Thursday 28 February 2013

Reactions to Budget 2013

How progressive is the new tax structure?
Budget 2013 sees the introduction of wealth taxes on luxury cars and homes. The tax system is getting more progressive, but the Government also has to increase social spending and transfers to reduce the income gap.
By Chia Ngee Choon, Published The Straits Times, 28 Feb 2013

AS AN open economy, Singapore has to strike a balance between maintaining international tax competitiveness and achieving domestic equity in its fiscal policy. Budget 2013 thus aims for "quality growth and an inclusive society".

As the income gap has inched up, fiscal policy is one tool to narrow that gap. Narrowing the income gap is done at both ends: targeting the low- to middle-income worker by redistributing income, and lowering disposable incomes at the higher end by taxing higher incomes and wealth.

Budget 2013 does both.

At the lower end, the Government will boost wages by co-paying 40 per cent of pay increases for Singaporean workers earning up to $4,000 for three years. As the median gross monthly income from full-time work is $3,480, the Wage Credit Scheme will help lift wages for at least half the local workers. The enhanced Workfare scheme for low-wage earners will boost the income of those earning up to $1,900.

Those who read Professor Lim Chong Yah's controversial "wage shock therapy" proposal will recall that he had suggested a rapid rise in incomes at the bottom and a wage freeze for top income earners. Budget 2013 does not introduce anything as controversial, of course. But it does make good use of a wealth tax to increase the tax burden on luxury homes and cars.

Overall, Budget 2013 sets Singapore well on the path of greater tax progressivity. This has been a declared intention of fiscal policy, as Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said.

But will making a tax system more progressive also reduce income inequality?

Govt acts to curb hiring of unskilled foreigners

Levy on contractors who bust foreign worker quota to rise to $1,050 in 2015
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2013

IN A move to curb contractors from hiring unskilled foreign workers beyond their quota, a hefty $950 monthly levy will be imposed on them from next year.

In 2015, it will cross the $1,000 psychological barrier, with the monthly rate set at $1,050, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) announced yesterday.

Currently, contractors pay $650 for every unskilled foreigner they hire beyond the approved number for a building project.

These new rates are the most severe on the list of increased levies for various sectors as the construction industry is among the most dependent on foreign workers and the slowest to improve its productivity.

The list made public yesterday comes one day after Budget 2013 announced that levies for unskilled foreign workers will be raised to slow the inflow of foreigners and help lift productivity.

The service sector, also heavily reliant on foreign workers, will face higher levies too.

But the increase is less severe.

Let’s converse like adults

By Tom Benner, Published TODAY, 27 Feb 2013

It would not be like forward-looking Singapore to ignore the factors that will determine its future. Nor would Singaporeans, however upset some may be over the White Paper on Population, want a Government that isn’t thinking for the long term.

The 76-page paper is a thoughtful document with good underlying research and some important recommendations about how to tackle the problems of a rapidly ageing population with one of the lowest populations in the world. It seeks to engage Singaporeans in an adult conversation. Easing work-life issues, infrastructure needs such as housing and mass transit, and balancing future immigration levels against the Singaporean identity all have a place in the discussion.

Despite best intentions, the paper has met with a sharply critical response, including a large protest at the Speakers’ Corner and a petition to put the White Paper to public referendum. Many have trouble fathoming what population growth to 6.9 million would look like.

It would amount to negligence to ignore these issues, but it is important to disagree without being disagreeable. All sides need to keep open minds and be respectful of differing views for the sake of constructive dialogue.


Politics in the United States offers a cautionary tale. When entertaining opposing views gives way to killing the messenger, people start talking at each other instead of to each other. That’s where trouble begins.

Look to American politics and see what happens when the free exchange of ideas is stifled. Confronted by uncomfortable truths, Americans deny and dismiss. Americans listen to the media outlets that reflect their own prejudices and predilections, and vote for people to tell them what they want to hear. So politicians feel pressured to play to the lowest common denominator.

Americans want government programmes and services but don’t want to pay for them, so political leaders dare not speak honestly about cutting spending or raising taxes.

Singapore mirrors Australia in population trends

By Bruce Gale, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2013

CAN Singaporeans debating population issues learn anything from Australia's experience?

At first glance, the answer seems to be "no". One country is continent-sized and sparsely populated but blessed with huge natural resources, and with its people mostly having strong cultural ties to Europe. The other, an island city-state, has few natural resources and a distinctly Asian cultural heritage.

