University of Singapore says the exchanges were 'gentlemanly, with no overbearing put-downs of the opposition by the PAP'.

First-term MP Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) is encouraged that all members of the House, regardless of party affiliation, speak their minds and challenge the status quo.

The more engaging style of parliamentary debates will keep MPs on both sides on their toes, says Mr Siew. He reminds them to 'do your homework and do your best to ensure that your arguments stand up to scrutiny'.

Debate, furthermore, helps Singaporeans to understand issues and policies better and to be more convinced, one way or the other, says Assistant Professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University.

PAP MPs, however, continue to take the opposition to task for not offering concrete suggestions.

'They should table motions to tell us what their plans are. That would allow for a true battle of ideas,' says Mr Nair.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) says he was disappointed that opposition MPs 'will state clearly their party's position rather than their individual position as an MP'.

'As PAP backbenchers, we have always been encouraged by the Prime Minister to speak openly, frankly and passionately on our views even if they are contrary to the party's position and we have always done so,' he adds.

On the other hand, Mr Giam of the WP says he was surprised that the policy issues in his speech, such as health care and housing, remained unchallenged. 'Instead, seemingly innocuous statements - like 'my colleagues and I in the Workers' Party will hold the Government accountable' - sparked a response and debate.'

He was referring to Mr De Souza, who took issue with that statement and argued that the Government was not accountable to the opposition, but to the people of Singapore.

Other analysts pointed out that when the same point was made by a PAP backbencher and an opposition MP, the Government would attack the latter but not the former.

Mr Zaqy says: 'It's part and parcel of party politics. But let's not have too much of that.'

One such example was when both Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Mr Singh raised the issue of state control over the traditional media.

Mr Baey said that if the Government were to 'persist on keeping a tight rein on mainstream media', the latter would lose credibility and people will rely even more on social media. Mr Singh made a similar point, arguing that a common perception that the mainstream media was controlled had led many to turn to new media for news and commentary.

But only Mr Singh received strong rebuttals - and from no less than Mr Shanmugam, who challenged him to say if he believed the Government was exercising indirect control over the mainstream media.

Mr Siew says he was disappointed with the performance on both sides of that exchange. He did not 'see much point to the questions from the minister', but Mr Singh could also have done better in his view, by citing, for instance, recently leaked diplomatic cables on Wikileaks that quoted Straits Times reporters discussing media freedom.

Higher standards

ONE of the more edifying debates over the five days between a PAP MP and a WP MP showed that positive sparring between the Government and the opposition can lead to higher standards - at least in the use of the Chinese language.

WP's Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC), whose maiden speech had the entire Chamber rapt, spoke extensively in classical Chinese, quoting from Confucius' Analects, among other classics.

Mr Chen said political diversity was not the same as political division, and that communities become stronger through debates. He also likened the relationship between the ruling party and the opposition to that between a wise emperor and his boldly critical adviser.

This drew out fellow Chinese language enthusiast Sam Tan (Radin Mas), who also peppered his reply the next day with classical Chinese, calling Mr Chen's speech 'refreshing' and worthy of applause.

'We have to give credit where it is due,' Mr Tan tells Insight.

'Under normal circumstances, I won't want to use classical Chinese, since few would understand. But to show intellectual respect to Mr Chen, I did so. Hopefully, such debate would enable us to reach out to the Chinese-speaking community and stir people who have the knowledge.'

So after Round One of exchanges between the PAP and the WP, most would agree that Parliament sittings have become a more exciting affair.

Whether or not this 'new normal' Parliament - or, as the WP prefers, these first steps towards a 'First World Parliament' - can produce better laws and policies and, in turn, improve Singaporeans' lives, remains to be seen.

The onus is on voters to stay tuned to Rounds Two, Three, Four and thereafter, and hold both parties accountable by insisting that partisan politics is ultimately made to serve national and public interests.

Newbies commended for energy, passion and knowledge in maiden speeches

AS SHE sat in the public gallery of Parliament last week, undergraduate Melissa Lin, 22, had flashbacks of opposition rallies she had attended during the general election campaign in May.

