Wednesday 17 October 2012

Parliament Highlights - 16 Oct 2012

Fight against unlicensed moneylending far from over: S Iswaran
By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 16 Oct 2012

The fight against unlicensed moneylending activities in Singapore is far from over, said Second Minister for Home Affairs, S Iswaran.

Replying to questions on the subject in Parliament, he said loansharks are becoming more sophisticated and resorting to new methods to lure unsuspecting victims.

These include advertising their services via e-mail blasts and SMSes.

In Singapore, licensed moneylenders are not permitted to advertise their services through such means.

Mr Iswaran urged the public to be vigilant and report such instances to the police for investigation.

For the six-month period from January to June this year, there were 5,228 reported cases of unlicensed moneylending and related harassment -- a drop of 21 percent compared to 6,642 cases reported in the same period in 2011.

But the number of persons arrested rose by 22 percent to 1,033 in the same six-month period.

Mr Iswaran said, "This improvement can be attributed to several factors.

"The widely publicised increased penalties under the law have had a deterrent effect. Police have also stepped up enforcement and preventive education efforts, as well as engagement with community partners."

Mr Iswaran warned that there will be no let-up in the enforcement efforts to crack the syndicates.

"We have a nationwide CCTV rollout plan ... there is a certain level of prioritisation within geography, and within that, some specific areas. Some of that allocation by the police will be on the basis where they think the needs are greatest," Mr Iswaran said.

"But the police will make an operational assessment in deciding where those deployment should be made. That's not the only criteria -- there are other factors at play as well," he added.

Efforts to attract, retain more early childhood teachers have seen results: MCYS
By Hetty Musfirah, Channel NewsAsia, 16 Oct 2012

Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing said efforts to retain and attract more teachers into the early childhood sector have reaped results.

Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, Mr Chan said the total staff in the childcare sector increased by 25 per cent last year, while the attrition rate fell from 15 per cent to 13 per cent.

Examples of the support given to this sector include providing scholarships to attract new teachers and encouraging existing ones to upgrade their professional qualifications.

These scholarships include learning allowances for those on full-time courses, and the employing centres receive a subsidy to hire relief teachers to cover the duties of teachers attending the course. Close to S$10 million has been set aside for scholarships and teaching awards over the next two years.

Non-profit anchor operators also receive a recurrent grant to help them recruit and retain teachers.

Other than offering scholarships and subsidised training courses, more has also been done to raise public awareness of career opportunities and develop a pipeline of new teachers.

For example, under the Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) System for Early Childhood Care and Education, training agencies provide subsidised training courses for new entrants to the sector, including mid-career entrants and in-service teachers looking to upgrade their qualifications.

More than 4,000 training places with funding support will also be made available over the next three years to bring in more early childhood professionals under the WSQ qualification programmes.

However, there are challenges to attracting and retaining good pre-school teachers.

Mr Chan said the Implementation Committee for Enhancing Pre-school Education will look into strengthening career and professional development of the teachers further.

He said: "One of the challenges that we are facing in this sector, if the sector has many small operators, is that the small operators will always have problems providing the career opportunities for many of the teachers who may want to move up in their career progression.

"For example, some of them, after a while, may want to move on to become principal of centres, or some of them may want to take on some other curriculum development jobs. And these are areas we have to look at to see how we can provide better opportunities for them to fulfil their career aspirations."

"These people are professionals in the area, because trying to manage the children and their different pedagogies requires professional knowledge. So, it is not true that they are just 'nannies' or 'child minders'."

Help available for low-income ITE students: Hawazi Daipi
Channel NewsAsia, 16 Oct 2012

About half, or 11,800 students, at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) received help with course fees in the form of bursaries in the last academic year.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Manpower Hawazi Daipi cited this figure in Parliament, as he sought to offer assurance that help was available for low-income students to grant them access to the full range of educational opportunities at ITE.

