Wednesday 11 July 2012

Parliament Highlights - 9 July 2012

Death penalty: Govt to grant judges some discretion
Mandatory law stays; courts get a say for certain drug offences, murder
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

THE death penalty will remain a key part of the criminal justice system here, even as steps are taken to refine Singapore's longstanding position on capital punishment.

Under changes proposed in Parliament yesterday, mandatory death sentences will no longer be meted out for certain specific instances of drug trafficking and murder.

The courts will be given the discretion to decide on a death sentence or life imprisonment, but only if two 'specific, tightly-defined' conditions are both met in the case of drug trafficking, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said.

First, the person must have been only a courier, and not been involved in any other activity related to drug supply or distribution.

Second, the trafficker must have cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a substantive way, or have a mental disability that substantially impairs his appreciation of the act's gravity.

Still, capital punishment - a mandatory sentence since 1975 for anyone who traffics in drugs above stipulated thresholds - will remain in most cases.

'The mandatory death penalty will continue to apply to all those who manufacture or traffic in drugs - the kingpins, producers, distributors, retailers - and also those who fund, organise or abet these activities,' said DPM Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister. 'By their actions in the drug trade, these offenders destroy many lives.'

One reason for the amendment, said Mr Teo, is changing societal norms and expectations. Another reason is to target those higher in the syndicate hierarchy.

'If the couriers give us substantive cooperation leading to concrete outcomes, such as the dismantling of syndicates or the arrest or prosecution of syndicate members, that will help us in our broader enforcement effort,' Mr Teo said.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam, addressing the House after DPM Teo, said the Government intends for capital punishment to apply only in murders where there is an intention to kill.

But where there is no outright intention to kill, the courts will have the discretion to mete out either the death penalty or a life sentence.

This will be a departure from mandatory death sentences for murder in place since 1871.

The draft legislation for the changes will be in place later this year, after consultation with stakeholders. Then, all accused persons who meet the requirements can choose to be considered for re-sentencing under the new law.

This will include the accused in ongoing cases, and convicts who have exhausted their appeals and are on death row. There are now 35 such convicts - 28 for drug offences and the rest for murder.

The Government has deferred all executions since a review - which prompted the move towards increased discretion for the courts - began a year ago.

Both ministers stressed that in spite of the refinements, Singapore, which has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, still sees the death penalty as relevant.

'Capital punishment will continue to remain an integral part of our criminal justice system,' said Mr Shanmugam.

DPM Teo said the changes are 'carefully calibrated' to maintain the strong deterrent value of a mandatory death sentence.

In proposing the tweaks, the Government seeks to achieve and balance the objectives of continuing the tough stance on crime and refining the country's approach towards sentencing offenders, said Mr Shanmugam.

There will be no tweaks to the third category of crimes punishable with death - firearms offences. These are a 'serious threat against law and order', he said.

Law Society president Wong Meng Meng said the changes give judges more flexibility in the administration of justice and room to temper justice with mercy where the case's facts require.

Stance on drugs to get tougher
DPM Teo outlines new measures to curb both demand and supply
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

SINGAPORE will strengthen its zero-tolerance approach to drugs even as it makes changes to the mandatory death penalty in specific instances of trafficking.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, in his speech on the review of the death penalty, also sketched out how the authorities would continue to tackle the drugs scourge through curbing demand and supply.

To nip the problem, the Government will intervene early to educate the young about the dangerous effects of drug abuse, and the harsh penalties they face. 'This is to deter them from picking up the drug habit and being subsequently enslaved by it,' Mr Teo said.

Arrests of new abusers below the age of 20 increased by 45 per cent last year from 2010, despite a fall of 17 per cent in total arrests of new abusers.

There will be improved rehabilitation and supervision for inmates released from long-term imprisonment. For them, in addition to the current urine supervision, there will be compulsory aftercare and electronic monitoring with curfew hours and counselling.

'Long-term' sentencing was started in 1998 to impose longer jail time on repeat offenders, to break the cycle of addiction.

Mr Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister, rejected 'harm reduction' measures adopted by some countries, such as the supply of free, clean needles to addicts. 'This does not get to the root of the problem and may actually facilitate drug consumption instead of stamping out drug use.'

