Thursday 15 November 2012

Parliament Highlights - 14 Nov 2012

Breaches of safety rules led to two NSFs' deaths
Commanders punished, new steps to boost safety in SAF: Ng Eng Hen
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

THE deaths of two full-time national servicemen (NSFs) earlier this year could have been avoided if training safety rules had been obeyed, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday.

Clear breaches in the two incidents led to Private Dominique Sarron Lee Rui Feng, 21, dying after a training exercise and Third Sergeant Tan Mou Sheng, 20, falling out of a jeep, their committees of inquiry (COIs) found.

For their negligence, the ministry has since replaced a commanding officer and redeployed six other commanders, even as investigations are ongoing to see if they should be prosecuted in the military and civil courts.

The army's safety processes will also be reviewed by a board led by a senior civil servant outside the ministry. A new inspectorate reporting directly to the Chief of Defence Force will be set up to ensure all three services of the SAF have a strong safety culture.

Announcing these steps in Parliament, Dr Ng said: "These two deaths could have been avoided if safety instructions had been followed. The SAF will learn from the incidents, correct any inadequacies and punish those who disregard safety regulations."

On April 17, Pte Lee died of an allergic reaction after a platoon commander threw six smoke grenades, when regulations specified a maximum of two grenades.

And while the COI could not establish if Pte Lee's history of asthma had a part in his death, the SAF has suspended the use of these grenades in training and will look for safer alternatives.

In the case of 3rd Sgt Tan who died after his jeep overturned on May 11, it was found that a master sergeant assigned an unlicensed driver and 3rd Sgt Tan did not belt up or wear a helmet.

More cases of unlicensed driving were uncovered at the Combat Intelligence School, where 3rd Sgt Tan was an instructor.

Dr Ng made plain that "any commander who ignores safety regulations, whether wilfully or negligently, puts his solders at risk and is not fit for command".

He named all seven commanders found to be negligent. Top on the list is the school's then commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Vincent Lam Fei Liong. The rest include Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal, the platoon commander who threw the smoke grenades, and his chief safety officer Captain Chia Thye Siong.

Also named: head of the reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition wing, Major Poon Chen Song; school sergeant major, First Warrant Officer Lim Ser Wei; the exercise's supervising officer, Lieutenant Marcus Koh Men; and its conducting officer, Master Sergeant Lee Kong Kean. The unlicensed driver, Third Sergeant Cavin Tan, is also under investigation.

Dr Ng said SAF and Mindef were "deeply sorry for the untimely and tragic loss of Pte Lee and 3rd Sgt Tan and the anguish and distress it has brought to their families". Mindef would not say how much the families will be compensated.

Seven MPs later probed Dr Ng about SAF's safety culture. Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) and Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) also welcomed his report as a sign of the SAF being transparent.

The COI into the death of another full-time serviceman, Corporal Muhammad Fahrurrazi Salim, whose body was found in a river in Brunei in August, is still ongoing, Mindef said last night.

'Realistic training need not be unsafe'

Defence Minister Ng addresses MPs' questions on safety culture
SEVEN MPs grilled Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on the deaths of national servicemen yesterday. Here is an excerpt:

Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC): What's the trend of fatal accidents during training in the last 10 years? How will the SAF ensure the cycle of complacency does not creep up again?

Dr Ng: We have on average two training deaths (a year) involving national servicemen. We have 40,000 full-time national servicemen and each year, about 180,000 NSmen come back for in-camp training. We will continue to strengthen the safety system so that we can keep the numbers as low as possible.

Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC): In Private (Dominique Sarron) Lee's case, was a safety officer present? When the commander breached training safety regulations, was he advised accordingly?

Dr Ng: There was a safety officer. The platoon commander who threw the grenade said he was aware of the training safety conditions, but did not comply.

Mr Nicholas Fang (Nominated MP): How will the measures to ensure training safety balance against training realism?

Dr Ng: These two incidents are not high-risk training. We do much riskier exercises.

The message to commanders is, if you disregard safety instructions, you put men at risk, you're not fit for command.

Realistic training doesn't have to be unsafe training. If you make training conditions safe, soldiers will train in greater confidence.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC): What's the trend for breaches of training safety regulations?Is the weak safety culture in the Combat Intelligence School isolated?