Ask citizens in both countries about the sort of future they envisage for themselves and their children, however, and you will come across a strikingly similar debate. Like Singapore, Australia has a low birth rate and an ageing population. And, like Singapore, these factors have prompted governments concerned about the prospects of long-term growth to formulate policies that not all citizens appear ready to accept.

Yet another similarity is that the two countries are debating population issues at a time when relative prosperity should make any policy changes easier to accept. Unlike other developed countries facing similarly ageing populations, Singapore and Australia have weathered the global economic downturn well.

The main difference is timing. Singapore's national debate officially began late last month with the tabling in Parliament of the White Paper on Population. Australians, however, have been arguing over the issue since 2010, when the government of then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd released a report outlining his vision of what became known as "Big Australia".

Among other things, this report suggested that Australia's population would increase from 22 million to 35 million by 2050. The resulting national uproar, together with the academic and political debates it engendered, makes interesting reading as Singapore contemplates future policy directions.

Scheme to expand local bone marrow donor pool

More donors mean more local tissue matches and also cheaper transplants
By Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2013

THE tissues for four in five bone marrow transplants are flown in from abroad, because no matches can be found in the small donor pool in Singapore.

Obtaining tissues from overseas not only takes longer, it also costs tens of thousands of dollars more. The solution - to widen the pool of donors, and the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) hopes to do just that.

It aims to expand the entire registry to some 75,000 people by 2015 - a figure that BMDP president Jane Prior believes would be a "tipping point".

That would be an increase of 20,000 donors in the next three years. Ms Prior said: "We hope that with the addition, at least 50 per cent of donor matches can be locally sourced."

Of the 153 bone marrow transplants performed in Singapore in the past five years, only 23 used local donor tissues. The rest were flown in from locations such as Taiwan, the United States, Germany and Hong Kong.

Procuring bone marrow from the US can cost patients more than $57,000 - when it costs $19,000 to do this locally.

For Taiwan, the procurement costs can run up to $26,000.

Ms Prior said the steeper cost is a "driving force" for growing the local registry.

More people will need such transplants as the population ages and more people come down with blood cancers, said Dr William Hwang, who heads the haematology department of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), one of four hospitals that perform these transplants.

He takes in visitor, 80, who missed her flight

Airport worker's help beyond call of duty lands him top service award
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2013

HE LET a Greek octogenarian stay with him in his rented apartment for two nights and even paid first for her new flight home.

The hospitality extended to Mrs Cotis Kalliopi after she missed a flight connection clinched Mr Ben Soon, 25, the top accolade at Changi Airport's service excellence awards yesterday.

The passenger services assistant, who has worked there for two years and often mans the lost and found counter, beat 60 others to the title of Service Personality of the Year 2012.

Mr Soon was working at Terminal 1 last October when he saw the 80-year-old looking helpless. "She was teary-eyed and seemed at a loss," he said.

Despite her thin grasp of English, he gathered that she had missed her connecting flight to Darwin, Australia, where she lives with her son. Concerned that she did not have any credit cards or enough cash to pay for a hotel stay, he offered to put her up at his home. He said: "I was simply worried for her as she was alone in a foreign land."

As he was off-duty for the following two days, he even took her out sightseeing. He also helped to book a new flight and paid for her air ticket, cash which Mrs Kalliopi later returned. To this day, the two remain in touch.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

MAS imposes restrictions on private car loans

By Sing Geok Shan, Channel NewsAsia, 25 Feb 2013

The Monetary Authority of Singapore is imposing restrictions on loans for private cars to safeguard against borrowers defaulting on their repayments.

Beginning on February 26, the central bank said consumers will be limited to borrowing 60 per cent of the purchase price of a motor vehicle when the open market value (OMV) is S$20,000 or less.

A tighter limit of 50 per cent will be imposed when the OMV is more than S$20,000.

The MAS is also capping the tenure of a motor vehicle loan at five years.

"The financing restrictions are necessary to encourage financial prudence among buyers," the MAS said in a statement.

"In this prolonged environment of very low interest rates, there is greater risk of buyers over-extending themselves," it said.

The new restrictions do not apply to loans for either commercial vehicles or for motorcycles.

For re-financing facilities, only the cap on loan tenure applies.

The MAS previously had in place financing restrictions on car loans from February 1995 to January 2003.

Parliament Highlights - 25 Feb 2013

About 20,000 became Singaporeans last year
Number is within expected range of 15,000 to 25,000 a year though figures fluctuate
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 26 Feb 2013

SINGAPORE granted its highest number of citizenships last year in more than a decade, even as it has tightened its intake of permanent residents (PRs) in recent years.