On the supply side, the authorities will channel more resources into border checks.Enforcement on cross-border syndicates will also be stepped up.

Partnerships with regional counterparts will be strengthened. Singapore and Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding on such cooperation a fortnight ago.

And, as recommended by a task force chaired by Minister of State (Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs) Masagos Zulkifli recently, penalties for repeat traffickers will go up, and new offences for those who sell to vulnerable groups and organise drug parties will be introduced.

Turning to misunderstandings in some quarters over why Singapore mandates the death penalty for those who traffic above 15g of heroin, DPM Teo delved into the significance of this amount.

While often portrayed as the weight of a few 50-cent coins, in street form here, it is actually equivalent to about 2,200 straws of heroin. That is worth about $66,000, he said, and is enough to feed the addiction of more than 300 abusers for a week.

Singapore's tough stance has resulted in an improvement over the years, he noted.

At the height of the heroin problem in 1994, 208 drug abusers per 100,000 of the resident population were arrested. Last year, this fell to 86. But this is still high, he said, and the situation may worsen in the coming years.

About 3,000 repeat offenders will complete their long-term prison sentences between this year and 2014, and some may be tempted to return to drugs.

'We must continue to reinforce the message that drugs are harmful and make every effort to deter drug taking,' Mr Teo said.


The Government's duty is first and foremost to provide a safe and secure living environment for Singaporeans to bring up their families. We must be constantly vigilant, adapt our law enforcement strategies and deterrence and punishment regime to remain ahead of criminals. We must do what works for us, to achieve our objective of a safe and secure Singapore. The changes announced today will sharpen our tools and introduce more calibration into the legal framework against drug trafficking, and put our system on a stronger footing for the future.
- DPM Teo Chee Hean

Courts to get more discretion in murdersentencing
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

ONLY the most serious form of murder will be meted a mandatory death penalty, under proposed changes to the law.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam announced in Parliament yesterday the intention to give the courts more flexibility when it comes to certain homicide cases.

Currently, anyone convicted of murder under any of the four categories within Section 300 of the Penal Code is sentenced to hang.

The Government wants to allow judges to be able to consider imposing life sentences for three homicide offences: acts committed with the intention of causing bodily injury that the offender knows is likely to cause death; acts done with the intention of causing bodily injury that is sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death; and acts done with the knowledge that they are so imminently dangerous that they must in all probability cause death, and without any excuse for incurring the risk of death.

The proposals emerged from a year-long review that began in July last year.

The application of capital punishment for firearms offences was also assessed, but the Government decided to leave it unchanged. Similarly, it wanted to retain the tough treatment of intentional killing.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also Foreign Minister, explained: 'This is a case where the offender intends the death of the victim. It is right to punish such offenders with the most severe penalty.'

For the other cases, he said the culpability of the offender might not deserve capital punishment as those offences may be committed in a variety of situations and with different degrees of intention.

And while those factors are already taken into account by the public prosecutor, Mr Shanmugam said the courts should also have a say: 'We want to move towards a framework where the court also has the discretion to take the same factors into account during sentencing.'

The move, he said, was not without risks, but it was an acceptable one given Singapore's low incidence of homicide.

Last year, there were 16 recorded homicides, or about 0.3 per 100,000 people.

Ultimately, Mr Shanmugam said the changes needed to strike a balance.

He said: 'Crime must be deterred and society must be protected against criminals. Criminals should receive their just deserts. But justice can be tempered with mercy and, where appropriate, offenders should be given a second chance.

'How these objectives are achieved and balanced depend on the values and expectations of society, as it evolves and matures. We believe the proposed changes strike the right balance for Singapore today.'

Criminal lawyers largely welcomed the announcement yesterday.

Mr Subhas Anandan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, said that the proposal would benefit especially those convicted under

Section 300(c) of the Penal Code - which involves causing bodily injury that is sufficient to cause death in the ordinary course of nature. He said: 'I think it's a good thing because the 300(c) provision has been a problematic provision for a long time. The interpretation is so wide that it is easy for people to be convicted of murder.'


In making the changes today, the Government seeks to achieve and balance two broad objectives: The first is to continue taking a strong stance on crime... Our tough approach to crime has resulted in crime rates which are significantly lower than many other major cities'.