Dr Ng: The army established a safety hotline in November 2011. We've got about 100 calls and they report unsafe practices, near misses or safety hazards.

The chief of army has assured me this is an isolated problem. His judgment is based on the army's safety inspectorate that does routine inspections. My other source of assurance is our vehicle accident rate is fairly low: 0.5 to 0.6 accidents per 100,000km.

Mr Gerald Giam (Non-Constituency MP): What other findings led the COI (Committee of Inquiry) to conclude the Combat Intelligence School had a weak safety culture?

Dr Ng: The COI concluded this from interviews with servicemen. One, in terms of the vehicle safety management... whether conducting officers checked whether drivers were licensed. Two, their procedures in terms of vehicular movements in the training field. The army safety inspectorate has done a review and recommended the removal of certain personalities from their command and the SAF has acted on that.

Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC): Has there been any finding that the overall safety awareness in the SAF may have fallen, and will the SAF consider making inquiry findings public? Since 2001, 16 SAF servicemen have died or encountered accidents on Fridays. Is it possible that safety is lax because this is the last training day of the week?

Dr Ng: About Fridays - I have to check that up. But if that's true, I think that's a useful point.

The two deaths each year - the majority of them are not clear breaches of safety instructions; some were medically related. Whether we could have done anything different, we've asked the Medical Specialist Board, and the answer is "no". That's the extent of our technological abilities.

Some were acts of God, like a tree falling on a soldier outside the training ground.

Where it comes to cases which are of public interest and significance, SAF/Mindef will share these cases.

The message to commanders is, if you disregard safety instructions, you put men at risk, you're not fit for command. Realistic training doesn't have to be unsafe training. The opposite is true. If you make training conditions safe, soldiers will train in greater confidence.
- Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen

Jeep accident: Whole group of commanders neglected rules
By Goh Chin Lian and Jessica Lim, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

IN THE final analysis, it was not just one person or one mistake that led to the death of Third Sergeant Tan Mou Sheng. It was a whole group of commanders, all neglecting training safety.

There was the master sergeant who failed to check if the man he had assigned to drive a jeep had a licence for it, a Committee of Inquiry (COI) observed. There was the third sergeant driver who did not have a licence, but said nothing to his superior.

And there were two instructors - one of whom was 3rd Sgt Tan - who sat in the rear of the jeep without belting up or putting on their helmets, unlike their buddies sitting in front and in another jeep. The vehicle commander sitting in front, who should have ensured that 3rd Sgt Tan observed safety regulations, did not do his part either, the COI said.

Early on a Friday morning, with the sun barely risen, the 20-year-old would be thrown out of his jeep and pinned down as the vehicle overturned.

In between extricating him and rushing him first to Nee Soon Camp Medical Centre and then to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, a medic and a medical officer tried to save him. Later, hospital doctors tried emergency surgery too.

But on May 11, the full-time national serviceman died of a haemorrhage from severe pelvic crush, the second death of a serviceman in a month.

As military investigators descended on the Combat Intelligence School and questioned other servicemen, they found more cases of people who drove vehicles without licences. Controls over who got the keys to vehicles were also found to be lax in the field during training.

The buck would stop at the school's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Vincent Lam Fei Liong. Just last year, he had received a Long Service Medal (Military) at the National Day Awards. A new commanding officer has replaced him.

Four other high-ranking officers were also moved to assignments not involving the supervision or training of servicemen. They include Master Sergeant Lee Kong Kean, who had assigned the unlicensed driver, Third Sergeant Cavin Tan.

Other Singapore Armed Forces units got the order to tighten control over the use and movement of vehicles so that keys do not end up in the hands of unlicensed drivers. Those who take the wheel now have to display their driving licence visibly on the vehicle dashboard.

But these steps are little comfort for the family of 3rd Sgt Tan, who are still mourning his death more than six months on.

A family member, who identified himself only as Mr Tan, told The Straits Times yesterday: "We are very sad and we do not want to say anything."

Extra smoke grenades used 'contributed to death'
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

SIX smoke grenades were used rather than the maximum of two during a training exercise, and this contributed to Private Dominique Sarron Lee's death.