In all, 20,693 became Singaporeans last year, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu revealed yesterday in Parliament.

This is higher than the previous year's 15,777 and follows an uptrend in the number of new citizens.

Between 1987 and 2006, about 8,200 people were given citizenship papers a year. From 2007 to 2011, that number grew to 18,500 a year, according to statistics previously released by the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD).

An NPTD spokesman told The Straits Times yesterday that the number of citizenships granted each year fluctuates depending on factors such as the number and quality of applicants.

Last year's successful applications were within the 15,000 to 25,000 range it expects to grant yearly, she said.

The lower number of new citizenships granted in 2011, she noted, was due to the introduction of the Singapore Citizenship Journey, a programme to help new citizens better appreciate the country's history, norms and values. "This process takes about two months to complete. Hence, about 4,000 applicants who began their citizenship formalities in late 2011 were only granted citizenship in early 2012," she said.

Last year's new citizenship figure also includes 2,735 minors under the age of 21, most of whom were born overseas to Singaporean parents, Ms Fu said.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Budget 2013: A Better Singapore

Budget for 'a better Singapore'
Tharman spells out steps to pursue quality growth, foster inclusive society
By Aaron Low, The Straits Times, 26 Feb 2013

THE Government rolled out one of the most generous Budgets in recent years yesterday, balanced finely between helping firms raise their game and ensuring that individuals get the help they need.

Businesses will get a $5.9 billion boost, including an unprecedented scheme which will see the Government covering two-fifths of pay rises given over the next three years to Singaporeans earning $4,000 monthly or less.

Employers and experts welcomed this move, saying it will encourage businesses to pay local workers more in a tight labour market as they upgrade. Some said it will also encourage firms to hire more Singaporeans.

The Budget had help for individuals and families too, especially the poor. They will get $1.7 billion in financial aid, in the form of GST vouchers, conservancy rebates and Medisave top-ups, to help them cope with rising costs.

At the same time, the better off will be taxed more for high-end homes, cars and investment properties.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam unveiled Budget 2013 in a two-hour speech in Parliament, staying focused on the twin elements of economic restructuring and continuing to build an inclusive society.

As he put it: "This Budget is for a better Singapore."

And he spelt out what it was all in aid of: quality growth achieved mainly through innovation and higher productivity, and growth that would provide better lives for all Singaporeans - children, working families, the elderly and the disabled.

There will be pain as the economy restructures, and he did not hold back on announcing further curbs on foreign workers, pressing on with a move begun three years ago.

Pressing on with measures to discourage a reliance on cheap foreign labour, he raised levies across the board, slashed quotas in the marine and services sectors, and raised salary requirements for mid-skilled foreign workers.

Mr Tharman stressed that the push to restructure the economy - with higher productivity the "most important economic priority" - is linked inextricably to the aim of creating an inclusive society.

Beating the Labour Crunch

A new breed of companies has emerged to help food and beverage operators who cannot find enough workers to do work, from cleaning dishes to serving customers. JESSICA LIM finds out how these budding entrepreneurs have built up their businesses
The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2013

He sold his house to start dishwashing company

HE SOLD his terrace house in Pasir Ris for $1.1 million to help fund the purchase of three commercial dishwashers, each as big as an MRT train cabin.

The German machines cost Mr Lawrence Low $120,000 each.

Another $150,000 was spent to set up a factory in Sembawang where six full-time employees clear residual food off crockery before loading them into the stainless- steel dishwashers.

The idea to start Synnovate Solutions was seeded in 2009 when the Government announced that it would be clamping down on the hiring of foreign workers here.

The holder of a diploma in hotel management said: “The first thing that came to my mind was, how would restaurants cope?

Cleaning dishes is the dirtiest and lowest job. Many locals don’t want to do it.”

While Mr Low, 50, believed his outsourcing service would work, the road to making money has proven a long and winding one.

He recalled the first day of operations on Dec 5, 2010. He was raring to go, said the father of two, as he had a deal with NTUC Foodfare to wash 25,000 items a day over the next three years.

The former managing director of a catering firm had hired four people to work the morning shift and another four in the afternoon. But only three showed up.

One hundred and seventy tubs of dirty dishes needed to be returned within 24 hours. His wife, who was pregnant with their second child, had to help out.

“I really felt like dying. I used to be a managing director. Now my wife was washing dishes,” he said, adding that four workers are needed to operate each machine. They did not sleep that night but completed the task.

He tried to hire more workers but failed. “On the third day, I knew I couldn’t go on,” he said. He called to terminate the contract, but the foodcourt chain had let its dishwashers go and needed two weeks to hire new ones.