The second is the refinement of our approach towards sentencing offenders... Crime must be deterred and society must be protected against criminals... But justice can be tempered with mercy and, where appropriate, offenders should be given a second chance. How these objectives are achieved and balanced depend on the values and expectations of society, as it evolves and matures.
- Law Minister K. Shanmugam

Is cooperation bar for couriers set too high?
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

A GOVERNMENT proposal to allow drug mules to escape the gallows if they cooperate with the authorities drew scrutiny from two MPs yesterday.

Both Mr Alvin Yeo (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Nominated MP Eugene Tan welcomed the move to let judges have more sentencing discretion in drug trafficking cases where two specific conditions are met.

But they questioned if the bar for cooperation has been set too high.

The first condition is that the accused must have played only the role of courier.

The second is that he must either have cooperated substantively with the Central Narcotics Bureau, leading to concrete outcomes, or have a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act.

Mr Yeo asked how such cooperation from couriers would be measured and added: 'Are we in some danger of setting too high a barrier? Indeed, if a courier has concrete information which would implicate the higher-ups in the hierarchy, that might suggest he's not just a simple courier.'

Nominated MP Faizah Jamal sought more compassion for drug couriers, whom she said were often young and driven by hard circumstances.

The responses from Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Law Minister K. Shanmugam to both sets of questions centred on one point: the sheer severity of the crime of drug trafficking.

Mr Teo said: 'Our start point is that trafficking in drugs in the quantities above the threshold amounts is a very serious offence and should normally merit the death sentence.'

From there, he said, it was fair to give the courts a sentencing option if the courier helped in the broader objective of dismantling the syndicate.

In response to Ms Faizah, Mr Shanmugam highlighted the lives destroyed by those who take part in the drug trade.

He said: 'What is never in the headlines is the number of lives that have been lost, the number of children who are orphaned either literally or through their parents being in jail, the amount of sadness and impact on the social fabric of society that those who are on the ground see every day.

'...If you look at it, the number of people who are impacted and how tough you need to be to try and save the society as a whole, then you need to send out a clear and consistent message.'

Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza also spoke on the issue but his comments were at the other end of the spectrum.

He was concerned that the changes might weaken the deterrent effect of the law and also wanted assurance that the level of cooperation required of the drug mules would be set at a high level.

The debate on the review of capital punishment laws here was the highlight of yesterday's proceedings.

Eight MPs raised questions, including three from the Workers' Party (WP). The WP is against the mandatory death penalty and has called for judicial discretion and for capital cases to be heard by two judges instead of one.

Both points were raised again yesterday. On the need to retain a mandatory death penalty for serious crimes, including most drug trafficking offences, Mr Teo said that such a law had a clear impact on behaviour.

He noted that firearms offences fell from more than 100 a year to a very low level when the tough penalty was put in place.

There were 174 firearm robbery cases in 1973 when the harsh penalties were introduced under the Arms Offences Act. By 1992, that dropped to nine.

Mr Shanmugam said the courts had discussed having capital cases tried before two judges and decided only one was necessary.

'But you know nothing is set in stone and these are matters that can be reviewed as necessary,' he added.


'I think if we focus on any one individual, a powerful case can emotionally be made out for saving a life... It is more difficult if you want to balance that against the reality. Fifteen grams of heroin is 300 people using that for a week. Somebody who peddles that - and usually they peddle much more than that - will bring ruin, possibly death, or at least a life of ruin, to a large number of people. Supposing we don't need to think of society, we don't need to think of the victims, we don't need to think of the young children, we don't need to think of all the wives and daughters that are going to be impacted, we only need to think of the courier - then I agree with your point.

But if you believe that it is right also to think of these people, and that it is right for Singapore not to become like some other cities, where you can't walk on the streets, and where needle exchange centres are now a reality, then I think you need to think of these things.'
- Law Minister K. Shanmugam's response to NMP Faizah Jamal, who asked if the Government could deal with drug couriers with more compassion

Lawyers hail move as significant milestone
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

LAWYERS have welcomed the move to give judges the discretion to impose life sentences for certain drug trafficking and murder cases that have to date attracted a mandatory death penalty.

They hailed the change as a significant milestone for Singapore's criminal justice system.