On April 17, he had entered a room of a building in the Murai Urban Training Facility in Lim Chu Kang, and had breathing difficulties after exposure to smoke from grenades thrown outside the building.

The former track athlete, 21, was taken away immediately, but lost consciousness. He received cardio-pulmonary resuscitation on the spot and was evacuated to Sungei Gedong Medical Centre before being sent to the National University Hospital in an SAF ambulance.

An SAF medical officer kept trying to resuscitate him throughout the journey and at the hospital. But Pte Lee died of "acute allergic reaction to zinc chloride due to inhalation of zinc chloride fumes".

This chemical is a primary component of the SAF's smoke grenades, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament yesterday. Such grenades have been used by the SAF since the 1970s, and Pte Lee's death was the first on its records that is directly attributable to zinc chloride inhalation.

A Committee of Inquiry (COI) found, however, that the number of smoke grenades used in the April 17 exercise exceeded the limit specified in training safety regulations (TSR).

Smoke grenades should also be thrown at least 20m apart, and at least 10m from the closest troops.

Based on the exercise layout, no more than two smoke grenades should have been used, but the platoon commander threw six. Dr Ng said Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal was aware of the TSR but did not comply with it.

The COI, which believes he was negligent, said "if the TSR had been complied with, Pte Lee and his platoon mates would not have been subjected to smoke that was as dense as that during the incident", and that "reduced exposure to smoke would have reduced the risks of any adverse reactions to the smoke".

Dr Ng added that Pte Lee's pre-enlistment medical screening records show a history of asthma, but the COI found his medical classification and vocational assignment appropriate.

The COI was unable to establish with certainty if Pte Lee's condition was a contributory factor to his death.

It noted that the specific effects of zinc chloride fumes on people with asthma have not been reported in medical literature, while people without asthma can also be affected.

Also, his platoon mates with asthma had developed only mild symptoms after exposure to the fumes in the same exercise.

Mindef told The Straits Times Pte Lee was on the third day of his exercise when the incident happened. Before that, he had been on field training where smoke grenades were used. "Prior to the incident, Pte Lee did not display any adverse reactions to the smoke during training. Neither did he report sick for smoke-related ailments."

MINDEF to compensate families of NSFs who died in training
By Vimita Mohandas, Channel NewsAsia, 15 Nov 2012

The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) disclosed on Thursday how it compensates families of servicemen who die while in service.

While MINDEF did not reveal the exact amount received by a family of a deceased serviceman, a ministry spokesperson said that a family will receive a death gratuity equivalent to 12 months of the last drawn monthly gross salary of a regular serviceman of equivalent rank.

In a reply to Channel NewsAsia, MINDEF said that the death gratuity is outside of its compensation framework.

Under MINDEF's compensation framework, a compensation quantum will be awarded to the family of the deceased serviceman if the death was due to service.

The quantum of this compensation is computed in accordance with the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) and the civil courts.

If the death occurred during military training, the family will also receive a Special Award, which doubles the total compensation award compared to what is prescribed under the WICA.

However, all this may be cold comfort to the bereaved families of Third Sergeant Tan Mou Sheng and Private Dominique Lee, both of whom died during training earlier this year.

Findings from the Committees of Inquiry (COI) convened after their deaths uncovered breaches of training safety regulations.

In the case of Private Dominique Lee, who died after a training exercise that involved smoke grenades, the COI found that only two smoke grenades should have been used instead of the six thrown by his Platoon Commander.

The mother of Dominique Lee said that she has been visiting her son's grave at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery every day since he died in April.

In the second case, the COI found that the driver of the vehicle Third Sergeant Tan Mou Sheng was in did not have a valid licence.

Third Sergeant Tan was thrown out of the vehicle when it flipped, pinning him under it.

'Mandatory sentences needed for deterrence'
But law should be clear on when penalty is to be imposed: Minister
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

LAW Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday warned that ending mandatory sentences could well lead to a "de facto abolition" of the death penalty for drug trafficking.

That would mean a substantial reduction in the deterrent value of the death penalty, he said in response to several MPs who had called on Monday for greater judicial discretion.