He was responding to a question from Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency Zainudin Nordin, who wanted to know how many ITE students were receiving financial assistance and what help was in place to keep them in school.

Mr Hawazi said some 1,600 students received help with paying for overseas enrichment activities last year.

*Oral Answer by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower & Senior Minister of State, National Development, to Parliamentary Question on NWC's Recommendation for $50 Increment in the Salaries of Workers with Basic Monthly Salaries Below $1,000

More PMEs receive employment assistance
By Saifulbahri Ismail, Channel NewsAsia, 16 Oct 2012

More professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) have received assistance in employment.

Giving an update in Parliament on Tuesday, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said from December 2011 to August this year, over 2,000 PMEs have gone through training and career consultation services with CaliberLink.

It is a one-stop service point for PMEs that integrates training assistance and career services.

The Workforce Development Agency (WDA) has also collaborated with the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) to help companies recruit and retain PMEs through a two-year Max Talent Place-and-Train (PnT) programme.

From its launch in May to August this year, ASME has reached out to over 400 PMEs and more than 300 small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

In addition, WDA is collaborating with two private employment agencies to roll out the "PME Specialist Assistance" programme to help unemployed PMEs enhance their employability.

Within two months of its introduction in July this year, over 40 PMEs were referred by WDA's career centres to the programme.

As Singapore's labour market continues to tighten, Mr Tan said companies need to tap the pool of older workers to meet their staffing needs.

He said these older workers, especially the PMEs, are experienced, mature and arguably more stable workers who will stay on longer with their companies.

Mr Tan added that strong support in continuing education and training (CET) for PMEs throughout their career is also important.

Four in 10 Singaporean workers are expected to be in the category of PMEs by 2030, as the local workforce become better educated and more skilled.

For example, WDA has put in place the Skills Training for Excellence Programme (STEP) to help PMEs update their skills, knowledge and expertise.

Since the launch of STEP last year, over 65,000 PMEs have benefited from its training programme.

Mr Tan also stressed the need to equip PMEs with the required skills.

A key pillar is a strong higher education system that prepares students with skills relevant to current and future industry needs.

Mr Tan said: "These strategies will continue to be worked (on) as we look at how the world is adapting and how we can adjust ourselves in the process as well. Therefore (we have) to make sure we create the right type of PME jobs for the PMEs that are coming on to the market."

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Ms Mary Liew expressed concerns that as university places in Singapore grow, mature PMEs who do not have such qualifications may find it difficult to stay competitive.

Mr Tan disagreed, saying: "Some employers may continue to use academic qualifications but it's only one signal of one's capabilities. I think most of us will agree there are many different indicators (of) the skills sets. There are other forms of certifications beyond just a graduate degree qualification, (such as) past experience, past employers' testimonials and ultimately the performance on the job."

Several MPs, including Ms Liew, asked the government to consider more help for mature PMEs to stay competitive against young graduates.

"Will the minister consider offering or increasing available study grants to these PMEs who wish to or who aspire to pursue a degree?" asked Ms Liew.

Mr Tan replied: "I think we should note that a person really does not necessarily need to be university graduate to be successful. They can pursue many skills-based upgrading pathways to hold on to skilled and respectable jobs, be it in the PME job sector or other skilled jobs, such as associate professionals, technicians, craftsman, tradesmen, and so on, which continue to remain important in our economy in Singapore today."

Same valuation basis for all HDB flats: Khaw Boon Wan
Channel NewsAsia, 16 Oct 2012

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said home buyers are currently paying above the value assessed by professional valuers as it is "a seller's market".

Mr Khaw was replying to a parliamentary query by Member of Parliament for Tampines Group Representation Constituency, Baey Yam Keng, on the increasing cash-over-valuation figures.

Mr Khaw said the basis of valuation for all HDB flats are the same, whether they are resale flats transacted in the open market, flats affected by Selective Enbloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS), or flats that are compulsorily acquired.