National University of Singapore (NUS) professor Kumaralingam Amirthalingam said the changes - announced yesterday - were an 'important step in our maturing as a society and nation'.

'Mandatory sentences are problematic as they prevent judges from tailoring the punishment to the particular offender, in the light of all the circumstances of the case. Where the mandatory sentence is death, the problems are magnified,' he said.

'Yet, mandatory sentences have a place in the criminal justice systems of many countries for their deterrent and symbolic effects,' he added.

NUS law professor Walter Woon recalled that during his term as Attorney-General (AG) from 2008 to 2010, making the 'hard decisions' of whether or not to charge someone with an offence that carried the mandatory death penalty was 'the thing that gives us grey hair'.

'With the mandatory death penalty, the public prosecutor has the power over life and death when a decision is made to charge an accused with a capital offence,' he said.

He added that constitutionally, it was 'far better' that the judge decides the sentence at the time of judgment than for the AG to decide at the time the charge is laid. The reason? 'The judge has to explain his reasons in open court, the AG doesn't.'

Yesterday, the criminal Bar and the 35 people now on death row were briefed on the reforms.

Mr Subhas Anandan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, said: 'They have opened the door a bit, and in time to come, I hope they will open more, but there are still many things to be tweaked.'

These, he said, pertain mostly to the two criteria that drug offenders would have to meet. To qualify for a life sentence, they must have played the role of only the courier, and have either cooperated substantively with the Central Narcotics Bureau or have mental disabilities that 'substantially impair' their ability to understand the gravity of the crime.

Lawyers said the Attorney-General's Chambers have already been taking these criteria into consideration. For example, charging a person with mental disabilities with trafficking 14.99g of heroin instead of the 15g that attracts the death penalty, said Mr Amolat Singh. 'To some extent, they are probably making it more transparent now,' he added.

But before the details are ironed out, lawyers are mostly circumspect on how the changes will affect their clients on death row.

'The qualifying criteria for drug trafficking cases are quite stringent,' said lawyer Anand Nalachandran, who has a client on death row. 'Only after the legislation is drafted will we know the exact language, and only then can we tell how many of the offenders fall within these categories.'

The law is due to be passed later this year. Until then, lawyers are wary of raising their clients' hopes. 'I don't want to give them false hope,' said Mr Singh.

Discretion is fine, but stay tough on crime
S'pore may be safe, but can't afford to let up on war on drugs, murders
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straiits Times, 10 Jul 2012

BROW furrowed, Law Minister K. Shanmugam was the picture of sombre reflection throughout the 100-minute debate on the death penalty. And no wonder, because the weighty issue is no easy one to tackle.

Mr Shanmugam, together with Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean earlier, had led the House through statements explaining the Government's intention to remove the mandatory death penalty for some cases of murder and drug offences.

Instead of a mandatory death sentence, judges will have discretion in sentencing drug couriers who are either mentally disabled or who cooperate with drug enforcement agencies substantially; and murderers who killed their victims unintentionally.

All nine MPs who spoke - four from the People's Action Party, three from the Workers' Party and two Nominated MPs - supported the move.

NMP Faizal Jamal asked if judges' discretionary powers can be broadened so they can show compassion to very young couriers who had shown remorse, who deserved a second chance.

Mr Shanmugam's reply: 'For saving lives, powerful cases can always be made out.

'It's more difficult when you want to try and balance that against the reality.'

And the reality is that a drug peddler 'is bringing ruin, and possibly death or at least a life of ruin to a large number of people'.

He added reflectively, his posture, tone and demeanour reflecting how the decision must have weighed on him: 'It is never an easy debate. It is not because we like the death penalty, it's not because we think it ought to be imposed for no reason, it's not because we want to simply be tough.

'It is because (to ensure) the safety and security of every single Singaporean who goes out on the streets, we feel there is no choice but to have this framework and that is the conversation that we ought to continue to have.'

Listening to the 100-minute exchange on the death penalty, I was struck by two things.

One: That the move to remove the mandatory death sentence for some cases of drug and murder offences drew support from across the political spectrum.

But then, maybe this is not surprising, given that lawyers and human rights activists had campaigned to make the death sentence discretionary rather than mandatory.

Some activists had gone further in wanting it abolished, but surveys show Singaporeans overwhelmingly want to retain it to deter crime.