Addressing the House during the debate on the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill, Mr Shanmugam said that "like members, our preference is also to give more discretion to the courts".

The Law Ministry discussed the matter with the Attorney-General and Chief Justices Chan Sek Keong and Sundaresh Menon.

Their view was that if Parliament deemed it necessary for drug offences to be punishable by death, the law should set out as clearly as possible the circumstances under which the death penalty should be imposed, he said.

Was it possible to craft a law to give discretion to the courts yet maintain the deterrent value of the death penalty? Mr Shanmugam said: "I think it is impossible."

Elaborating on this, he said that if the Government were to set out factors such as youth, family circumstances or poverty as factors for the exercise of judicial discretion, drug syndicates would recruit couriers to fit the bill.

"Set out the criteria and I promise you that drug lords will design the couriers in accordance with the criteria you have set out and they will send you as many couriers as you wish fitting that criteria," Mr Shanmugam said.

Judges faced with such couriers would understandably be hard pressed to hang them, he added.

Judges, the minister said, quoting National University of Singapore law professor Walter Woon, "seldom go for the maximum" sentence. Prof Woon had said in a forum on the mandatory death penalty that in this, judges "are like university lecturers who never give you the maximum marks".

That is why the Government decided that in amending the law, the death penalty must and will remain mandatory for most instances of drug trafficking.

The two exceptions introduced in the amendment Bill, which Parliament passed yesterday, are "narrowly tailored and intentionally so", he added.

These are when a drug courier either cooperates substantively with the authorities or is judged to have diminished responsibility.

Mr Shanmugam also referred to remarks Prof Woon had made during the forum, on how the mandatory death penalty "warps" discretion. The professor, who was Attorney-General from 2008 to 2010, was quoted in The Straits Times as saying that it was better to vest discretion in judges - by letting them decide in open court whether someone should hang - than in the prosecution. He had also described the prosecution's heavy burden in determining an appropriate charge in cases where the death sentence is mandatory.

Yesterday, the Law Minister said Prof Woon had clarified that he had "always drawn a distinction between the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in drug cases from that in murder cases".

In drug trafficking cases, said Mr Shanmugam, Prof Woon had said discretion "is better placed with the Public Prosecutor".

That was because the Public Prosecutor will be able to consider broad public policy considerations, and to assess intelligence that might not be admissible in court, Mr Shanmugam said.

In murder, he added, judges will be able to consider the factors on a case-by-case basis.

Changes to law 'aimed at beefing up anti-drug war'
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

SINGAPORE'S war against drugs is waged on many fronts and must stamp out both demand and supply, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday.

The death penalty is one of a range of weapons being used in this war and the changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act are meant to strengthen the anti-drug regime and adapt to the new strategies of the drug syndicates.

By giving couriers a chance to tell on their syndicates and save themselves from certain death, the aim is to make it difficult for the syndicates to operate. And even as they may adapt, "we would have at the very least increased the risks and complications for syndicates", said DPM Teo as he wrapped up the debate on changes to the Act.

Beyond the death penalty, there are other key weapons in Singapore's arsenal. These include educating people about the harm of drug addiction, imprisonment of long-term drug addicts who repeatedly fall back into the habit, and Central Narcotics Bureau's unrelenting efforts at seizing drugs and arresting offenders.

"It starts with public education, but we have also put in place strict laws with severe penalties, coupled with strong enforcement.

"The new measures proposed in this Bill will enable us to help drug abusers who themselves have shown commitment to get off drugs and stay away from drugs.

"And we are introducing new offences and increasing penalties for those who target the young and vulnerable, so we don't create another generation who are enslaved to drugs," Mr Teo said.

"Offenders have a high certainty of being caught, and of facing severe punishment, including death," he added.

In addition, the law passed yesterday will make it illegal to organise drug parties. Those found guilty can be jailed up to 20 years and caned.

The law will also provide for the setting up of a Community Rehabilitation Centre for young addicts who are not yet hardcore abusers to live and be counselled.

"Taken in totality, these amendments will make our regime tougher against repeat offenders, introduce new offences especially against those who target the young and vulnerable, and enhance the effectiveness of the death penalty regime.

"We will also give CNB officers more power to deal with emerging threats and improve their monitoring capabilities," said Mr Teo.