She says Workers' Party (WP) MP for Hougang Yaw Shin Leong's frequent references to his own party made his maiden speech to the House sound like 'an election rally speech'.

Ms Lin, a final-year student at Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, hastens to add that People's Action Party (PAP) members also indicated in their speeches that the May polls, and the next election due by 2016, were very much on their minds.

The election was 'still a cloud hanging over Parliament', says the Nee Soon GRC resident.

Political scientist Reuben Wong says in this new political landscape, where electoral contests are the 'new norm', it is to be expected that MPs keep an eye on the next round of assessment by voters at the ballot box.

Dr Wong, of the National University of Singapore, says first-term MPs especially are eager to show that they are representing their residents and know what is happening on the ground.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin agrees: 'They know that even though they are addressing each other in Parliament, at the end of the day, it's the over two million voters who are scrutinising their every move.'

Political observers say most of the 30 rookie MPs hit the ground running in their first Parliament showing, and having had to fight an election to earn their place in the House, helped.

Assistant Professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University (SMU) says: 'The indications are good overall for the first-term MPs. The baptism of fire of an electoral contest seems to have sharpened their political nous.'

He commends them for the 'emotional energy' they injected into their speeches, and their insights into certain issues.

That was especially so for those first-term MPs who leveraged on their areas of expertise, such as Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), who is a vice-president at SBS Transit.

He put his knowledge of the Hong Kong public transport system to good use, drawing from it ideas on how Singapore's system could be improved.

Others such as orthopaedic surgeon Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC), championed more health-care subsidies for the elderly.

But most of the new MPs dwelt on 'safe topics', says Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad, such as the cost of living and the elderly.

Mr Zaqy, a second-term MP, says that is because first-termers do not yet have the profile or the gravitas needed to raise hot potato issues.

Several veteran MPs tell Insight the first-term MPs are off to a good start.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) commend the newbies for being frank and passionate, and for being well-prepared.

Prof Tan of SMU singles out Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing for coming across as empathetic and having in-depth knowledge of his field, and Minister of State for National Development and Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin for speaking 'with conviction and reason'.

Mr Andrew Duffy, a lecturer at NTU's Wee Kim Wee School, was in Parliament with a group of his students the day Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Gerald Giam spoke.

Mr Duffy says Mr Giam struck a 'fine balance' between respect and challenge, when speaking of the Government.

'I hope he has laid the groundwork for opposition MPs and NCMPs to be considered as a part of the solution, an asset to Government rather than a problem to be dealt with,' Mr Duffy says.

Mr Chen Show Mao, seen by some as a celebrity among first-term MPs, also made his parliamentary debut last week. He urged the PAP to be like Tang Dynasty Emperor Tai Zong, who listened to Wei Zheng, a wise court official known for being frank, casting the WP into the latter role.

Prof Tan says Mr Chen was 'measured, articulate and spirited' and did not aim below the belt when speaking about the ruling party.

Still, there were slip-ups here and there when new MPs displayed their lack of familiarity with House rules.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) stood at the table in the centre of the chamber to deliver his speech, instead of the rostrum nearest his seat. As the main table is meant for frontbenchers and veteran backbenchers, he was gently reminded not to do so again.

Ms Tin Pei Ling bowed to the Chamber instead of the Speaker on her way out.

Mr Chen introduced new points when replying to a request for clarification from a PAP MP - a breach of Parliament rules.

But these are early days yet for the newest members of the House.

As Mr Desmond Lee (Jurong GRC) puts it: 'It is not just early days for me and other first-time MPs to learn, improve and debate issues, but also early days for the state of politics in this new political condition.'


NUS thanks ex-president Nathan

His own university years 'life-changing'
By Kor Kian Bengm The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2011

FORMER president S R Nathan spent two years in university but they were to play a life-changing role in his career that took him all the way to the highest office of the land.

'The university gave me an entree of knowledge. Over time I learnt how to use the knowledge and apply it in my work, all without a brief given to me. I like to believe it applies to the presidency, too,' he said last night at a dinner organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS).