What was surprising to me was how few MPs appeared concerned about the risk of a move to liberalise sentencing.

Where were the 'hardliners' in the House, those who could once be expected to warn about the need to remain tough on crime, even if they support this limited, 'carefully calibrated' relaxation of the imposition of the mandatory death sentence?

The PAP's Mr Chris de Souza was the only MP who asked 'whether even after these measures are put in place, the overall regime under the Misuse of Drugs Act will still secure a deterrent effect'.

He added: 'Trafficking of drugs is the most rational crime that I think exists. There is a cost benefit analysis. And the cost needs to be sufficiently deterrent.'

Both ministers assured that Singapore would continue to have deterrent sentences including the death penalty and that conditions for judges to have discretion would be carefully defined.

Mr Shanmugam added: 'Today, the message is out there extremely clearly that Singapore is tough on drugs and the entire criminal organisation operates on that assumption.

'Any change you make to that perception you add to the risks... We need to see how these things operate in practice and if the situation goes negative substantially we need to reconsider. Let's be clear about that.'

While I understand and support the humanitarian and human rights reasons for giving judges more discretion in imposing the death penalty, I would also have liked to hear MPs quiz the ministers more on how the inherent risks in any relaxation of criminal penalties would be mitigated, and welcomed more discussion about how the move does not mean Singapore is letting its guard down in its war against crime.

It was not so long ago that MPs were told that the impending entry of casinos into Singapore might expose the Republic to bigger crime risks of international syndicates in money laundering, drugs and prostitution.

Mr Shanmugam himself noted that a criminal justice system has to take into account how the external environment is changing.

On this front, there are already signs that safe, stable Singapore is being targeted by overseas crime groups - perhaps precisely because it has been so low-crime, people have been taking too many things for granted.

A Chinese syndicate stealing from air passengers targeted flights into and out of Singapore. Singapore and Hong Kong police foiled a transnational housebreaking syndicate targeting Singapore properties over the weekend.

Giving judges more discretion in meting out death is certainly a good thing.

But it has to be done in a way that does not send the wrong signal that Singapore is getting soft on crime, at a time when some international criminals appear to be keenly trying to exploit its vulnerabilities.

Singapore-Malaysia ties 'won't be hurt by claims over Bersih rally'
By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

THE excellent relations between Singapore and Malaysia will not be affected by allegations that Singapore diplomats took part in a Bersih rally, Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament yesterday.

'Singapore and Malaysia have every intention of preserving our current positive relationship,' he said, pointing to the close working relationship between the two countries' prime ministers and ministers, including himself.

'Neither of us has an interest in undermining the relationship in any way. We should also not allow any negative elements uncomfortable with the current excellent state of bilateral ties to spoil our relations,' he added.

Last month, some Malaysian bloggers, in particular, had alleged that Singapore diplomats were 'actively participating' in Bersih 3.0, a rally held on April 28 in Kuala Lumpur calling for electoral reforms.

They called for the diplomats to be sent home, for an apology from Singapore and for water supply to Singapore to be cut off.

But after speaking directly - twice - to his Malaysian counterpart Anifah Aman on the issue, Mr Shanmugam declared to the House yesterday: 'I can affirm that the Malaysian government does not seem to share the view of these blogs.'

The minister said Singapore diplomats had acted within the bounds of international law when attending the rally as observers.

They were performing their professional duties by observing the event, as had diplomats from other countries, he added.

He also said they had taken care not to affiliate themselves with any political entities and avoided Merdeka Square, which had been declared out of bounds by the Malaysian authorities.

Mr Shanmugam declined to speculate on the motives of those who made the allegations but said that the 'incendiary comments mainly from a handful of obscure blogs of very limited circulation' did not reflect the views of the Malaysian government.

Rather than let such views affect bilateral ties, he said: 'At the government-to-government level, we need to take this in a rational, logical way and explain it directly.'

As for the state of bilateral relations, he pointed to the high level of cooperation between the two countries as seen in the recent resolution of issues like the points of agreement on railway land as well as the cooperation in improving connectivity and mutual investments.

'But obviously, not everyone may be happy with this good state of our relationship,' he said.