Individuals and society, he added, also have a responsibility in fighting the drug menace.

Referring to an anecdote Nominated MP Eugene Tan told the House on Monday about his students appearing to be receptive to drugs, Mr Teo said he hoped the Singapore Management University professor had helped his students see that experimenting with drugs is dangerous.

"Experimenting with drugs is not like trying bungee-jumping or sky-diving - drug-taking is illegal and it can only lead one down the path of addiction, and damage one's health and mind, as well as one's future and family."

48% of drug offenders held last year were Malay
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

NEARLY half of all drug offenders arrested last year were Malay, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said in Parliament yesterday.

He highlighted the worrying trend even as he called for a more concerted effort to fight the drug abuse problem.

"In principle, the Government's approach is to treat drug abuse as a national problem," said Mr Masagos in Malay.

"However, we have to come to terms with the fact that Malay abusers continue to form the majority of abusers arrested."

Last year, 1,603 Malay drug abusers were arrested - a 16.5 per cent increase from a year ago. They formed around 48 per cent of offenders arrested last year.

The Government is particularly concerned about the rising trend of new abusers aged below 21, he said. The number of young Malay abusers arrested quadrupled from 41 in 2007 to 166 last year.

Most abused methamphetamine or Ice, a synthetic drug.

Dealing with the problem requires a "concerted approach" involving the Government, community, families and the abusers themselves, said Mr Masagos, who chaired an inter-agency task force on drugs. He now heads a steering committee that oversees the implementation of the recommendations of the task force.

"This will put this effort at the national level," said Mr Masagos.

He rejected a suggestion by Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap (Aljunied GRC) that a Malay committee be formed to manage the community's anti-drug fight.

"What we need is the increase in concerted effort, not another new committee," said Mr Masagos, adding that communities can tap national resources through his steering committee.

He noted the ongoing efforts by Malay-Muslim organisations to help inmates, ex-inmates and their families, but called for more support to prevent children from being influenced by drugs.

This is so "they will see drugs as something that is revolting and not as something that they should try", he said.

Several MPs had noted the importance of preventive education during Monday's debate on changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Yesterday, Mr Masagos reiterated the Government's commitment to preventing abusers from relapsing. Starting this month, all long-term offenders deemed to be at high risk of relapse must go through stricter supervision on their release. Besides regular urine tests, they will be placed on curfew, monitored electronically and go for compulsory counselling.

Some 500 high-risk inmates will be placed on this regime next year, he said. About 2,000 repeat abusers sentenced to long-term imprisonment will be released over the next two years.

There will also be more targeted intervention for young offenders. For instance, they will report to a separate centre for urine tests, to reduce contact with older abusers. First-time young abusers will be moved to a Community Rehabilitation Centre following short detentions in drug rehabilitation centres.

MPs applaud changes to law for murder cases
Execution now mandatory only if there was intent to kill
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

MEMBERS of Parliament yesterday applauded changes to the Penal Code which make the death penalty mandatory in murder cases only if there is the intent to kill.

However, two of the four who spoke - Mr Alvin Yeo (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) - called for wider reviews of the law to clarify parts of it and ensure it is not outdated.

In introducing the changes, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said they are made in the context of the low homicide rate here - 0.3 cases per 100,000 people.

"In these circumstances, we think it right to introduce more judicial discretion in deciding whether the death sentence ought to be imposed for murder," he said.

He added: "Where possible, where practical, where it is realistic, and where it does not substantially impact our criminal justice framework, we must move towards giving greater discretion to the courts... Mandatory sentences are and should be the exception."

The Penal Code defines murder as culpable homicide carried out in one of four mental states.

The changes passed by Parliament yesterday make death compulsory only if the accused intentionally killed the victim. For the other three states, judges can now opt for a life sentence, with the additional option of caning.

Mr Yeo welcomed the changes but called for a "wholesale review" of mandatory sentences in the Penal Code, to see if these sentences "are properly calibrated for the interest they seek to protect, or whether some have outlived their usefulness".

Responding, Mr Shanmugam said that while it is beyond his purview to review all laws, it is "sound policy" to regularly look at laws carrying severe penalties.

