Saturday 31 December 2011

Mayans didn't predict end of world, but the start of regeneration

IN THURSDAY'S commentary ('2012: Asia's big moment at risk' by Mr William Pesek), the writer wrongly attributed to the ancient Mayas of Mexico the prediction that the world would end in 2012.

To make things more confusing, the illustration accompanying the article had a reproduction not of the Mayan calendar, but the so-called Aztec calendar, in reality the Aztec's stone monument to the sun god.

To set the record straight, according to authorised scholars on the subject, the ancient Mayans - great architects, mathematicians and astronomers - predicted in the 6th century AD not the end of the world on Dec 23, 2012, but the end of the 13th cycle 'b'ak'tun' of the Mayan calendar, and the beginning of a new cycle in which the cosmos would regenerate.

Also, it may be mentioned that the Mayan calendar is not represented in a single image, but is a complex system consisting of around 15,000 hieroglyphic signs, known as Mayan glyphs, which look very different from the Aztec sun god stone.

We are very happy to note the great interest in the Mayan prophecies around the world, and present day Mexicans and descendants of the Mayans in the Mexican state of Yucatan are preparing to receive during 2012 a large number of visitors interested to know more about the vast cultural and scientific legacy of the Mayans and the rich diversity and attractions Mexico has to offer our visitors from abroad.

I take this opportunity to extend to readers my best wishes for a wonderful 2012 as well as a warm invitation to visit Mexico in 2012, and welcome the advent of a new and better cycle for humanity on Mayan territory.

As chair of the Group of 20 nations, Mexico will be hosting in June a summit of leaders, in order to contribute to solving some of the urgent problems mentioned in the commentary.

Antonio Villegas
Ambassador of Mexico to Singapore
ST Forum, 31 Dec 2011

First specialised Normal (Technical) school to open in 2013

Specialised schools to be in west, north
Jurong East, Woodlands to house institutions for Normal (Tech) students
By Lin Zhaowei, The Straits Times, 31 Dec 2011

THE first of two specialised secondary schools for Normal (Technical) students, to be opened in 2013, will be located in Jurong East.

The second, which will take in students in 2014, will be located in Woodlands, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat announced yesterday.

The schools will each take in around 200 students who get posted to the Normal (Technical) stream each year. The stream is for academically weaker students who learn best by doing.

The four-year curriculum at the two schools will be more practice-oriented and industry-focused, to prepare students for further studies at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) or other skills training organisations.

They will work with ITE and industry partners to develop their curriculum and programmes, and provide opportunities for attachments and internships.

Mr Heng was speaking yesterday at the annual appointment and appreciation ceremony for principals at the Shangri- La Hotel.

He spoke about the new schools when he highlighted how his ministry was creating new pathways to cater to students of different learning needs.

Another example, he said, is the new 'through-train' programme for Normal (Academic) students which will be implemented from 2013.

The programme allows top performers to enter polytechnics directly instead of going on to Secondary 5.

Said Mr Heng: 'The underlying philosophy is to make many pathways, bridges and ladders available to our students, at different points in time, with no dead ends.'

CPFIS wrap fee to be capped at 1% per annum from 1 July 2012

By Linette Lim, Channel NewsAsia, 30 Dec 2011

The wrap fee charged for investments under the CPF Investment Scheme (CPFIS) will be capped at one percent per annum.

The CPF Board said in a statement that the change will take effect from 1 July 2012.

A wrap fee - also known as an ongoing fee - is a regular charge paid to financial advisers for providing bundled investment services such as advisory, brokerage or administrative services.

Currently, CPF members who maintain wrap accounts for their CPFIS unit trust investments are charged a fee of up to 1.5 percent per annum by their financial advisers.

This fee eats into investment returns as it is levied monthly or quarterly by liquidating a small portion of the CPF member's investment.

The CPF Board said the cap on wrap fees is intended to help members lower the costs of investing their CPF savings over the longer term.

Past measures by the board included the tightening of admission criteria for new funds and the setting of fee caps on sale charges and fund expense ratios.

800,000 HDB households to receive S$40m of U-Save rebates

Channel NewsAsia, 30 Dec 2011

The Ministry of Finance said on Friday that about 800,000 Singaporean HDB households can expect to receive S$40 million worth of Utilities-Save (U-Save) rebates.

A Singaporean household may receive up to S$90 in rebates, depending on HDB flat type.

The U-Save rebates in January are the final tranche of the five years of rebates that were granted as part of the Goods and Services Tax Offset Package beginning in 2007.

