Wednesday 11 April 2012

Parliament Highlights - 9 Apr 2012

No decision from Malaysia on Eastern Dispersal Link toll charges
By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012

The Malaysian government has informed its Singapore counterpart that no decision has been taken so far on the proposal to charge tolls or levies for the Eastern Dispersal Link.

Singapore's Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said this in a reply to a question in Parliament on Monday.

Malaysian media had earlier reported that Malaysia is looking at the option of charging Singapore-registered cars only to recover the costs of constructing the new link.

Mr Lui said other media reports have indicated that the Malaysian government has opted to impose a levy on foreign vehicles instead of a toll, so as to avoid having to charge Malaysian vehicles, while arguing that Singapore has similarly imposed Vehicle Entry Permit (VEP) fees on foreign cars.

Mr Lui also informed the House of Singapore's practice when it comes to tolls for the use of the Causeway or the Second Link.

"Our consistent practice is that we peg our tolls to match those set by Malaysia. This should apply to all vehicles using the Causeway or the second link regardless of whether they are Singapore-registered or foreign-registered," said Mr Lui.

"Depending on the eventual details of Malaysia's proposal, we will then see how best we should apply this matching principle."

Lift upgrading for all eligible flats by end-2014
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012

Singaporeans can expect the Lift Upgrading Programme (LUP) for all eligible flats islandwide to be completed by the end of 2014.

Giving an update in Parliament on Monday, Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan said upgrading has been completed for 65 per cent of the 5,000 eligible flats so far, while polling has been completed for 95 per cent of these blocks.

To minimise disruption to residents, Mr Lee said HDB is looking into increasing its use of pre-fabrication technology in lift-upgrading as far as possible. 

Foo Mee Har, MP for West Coast GRC, said: "Many of my residents ask me, how come it takes two years to upgrade a lift when we can build condominiums in the same time? The crux of the issue is how the work is being phased? The first question relates to during even my own observation in the estate, the work being done in upgrading in the precinct. Let's take there are eight blocks involved. Basically, the work is done in batches. You start digging in one block, you finish and go to the next one. And you go one round before you come back to the first one to do the next step."

Lee Yi Shyan said: "One of the reasons of course, compared to condominiums or new flats built on a greenfield site. The LUP work has essentially, to be constrained by existing site, tight site. And the hours of construction and so on has to be limited to minimise inconveniences and noise pollution to the residents. The other, the observation about whether we could, instead of treating the whole precinct as one work site, whether we can go block to block, HDB is studying that.

"The reason why it's done this way is due to the way the contract is given. So the contractor typically, hiring a team of specialists doing certain functions, will go from one site (to another), one block to another block, sequentially. So if this not well managed locally, then these sequential activities can add up in terms of total duration."

Dr Maliki Osman on helping families in arrears for rental flats
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012
Senior Parliamentary Secretary for National Development, Dr Maliki Osman, on Monday said HDB has a pro-active programme to help families in arrears for their rental flats. These include financial counselling and help under ComCare schemes.

However, he said that an eviction order may be inevitable in the case of uncooperative tenants.

Sylvia Lim, MP for Aljunied GRC, asked in Parliament: "What is the trigger point at which the Notice to Quit will be issued to the tenant? How many months of arrears typically, (before the Notice to Quit is issued)?"

In response, Dr Maliki said: "Although the Notice to Quit is issued at the point of the third month, I can assure Ms Lim and members of the house, that many months afterwards, HDB continues to work with the family. HDB continues to help the family. We do not really take any further action until nine months or even several years after the family is in arrears."

He added: "Since 2003, only three cases have been evicted because we try very hard to ensure the circumstances of the family are well understood, and the family is given the necessary assistance.

"We acknowledge that when it comes to rental arrears, it is more than just a housing issue. It is really a social issue that sometimes families are trapped with. And there are social service systems we have put in place and we will galvanise social service systems to help these families."

Sim Ann on effectiveness of Integrated Programme
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012

About six per cent of students from the 2004 to 2006 cohorts withdrew from the Integrated Programme (IP) before reaching their second year in junior college.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education, Sim Ann, said that more than half of these students continued their education on the 'O' Level track.

She said the rest withdrew mostly because they were relocated overseas.

Each year, about 3,400 students are admitted into the IP track.

Fielding questions from MPs on the effectiveness of the IP, Ms Sim Ann said almost all who completed the programme qualified for publicly-funded universities in Singapore.

She added: "There are also some positive outcomes that have been observed of students who have completed the programme. For instance, they have been observed to be more vocal, more expressive and independent...(with) stronger service to the community because IP students do serve more CIP (Community Involvement Programme) hours and also, the ability to move between collaborative as well as independent learning styles. All in all, we feel that having this variety of learning pathways will enrich the holistic development of our students."

Liang Eng Hwa, MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, asked: "Is the ministry still seeing high demand for the IP places? And...are there plans to expand these places for more students to get into the IP programme?"

In response, Ms Sim Ann said: "The IP is a matter of considerable interest among students and parents. But I would like to highlight that what is important here is that the IP programme is one track that is offered alongside the 'O' Level track, and both tracks, we feel, are equally valid, and in fact, the majority of our students are on the 'O' Level track.