“We had to hold on till then,” said Mr Low, who enlisted the help of his mother, sister, mother- in-law and brother-in-law.

Woodlands Regional Centre to have two distinct precincts

By Hetty Musfirah, Channel NewsAsia, 24 Feb 2013

The upcoming Woodlands Regional Centre, which aims to bring jobs closer to homes in the north, will have two distinct precincts.

The plans are part of Singapore's draft masterplan for land use which will be exhibited later this year.

The two precincts will be developed from some 100 hectares of land.

70 percent will be used for the Woodlands North Coast, which will include the area between the Republic Polytechnic and the Woodlands Waterfront.

The Woodlands North Coast is envisioned to be a unique waterfront and leisure destination for Singapore. The intention is to create a mix of business, lifestyle and residential developments, all within the lush greenery and waterfront environment.

Busting three myths of growing old

By Carol Tan-Goh, Published The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2013

ALMOST everyone has a point or more to make on the Population White Paper and that "6.9 million" figure.

Pessimists fret about the replacement rate and conjure up "doom and gloom" - to the extent of the country going bankrupt - as the population ages and, say, the cost of care goes up.

Meanwhile, many of my patients tell me they don't want to grow old. My reply? Growing old is not a disease.

Ageing is inevitable. The young of today will be the old of tomorrow. The only "cure" for growing older is to die young.

But what my patients are really telling me is that they don't want to grow old disabled, in pain, lonely and poor. But growing old disabled, in pain, lonely and poor is not inevitable - if steps are taken, and taken early, to tackle these urgent issues.

I can think of at least three myths that need to be vigorously addressed.

Monday 25 February 2013

Who's out of touch - our leaders or people?

While some feel the govt has become elitist, others say citizens are unrealistic
By Han Fook Kwang, The Sunday Times, 24 Feb 2013

What's happening to Singapore?

I get asked this question more frequently these days because many people are unsure what to make of recent events that have changed the conventional view about safe and unexciting Singapore where everything works predictably.

There's a feeling that things are not quite what they used to be following the Punggol East by-election, the outrage in some quarters over the Population White Paper, and the demonstration at Hong Lim Park.

That protest made the news on BBC television, via major news agencies and on the front page of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

A banker wanted me to talk to a group of fund managers who he said wanted to "get a gauge of how the political environment is changing in Singapore and how it would impact the investment climate".

So it's not just the man in the street or in cyberspace who's keen to know, but also people watching from the outside, some of them managing large sums and deciding where to place them.

Has the Government lost its touch in anticipating and solving problems and in gaining public support for its programmes? Why have there been so many policy missteps of late, which have caused much unhappiness?

I also get much feedback from readers with their own answers to these questions and their prescriptions for fixing them.

Of these responses, two narratives have emerged, and they are worth examining in detail because they represent views held by a significant segment of the population.

The first pins a large share of the blame on the Government and civil servants for being out of touch with the ground and the daily struggle of ordinary Singaporeans who have to cope with the stresses and strains of living in Singapore, especially the rising cost of living.

According to those who subscribe to this, policymakers don't seem to have the right solutions because they don't understand enough what is happening on the ground.

This extract from one reader's e-mail sums up the sentiment: "People feel strongly the government has become so elitist that it is not one with the common masses anymore. In their workplaces, they see only scholars moving up the fast track ladder.

"Granted that these scholars are academically superior, but does it automatically mean they can be good and effective leaders? Leaders must have character, vision, empathy and compassion, which are not exclusive to scholars. I sense Singaporeans feel the government is no longer serving them but has become an isolated, elitist group who serve and promote the interests of the elite.

"As a PAP supporter and a Singaporean who is anxious for Singapore, I feel sad there is so much anger, and hope the government has the courage to put things right."

The other narrative, from the other end of the spectrum, blames the people for having unrealistic expectations and having no idea how fortunate they are to be living in a country with such a competent government and a relatively high standard of living.

This is how one reader put it: "The people have been spoon-fed for too long. They live in a safe and stable environment which they take for granted. During the '50s and '60s, Singaporeans were completely focused on getting good jobs so they could make ends meet and they left the 'helicopter' decision of running a country to the government.

"Now citizen expectations are just not realistic. They expect their homes to be built and roads cleaned, but snub the idea of letting their children do these jobs. Let them leave and go to Australia, the US, Indonesia or China and they will come running back because they will miss the harmonious and meritocratic environment, and the security of not worrying about the safety of their wives and children when they are out doing their own thing."