The finance ministry said over the past five years, HDB households have received more than S$800 million worth of utilities rebates, inclusive of the additional rebates given under the Grow & Share Package this year.

It said that on average, taking into account the U-Save rebates, families living in four-room and smaller flats have not seen any increase in annual payments for utilities bills since 2007.

Other HDB households have also enjoyed significant offsets.

The U-Save rebates aim to help households cope with rising costs, including increases in utilities bills due to higher electricity tariffs.

The rebates are used to offset utilities charges directly.

Unused U-Save rebates each month are rolled over to the following month.

The GST Offset Package is a set of comprehensive measures to help Singaporeans with the increase in GST. The GST Offset Package will cost $4 billion over five years and consists of several schemes to help all Singaporeans.

Singapore's community activism blossoming

By Qiuyi Tan, Channel NewsAsia, 29 Dec 2011

More Singaporeans this year have spoken up and acted on a slew of social causes from heritage conservation and environmental protection to animal welfare.

In June, Singapore saw its first-ever public forum on animal welfare policies.

Observers said this is not unusual for a developed country with an educated population.

Assistant Professor Reuben Wong, from the National University of Singapore's Political Science Department, said: "Singaporeans find it remarkable because we've been used to a certain kind of politics which I'd describe as abnormal, where the citizenry has been depoliticised, where there is one overwhelming party or sometimes just one party in Parliament."

At the National Day Rally in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had urged Singaporeans to come forward to play a larger and positive role on issues affecting the country.

Leading the way in this effort are civil society groups such as the Cat Welfare Society.

The society has seen public support increase steadily over the years.

But what made 2011 a milestone for the group was its engagement with the government.

It has successfully lobbied authorities to start sterilising stray cats this year -- a shift from the old policy of culling them.

Its vice-president Veron Lau said the Stray Cat Sterilisation Programme, which was terminated in 2005, is now back and piloting in a number of housing estates like Ang Mo Kio and Tampines.

Under the programme, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) works with town councils to microchip and sterilise stray cats, and pays for half the cost.

"I see the change from the government officers in the way they want to work together with us," Ms Lau said.

"It's because they have seen the results that are brought about when volunteers and residents in the community step forward to resolve issues, rather than just leaving it to the government officials to resolve them."

Friday 30 December 2011

Govt to tweak Interim Rental Housing scheme

Channel NewsAsia, 30 Dec 2011

The government will tweak the Interim Rental Housing (IRH) scheme to better help needy families with temporary housing at subsidised rates while they work out a more permanent solution.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the government will exercise greater oversight of the scheme to ensure that the private operators managing the scheme serve Singaporean families first.

He said in his blog on Friday that his ministry and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) will improve the scheme in a few ways.

First, the HDB will limit the role of the private operators. They will manage the IRH tenancies and premises on HDB's behalf.

Second, the HDB will introduce more guidelines to ensure better pairing of households to help minimise possible conflicts.

Under IRH, two households will share a flat, as this lowers their individual rental cost.

Third, the HDB will extend the IRH tenancy period from the current six months to a year. This can be renewed for up to two years.

Mr Khaw said this will reduce the anxiety that families feel and give greater certainty to tenants who may need more time to work out a longer-term housing option.

Those waiting for their new flat or public rental flat can continue to renew until their flat is ready for occupancy.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Government ready to supply land for 5,000 ECs in 2012

by Venus Hew, TODAY, 28 Dec 2011

More land will be released for the development of Executive Condominiums (ECs) to meet the housing aspirations of higher-income Singaporeans.

The Government is prepared to supply land sites for 5,000 EC units next year, Minister of State for National Development and Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said yesterday at the 52nd anniversary of the Real Estate Developers Association of Singapore (REDAS).

The announcement comes after the Government in August raised the monthly income ceiling for the purchase of new ECs to S$12,000 from S$10,000. Mr Tan said that the higher ceiling had benefited around 220 households who booked their ECs after August.

ECs, a hybrid of public and private housing, were introduced in 1995. Since their introduction, 14,600 EC units have been launched by developers and 3,000 units are coming on-stream.

Still, Mr Tan pointed out that the majority of Singaporeans would continue to live in public housing.

He said that while the Government remained committed to helping first-time owners and newly-weds buy their own homes, it would pay more attention to helping HDB second-timers next year.

Amid uncertainty in the external economic environment with more subdued growth prospects globally, Mr Tan called on Singaporeans to be prudent when purchasing a new home and to "buy within your means".

Even more reasons to worry about Salt

Sodium-Saturated Diet Is a Threat for All

Maybe you think you don’t have to worry about salt. After all, you don’t have high blood pressure, you’re not overweight and you exercise regularly.