"Their values are assessed by a panel of professional valuers, based on established valuation principles (which comprise factors) such as location, size, storey height and the extent of renovations," said Mr Khaw.

According to Mr Khaw, HDB advises buyers to think carefully before committing to a price which is substantially above what the professional valuers have estimated.

"Resale prices are determined by willing buyers and sellers; the government cannot intervene to determine the transaction prices for buyers and sellers," Mr Khaw added. "We help players make informed decisions through the timely release of pricing data via the HDB website."

No speculation in HDB shops, says Govt
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2012

EVEN as the market for industrial and commercial property bubbles over, the Ministry of National Development (MND) made clear yesterday that speculative activity has not spread to "mom and pop" Housing Board shops.

In a written reply to MP Ong Teng Koon (Sembawang GRC), the ministry said that from January to August this year, 216 HDB shops changed hands.

Of these, only 14, or 6per cent, were resold within a year of purchase.

"This does not suggest a speculative element in HDB shops," the ministry said.

There are 8,700 HDB shops in total. The market is entirely a resale one, as HDB stopped the direct sale of shops in 1998.

Taking a longer time horizon of the last five years, it disclosed that resale transactions made up only 3 to 7per cent of the total stock of HDB shops.

Prices for industrial and commercial property have risen about 4per cent in the third quarter of this year, according to property consultancy DTZ.

This far outstrips the 2per cent rise in the HDB resale price index, and 0.5 per cent rise in private property prices, and has led to calls for the Government to levy cooling measures on this segment of the market.

Speculative activity has also become rife, with commercial units this year being held for an average of 60 days before being sold - a drop from 2010 when owners kept them for around 44 days, said a report from the Dennis Wee Group last month.

In his parliamentary question, Mr Ong suggested imposing stricter citizenship eligibility on those who can buy HDB shop space.

But HDB says only 5 per cent of HDB shops are owned by permanent residents, foreigners or foreign-owned companies. The rest are owned by Singaporeans or Singapore-owned companies.

It is "not tenable" for HDB to impose new restrictions like stricter citizenship eligibility, said MND. Shops are transacted "on a willing buyer and willing seller basis, without restrictions and in accordance with demand, similar to other private commercial properties."

No plans for more executive maisonettes
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2012

THE Government will not build any more executive maisonettes, the Ministry of National Development (MND) said yesterday of these rare HDB units, a few of which have sold for close to a million dollars each on the resale market.

In a written parliamentary reply, the MND explained that the executive condominium (EC) scheme "is better-placed to meet the diverse needs of Singaporeans".

Executive maisonettes, two-storey flats that range in size from 138 sq m to 243 sq m, are highly sought after in certain neighbourhoods.

Of the eight flats sold for more than $900,000 this year, four were executive maisonettes - including a Bishan Street 12 unit that went for $970,000, a price that included a record-breaking $250,000 in cash over valuation.

The MND was replying to Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) on whether the Housing Board would consider building executive maisonettes again.

The HDB stopped building them in 1995, when the EC scheme was launched.

The MND said the ECs provide a broader range of flats, including duplex-style units similar to executive maisonettes, to cater to Singaporeans' diverse housing preferences. The flat sizes cover a wider range, from 69 sq m to 324 sq m.

EC units are also sold with initial eligibility and ownership restrictions to help keep their prices affordable, added the MND.

ECs become private property, with no restrictions, after 10 years, "thus meeting the private housing aspirations of Singaporeans", said the ministry.

Thus, it sees no need to re-introduce executive maisonettes.

Lui on property damage caused by DTL construction work
Channel NewsAsia, 16 Oct 2012

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew has explained how the Downtown Line construction work affected property in Watten estate along Bukit Timah Road.

Responding to Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam in Parliament on Tuesday, Mr Lui said the incident was due to an unexpected and rapid draw down of groundwater during excavation works for Downtown Line Two.

