Wednesday, 27 February 2013

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.

Excluding minors, eight in 10 new citizens who took the oath last year had lived in Singapore for more than five years, while five in 10 had been here for more than a decade, Ms Fu said.

She was responding to questions on citizenship and permanent resident applications by Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC), Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Dr Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC).

To Dr Neo, who felt that only those contributing to society and "not draining our limited resources" should become new citizens, Ms Fu gave assurances that a set of selection criteria is in place.

She assured Mr Ong that citizenships are not granted to people before they start living here. But exceptions are made for some dependants, she said.

"These are all considered as a family unit and, from time to time, their children, their wives, their parents may be granted Singapore citizenship before they have a long extended period of stay in Singapore."

Ms Fu also revealed that 4,100 new citizens a year were foreign spouses sponsored by Singaporeans, while another 4,100 spouses became permanent residents. These figures are averaged over 2008 to last year. The bulk were foreign wives of Singaporean husbands - nine in 10 for new citizens and eight in 10 for permanent residents.

Rejections made up 10 per cent of applications for citizenship, or 580 a year, but slightly more than half of applications for PRs - or 4,400 a year.

Mr Baey was concerned for these Singaporeans whose spouses do not meet the conditions to stay on as PRs.

"Are they expected to migrate, leave Singapore or maybe they shouldn't marry a foreigner in the first place?" he asked.

Ms Fu acknowledged the difficulty that comes with matters of the heart, like marriage, but added: "Hard as it may be, we need to have certain rules.

"We have to make sure that the immigrants that we take in do not strain our financial resources and also... have a very good chance of assimilating into our society."

She added that the spouses still get long-term social visit passes to stay on and, over time, if the Singaporean partner is able to support his family and the marriage is stable, their chances of approval are higher than that of those without family nor children.

MPs fret over heavy vehicles
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 26 Feb 2013

IT WAS a tragedy that moved the country: the death of a pair of young siblings in a horrific accident in Tampines in January involving a cement-mixer truck.

Yesterday, no fewer than three Members of Parliament spoke up about the dangers of having such heavy vehicles run through residential estates.

Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) reiterated his call for the authorities to review an existing ban on cement-mixer trucks using expressways instead.

He said trucks could bypass the area where the Tampines accident happened, but must then ply a stretch of Tampines Expressway.

Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC) was worried for Yew Tee residents in his ward: Heavy vehicles that have only one direct route - Choa Chu Kang Way - to Sungei Kadut industrial estate often pass by the housing estate at high speeds, he said.

Accidents have occurred monthly in the past two years, including one he witnessed himself.

Mr Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio GRC) also complained of "convoluted" discussions involving different government agencies over heavy vehicles going to and from a housing project next to a primary school in his ward, and asked the ministry to coordinate.

Parliamentary Secretary for Transport and Health Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said that the authorities plan roads to keep industrial traffic away from residential areas and, where they cannot, work out a route to steer heavy vehicles away from high pedestrian traffic areas.

A review of traffic safety measures around schools is on the cards, Dr Faishal added.

He assured Mr Ang that the authorities will improve on taking a whole-of-government approach, and offered to work with the MPs to make roads safer.

Debates on foreign workers 'cause for concern'
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 26 Feb 2013

THE recent debates here about tightening foreign manpower and slowing down Singapore's economic growth may give foreign firms here a wrong impression and are a "cause for concern", warned Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang.

But the economic agencies continue to track by sectors the foreign companies that are moving out, downsizing and retrenching workers, he said.

He was assuring Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), who was worried about Singapore's business and political risks with tighter manpower policies, a slowdown in economic growth projections and "recent developments on the political front".

Nominated MP Tan Su Shan also asked if the Government kept track of companies moving out of Singapore.

Earlier this month, nine foreign chambers of commerce here protested against tighter curbs on foreign labour, while Second Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran said many businesses talked about relocating.