Well, think again. A major study, based on data from more than 12,000 American adults, took into account all those risk factors for death from heart disease. The researchers found that while a diet high in sodium — salt is the main source — increases your risk, even more important is the ratio of sodium (harmful) to potassium (protective) in one’s diet.

When people whose meals contained little sodium relative to potassium were compared with those whose diets had a high sodium-to-potassium ratio, the latter were nearly 50 percent more likely to die from any cause and more than twice as likely to die from ischemic heart disease during a follow-up period averaging 14.8 years.

Although there has been on-and-off controversy about the value of limiting dietary salt, there is no question that a high level of sodium in the diet raises blood pressure and the risk of chronic hypertension by stiffening arteries and blocking nitric oxide, which relaxes arteries. Hypertension, in turn, contributes to heart disease and stroke, leading causes of death.

Potassium, on the other hand, activates nitric oxide and thus reduces pressure in the arteries, lowering the risk of hypertension.

“We controlled for all the major cardiovascular risk factors and still found an association between the sodium-potassium ratio and deaths from heart disease,” said Dr. Elena V. Kuklina, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an author of the study, published earlier this year in Archives of Internal Medicine. “With age, the risk of high blood pressure increases. The lifetime risk in this country is 90 percent. If you live long enough, you’re at risk.”

According to an Institute of Medicine report on sodium released last year, “No one is immune to the adverse health effects of excessive sodium intake.”

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Education - Does the standard of facilities matter?

Facilities should be appropriate, cost-effective: Education Minister Heng Swee Keat
Minister responds to student's letter during visit to primary school
by Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 4 Jan 2012

Reiterating the Ministry of Education's (MOE) commitment to provide different pathways for students to succeed, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat noted that it would be unhealthy to compare amenities across the various institutions.

"As part of these multiple pathways, we have to ensure that we provide the appropriate facilities and teaching resources so that those educational objectives can be achieved ... What is important is that we must do all this in a most cost-effective way, in a way that allows us to achieve the educational objectives," said Mr Heng.

Mr Heng, who was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a visit to Chongzheng Primary School, was giving his take on a public debate that was sparked by a letter to this newspaper last month.

The letter was written by a junior college (JC) student who questioned why facilities in Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) were better than those in some JCs and polytechnics. It drew sharp criticism from the public, with some attributing the writer's sentiment to the education system. The writer has since apologised.

On the episode, Mr Heng noted the "lively debate" and added: "I am always wary about making a generalisation out of one comment from one student. So we have to see it in context."

Mr Heng noted that such comparisons would invariably create a "certain entitlement mentality which I think will be wrong".

According to the MOE, the per-capita expenditure for all three post-secondary education pathways - ITEs, polytechnics and JCs - range between S$12,000 and S$14,000 every year.

The ministry pointed out that the polytechnics and ITEs "focus on market-ready training for specific careers and skills, for both fresh school-leavers as well as adults already in the workforce". It said: "Such training typically requires more specialised equipment and facilities compared with academic education by the junior colleges."

Also, the campuses of polytechnics and ITEs are larger than those of JCs, "to ensure that students benefit from a broader educational experience with access to modules in related disciplines and in more general areas", the MOE said.

Mr Heng also elaborated on the committee behind the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism, looking into the uses of the fund.

He said that it will involve both Members of Parliament as well as a broader cross-segment of the community, including members from the mother tongue language groups and those with a deep understanding of bilingualism.

"I want many people to be involved and to contribute in this effort. This is a very important national effort and not just an MOE effort," he added.

Health screening of elderly folk to be expanded

By Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2011

A PILOT programme which screened 800 elderly folk for their ability to perform daily tasks will be widened to reach another 30,000 individuals.

To be run in places such as community centres from March, the Community Functional Screening Programme will be targeted at citizens and permanent residents aged 60 and above.

In two years, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) will have taken the programme - first run in Jurong and Hong Kah North on a small scale - to all constituencies in Singapore.

To encourage the elderly to undergo the screening, it will cost them only $5 each, with the HPB shouldering the remaining $25 per person.

While a typical health screening involves, for example, blood and urine tests to detect high cholesterol and diabetes, the screening for functional decline among senior citizens will include assessing their mobility and ability to perform daily tasks, how well they hold their urine, their mental well-being, and their vision, hearing and dental health.

The HPB is scouting for health-care providers to conduct the screenings.

Dr Crystal Ng, medical director of Parkway Shenton, which offers this kind of health screening, said that by detecting signs of functional decline early, elderly people can seek medical advice to manage their conditions before they worsen.