When alerted to the incident, he said the Land Transport Authority installed more recharge wells to pump in water and stabilise ground settlement.

It also installed additional instruments to monitor groundwater levels.

Mr Lui said that at that time, excavation works had not begun. Bulk excavation works only started in December 2011.

As a precaution, LTA extended surveys in the estate and installed sensors in early 2012.

Between late August and early September of this year, LTA were alerted to soil movement and residents reported appearance of cracks.

LTA then dealt with the defects and took additional precautions around the Tan Kah Kee MRT site.

"Since the early days of the incident, there have been no further reports of property damage. LTA has taken prompt action to make temporary repairs for the residents while investigations to ascertain the actual cause of the ground settlement continued," said Mr Lui.

"When tunneling work for DTL 2 is completed around the end of 2013, LTA will make good the damage to properties caused by the construction. Let me assure the House that LTA places paramount importance on safety and we'll take all appropriate precautions in the construction of our road and rail projects," he added.

Residents' interest, safety "paramount" in canal deepening exercise
Channel NewsAsia, 16 Oct 2012

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, said that the interest and safety of residents is "paramount" in the canal deepening exercise along Bukit Timah Road.

He said this in Parliament in response to MP Christopher de Souza, who asked if the Public Utilities Board could expedite works near homes.

The widening of the 3.2km diversion canal that diverts water from the Bukit Timah catchment into Sungei Ulu Pandan is expected to reduce the risk of flooding, not only in the Bukit Timah area but also further downstream at the Balmoral, Newton Circus and Rochor areas.

The upgrading is slated to be completed in 2016.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "The first one-third of the canal in fact goes through some heavily residential populated areas...and in fact, there is a part of canal which actually goes underground, so it becomes a tunnel. We had to even move some residents out of their own homes during the construction phase in order to ensure their safety and we, of course, made the appropriate compensation to these residents.

"We will also have the appropriate monitoring equipment in place to ensure that there is no damage to property, or even if there is a risk of that, we detect it early and we address it promptly."

Muslims have to adjust to original haj visa quota, says Yaacob
By Jennani Durai, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2012

THE Muslim community here must be prepared to accept its original allocation of 680 haj visas, and make plans based on that, said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim in Parliament yesterday.

While Singapore had in the past four years been getting an additional 1,500 "goodwill visas" for Muslims to perform the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Saudi government has not given out such visas this year.

The haj quota is set at 0.1 per cent of a country's Muslim population, which in Singapore's case is 680.

Responding to Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), Dr Yaacob said: "This year, the Saudi government is unable to give us extra places in view of massive construction work around Mecca. This applies to all countries and is not unique to Singapore."

He added that the Saudi government was undertaking to improve accommodation in Mecca and Medina, and it had assured Singapore that it would reconsider the matter of additional visas after the completion of such work.

The minister added that Singaporean Muslims, who made early bookings this year but could not get a place, did not suffer any loss. Haj operators can accept payment only from registered pilgrims allocated the 680 visas.

These operators, however, suffered some losses this year as they had to forfeit some deposits they had paid, expecting additional visas to be granted. This was a business risk that had paid off in previous years, said Dr Yaacob.

The haj is one of the five basic requirements of Islam that all Muslims must carry out at least once in their lifetime, if they can afford to do so. It is performed as early as one month in advance of Hari Raya Haji, which falls on Oct 26 this year.

Mr Zaqy also asked about the delayed approval for livestock to be imported from Australia for the korban ritual.

He said this, coupled with the issue of haj visas, made many in the Muslim community here feel that they were being put in a quandary by foreign governments.

Korban involves the slaughter of sheep on Hari Raya Haji to commemorate Prophet Ibrahim's obedience to God. The meat is given to needy families.

Dr Yaacob said the Australian government had to consider the approval of livestock exports on a year-by-year basis, based on developments in its own country.

He added that the community had been advised beforehand of the difficulties being faced, but these were fortunately surmounted recently.