Two very different points of view but both held by well-meaning Singaporeans concerned by what they see and who worry about where the country is heading.

So, who is out of touch - the leaders or the people?

Picking up the pieces after the protests

No running away from ageing society, and the need to take steps to deal with it
By Warren Fernandez, The Sunday Times, 24 Feb 2013

The large turnout at the protest rally two Saturdays ago against the Population White Paper culminated in calls from some participants for a referendum on the issue.

Judging by the anger that has raged against the paper's proposals, the outcome of such a poll seems a no-brainer. It is as clear as day that the White Paper has gone down badly.

Congestion on the roads and trains, skyrocketing property prices, heightened competition for jobs, schools and other amenities, have all combined to make the idea of having almost two million more people added to this tiny island seem like one of those "foolhardy" or "courageous" suggestions that politicians make at their peril.

It all made me wonder how a similar proposal to boost the population might have gone down in the 1980s, when the quest for economic growth was not as unfashionable as it is today. Would the population, which then hovered around 2.5 million, have come out in support of doubling this in a few decades?

Even then, it would have been a hard sell.

One reason stems from what psychologists call the "end of history illusion".

A recent New York Times report citing a study in the journal Science noted: "When we remember our past selves, we seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years.

"But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same... we underestimate how much we will change in the future."

The same might apply to societies. So, just as it was difficult for anyone living in the 1980s to picture the Marina Bay of today, a spaghetti network of MRT lines running across the island, or three terminals at Changi Airport, most people extrapolate from their experiences today to form a picture of what the future might be like, as if society has reached its zenith and "history" has ended.

Little wonder then that all the grand plans unveiled recently for new homes, more MRT lines, additional parks and recreation options seemed remote. At best, the proposals were plausible; at worst, just so much political pie in the sky.

S'pore's best-kept secrets: Its virtues

Time to reboot Singapore brand and showcase achievements to the world
By Parag Khanna, Published The Straits Times, 23 Feb 2013

SINCE relocating to Singapore six months ago, I've continued my travels to the Middle East, Africa, South America, Europe, the United States and elsewhere in Asia.

Unlike in the past, however, when asked where I come from and where I live, I answer "Singapore". Imagine my shock when so many people around the world respond with almost Pavlovian reflex: "Ahh, chewing gum!" Or: "Of course, caning!"

It's striking how the image of Singapore lags two decades behind the reality. While the monikers of trivial incidents are passed down over generations, many of Singapore's virtues remain its best-kept secrets.

This neglect of Singapore's brand threatens to perpetuate itself. A small handful of Yale University's liberal arts faculty seem not to know the difference between Singapore and Saudi Arabia; most of their vituperative assaults on the Yale-NUS partnership have gone unanswered.

No Singaporean has stood up and stated the obvious: Yale - or any other university - would be lucky to have an outpost in the thriving heart of Asia. These students might go back to Yale with worldly and practical perspectives that could enlighten the more myopic professors on campus.

In fact, Singapore's star is rising fast. Just last month, two Harvard professors published a set of conversational reflections on the career of the "grand master" Lee Kuan Yew - but pointing as much to what one can learn from Singapore's past as its vision for the future as the unofficial capital of Asia. Indeed, its only rival for this title, Hong Kong, has made itself practically unliveable due to political capture by mainland China and horrendous air pollution.

Meanwhile, Singapore is becoming every day more and more the "Global Asia" hub for Asians looking to invest abroad as well as Western and other multinationals seeking a greater Asian presence.

All of this hints at the emergence of a new phase in how Singapore perceives itself - and how the world could appreciate it. A visit to the Singapore Discovery Centre reminds one of the first phases of Singapore's modernisation: independence, nation-building and internationalism. What must come next is leadership.

Today, Singapore is the only truly successful post-colonial nation in the world. It is also a role model as an agile entrepot in a turbulent world economy, a smart city in an age where sustainable urbanisation is the paramount priority, and a pioneering "info-state" in an era where data plays as much a role in governance as democracy.

Singapore is not immediately replicable, but that won't stop increasing swathes of the world from trying once they see its accomplishments. It is time, therefore, to reboot Singapore's brand.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong's vow to the needy; More than $90 million in Medifund aid given out in FY 2011

Medifund scheme will be strengthened to ensure aid is available to cover medical bills
By Salma Khalik, The Sunday Times, 24 Feb 2013

No Singaporeans will be denied health care because they cannot afford it, the Government vowed yesterday.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong gave that assurance as figures for the last financial year up to March 2012 showed that Medifund, the Government endowment fund to help needy citizens cover their medical bills, paid out more than its income for the first time since it was set up in 1993.