More community health centres to support GPs

By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 27 Dec 2011

THERE will be at least three more community health centres (CHC) next year offering support services to general practitioners (GP).

The Ministry of Health (MOH) is also looking at ways to allow some patients of GPs to get medicine at polyclinic rates.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told The Straits Times about the new initiatives after six focus group discussions with about 200 GPs in various parts of Singapore were held, following announcements made in August.

There is currently only one CHC, in Tampines, that is run by Changi General Hospital (CGH). GPs in the area can refer patients to the centre, which offers, among other services, foot and eye screening for diabetics and counselling services by nurses. Charges range from $12 to $15.

The reports are sent to the GP, who reviews the results with the patient.

So far, more than 1,000 patients from close to 200 GPs in the vicinity have been through the CHC.

In a blog post published yesterday, Mr Gan said CHCs 'received the strongest and broadest support from the GP community'.

He said: 'Many of our physicians recognise that with more ancillary support services available in the community, they will be better able to deliver good primary care, especially for older Singaporeans with chronic illnesses.'

Dr Jonathan Chan, a GP in Toa Payoh, would definitely welcome CHC services in the estate. Currently, he has to send diabetic patients to Tan Tock Seng Hospital to get their annual eye screening: 'The trip there is a bit tricky for some elderly patients.'

Diabetes is a top cause of blindness in Singapore, and the digital eye screening requires equipment most GPs do not have.

Mr Gan said GPs have also suggested locating a pharmacy at CHCs, or for CHCs to provide administrative support for claims submissions.

This refers to the subsidy under the primary care partnership scheme (PCPS), which will be extended to 710,000 people here from Jan 15. The ministry will subsidise part of their bills at GP clinics.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Remuneration for Ministers and Members of Parliament

The salary framework for Ministers and Members of Parliament are based on the following key principles to achieve competent and honest government:

1. Remuneration is based on a “clean wage” policy. The salaries are transparent, with no hidden components or perks such as housing allowance or tax exemptions.

2. Salaries are benchmarked against jobs of comparable size and responsibility to reflect the possible alternative careers that persons of high capability would forego when entering politics. Salaries are set at comparable levels so as not to deter such able persons from taking on political leadership roles.

3. Benchmarked salaries however are discounted to demonstrate the sacrifice involved in public service, as politics is a calling and a privilege, and those who serve must have a sense of duty to the nation and a desire to contribute to the public good.

Note: On 21 May 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the formation of a Committee to review salaries of the President, Prime Minister and political appointment holders. The Committee expects to complete the review by the end of the year. The information provided below is based on the current remuneration for Ministers and allowance for Members of Parliament and will be updated based on the recommendations of the Committee.

Only Ministers who have served at least eight years as an office-holder qualify for a pension.

The pension is calculated based only on the pensionable portion of the Ministers’ monthly salary. Since 1994, this pensionable portion has been frozen. All subsequent salary increases since 1994 are non-pensionable. Annual salary components such as bonuses, allowances and other annual components are also not eligible for inclusion in calculating pension. The pension is paid on a monthly basis. There is no 13th month payment nor any other annual payment. Pensions are also counted into the total annual salary for benchmarking purposes.

Monday 26 December 2011

MOM to amend the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act to hold employers more accountable

Bosses, treat your migrant workers fairly
By Lin Wenjian, The Straits Times, 22 Dec 2011

Employers should continue to look after the welfare of migrant workers and treat them fairly, even as they tighten their belts in anticipation of an economic slowdown, Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said on Wednesday.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) plans to amend the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act next year to hold employers more accountable for the basic rights and welfare of migrant workers under their charge, he said.

The amended Act will also strengthen the ministry's hand in dealing with errant employers, he added.

He made the comments in an entry on the MOM's blog to mark International Migrants Day last Sunday.

'I urge employers to continue to look after the welfare of the migrant workers under your charge, and to treat them fairly,' said Mr Tan, in the blog entry which paid tribute to migrant workers. 'We should show our appreciation to them as they are an integral part of our society and play an important role at that.'

The ministry had said earlier that changes will be made to the Act, but no timeframe was given.

Mr Tan did not give details about the amendments. But he said the ministry will be consulting key stakeholders on this, including non-governmental organisations.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, the ministry would say only that the review of the Act is under way, and more details will be revealed later.

Public sector not currently reviewing re-employment guidelines

I REFER to yesterday's reports ('Public sector reviewing rehiring terms' and 'Better rehiring deals in private sector').