"I think it is important for the community to prepare ourselves that we may have to first look at alternative sources, and even consider doing some of our korban overseas," he added.

"Thankfully, we have got the approval for this year, but we can never guarantee that the same approval will be given to us next year."

Dead person's CPF savings can go to 'moral claimants'
By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2012

THE Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings of people who die without legal heirs and nominees can now be disbursed to their "moral claimants".

Under the Civil Law Act amendments approved by Parliament yesterday, the Government will be able to distribute such monies to the claimants.

CPF savings are now counted among the property, which already includes bank savings, company shares and real estate, that it can hand over to rightful claimants. Other new additions are Edusave and Post-Secondary Education Fund money and money placed in a Child Development Account.

Moral claimants are those to whom the dead person may have reasonably expected to leave his assets, such as those who have cared or provided for the person.

During the debate on the Bill, Minister for Law K. Shanmugam said: "When there is no entitled next of kin, it is only fair that such property can go to someone with an equitable or moral claim rather than the Government."

But a concern, raised by Nominated MP R. Dhinakaran, would be the false claims made by some people.

The NMP said that the changes were timely because, with more Singaporeans eschewing marriage and children, the future was likely to see "many Singaporeans grow old without next of kin or clear heirs to their properties".

Acknowledging the concern, Mr Shanmugam replied that there will be safeguards against false claims.

The practice will be to let six months pass after the death before processing any claims to allow time for any entitled next of kin to step forward.

While claimants will not need to get court orders, they will need to submit supporting documents such as receipts of hospital or funeral expenses, as well as a statutory declaration or affidavit that states the basis of their claim.

"These are safeguards which will minimise the likelihood of false claims being made," said Mr Shanmugam.

The changes do not affect the disposal of property according to Muslim law, which continues to be dealt with under the Administration of Muslim Law Act.

Allow sterilisation only as last resort, MPs urge
They also call for more protection for minors as process can be irreversible
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2012

EVEN as Parliament updated the Voluntary Sterilisation Act to better protect the mentally disabled, several MPs stressed the need to ensure that sterilisation is allowed only as a last resort.

They also want adequate steps to protect minors because sterilisation can be irreversible.

Speaking during the debate to amend the Act yesterday, some of the eight MPs called as well for compulsory education on the consequences and alternatives.

They included Nominated MP Mary Liew, who suggested doctors inform patients of alternatives before proceeding with sterilisation.

Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein- Kallang GRC) asked for better sexuality education for minors. This includes compulsory counselling.

All eight MPs called for more safeguards, particularly for those below 21 years old who may not be able to make an informed decision.

With the amendment, the law now states that a court order is needed before a mentally incapacitated person can be sterilised.

Some MPs, such as Dr Lam Pin Min (Sengkang West) and Nominated MP Faizah Jamal, suggested that the requirement of a court order be extended to minors seeking sterilisation.

Others, like Nominated MP Eugene Tan and Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC), asked if independent committees or social welfare workers could be part of the decision-making process.

First, the person must give his consent. Second, a parent or guardian must also consent.

Third, with the amended Act, a doctor is required to give a full explanation about sterilisation.

In doing so, the doctor must find out the motivation for sterilisation, explain non-surgical alternatives and procedures, and outline clearly the risks and benefits.

"Only when the young person fully understands the implications and consequences of sterilisation, can the doctor continue with the procedure," he said, adding that the patient must sign a form saying he has understood this and give it to the doctor.

Finally, cases involving minors must be approved by a hospital ethics committee, taking into account the clinical, psychological, social and ethical aspects of the case.

Mr Gan said directives will be given to health-care institutions to make this compulsory.

He assured the House that the decision to sterilise would not be made lightly.

"I'm confident there is broad consensus within our medical community in Singapore that doctors will be very cautious to perform sexual sterilisation on an otherwise healthy young person in the absence of any strong medical grounds or justification," he said.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) noted that the law now states that the decision on whether a mentally incapable person should be sterilised would be made in the person's best interests. She asked how "best interests" would be defined.