'Relations between Singapore and Malaysia have always been bigger than any specific disagreements or points of contention,' he noted. 'This is how it has been and this is how it should be moving forward.'

City Harvest probe 'triggered by complaints, not governance review'
By Jennani Durai, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

THE probe into City Harvest Church was sparked by feedback and complaints of possible misuse of church funds received in early 2010.

The investigation was not triggered by a governance review the Commissioner of Charities (COC) undertook of the church and six other large charities in 2008.

City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee, 47, and four senior church members were arrested two weeks ago and charged with conspiring to cheat the church of millions of dollars.

They are alleged to have funnelled $24 million into sham bond investments to further the music career of Kong's pop singer wife Ho Yeow Sun, and alleged to have misappropriated a further $26.6 million in church funds to cover up the first amount.

The arrests came after two years of investigations by the COC and Commercial Affairs Department.

The COC has suspended eight members, including Kong and his wife Ho Yeow Sun, as board members or agents of the church.

In response to a question from Nominated Member of Parliament Laurence Lien about why the governance review in 2008 had not uncovered the church's alleged lack of compliance with regulations and code of governance, Mr Chan said that it is not always possible to detect signs of mismanagement or fraud in a governance review.

'This is no different from financial audits in the corporate world. The COC also makes use of other sources of information, including feedback, complaints or whistle-blowing, to assess if an investigation or a formal inquiry into a charity is necessary,' he added.

The COC conducts governance reviews to help charities improve their standards of corporate governance, internal controls and regulatory compliance, said Mr Chan.

It is carried out with the cooperation of the charities that provide documents for review and demonstrate the extent of their compliance.

At the end of it, charities will need to develop action plans and implement measures to address anything found lacking in their governance.

'A governance review is not meant to be an audit, much less an investigation or formal inquiry to detect and establish fraud or mismanagement,' said Mr Chan.

The review in 2008 found that the seven large charities under review generally had proper systems and processes in place, and were largely in compliance with the regulatory requirements and code of governance, said the minister.

'Where there were findings of weaknesses, the COC's office worked with the charities to improve these gaps. The charities adopted most of the recommendations,' he added.

Mr Chan said he could not provide more information on the review's specific findings on City Harvest Church as the case against its key members is currently before the court.

In reply to a second question from Mr Lien about whether governance review methodologies have to be reviewed themselves, Mr Chan said his ministry would continue to develop the methodology over time to better help charities improve their governance standards.

'No need yet for Govt to cushion economy'
By Aaron Low, the Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

THE impact of the euro zone debt crisis is worrying but the Government does not yet see a need to step in with measures to boost the local economy, Second Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran said yesterday.

That is because the Singapore economy is still creating jobs and regional demand for its exports remains robust, he added.

Still, Mr Iswaran told Parliament yesterday that the Government was closely watching the 'challenging and fluid' situation in Europe and the rest of the global economy, and would respond if required.

He was responding to Dr Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC), who wanted to know if the Government was planning to cushion the impact of a worsening euro zone debt crisis on Singapore's economy.

She also asked if the stronger Singapore dollar, which is the main tool the Government uses to combat rising inflation here, is hurting exporters.

Mr Iswaran acknowledged that Europe's sovereign debt crisis was a cause for worry, but said the immediate threat of financial chaos from a disorderly exit of Greece from the euro zone had receded.

Greece recently elected a pro-bailout coalition government which will ensure, at least for the short term, that Greece stays in the euro zone.

But Mr Iswaran said the longer term prospects for Europe as a whole remained uncertain, especially over whether Italy and Spain - both huge European economies - would still need full-scale bailouts.

The American and Chinese economies have also slowed considerably, although recent policy measures by the authorities there should help support growth, he added.

These developments have dented Singapore's export numbers. Non-oil domestic exports grew by just 2.5 per cent in April and May, compared with the same period last year. This figure is a slowdown from the 6.1 per cent growth in the first three months of this year.

'However, there is no immediate need for the Government to step in with measures to cushion the economy from the slowdown in external demand. Singapore's labour market remains tight, with healthy employment creation and a low unemployment rate,' said Mr Iswaran.

Exports to regional countries such as Indonesia and South Korea also remain brisk, he added.

On the rising strength of the Singdollar, Mr Iswaran said that was just one part of Singapore firms' overall competitiveness.