The Public Service Division (PSD) issued the public sector re-employment guidelines last year and implemented re-employment in the public service on July 1 this year, six months ahead of national legislation.

These guidelines were the result of extensive consultation with ministries, statutory boards and public sector unions. They are aligned to the Tripartite Guidelines on Re-employment of Older Employees.

The Tripartite Guidelines recognise that employers can reduce the salary of re-employed employees to that of a younger employee of the requisite experience and competence doing the same job, with the mid-point of the salary range of the job as a possible reference.

Some private sector companies are already re-employing older workers at reduced pay; hence the public sector agencies are not the only ones reducing the pay of workers upon re-employment. Our guidelines allow public agencies to re-employ up to 10 per cent of retiring officers in a year at the last drawn salary.

Contrary to The Straits Times report, there is currently no discussion with the unions on this.

While we have received some feedback from public sector unions, which we will take into consideration, it would be premature to consider any review until there is wider experience of re-employment practices as the new Retirement and Re-employment Act will be implemented in the private sector only from Jan 1 next year.

We will continue to engage our public sector union partners on the implementation of re-employment in the public service and will look into any specific cases which may arise.

Bernard Chew
Covering Director
Careers and Attraction
Public Service Division
Prime Minister's Office
ST Forum, 22 Dec 2011

Integrated Programme and O levels

O levels still the best way for most: MOE

WE WOULD like to correct the perception that the introduction of the Integrated Programme (IP) has reduced opportunities for those not selected for the programme after the PSLE.

Popular schools and junior colleges have always seen more applicants than places, resulting in higher cut-off points. For example, before the IP started in 2004, the cut-off point for Raffles Institution (RI) was around 260, similar to what it is currently.

We have expanded the enrolment of the JCs offering IP. The number of students entering these JCs from secondary schools not offering IP has increased from some 2,100 previously to over 2,300 today.

These students make up about 50 per cent of the cohort in the JCs offering IP, comparable to the proportion before IP started.

The commentary ('The runaway IP train'; Dec 14), noted that only some 500 places were set aside for O-level students entering Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) and RI at JC1. We would like to point out that prior to IP, only 400 of HCI and RI's students (at JC1) hailed from schools not offering the IP today.

There is now greater diversity in the JCs offering IP, as they are accepting O-level students from more secondary schools. Their students used to come from some 50 schools but now almost 70 schools are represented. This is partly because students from other IP schools no longer compete for admission at JC1.

Ultimately, we strive to maximise each child's potential, regardless of which school he or she attends.

The IP should not be seen as the only pathway to success. For the majority of our students, the O-level pathway will continue to be the most suitable preparation for post-secondary education.

Tackling inequality: Charting own path

By Sim Ann, Facebook note, 22 Dec 2011

I HAVE a team of volunteers in my constituency who assist residents in need.

For those who need a job, my team refers them to training or job-matching schemes. For those with temporary financial difficulties, we tide them over with FairPrice vouchers and ComCare funds. We also help them apply for various types of assistance to cope with their expenses, from utility bills to kindergarten fees.

Nothing makes our volunteers happier than to see a household get back on its feet. Indeed, many households do. Through the various government assistance schemes, we have been able to help many families overcome their setbacks.

But our residents' challenges are becoming more complex. As a result of globalisation, workers are now forced to compete on a world stage. Low-skilled workers especially are at risk. But even professionals and executives can find it difficult to get a new job at their old pay, especially when they are past a certain age.

Globally, we see increasing polarisation of employment opportunities. Income gaps are widening around the world. Singapore is not immune.

Rising family break-ups also mean that some problems, which could have been handled with the combined resources of the extended family before, now require external intervention.

My volunteers and I support improving social safety nets in Singapore. Stronger and more extensive social support will cushion our people against hardships, and provide much-needed breathing space for troubled households and individuals to resolve their problems and get back on their own feet again.

But we do wonder sometimes, though, if more widespread assistance is a panacea for all our social problems.

For example, one woman who approaches us for help regularly has an unemployed husband. He has been staying at home for years, and refuses to get a job, even though he is able-bodied and quite capable of working.

On occasion, our volunteers have been dismayed to find people they have helped continuing to spend money on habits they can ill afford, like smoking.

How do we meet the real needs of residents and still remain responsible for the public resources we are dispensing? How do we fulfil our instincts to be helpful and caring, without eroding the sense of pride and self-reliance that has characterised our society? In the long run, does providing more social assistance foster greater dependency? Who will pay for it all?

MP Seng Han Thong sorry for racist remark on transport workers

Significant part attributed to MP Seng Han Thong is false: Shanmugam
By Saifulbahri Ismail, Channel NewsAsia, 24 Dec 2011

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that a significant part of what has been attributed to MP Seng Han Thong by people and netizens over his recent comments is false.