'The university enabled me to face circumstances in each of my careers because I was fortified by the knowledge I had acquired. The university brought out the talent and potential in each of us. My two years in university proved that.'

Mr Nathan, 87, spoke off-the-cuff and the audience of about 100 people listened in hushed silence as he gave a passionate account of the important role the university played in his life.

A school dropout in his teen years, he was 28 years old in 1952 when he did a diploma in social studies at the then-University of Malaya, which was later to become NUS.

Mr Nathan, a former senior civil servant and diplomat, was its chancellor for 12 years, a position traditionally held by the President of Singapore.

He stepped down from the presidency on Sept 1 this year.

Last night, NUS expressed its appreciation for his dozen years of support and contributions to Singapore and the university with a dinner packed with praises from staff and students, led by NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan.

But it was Mr Nathan's personal tale of triumph that was the most captivating.

Coming from a poor family, getting into university 'depended on the finances I could get', he said.

Oil giant Shell came to the rescue, giving him $2,000 a year. It paid for his accommodation and tuition fees.

But more than that, he said: 'The university taught me how ignorant I was and how much there was to learn, through experiences in school or through self-study.'

The knowledge he acquired and realising his potential have convinced him that no one should be written off.

'I think the university taught me that message because each one of us has the capacity. It is a matter of bringing it out.'

He added: 'Social studies taught my batch and subsequent batches not to take our good fortune for granted. It reminded us that many are in need of the good fortune. This helped me in my career and presidency to touch others.'

Mr Nathan then made the pledge that he would do what he could to help NUS continue with this mission of touching and transforming lives.

Earlier, Prof Tan said Mr Nathan 'was truly generous with his time, wise counsel and energy'.

He added: 'Through his many initiatives and actions, he touched the lives of countless students, faculty, staff and alumni and was a source of inspiration for many. For this, we are indeed grateful.'

He also recounted a tale of a car ride to Kuala Lumpur with Mr Nathan three years ago.

During the journey, Mr Nathan spoke at length and in great detail of his friends and people whom he had met since his childhood days.

Said Prof Tan: 'I was amazed by this, as I am someone who has difficulty even remembering what had happened the day before. My conclusion was a simple one - Mr Nathan really cares about other people.'

NUS also thanked Mr Nathan for, among other things, helping to set up the Chancellor's Bursary last year for its needy undergraduates.

He gave the university the contact details of a donor and this year, five needy students received $4,000 each in bursaries.

During a half-hour dialogue at the dinner, Mr Nathan fielded questions seeking his views on a range of topics, including today's young generation and the type of president Singapore would need.

On why today's youth are less engaged and interested in politics than his generation, Mr Nathan said he and his peers were living in an era when countries in the region were seeking independence and so they were more politicised.

Also, today's youth are more preoccupied with their own needs and the opportunities to succeed in life.

As for the presidency, he said he had sought to be a symbol of unity for every Singaporean and expressed the hope his successors would do the same.

He had sought to embrace every Singaporean through various platforms, from community activities to informal interaction with people.

He added: 'Like me, my successor will do the same or more. It may take us another generation or two before it becomes everybody's second nature.

'In my interactions, large numbers of people had embraced me. The Chinese call me zhong tong (Mandarin for president). My race didn't matter.'

HDB resale flat prices keep going up in 2011

Strong demand and shrinking supply behind the price rise: Analysts
By Jessica Cheam, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2011

FEWER people bought Housing Board (HDB) resale flats between July and September this year, but they were prepared to pay more.

That sent resale flat prices rising 3.8 per cent to a new record in the third quarter.

It was the second consecutive quarter of accelerated resale price rises. Prices were up 3.1 per cent in the April-June quarter, and 1.6 per cent from January to March.

Analysts said the numbers reflect continued strong demand for a shrinking supply of resale flats.

The number of resale transactions declined by 10 per cent to 5,903 deals in the third quarter - below the usual 6,000-a-month average.

But sellers reaped handsome gains, given latest figures of what buyers paid in cash-over-valuation (COV) - the cash premium on top of the bank valuation for the property.