He said government agencies were working with firms on various other measures to help firms get fitter and more competitive, such as improving productivity.

Stiffer penalties proposed for sham marriages
By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

SINGAPORE is stiffening the law on sham marriages, making it a crime that also carries heavier penalties.

People who marry to get, or help someone else to get, an entry visa, permanent residency, a long-term social visit pass or other immigration documents can face a fine of up to $10,000, a maximum jail term of up to 10 years, or both.

These proposed changes to the Immigration Act were introduced in Parliament yesterday by Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran.

The Act regulates immigration facilities as well as the entry, stay and exit of all foreigners. In a statement yesterday, the Ministry of Home Affairs said the proposed changes are to ensure the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) stays ahead of the changing methods of operations of immigration offenders.

Currently, sham marriages are not a criminal offence and people suspected of it are charged with providing false information to get immigration facilities.

When found guilty, they can be fined up to $4,000, jailed up to one year, or both.

The proposed law will also apply to syndicates and middlemen who help people enter a sham marriage or stand to gain from it.

The ICA, in an e-mail reply to The Straits Times, said it takes a serious view of individuals 'trying to circumvent our system'.

'(This) will send a strong deterrent signal and better enable ICA to definitively deal with those who try to abuse the system,' added its spokesman.

The ICA said statistics on sham marriages are not available.

Lawyer Pradeep Kumar Singh said the move 'is in line with the authorities' recent measures to tighten requirements for immigration. This is perhaps a loophole they want to close'.

Other changes proposed yesterday include making it a crime to manufacture, traffic and possess tools for forging immigration documents.

Buses under $1.1b scheme to run in Sept
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

THE first buses to be rolled out under a $1.1 billion programme to boost Singapore's bus services will reach the streets in September, as part of the 250 vehicles that will be added to the public bus fleet over the next one year.

In the same period, 14 new routes will be introduced, allowing operators to raise service levels for at least one in three bus routes.

The new routes will be 'geographically distributed to various parts of the island as needed', said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who revealed this yesterday during a parliamentary debate over a Bill that would allow the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to implement the Bus Services Enhancement Programme.

Details of the new routes and improvements, he added, will come out later in September, when the first batch of buses arrive.

Announced earlier this year, the programme aims to reduce crowding and improve frequencies on bus routes across Singapore.

Under the programme, the Government will set aside $1.1 billion for bus operators SBS Transit and SMRT to buy and run 550 new buses over 10 years. Together with 250 buses that the operators will add themselves, this will boost the size of the public fleet from the current 4,000 buses to 4,800.

Yesterday, SBS Transit said it has bought another 1,000 buses for $433 million. Of these, 260 will be funded by the $1.1 billion package. The additions will expand the operator's fleet from about 3,000 to 3,400 buses. Last October, SMRT said it would add 240 buses by December this year.

Yesterday's debate on the LTA (Amendment) Bill lasted more than two hours, with MP after MP raising concerns about the $1.1 billion package. Some asked how the Government would ensure that the public transport operators would not misuse or profit from the subsidy, while others wondered whether the transport system should be nationalised.

Replying, Mr Lui assured the House that the programme was not intended to 'fatten the bottom line' of the operators, but provide commuters with 'more reliable, more frequent, less crowded buses'.

Parliament did not manage to pass the Bill yesterday, however, as there were not enough MPs in the House to form a quorum - one quarter of all MPs - to vote on it when the debate ended past 7.30pm. The proceedings were adjourned to today.

$1.1b bus package will not boost operator profits: Lui
Transport Minister: 40 new routes to be introduced unlikely to be profitable
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

TRANSPORT Minister Lui Tuck Yew pledged yesterday that the $1.1 billion bus package would not be used to boost the profits of operators SBS Transit and SMRT.

'I know there are concerns... but the way we want to use this money is to make sure that the commuters benefit from having more reliable, more frequent, less crowded buses... Certainly the intent is not for this Government to give money to the operators in order to fatten their bottom line. Not at all,' he told the House.

Mr Lui was speaking during a debate on the Land Transport Authority of Singapore (Amendment) Bill to let the Land Transport Authority (LTA) implement the $1.1 billion bus scheme and ramp up public bus services.