Mr Gan said the Mental Capacity Act provides a framework that gives guidance on assessing this.

He added that the Health Ministry will issue guidelines to doctors for assessing this.

These would take in several factors including whether the person is likely to regain mental capacity, and the personal beliefs and values likely to affect the person if he had mental capacity.

Mr Gan also disclosed that from 2003 to last year, a total of 27,905 people were voluntarily sterilised.

Of these, only nine did it because of a history of mental illness or hereditary disease, and eight of them gave their own consent.

The "vast majority" who undergo sterilisation do it because they do not want to have any more children.

Key changes made to sterilisation law
PARLIAMENT yesterday gave the nod to several changes to the Voluntary Sterilisation Act, in a review being undertaken for the first time in nearly 40 years.
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2012

People with mental or hereditary illnesses who still have the mental capacity to consent to sterilisation now have the power to do so.

Previously, the Act stated that for any person with a hereditary illness that is recurrent, mental illness, mental deficiency or epilepsy, the power of consent lies with the spouse, parent or guardian.

The change aligns the Act with the Mental Capacity Act and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Singapore aims to sign by the end of the year.
A court order is now required for the sterilisation of anyone lacking mental capacity.

The spouse, parent or guardian who is giving consent must apply to the court, and this application must be supported by a doctor's report stating that the person to be sterilised lacks mental capacity to consent to the procedure, and that it is necessary in the person's best interests.

Sterilisation can be carried out in licensed institutions without the need for specific approval from the health minister.

This change is to get rid of an obsolete requirement. The Act was enacted in 1969 when hospitals and clinics were not licensed nor regulated by the Health Ministry, and the minister's approval was thus needed.

Health-care institutions have been licensed since 1993, when the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics Act was enacted.

Registered medical practitioners in a licensed hospital or ambulatory surgical centre can do the procedure, once they are given the credentials by the institution.

This change is aimed at reflecting the current norms in health-care practice.

Previously, only those with certain specialist qualifications or who have experience in sterilisation or received training could do so.

But institutions today have well-established systems that give doctors credentials to perform certain procedures, based on their training and how up-to-date they are in their practice.

The change does not affect smaller specialist medical clinics that do not have such systems. They will abide by the old requirement.

The maximum fine for unauthorised disclosure of confidential information has been raised from $2,000 to $10,000.

Also, the maximum fine for those who coerce or intimidate another person to undergo sexual sterilisation will go up from $5,000 to $10,000.

The higher penalties are aimed at aligning the Act with other health-care laws.

International students form less than 16% of autonomous university enrolment
Channel NewsAsia, 16 Oct 2012

Some 17,000 international students applied to study at Singapore's autonomous universities per year over the past three years.

In 2012, international students formed less that 16 per cent of the total number of students who enrolled in the autonomous universities.

The figures came from Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in a written parliamentary reply to Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Yee Jenn Jong, who asked about the number of foreign students who have applied to study in Singapore's autonomous universities.

Mr Heng added that the universities provide a range of scholarships and bursaries to attract international students who will be able to add diversity and enrich the learning experience on campus.

Since the academic year in 2008, the fee differentiation between Singaporeans and international students has been increased to reflect the privileges of citizenship.

SAP schools still important: Heng Swee Keat
Channel NewsAsia, 16 Oct 2012

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools understand the need for students to have opportunities for inter-ethnic interaction and engagement with students from other schools.

They have made special efforts to promote such interaction and engagement.

These include introducing the Conversational Malay Programme as an elective to enable the students to communicate with Malay-speaking peers.

These schools have also ensured that there are adequate opportunities for interactions with students from other schools through community involvement projects, inter-school, cluster-based and community-based activities.