Despite the $1.8 million shortfall, Mr Gan told The Sunday Times that the Government will continue to strengthen Medifund to ensure there is enough money to help the needy - especially the elderly.

He said: "The ability to afford medical care is understandably something that may concern our elderly. We recognise this and have tried to provide our senior citizens with more peace of mind."

This is why, he said, the ministry has "given hospitals a lot of flexibility in deciding on Medifund disbursements".

He added: "This helps to ensure that those who genuinely need help are able to receive it and will not fall through the cracks, especially our elderly."

In the last financial year, the Government put $600 million into Medifund's capital sum which now stands at over $3 billion. The money given out by Medifund is the income earned on this capital sum.

Medifund received $82.4 million in earnings in that period and gave out that amount plus $2 million to health-care institutions.

These bodies approved 518,389 applications and gave out $90.8 million to patients, up from 480,869 applications which received $78.7 million the previous year. These institutions were able to pay out more to patients, thanks to Medifund money they had not used in the past.

Diners feeling the staff crunch

The dining experience has been marred by poorer service and higher food prices brought on by the manpower crunch in the food and beverage industry
By Rebecca Lynne Tan, The Sunday Times, 24 Feb 2013

Modern Singaporean restaurant Wok & Barrel will be shutting its doors for good next Sunday.

The main reason for its closure is one that ripples through the food and beverage industry: a shortage of manpower.

Staff would routinely not show up for work at Ms Shen Tan's 50-seat restaurant in Duxton Hill.

The manpower issue, coupled with other factors such as rising costs of labour and rental, has led her to call it quits.

Last December, two of her four full-time staff resigned, leaving her with just one cook in the kitchen and another running the front of house operations. Part-time service crew who did not turn up for work did not help matters either.

To cope, she would double as cook and server almost every day, running to and from the kitchen.

Ms Tan, 40, says: "I feel bad for the customer but I can't do anything about it if someone doesn't turn up for work. I am frustrated that I can't meet diners' expectations of service."

A busy night at the restaurant can look like this: irate customers waving frantically for their orders to be taken, dirty plates waiting to be cleared and empty glasses in need of topping up.

This is a common scene at many other restaurants here.

Diners who do not understand the situation become angsty and annoyed. Some even end up leaving the restaurant because of the lack of service.

The rising costs of manpower, rental and raw ingredients are also translating to higher menu prices.

While the labour crunch is perhaps the biggest headache, businesses are also grappling with increasing rents in land-scarce Singapore and paying more for ingredients, which cost more because of increasing freight charges and scarcity brought on by natural disasters, among other factors.

Restaurants bear the majority of these costs. In some instances, about 5 to 10 per cent is passed on to consumers through price increases.

Also, the fewer the number of staff, the lower the productivity, which also means restaurants do not turn tables as quickly as they would like to.

The result is worsening dining experiences and pricier meals for customers.

Restaurants that cannot cope with the labour shortage then close as a last resort.

And Ms Tan's restaurant is not the only casualty.

Others, such as Japanese restaurant group RE&S, and the TungLok Group, which runs mostly Chinese restaurants, have had to close some of their eateries because of the lack of manpower.

TungLok Group, for example, closed its Lao Beijing outlet at Tiong Bahru Plaza last December due to a "severe manpower shortage".

Singapore's food scene is becoming increasingly vibrant, with a growing number of restaurants and food and beverage outlets here.

But restaurateurs say the industry has never seen worse times.

The lack of staff, as well as the Ministry of Manpower's tightening of foreign worker dependency ratio ceilings from 50 to 45 per cent, are making it tougher for restaurants to operate.

SMEs' association critical of WP population paper

Proposal to freeze number of foreign workers 'another blow to local SMEs'
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2013

THE Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) has hit out strongly at the Workers' Party's (WP) population paper, calling it "another blow to the local SME community".

In a statement yesterday, ASME took issue with the WP's proposal to freeze foreign worker numbers at the present level and to grow the resident workforce by 1 per cent a year by attracting more women and older Singaporeans back to work.

The association pointed out that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have painfully accepted the Government's tightening of the number of foreign workers, "only to now hear that the WP proposes an even more drastic deceleration".

The proposals were among ideas in the WP's 38-page paper, issued on Saturday, which fleshes out the key arguments made by its Members of Parliament during the Population White Paper debate earlier this month.

On the WP's measures to boost the local labour force participation rate, the association said: "This is easier said than done as there is an element of mismatch between available jobs and workers' expectations."