"So the 'O' Level track...retains great relevance for education. What is important is for students as well as their parents to recognise which style of learning suits the individual student best. Is it one that is more self-directed or independent or would it be one that is more structured? And this is something which I think goes towards determining the success of the student in either programme."

GEP does not intend to classify students into groups: Sim Ann
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education, Sim Ann, replied to questions in Parliament on Monday about whether questions set in the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) favour students in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP).

She said many GEP students do well mostly because they already exhibit strong academic abilities.

But she noted that the GEP is not intended to prepare children for exceptional performance at the PSLE.

Rather, it's meant to develop their intellectual depth and higher level thinking while nurturing productive creativity.

MP for Mountbatten Lim Biow Chuan asked "whether MOE thinks that P4 or age 10 is the right age to categorise children into gifted or non-gifted? Why not classify them after PSLE, when most of the students are slightly more mature after going through their first major exam?"

Ms Sim Ann said: "The intention is not to classify the students into any particular group.

"And given our commitment to holistic education, and given our commitment to bring our students up to their fullest potential, as Mr Lim well knows, we have many pathways and ladders within the education system for students of all learning profiles and including students who, as Dr Intan has mentioned, peak at different times, during their journey through our school system."

Separately, fewer than 20 students have been identified to be exceptionally gifted in the last 12 years.

Ms Sim Ann said these students have to meet a set of stringent criteria, which include a psychological report and achievement and aptitude tests.

She added that data from interviews with parents and classroom observations will also be taken into consideration.

To support exceptionally gifted children, Ms Sim said the Education Ministry works with the school and parents to draw up a learning plan for the child.

She was responding to a question by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Yee Jenn Jong.

Mr Yee asked: "How ready are our tertiary institutions in partnering MOE to help those who are exceptionally gifted as some of these children may be so gifted that they can handle university curriculum even at the upper primary level. So do our tertiary institutions take in young students way before the university age, or are such students, do they have to go overseas for their education if they couldn't find anything that could be customised to their needs?"

Ms Sim Ann said: "When we're talking about exceptionally gifted students, we're really talking about really very small numbers, each of whom may have very unique circumstances.

"So I do not think there is a hard number or an age below which our universities will not consider. This really would depend on many factors.

"It goes beyond, I think, the intellectual ability of the student, but also in terms of his or her social, emotional readiness, and their readiness I think to be in a learning setting - which learning setting would suit the individual best.

"Out of these fewer than 20 students, one is known to have gone overseas to pursue his university education. The rest remain in Singapore, they are at various ages, they are still going through our educational system, they are still in the schools, and as I've mentioned, the oldest one is already enrolled in our local university.

Education Minister on foreign scholars fulfilling service obligations
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has said that on average, more than eight in 10 scholars from ASEAN, India and China fulfil their service obligations to work in Singapore after graduation.

He said most of the rest were granted deferment to pursue further studies and are required to serve their obligations after their studies.

He added that almost all scholars who have graduated have taken up permanent residency or citizenship, with about 15 per cent converting to citizens within five years of graduation.

Mr Heng was replying to a written question by Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong.

Concerns over Singapore's inflation rate raised in Parliament
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012

Nominated Member of Parliament Tan Su Shan asked in Parliament on Monday if the government has a target inflation range and whether a strong Singapore dollar policy leading to domestic inflation pressures were a concern.

Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang said a stronger Singapore dollar helps to cap both imported and domestic inflation.

He said as the majority of products consumed and produced are imported from abroad, a stronger exchange rate will reduce the Singapore dollar cost of these imported goods for both consumers and producers.

He added a stronger Singapore dollar will help to moderate domestic inflation by dampening the external demand for our goods and services.

This in turn will lower the demand for domestic resources, such as labour and land.

He said the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) does differentiate between domestic and imported inflation.

And while MAS does not have a formal inflation target, its objective is to maintain price stability for sustained economic growth over the medium term.

Mr Lim said: "It's obviously true that the inflation rate has been more persistent. We are stuck with headline inflation at just below 5 per cent for quite a long time. And MAS's core inflation has also been stuck at 3 per cent for a longish time. This is something MAS is very concerned about. The very liquid international situation which causes which partly causes the asset inflation that we face is with us for some time to come. This is also part of the very complex environment that MAS has to deal with in managing it's monetary policy."

Josephine Teo on providing opportunities for smaller enterprises
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012

The government awards 20 per cent of its tenders to companies with net tangible assets of less than S$250,000.

These small and medium enterprises also typically win two out of three contracts with a tender value of S$100,000 and below.

Minister of State for Finance, Josephine Teo assured Parliament on Monday that government procurement guidelines aim to provide level playing fields, especially for smaller enterprises.

"We also recognise that there may be occasions where the tender value is quite large, and smaller suppliers may need to enter into joint collaborations or consortia, in order to be able to compete for those projects fairly. And the way to deal with that is to share pertinent information on public sector pipeline projects in advance, so that suppliers have better visibility, and to team up with potential partners," said Mrs Teo.