Mr Heng was replying to Pasir-Ris Punggol Group Representation Constituency's Member of Parliament, Gan Thiam Poh, who questioned the challenges faced in offering non-Chinese mother tongue languages in SAP schools and whether they are contrary to the country's efforts to build an inclusive society.

Mr Heng also stressed that SAP schools remain important in Singapore's education landscape.

What's going on at Bukit Timah Road?
Questions about the area show local issues need airtime in the House too
By Leslie Koh, The Straits Times, 17 Oct 2012

THERE was a good mix of questions raised in the House yesterday. Two on moneylending. Two on early childhood education. Two on jobs and salaries. One on housing... and three on Bukit Timah Road.

Amid all the debate over "important" national issues like employment, crime and education, MPs somehow saw fit to ask about the impact of MRT construction on homes in Watten Estate and what was being done to prevent flooding along the road.

The first problem was brought up by Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam and Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang), and the second by Mr Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).

One could not help but wonder: Just what is wrong with Bukit Timah Road?

And what is so important about this road that three MPs and two Cabinet ministers felt they had to discuss it in the august House?

On the surface, these two questions are not too difficult to answer.

Soil movement resulting from ongoing construction on the Downtown Line near Hwa Chong Institution has caused damage to some houses in Watten Estate.

Mr Giam wanted to know how it could happen, while Mr Png wanted to know what this might mean for other housing estates located near future MRT lines.

And Mr De Souza, being an MP for the GRC in question, had a direct interest in whether his residents could be better protected from flooding.

Built in 1845, Bukit Timah Road is one of the longest roads in Singapore and has been plagued by floods as far back as most living Singaporeans can remember.

Many will still recall the floods that often submerged the road and surrounding kampungs as far back as the 1960s. The canal running along it has been widened, though some parts still occasionally flood after heavy rain.

But all these facts still do not answer the bigger question - just why are Singapore's leaders spending precious minutes talking about some cracks in a few homes instead of focusing on issues of "national importance"?

The answer is that the two are really one and the same.

That Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew and Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan took time to address the woes of Bukit Timah residents is a good thing.

Why? Because Parliament, at the end of the day, should not just be about "big picture", national issues. It is also about municipal ones - no doubt less consequential to the nation, but mattering just as much to the citizenry.

In some cases, what seems like a local problem could also have implications for the rest of the nation. Other housing estates could be similarly affected by construction of future MRT lines, and Bukit Timah, after all, is also a major artery.

There were, in fact, more questions tabled on local issues yesterday, although they were not covered by the end of Question Time. They included the use of three Housing Board flats for foreign workers in Toa Payoh (Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam) and prices of Sers replacement flats in Rochor Centre (Ms Denise Phua, Moulmein-Kallang GRC).

Some observers might sniff at the relative triviality of such questions - compared to, say, employment and education issues - or even feel that MPs are wasting ministers' time in bringing local problems up for national debate.

But in raising them in Parliament, MPs are in fact doing their very job - representing their constituents at the highest levels of government.

For as much as MPs have a responsibility to act as a voice of conscience in the passage of laws and querying of national policy, they could be said to have an even greater burden in speaking up for those who had voted them in for this express purpose.

Yesterday's parliamentary session was made even more heartening by the fact that MPs were doing both things, and doing a decent job of it too.

When a Bill to amend the Voluntary Sterilisation Act - to better protect the mentally disabled - underwent its second reading, no fewer than eight MPs rose to join the debate even though the law was not one that would have garnered much public attention.

Several brought their professional expertise to bear on the matters as medical practitioners and social workers, while others showed no less passion in pointing out their concerns about how the law would affect the young.

And that's what the House should be about.

Parliamentary debate shouldn't just centre on the cut and thrust of intellectual argument or the battle between political parties.

It should also be a time for MPs to speak from their own hearts and minds, and to sound the fears, concerns and needs of their constituents, no matter how small.

In that way, Parliament will better serve Singaporeans - both the needy and the helpless, as well as those living in Bukit Timah Road.

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