It cited as an example mismatches in the construction and food and beverage sectors, whereby vacancies are shunned by locals because they want higher pay and more comfortable working conditions.

The association said that abrupt changes in reducing the foreign workers quota have already caused many SMEs to relocate or close down, resulting in a loss of income and jobs for Singaporeans.

Should more SMEs fail, it warned, the overall quality of life in Singapore may dip as well.

WP’s Population Policy Paper detrimental to businesses: SBF

Channel NewsAsia, 23 Feb 2013

CEO of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF), Ho Meng Kit said the proposal in Workers' Party's Population Policy Paper to keep foreign workforce constant and to rely on a one per cent growth in resident workforce has broken no new ground.

Mr Ho said the federation's position remains that a freeze in the growth of foreign workforce will be detrimental to businesses.

He added that it is too risky to bet that improvement in Labour Force Participation Rate will offset the real need for more foreign workers in some domestically oriented sectors such as construction where demand is growing.

Mr Ho said in the 2012/2013 SBF National Business Survey of a thousand of its members, mostly SMEs, 14 per cent of those surveyed said that they are considering relocating out of Singapore, as a result of the government's policy to tighten foreign workers in 2012.

As for manufacturing companies, the proportion is 28 per cent.

Mr Ho said the Workers' Party's proposal tightens foreign workforce further and this could have serious impact on jobs and the well-being of Singaporeans.

WP releases own population paper

Counterproposal puts focus on raising total fertility rate and resident labour force participation rate
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 24 Feb 2013

The Workers' Party (WP) yesterday issued its population paper as a counterproposal to the Government's.

It criticised what it called the Population White Paper's model of immigration-driven growth, and said that the focus should instead be on raising the total fertility rate (TFR) and the resident labour force participation rate.

The 38-page document, titled A Dynamic Population For A Sustainable Singapore, fleshes out points made by the nine WP MPs during this month's parliamentary debate on the White Paper, which they also voted against.

WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang said in a statement that the party hoped the paper "will enable Singaporeans to better understand the rationale and computations behind WP's proposals".

The paper argues that the best way to maintain a Singaporean core is by raising fertility rather than relying on new citizens. The WP has proposed taking in 10,000 new citizens a year compared to the Government's 15,000 to 25,000.

It believes that in granting citizenship, priority should be given to non-citizen spouses of Singaporeans. Its figure of 10,000 new citizens a year is based on a trend of more such marriages, which numbered more than 9,000 in 2011.

CDCs to create platforms to integrate existing and new citizens

By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 23 Feb 2013

Singapore's Community Development Councils (CDCs) plan to create platforms for new and existing citizens to come together to forge friendships.

The aim is also for them to have a better appreciation and understanding of one another.

In an interview with Channel NewsAsia, Dr Amy Khor, who is the Coordinating Mayor of the five CDCs, said one way will be to create interest groups that all would be keen to take part in.

The topic of integration has been in the air recently, especially during the debate on the White Paper on Population.

Sharing some of his experiences, North West CDC Mayor, Dr Teo Ho Pin said interest groups have been a successful way to integrate existing and new citizens.

Dr Teo said: "A very good example is brisk walking. The spin-off from there is once you provide a platform, a sustainable platform, where people can come together on a regular basis they will develop friendships and there will be bonding."

Central Singapore CDC Mayor Sam Tan added that Singaporeans have been forthcoming in welcoming their new friends. 

Mr Tan said: "Singaporeans actually are very generous and warm at heart, although some of us may not be expressive in expressing our warmth toward new comers and foreigners. But if you have time and when people work together on a certain meaningful project, you actually discover a lot of Singaporeans are actually kind hearted and they can be quite warm to other people."

Sunday 24 February 2013

From covert vigilantism to communal vigilance

By Carol Soon, Published The Straits Times, 23 Feb 2013

THE recent tragic deaths of two young brothers involved in a road accident in Tampines triggered an avalanche of online responses, which is to be expected these days. The responses ranged from deep sympathy for the boys and their family to outrageous claims and accusations. Sadly too, graphic photos of the victims were thoughtlessly circulated.

The insensitivity and callousness of some online outbursts led to an immediate response - voicing opprobrium - from the Prime Minister, several MPs, academics and the public.

Although new technologies and social media give voice to the voiceless and help "level" the communication landscape, the ugly side of the Internet rears up whenever complete lack of civility and decorum occur online. What is more, people can be uncivil anonymously, without bearing any responsibilities that go with such actions.