Ms Lim zeroed in on the Penal Code provisions for homicide. She asked for a clearer distinction between culpable homicide and murder, which now partially overlap.

She also asked if Section 300(c) - where a person is guilty of murder if he intentionally inflicts an injury that causes death - should be moved to a less serious category of homicide. The accused may not have known that the injury would cause death, said Ms Lim.

Mr Shanmugam noted that this section has drawn much attention from the legal community but said it will stay for the moment.

However, he has asked Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah to look at it.

"We are looking at a number of provisions including Section 300(c), and if we believe that it ought to be either moved or amended in some form, we will let the House know," he said.

But the MPs disagreed on whether judges should have more discretion in meting out the death sentence for murderers.

Mr Yeo cautioned against too much discretion. He cited the public outrage in other countries when judges give light sentences to rapists and child sex offenders.

But Ms Lim said judges should have discretion in all murder cases. There could be a whole spectrum of reasons behind the accused's intention to kill, she said.

Mr Shanmugam said the type of murder where the mandatory death penalty applies refers to "deliberate, cold-blooded, intentional killing".

There are defences for mitigating factors, like if the murder was done on the spur of the moment, and provoked, he added.

Automatic appeal for death sentences
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

ALL death sentences will be reviewed by the Court of Appeal, even if the prisoner does not appeal against his sentence, under a law passed by Parliament yesterday.

This new "automatic appeal" rule in the amended Criminal Procedure Code was lauded by MPs for its respect for the sanctity of life.

The rule means no one will be sent to the gallows without his sentence being reviewed and confirmed by the Court of Appeal.

It kicks in when a person sentenced to death does not seek an appeal. In the last two years, only one person has not appealed against his death sentence.

When this happens, the public prosecutor will have to file a petition for the Court of Appeal to review the sentence.

Like in a normal appeal, the accused will be represented by a lawyer.

While welcoming the change yesterday, MPs suggested that it go further.

Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) wants to make it a legal requirement for the Court of Appeal, which can ask during the review process to hear from any party on either side of the case, to hear from the other side as well.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the idea behind the change is to give discretion to the Court of Appeal "with the belief that it will act in the interests of natural justice".

Requiring that it hear both sides may frustrate the process if, for example, one side refuses to appear in court, he said.

Nominated MP Eugene Tan asked the Law Minister to consider returning to the old system of having two judges try capital offences.

His reason: It is during the trial, and not later on when the Court of Appeal reviews the case, where the crucial "findings of fact" are done. For example, the appeal judges would not have the chance to witness the demeanour of witnesses - unlike the trial judge, he said.

Mr Shanmugam said that when the change was made from the two-judge system in 1992, it was at the request of the courts. Since then, the courts have not asked to revert, he noted.

In the Government's view, he added, a system where capital cases are tried by one judge, after which the Court of Appeal reviews the sentence, is adequate.

GST Voucher Fund made permanent
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

A GOVERNMENT scheme that provides relief to lower- and middle-income families from the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was officially made permanent yesterday.

The setting up of the GST Voucher Fund was given the nod by Parliament, a move that will allow families to receive help with their GST regardless of the health of the economy.

"By setting up the GST Voucher Fund, we provide greater certainty of payments which will otherwise be subject to budget availability, depending on economic conditions and other competing priorities in any year," said Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister of State for Finance.

The Government is putting $3.6 billion from this year's Budget into the scheme, with $680 million going to households this year, while the remaining $2.95 billion is used to start the fund.

The voucher gives help in the form of cash, Medisave top-ups and utilities rebates. The move to make it permanent was announced in this year's Budget.

But will the fund be sustainable beyond the initial five years, asked Mr Liang Eng Hwa (MP Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Nominated MP Ramasamy Dhinakaran.

Said Mr Liang: "Would the appropriation from the consolidated fund be substantially reduced if we are faced with a prolonged downturn that significantly impacts the government revenue?"

Replying, Mrs Teo said "additional injections to the fund will be made as and when the Budget allows" and "must be predicated upon the continued health of our public finances".

She added that the fund will be mixed with others for the Government to manage them on a consolidated basis, and it will receive a fixed annual return.