Mr Shanmugam said: "A significant part of what has been attributed to Mr Seng is false, to be quite blunt about it."

Weighing in on the controversial remarks, Mr Shanmugam said the key point is that Mr Seng had sought to rebut a statement made by an officer from train operator SMRT.

Mr Shanmugam said: "Han Thong heard over the radio what an officer from MRT said, essentially suggesting that poor language skills of Chinese, Indian and Malay drivers who work with SMRT were part of the problem in the inadequacy of the response by SMRT. Seng Han Thong strongly disagreed with this comment.

"So when he went on TV, he referred to this comment, and in essence made the point that the language skills of workers should not be blamed for the inadequacy of the response. And his point is that broken English can be effective in communicating of what needs to be communicated.

"The real problem according to him, was that the workers, drivers specifically, had not been given adequate training to deal with these sorts of emergencies."

Mr Shanmugam said the mistake Mr Seng made was that he misquoted the MRT officer and said that the officer had referred to Indian and Malay drivers when in fact, the officer had referred to drivers of all races.

Mr Shanmugam added: "If you put that across I don't think many people will have reacted in the way they did. The mistake... was that he misquoted the MRT officer and said that the officer had referred to Indian and Malay drivers having poor English language skills, when in fact the officer had referred to all three races.

Applications open for subsidised GP care scheme

Expanded programme lets more enjoy lower rates at family doctors
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2011

A scheme that will allow more than 700,000 people to see family doctors at subsidised rates is now open for applications.

Half of all Singaporeans aged 40 and over are eligible for up to $480 a year off their bills at private GP clinics under the government initiative, which will begin on Jan 15.

It was introduced in 2000, but until now has been available only to the elderly poor. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong announced the change in August, saying the aim was to encourage more people to see GPs. This could help ease the crowds at Singapore's 18 highly subsidised polyclinics, and allow patients the convenience of being able to visit a family doctor near them for all their ailments.

To be eligible for the enhanced Primary Care Partnership Scheme (PCPS), patients have to live in a household with an income of $1,500 or less per head. So a family of four with a total of $6,000 coming in every month would qualify.

The subsidies come in two tiers. Those with per capita household income of $900 or less get a blue Health Assist card. This gives them a subsidy of $18.50 when they see their GP for acute problems such as coughs, colds and headaches.

The subsidy is higher for treatment of the 10 chronic ailments for which Medisave can be used. These patients get $80 per visit up to a cap of either $320 or $480 a year, depending on how many medical problems they have.

The second tier is for those with per capita household incomes of $901 to $1,500. Their orange card entitles them to subsidised treatment for chronic problems only. They get $50 per visit, capped at $200 or $300 a year.

Application forms can be picked up from any public hospital, polyclinic, community centre or club, as well as community development councils.

Sunday 25 December 2011

No blanket culling of strays, AVA assures dog lovers

It'll continue to work with welfare groups to rehome stray dogs
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2011

The authorities on Friday responded to complaints from animal lovers about stray dogs being trapped and culled at Punggol Waterway.

They said they do not practise blanket culling and strays which can be adopted will be rehomed.

Those that cannot will be put down humanely.

Animal lovers had raised concerns about whether the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) was stepping up its efforts to cull dogs in the area, following an attack on a female jogger last week.

The agency's chief executive, Ms Tan Poh Hong, said in a statement: 'We recognise that there are animal lovers who are genuinely concerned about the welfare of stray dogs. Those who wish to rehome the stray dogs must be committed to providing them with a permanent home and caring for them responsibly.'

The authority added that 30 stray dogs had been rehomed this year. It would continue to work closely with animal welfare groups to find suitable homes for strays.

Mr Ricky Yeo, president of Action for Singapore Dogs, said: 'This is a step forward. We are now looking for homes for the strays and for donations to pay for boarding facilities for them. We need constructive solutions for this issue and dog lovers can do their part to help us.'

Ms Corrine Fong, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said her organisation 'stands ready to work with AVA on rehoming adoptable stray dogs'. She added: 'Adopters must ensure that the rehomed dogs are licensed, sterilised, vaccinated and microchipped.'

Dog lovers who spoke to The Straits Times said the authorities and animal welfare groups should look at stepping up sterilisation for strays.

CPF lowers rates for Home Protection Scheme premium

By Jessica Cheam, The Straits Times, 20 Dec 2011

Come the new year, owners of Housing Board flats who are paying premiums for their Home Protection Scheme (HPS) using their Central Provident Fund (CPF) will get to enjoy savings of 12 per cent on average.