The debate stretched for more than two hours, as eight MPs aired concerns that ranged from whether the operators would misuse the funds to why the plan was necessary in the first place.

Many of yesterday's issues were raised in March, during the debate on the Transport Ministry's budget for this financial year.

A chief concern of two Workers' Party MPs was that the public transport operators may use the funds to beef up their profits.

Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam wanted to know how the Government would ensure operators would not profit, while Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh asked why the sum could not be given to them as a loan, instead of a grant.

Mr Lui said he believes the 40 new routes to be introduced will not be profitable. Otherwise, the operator would 'already have wanted to operate them'. The subsidy would thus allow the routes to be introduced ahead of time.

On MPs' calls to introduce more competition to the industry, Mr Lui said it would be 'very, very difficult' to add a third bus operator, as about 300 of the 550 new buses would be added to existing services. 'Who do you hold to account?' he asked.

As for the remaining 250 buses set aside for new services, Mr Lui said the routes would be spread across the island, and a new operator would have to grapple with where to site the bus depots.

He assured the House that his intention is to 'try and make right the bus financials' and thereafter carefully put out packages of routes that existing and potential new operators can tender for.

Mr Lui also acknowledged safety concerns raised by Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) over new bus drivers, and said he had asked the operators to 'pay special attention to this'.

He noted that operators have to meet a 'reasonably stringent standard' of no more than 0.75 accident per 100,000km driven.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) again lobbied for a new bus service to cater to six new Build-To-Order housing projects in her Nee Soon South ward.

The debate also touched on broader transport issues, such as whether the privatised model here should be nationalised, and if the planning and regulatory arms of the LTA should be separated.

Nominated MP Eugene Tan asked if the LTA's role as central bus planner would conflict with its public transport regulator role.

Noting that these departments were separated for both bus and rail, Mr Lui said: 'The question really is, should we pull out the regulatory part altogether and put it in a different entity.'

He does not favour the move, he said, as it would make it harder for LTA to attract and retain what is a limited pool of engineers.

Mr Lui is also not in favour of the Government taking over the running of buses.

London provides a £500 million (S$986 million) subsidy to its bus system every year, he said.

'Why are governments subsidising private operators? Why not, as some have suggested, take it back themselves and run it?

'The answer must be that it will cost them even more to provide these services themselves, and that generally, efficiency-minded, cost-conscious governments are looking to have private bus operators involved when conditions allow them to do so.'

No need to change voter register system: DPM
By Phua Mei Pin, the Straits Times, 10 Jul 2012

THE system for removing a voter from, and restoring a non-voter to, the Registers of Electors works well and does not need to be changed, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in Parliament yesterday.

Under Singapore's election laws, anyone eligible to vote is automatically placed on the registers. Only Singaporeans who are overseas need to register to vote.

Those who fail to vote are taken off the registers, but they can apply to be restored if they have a valid reason for not voting.

Those without valid reasons can re-enter the registers upon paying a $50 penalty. Valid reasons include being hospitalised or overseas for study or work.

'This approach is a practical and balanced one because while voting is compulsory... we really cannot compel anyone to vote if he chooses not to fulfil his responsibility,' said Mr Teo.

'Nevertheless, the right for him to vote remains as he can apply to have his name restored to the Registers of Electors.'

Mr Teo was replying to Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) who had asked about the number and composition of voters in the last three general elections.

Rising repeatedly to ask for the number of those who are eligible but not on the registers, Mr Chen said he was worried some Singaporeans may have fallen off the radar for not voting in the past.

Mr Teo said the number of voters removed from the registers roughly doubles from one general election to the next. It rose from 36,403 after the 2001 poll to 72,881 in 2006, and 150,729 last year.

The number of names restored ahead of the three polls in the above order are: 30,317; 25,508; 60,086.

On overseas Singaporeans, he referred to a range of channels to encourage them to register to vote ahead of a general election, including advertisements in foreign newspapers and leading commercial websites.

He said the Government would review where more overseas polling centres can be set up. But these cities must have a significant number of Singaporeans and facilities managed by the Singapore Government, he added.

To Mr Chen's suggestion of online voting for overseas voters, Mr Teo said the Internet remains 'vulnerable to reliability, authentication and security risks'.

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