Mr Liang also asked about the criteria for deciding people's eligibility based on their income and annual value of their home.

He said some needy people may be shut out from the fund's benefits if their home's annual value is above the $20,000 threshold, or if the individual is an elderly person living with his children in a home with an annual value above $20,000.

Mrs Teo said using income and the annual value of a home are the best available proxies of a person's financial strength.

The current annual value ceiling covers 80 per cent of Singapore homes, including some private property. And the existing criteria benefit one in two adult citizens and eight in 10 citizen households, she added.

"The eligibility criteria for the GST voucher are set to target those who need it most," she said.

Cost savings if material prices stabilise
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

THE construction cost of the Downtown Line will be higher than the original budgeted $12 billion but may not go as high as the revised estimate of $20.7 billion, if prices of materials remain at current levels.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said this in Parliament yesterday in response to Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong who asked why the budget for the Line had increased so significantly from the original estimate in 2007.

The Straits Times reported last month that the bill for the Line, which connects neighbourhoods in the east and north- western parts of the island to Marina downtown, would rise more than 70 per cent due to a spike in construction cost.

Mr Lui said the cost came primarily from the increase in the prices of key materials like steel bars and concrete, which had risen by 60 per cent and 14 per cent respectively from late 2007 to mid-2008.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) also decided on additional enhancements for the Line including an extra station, increasing rail length by 2km, and 30 extra entrances at various stations.

Most of the additional cost comes from Downtown Line Stage 1 which runs the length of six stations.

Tenders for this section were called between 2007 and 2008 when construction prices went up significantly, said Mr Lui.

He added that price fluctuation clauses were included in all major construction tenders. This means that the LTA bears the downside risk if the cost of materials goes up.

The upside to this clause is that LTA enjoys cost savings if the cost of materials comes down.

"Tender prices would be lower because the contractors would not factor in a risk premium in their tender," he said.

Mr Lui assured the House that the LTA was prudent in managing public funds and such a tender process was in line with best practices across other government agencies and around the world.

Review of policy on egg freezing under way
By Stacey Chia, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

THE Health Ministry is reviewing the "medical, scientific and ethical implications" of the policy on egg freezing, said Minister of State for Health Amy Khor in Parliament yesterday.

Currently, only women who have to undergo treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which will damage their fertility, are allowed to freeze their eggs.

Nominated MP Tan Su Shan asked if this criterion could be relaxed, given that fertility declines with age.

Replying, Dr Khor said that the review notwithstanding, "it is still important to reiterate... there is no better substitute to natural childbearing within marriage for women when they are relatively young and healthy".

She also said there are various reasons egg freezing has not been allowed. These include inherent risks for the women, such as ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome, a complication from over-stimulation of the ovaries, bleeding and infection.

Also, the technology is relatively new.

As a result, there is limited information on the perinatal outcomes of the procedure, such as the success rate and pregnancies.

Besides these medical implications, it may lead to a misconception that egg freezing can guarantee fertility preservation and "over-commercialisation", she added.

Only 2% of HDB loan applications rejected
By Rachel  Chang, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

ONLY 2 per cent of HDB loan applications were rejected from January 2010 to September this year, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament yesterday. That works out to 3,500 applications out of a total of 178,000.

The applicants were turned down as they had previously taken two or more loans from HDB, he said in a reply to Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten SMC).

Mr Lim and Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) had asked Mr Khaw if HDB could be more lenient in letting some people take a third loan, especially if they needed to buy new homes because of reasons like divorce. Without an HDB loan, they are "stuck with a rental flat", said Mr Lim.

Mr Khaw said a 2 per cent rejection rate is low. Also, HDB exercises discretion on a case-by-case basis, he added. The success rate of appeals for a loan is 36 per cent - which is "pretty high" and "quite good", he said. Mr Khaw stressed that the Government's social objective of helping citizens own their homes must be "underpinned by prudence".
What the MPs want, for "100 per cent, everyone who puts up their hand gets a loan", is unrealistic, he said. Pushing beyond the "prudence principle", he said, may lead to problems like the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the United States, which ultimately wreaked havoc on its economy.