The CPF Board said on Tuesday that as of Jan 1, about 362,500 CPF members will enjoy this discount. This makes up about 80 per cent of its members who are paying premiums for this scheme.

The other 20 per cent are not eligible as they are already paying low premium rates, said CPF.

The scheme is compulsory for anyone using CPF savings to service a loan for a Housing Board flat. It pays off a home loan should the member die or become permanently incapacitated.

With the reduction, for example, a male member, 36, who is servicing a $150,000 housing loan from the Housing Board for 25 years, will pay a lower annual premium of $195.30 instead of $223.05, when he joins the scheme from Jan 1, 2012.

Home buyers using their CPF to pay for the scheme on or after Jan 1, 2012 will enjoy the new rates, while existing members paying annual HPS premiums will pay the lower premiums when they renew or adjust their HPS coverage on or after Jan 1, 2012.

Political correctness has coloured our judgment

By Rob Hughes, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2011

ENGLISH football, and British justice, is going down a dangerous cul de sac.

After the Football Association announced an eight-match ban on Luiz Suarez, his Liverpool teammates to a man put on T-shirts to show solidarity with their top scorer. And to mock the FA's condemnation for allegedly using the word 'negrito' during an ill-mannered spat between him and Manchester United's Patrice Evra.

Within hours the Crown Prosecutor in London declared that John Terry, the England captain, must stand trial, accused of using a racist term on Anton Ferdinand two months ago. Terry's club, Chelsea, immediately announced that they were standing by their man.

'The only thing I know,' said Chelsea's coach Andre Villas-Boas, 'is that I will be fully supportive of John Terry, whatever the outcome of the situation.'

This tribal behaviour, the clubs gathering around their accused players, has the drawback of ignorance.

How can the Liverpool players all know whether Suarez, or for that matter Evra, used racially charged terminology in what looked a fiery exchange of ill temper between the two in the goal-mouth at Anfield?

The FA, in typical fashion, held a behind-closed-doors inquiry at a secret location. The panel, led by a barrister, issued the punishment but has yet to give a detailed statement of the 'crime'.

Yet Liverpool, led by Kenny Dalglish, circle their wagons and effectively say whatever he said, Luiz is one of us and we are with him no matter what.

And that, in as many words, is the stance of Villas-Boas.

Smoking out Smokers

Will there be no place left for smokers?
We're already confined to our yellow boxes, so please leave us alone
By Daryl Chin, The Straits Times, 16 Dec 2011

SMOKERS are a sorry lot. Not only do they attract dirty looks and accusatory glances when they light up, this harried bunch is increasingly seeing their habit come under fire. The latest salvo comes in the form of a possible extension of the areas where smoking will be banned.

As an occasional social smoker, I wonder if that's a good idea at all.

Smokers today already face a dwindling landscape in which to light up. Cinemas were first made smoke-free in 1970.

Other locations followed: shopping malls, offices and even multi-storey carparks. Gone are the days when smokers could freely puff away within a club or hawker centre. Instead, they now huddle in miserable groups outside club premises, or are seen hunting for the elusive yellow box or designated smoking corner.

Nor is the habit cheap. Prices have skyrocketed, no thanks to a heftier tobacco tax. A pack of 20 costs about $12 today, double the price 10 years ago.

It is true smokers are adapting. Many of us are aware of the dangers this addictive habit poses, as with other vices such as alcohol. According to the Health Promotion Board, cigarettes lead to the deaths of about half the smokers, and contain more than 4,000 chemicals such as ammonia and arsenic.

We also know the ills of second-hand smoke. Those who inhale this for a long period are two to three times more likely to develop lung cancer than smokers, one recent report said. This is in part because the non-smoker directly breathes in toxic chemicals found in cigarettes that do not pass through the filter.

Knowing this, most smokers I know consciously try not to light up in front of young children, or move away from a crowd of non-smokers who happen to be in the same shared space.

But it looks like those yellow boxes or designated smoking areas - the last refuge for smokers - may be in danger.

More reactions to the MRT breakdown on 15 and 17 Dec 2011

Lack of options, clarity make MRT woes worse
Don't wait till inquiry is complete to implement changes, update public
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 20 Dec 2011

ONCE, on a trip to London, I sniggered when I heard an announcement on the Underground.

'All lines are working 100 per cent today, all lines are 100 per cent,' said a disembodied voice over the system.

I thought with pride how that would be a redundant statement if one ever heard it in our trains at home.