Figures released yesterday showed that the median COV has risen to more than $30,000 for almost all flat types and estates.

Analysts told The Straits Times that uncertainties in the global economy coupled with rules introduced last August to restrict HDB flat ownership had resulted in some owners deciding not to sell their flats.

The rules require private property owners who buy HDB resale flats to dispose of their private property within six months.

Another rule requires owners to prove they have sold their existing flat before qualifying for higher 80 per cent financing on their next home, making it more onerous for owners to upgrade their homes.

As a result, some flat owners have opted to rent out their flats or hold on to them - unless an irresistible offer comes along.

Additional university places for Singaporeans

Any new varsity 'must find niche to be special'
Singapore team on study trip finds that maintaining quality is a challenge
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2011

PARIS: Singapore's university system is at a crossroads, where it will have to find the right niches if it is to expand further, said Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong. He added that focusing on quality while expanding the university sector is a challenge facing not just Singapore, but also developed countries with established higher education systems, such as Finland and France, which he visited this week.

Both countries had grown their higher-education systems to provide their citizens with wider access to degree studies. But the system has become fragmented and diffused, resulting in uneven quality across the sector.

Now there is an attempt to consolidate the institutions and raise their quality all round. There is also a push by governments to make some of them 'global, world-class universities'.

On this, Mr Wong said it is important to realise that not all institutions in a country can aim to be world-class.

'You need to push for quality in a few institutions, and for the others, which will serve different purposes, you find niches of excellence and you ensure that the graduates will come out with good marketable skills.'

He said that over the past decade, Singapore has done well in building a diverse yet high-quality university sector.

The National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University have become world-class universities.

The others, including Singapore Management University and Singapore Institute of Technology, which partners top-ranking overseas universities to offer degrees to polytechnic upgraders, are recognised for providing high-quality education to their students, even though they are smaller, niche institutions.

But if the Government were to set up another university to offer places to more than 30 per cent of each Primary 1 cohort, it must find a niche that will make the new institution 'special' and 'exceptional in its own way'.

'Our challenge now is to find another niche, another product, that will allow us to provide degree opportunities for more students and prepare them well for the workplace of the future,' said Mr Wong, who heads a 15-member committee looking into how more university places and pathways can be opened up.

'There's nothing uniquely S'porean about inequality'

It's a global trend, but the Republic needs policies to tackle growing wealth gap, says expert
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2011

AS OF June last year, some 4.2 per cent - or 83,400 - of employed Singaporeans and residents still earned less than $500 a month, the same as they did way back in 1999.

And in a nation that prides itself on home ownership, 45,000 households are renting subsidised one- and two-room flats now, up from around 40,500 in 2008.

Meanwhile, the number of those who earn $10,000 a month or more has soared fourfold to 121,700 in a decade. And Singapore has the highest proportion of millionaires in the world, with one in six households on that gilded rich list.

Reel off these statistics - gleaned from recent newspaper reports and government data sheets - to Associate Professor Aneel Karnani and he does not seem the least bit surprised.

Income inequality is an inevitable by-product of free market economies, says the Harvard-educated academic, who has spent nearly a decade researching how society can strike the right balance between private profit and public welfare.

'Singapore likes to think it is unique but there is nothing uniquely Singaporean about inequality. That's increasing in practically all affluent countries.'

Technology and globalisation are two major causes of this 'natural phenomenon', says the professor of business strategy at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross Business School.

The 60-year-old was in Singapore recently to conduct a series of executive training workshops and speak at universities here.

As societies and economies become more knowledge-driven, there is a greater premium on higher education, which increases knowledge, and technology, which increases productivity. Highly educated and technically skilled people thus tend to earn more and more.

At the same time, globalisation has brought a large pool of unskilled labour into the global market, depressing wages and the bargaining power of lower-skilled people who find their jobs migrating to the lowest bidder, whether within their country or overseas.

This is to enable 'economic efficiency' - where resources are used to maximise the production of goods and services. Thus, Americans these days get shoes or garments from Bangladesh or China because it is cheaper to manufacture them there than in the United States.