3,000 applicants fail to complete purchase of HDB flats in last 2 years
By Olivia Siong, The Straits Times, 14 Nov 2012

Seven per cent or about 3,000 applicants failed to complete the purchase of their new Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats after successfully selecting one in the last two years.

There were 43,000 bookings for new HDB flats in 2010 and 2011.

In a written reply to a parliamentary question filed by MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC Gan Thiam Poh, the Ministry of National Development said there were three main reasons for this.

The reasons include financial difficulties following a job loss, break-up in a family relationship and a change in preference for location.

Currently, all flat buyers are required to pay a non-refundable booking fee when selecting a unit.

Those who fail to complete the purchase after signing the lease agreement will forfeit five per cent of the purchase price of the flat.
They will also be debarred for one year from participating in HDB sales exercises, or receiving housing grants for purchase of a resale flat.

$21.7m awarded to athletes under MAP
Channel NewsAsia, 14 Nov 2012

A total of S$21.76 million has been awarded to athletes for winning medals at sporting games since 1991.
The awards come under the Singapore National Olympic Council's (SNOC) Multi-Million Dollar Award Programme (MAP).

Giving an update on the programme in Parliament, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said S$20.43 million went to athletes, while S$1.33 million went to National Sports Associations.

Prize monies were given out for a total of 483 medals, including 336 SEA Games medals, 62 Commonwealth Games medals, 82 Asian Games medals and three Olympic Games medals.

Nominated MP Nicholas Fang had asked if the ministry will consider encouraging the Olympic Council to scrap the MAP altogether.

Mr Fang said: "I think a lot of young athletes these days still view representing the country and winning for Singapore is an honour and reward in and of itself. Front loading the support from the MAP to the training and preparation process will be a more practical way of supporting sports men and associations.

"It also gives greater assurance to athletes coaches, sports associations and families that the support will be coming in at a very structured way from the start, more akin to giving somebody the petrol to drive from A to B, rather than saying you reach there, I'll give you the petrol then."

Mr Wong said: "It's something we'll be happy to discuss with SNOC and with the sports community in general. The member would be aware that there's a differentiation between what the government funds through the SSC (Singapore Sports Council) and the MAP, which is an agreement between the SNOC and its sponsors, principally the Tote Board and the Singapore Pools, and other private sponsors. The agreement between the SNOC and its partners is subject to review from time to time, I think every four years. And this present agreement would be due for review in 2015 after the SEA Games."

Govt mulling over ways to settle neighbours' spats
Three ideas: strengthen mediation, have norms of conduct, use sanctions
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2012

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who first floated the idea on his Facebook page in August, outlined the options in Parliament yesterday while stressing that the framework was still very much in the conceptual stage.

He was responding to Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC), who asked for details on the framework.

The first option, he said, was to strengthen the mediation process.

He noted that mediation is already used effectively to deal with such cases. Some 70 per cent of the hundreds of cases dealt with since 2009 have been resolved.

But he said the main weakness of current mediation efforts was that it was voluntary.

"If one party does not want to come, the mediator has not much he can do. So the question is, how much can we improve the framework?" he said.

Mr Shanmugam said the mediation process could be strengthened in terms of getting people to mediate their disputes, and also in terms of getting them to abide by any understanding reached.

A second possible approach was to try and develop norms of conduct between neighbours.

These norms, he said, must be specific enough to be meaningful, but must also take into account the complexities of urban life and living in close proximity.

The third approach would be to encourage residents to abide by these norms, and introduce "effective and properly calibrated sanctions" if these norms are breached.

Mr Shanmugam said the options are still being assessed for feasibility. The Law Ministry later said the framework is being discussed among several ministries and the lead agency will be identified in due course.

He stressed, however, that "legislation and regulation can only do so much. Ultimately, the responsibility for creating a neighbourly and pleasant living environment lies with each individual".

It was a sentiment echoed by Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), who pointed out that, in some cases, no amount of mediation could change the behaviour of neighbours.

He asked if it was possible to emulate Hong Kong, where public housing residents can receive demerit points for behaviour that can harm their neighbours or the environment. If a household accrues a certain number of points, it will be forced to leave its rental unit.

Mr Shanmugam said that while the Government is considering a framework, the precise nature has not been settled. However, it is studying frameworks in other countries.

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