Although uncivil behaviour, propelled either by sheer ignorance or a deliberate intent to provoke, is not unique to cyberspace, the ubiquity of high-tech communication devices and high-bandwidth connections have exacerbated the reach and effects of such acts on an unanticipated scale.

Circle of Care: New pre-school scheme to help the disadvantaged

By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 23 Feb 2013

CHILDREN of disadvantaged families will have access to high-quality pre-schooling under a scheme that aims to close the gap between them and better-off pupils.

They will be monitored by a social worker and educational therapist as part of the Circle of Care programme, started by a local philanthropic group and a welfare organisation.

This will allow staff to identify problems and address them quickly - meaning families who need help are spared the lengthy process of dealing with various organisations and agencies.

The programme will be run at two centres operated by Care Corner, with the help of $1.8 million pledged over four years by the Lien Foundation. It aims to be up and running by next month.

At the moment, children and families who need additional help sometimes face an uphill struggle.

Problems that are often multifaceted have to be identified by a social worker or pre-school teacher. The family will then be directed to various centres run by government agencies and welfare organisations.

Care Corner chief executive officer Yap Poh Kheng said the new scheme will streamline the process by making help available at the project, which will be run in Leng Kee and Admiralty.

"Let's say a pre-school teacher notices that a child is overly anxious," he said. "She can bring in the social worker who will go and meet the families, investigate the matter further and bring together different aspects of help and care. These could range from educational therapy to nutrition, counselling and financial aid."

Lien Foundation officials said various studies show high-quality early education provides a good foundation for academic achievement later on.

27 sites ordered to stop work

Firms also fined over $350,000 after safety inspections beefed up
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 23 Feb 2013

TWENTY-SEVEN sites were slapped with stop-work orders after workplace safety and health inspectors stepped up checks late last year.

Firms were also given fines totalling more than $350,000 by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Targeted at the construction industry, the inspections - jointly dubbed Operation Talon - covered 529 worksites run by 378 firms.

The blitz came in a year which registered several high-profile accidents, such as a scaffolding collapse at the Bugis Downtown Line site that killed two people and the tilting of an oil rig in Jurong Shipyard which injured 89 workers.

The ministry ramped up safety inspections from August last year. But so far this year, eight workers have died in work accidents, compared with seven in the same period last year.

Operation Talon dished out 1,093 fines and notices of non-compliance, or warnings, with the most common lapses involving working at heights.

Measuring cost-of-living changes: MTI replies

THE article ("Poorest households hardest hit by inflation", Feb 6) noted that if imputed rentals on owner-occupied accommodation (OOA) are excluded from the Consumer Price Index (CPI), inflation for lower-income households last year would be lower than that for other groups.

However, the article also cited views that "CPI-All Items" provides a better picture of cost-of-living changes than the measure excluding imputed rentals on OOA, since rentals and mortgages are significant expenditures. Allow us to clarify.

First, rentals paid by tenants are separate from imputed rentals on OOA, and are fully reflected in both the CPI indices.

Second, imputed rentals are not a good reflection of mortgage payments. As housing market cycles and interest rate cycles can differ significantly, the trend in imputed rentals often deviates from that in mortgage payments. For example, while rental costs have increased, mortgage interest rates have remained low in recent years.

The measurement of the cost of OOA is internationally recognised as the most difficult aspect of measuring CPI.

While measuring accommodation costs of rented homes is straightforward, home owners do not pay rent and, thus, their housing consumption is unobserved.

To address this, statisticians have developed several methods to measure the cost of OOA. Each has its pros and cons.

Singapore uses market rentals of similar homes as a proxy for the costs of OOA.

However, because our rental market has seen significant fluctuations, the methodology results in a highly cyclical CPI. The fluctuations in imputed rentals do not reflect the actual expenditure of owner-occupiers, who in Singapore comprise the large majority of households.

This is why the Department of Statistics also compiles the alternate measure of "CPI less imputed rentals on OOA", which relates more directly to households' actual cash spending.

Several other countries do likewise. In Britain, the CPI excludes OOA, while the Retail Prices Index includes it. Some other European countries exclude OOA altogether from the CPI.

An alternative measure of OOA is based on mortgage payments. However, mortgage payments reflect both the investment value of a home and its consumption cost.

Separating the investment component, which is not part of the CPI, from the cost of consumption is a difficult matter, involving onerous data requirements. Few countries have chosen this approach.

We are continuing to review the measurement of OOA in the light of these considerations, including possible ways to minimise the cyclical component of imputed rentals that has no bearing on actual expenditures.

Cindy Keng (Mrs)
Director, Corporate Communications Division
Ministry of Trade and Industry