MP for Marine Parade GRC, Seah Kian Peng had highlighted the recent concerns raised after news surfaced that Changi Airport Group had excluded local architects in submitting designs for Terminal 4.

"In the case of the Changi Airport Group, they've made a very clear statement, that where T4 is concerned, all local as well as foreign architects are welcome to participate. And I think there's no need for us to speculate further," said Mrs Teo.

Changes introduced to International Arbitration Bill
By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012

The Parliament has made amendments to the International Arbitration Bill to further strengthen the country's position as a hub for international arbitration.

Moving the second reading of the Bill in Parliament on Monday, Law Minister, K Shanmugam said the government began developing Singapore as a hub for international arbitration in mid-2000.

Since then, Singapore has come a long way.

The Singapore International Arbitration Centre's caseload has gone up from 58 in the year 2000 to 188 in 2011.

Mr Shanmugam said this is not including arbitrations administered by other institutions, and ad hoc arbitrations.

He said an Asian Legal Business article in December 2011 called Singapore's rise in the world of arbitration as "meteoric", and asked if Singapore had become the most popular Asian seat.

And later in June, Singapore will host the 21st Congress of the International Council for Commercial Arbitration (ICCA).

This is the first time since 2004 that it is meeting in Asia, emphasising Singapore's growing status as a hub for international arbitration.

So, there are four main amendments to the Bill, broadening the definition of an arbitration agreement, providing recourse against negative jurisdictional rulings by an arbitral tribunal, clarifying the tribunal's power to award interest, and recognising emergency arbitrators and interim orders.

Under the changes, an arbitration agreement which is concluded orally, by conduct or through other means and its content is recorded in any form, is recognised as an arbitration agreement in the context of the International Arbitration Act (IAA).

Mr Shanmugam said in the Ministry's consultation last year, the overwhelming majority of arbitrators and practitioners were of the view that the broadened definition better reflected commercial reality.

The next change is in the area of negative jurisdictional ruling which is one where the tribunal holds that it does not have the jurisdiction to hear a dispute.

Such a ruling can now be appealed to the High Court and appealed further to the Court of Appeal, if the High Court grants leave.

Mr Shanmugam told the House that amendments to the Bill will signal to the international arbitration community, Singapore's continued commitment to providing the fullest legislative support for international arbitration.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Limitation Periods Bill was passed in Parliament on Monday.

This clarifies which country's limitation laws will apply to disputes which are heard in Singapore - whether in litigation or arbitration - but which are governed by the laws of another jurisdiction.

For example, when a contractual dispute is initiated in Singapore in relation to a contract governed by the laws of England, the Bill provides that the applicable limitation period will be determined by English law, rather than by the laws of Singapore.

Mr Shanmugam said this rule is subject to two exceptions.

The first is where its application would conflict with public policy.

The second exception stipulates that the absence of a party from the jurisdiction will not be a valid reason for the suspension or interruption of a limitation period.

No quota on number of patients polyclinics see daily, says Health Minister
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong says there is no quota on the number of patients polyclinics see in a day.

He said registration for patients may sometimes close before official consultation hours to allow time for registered patients to be seen by the doctors.

He added though that polyclinics often operate beyond official opening hours.

When the consultation time for patients waiting in line is expected to go well beyond the opening hours, nurses will assess the severity of the patients' conditions.

Those with critical conditions may be referred to the nearest A&E departments.

Mr Gan was replying to a question by Dr Lee Bee Wah, MP for Nee Soon GRC, in Parliament on Monday.

Dr Lee had asked the Minister how do polyclinics decide whether or not to turn away a patient who turns up just before their closing hour. She also asked whether there is a quota on the number of patients to be seen in one day, and what other alternatives do these patients have?

Mr Gan said polyclinics have introduced measures to better manage waiting times such as self-registration for appointment-based services.

"With self-registration, patients can proceed directly to service points without having to spend additional time queuing at registration areas. Notices of current estimated waiting time and patient volume are also posted at the respective polyclinics and the Internet Queue Watch page on polyclinic websites, which would enable patients to make better manage their time," he said.

Govt allows flexibility to those with housing loans payment difficulties
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Apr 2012

In Parliament on Monday, Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said the CPF Board has allowed people, on a case-by-case basis, some flexibility in instances where they have found difficulty in servicing housing loans after reaching their maximum valuation limit.

The valuation limit is reached when CPF savings used for mortgage repayment and payment towards the property price are equal to the purchase price or valuation price, whichever is lower.

But Mr Tan said the number of people unable to use their CPF savings for monthly instalments, having reached their valuation limit, is small.

They constitute about 0.5 per cent of about 700,000 people using their CPF savings to finance their housing instalments at any one time.

Mr Tan said: "It's therefore very important that CPF savings used for property are carefully spent. The valuation limit, or the VL is a mechanism that helps us to ensure this.

"We do look at the circumstances that every individual faces. It will vary from person to person. We do have cases of people reaching different ages, and in fact, different circumstances that people encounter.

"I think these cases can be raised, and we can take a look and we'll deal with it on a case-by-case basis."

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