Singapore's public transport system had worked at 100 per cent reliability, almost 100 per cent of the time.

But that illusion crashed into reality last week when the trains here ran into two major disruptions.

The massive five-hour shutdown on Thursday night, followed by a seven-hour breakdown on Saturday on the North-South Line have put a dent in commuters' confidence in the system.

Train commuters here have been reasonable, mostly. This was evident from the calm way that many reacted to being kept in the dark, literally, by lights that failed to come on, and figuratively, by the operator who took too long to let them know what was happening.

And many also accept that with the trains running more frequently and lines intersecting at more points, the system is now more complex than ever before in its 24-year history.

As connectivity increases, so will the potential for breakdowns and disruptions as new lines take time to be run in, as experienced recently on the Circle Line. More rail lines are also being built up to 2020, with parts of the Downtown Line opening next in 2013.

But even as commuters learn to recognise and cope with this reality, what about the operators?

SMRT has promised to get to the bottom of the causes and has made profuse apologies about wanting to do better.

The obvious questions that have surfaced: What was it doing before this? What sort of standard operating procedures did it abide by? How frequently did it rehearse its emergency preparedness routines?

What has been troubling though, has been SMRT's vague and imprecise answers to these questions.

One would have thought that precisely because of the growing complexity of the lines and greater frequency of trains, someone in management would have paused for a moment to wonder what impact these moves might have on maintenance and downtime and the provision of alternatives.

And this is what makes the breakdowns unacceptable: the lack of alternatives and information given to those affected.

Singapore's network is still in transition and is not as far-reaching yet as those in cities like London and New York. Breakdowns are commonplace there but commuters are funnelled and filtered to other working lines.

In Singapore, it is not so easy to transfer affected commuters to another line. So, the gaps in the system that could result because of a breakdown or any downtime must be anticipated well in advance, planned for and activated with speed when they do occur.

This is what peeved commuters most last week, that they were being taken off the trains and made to feel they had to fend for themselves.

MRT breakdown chaos 2011

PM Lee orders inquiry as trains break down again
North-South Line disrupted for 7 hours; LTA orders thorough visual check for 2 lines
By Ignatius Low, The Straits Times, 18 Dec 2011

The Government will commission a formal Committee of Inquiry to look into the troubling spate of SMRT breakdowns, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

The move comes as SMRT's North-South Line broke down again for seven hours yesterday morning, affecting 94,000 commuters heading into town on the last weekend before Christmas.

This was the second major disruption on the North-South Line in less than 36 hours, prompting the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to order an unprecedented shutdown of two SMRT lines for a thorough visual check of all trains and tracks.

Saturday 24 December 2011

What the Woz!

Was Woz Right?
By Shibani Mahtani and Sam Holmes, The Wall Street Journal, 22 Dec 2011

Last week, Apple’s lesser-known Steve delivered Singapore – the small, business-friendly state trying to make its name on the entrepreneurial map – a sharp slap in the face.

Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder, alleged that a company like his could have never emerged in “structured” Singapore, a place he said does not encourage people to think for themselves and dishes out “severe” punishment for bad behavior.

“Where are the creative people? Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? Where are the great singers? Where are the great writers?,” Mr. Wozniak said in an interview with the BBC.

While many agreed with Mr. Wozniak’s rather brutal analysis of the creative climate in Singapore, they also pointed to Singapore’s own achievements in the digital world – particularly home-grown company Creative, which spent many years in a legal battle with Apple for patent infringement. Apple paid a US$100 million settlement to Creative, the brainchild of Singaporean Sim Wong Hoo, in 2006.

Some also praised the Singaporean government’s efforts to create a business-friendly, unapologetically capitalist climate that they say has done much to encourage entrepreneurship and the arts in the city-state.

The Wall Street Journal spoke to a number of creative professionals, start-up founders and entrepreneurs in Singapore, who have dedicated their lives to carving out a niche for themselves in the controlled city-state. Here are their reactions to Mr. Wozniak’s comments:

Min-Liang Tan, CEO, Razer

Singapore-born Min-Liang Tan heads up the U.S.-based gaming peripherals maker Razer. His group recently secured $50 million in venture capital and is looking to double its headcount to 700 over the next year.

I don’t necessarily agree that you need chaos to come up with creativity. Some of the great design work that we’ve been coming up with has come from Singapore. The structured, rote-learning environment as a whole is actually a positive thing. It is up to the individual whether he or she finds the right place to bring his or her talents to bear…[Razer] tends to be a bit laissez faire in our approach to work. These guys can play games all day long if they want to, but they’ve got to get their work done.