Mr Lim said Singapore has been ranked first among 50 countries in the Business Environment Risk Intelligence (Beri) benchmark for business and political risk from 2010 to last year, and a close second to Switzerland in the preceding two years.

In a separate Beri index for political risk, Singapore ranked first for five years up to last year.

However, these benchmarks assess the situation up to the present, and not beyond, he acknowledged.

On their part, agencies such as the Economic Development Board collect anecdotal evidence from discussions with companies, embassies and business groups, as well as track media reports and analysts' assessments.

But Mr Lim said ongoing internal debates may give the wrong idea.

"So we're very watchful and continue to monitor this very carefully," he said.

Scheme has helped more than 25,000 older workers
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 26 Feb 2013

MORE than 25,000 workers have benefited from a scheme which helps companies provide a more worker-friendly environment for older staff.

The Advantage! initiative has provided $57 million to help some 3,500 firms recruit and retain employees aged 40 and above since its launch in 2005, said Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor.

Close to half the funds - $24 million - went towards redesigning jobs to keep older workers employed and more productive.

On average, each company was given $16,000.

The Advantage! scheme is run by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, a statutory board under the Manpower Ministry.

Dr Khor was responding to Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC), who asked for details on the amount of funding that companies have received through Advantage! and two funds that help businesses to introduce flexi-work arrangements - Work-Life Works! (WoW!) and Flexi-Works!

He also asked what the Manpower Ministry plans to do to get more companies to tap these programmes.

Dr Khor said the ministry will enhance the three schemes and that more details will be announced at the Committee of Supply debates next month.

She added that employers must also do their part to "create more progressive workplaces to attract and retain locals".

One beneficiary of the Advantage! scheme is voluntary welfare organisation St Luke's ElderCare, which provides day care and rehabilitation services for the aged. It used the funding of more than $120,000 to buy equipment such as motorised wheelchair lifters and back braces to prevent older staff from getting hurt and make their jobs less physically taxing.

Its chief operating officer, Dr Kenny Tan, said these measures have "translated to greater staff satisfaction and higher retention rates" among older workers.

Of its 156 staff members, close to 60 are Singaporeans aged 55 and above.

The Manpower Ministry told The Straits Times that the grants given under the Advantage! scheme ranged from $10,000 to $400,000, based on factors such as the number of workers who benefited.

Dr Khor also said that about 860 companies had received more than $15 million of funding through WoW!

Flexi-Works! has provided grants of more than $3.9 million to over 360 firms and helped more than 3,500 residents to find jobs with flexi-work arrangements.

Residents play vital part in dengue fight
By Melissa Pang, The Straits Times, 26 Feb 2013

RESIDENTS may go for holidays but mosquitoes do not take a break from breeding in their absence.

Uncovered toilet bowls and gully traps as well as roof gutters that have not been cleared are some ways mosquitoes exercise "creativity" in finding new breeding spots.

The Minister for the Environment and Water Resources cited this as an example of the importance of individual and collective efforts to fight dengue.

Responding to a question from Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said a change in the predominant dengue virus serotype is one factor behind the latest epidemic.

There are four strains of the dengue virus. When a person is hit by one, he develops immunity only to that and remains vulnerable to the other three.

Hence, a change in the predominant virus serotype increases the chances of an epidemic as the population has lower immunity against the new strain.

In 2005, for instance, Singapore experienced its worst dengue outbreak when the predominant serotype switched from Den-2 to Den-1.

Two years later, a smaller outbreak occurred when the reverse happened.

In 2005, there were 14,209 dengue cases and 25 deaths.

In 2007, 8,826 people came down with dengue and 20 died.

In the last two months, more cases of the Den-1 and Den-3 strains have emerged. "This potential change in the serotype has contributed to this latest spike in dengue cases," said Dr Balakrishnan.

About 1,800 people have been diagnosed with the illness this year, compared to fewer than 600 in the same period last year.

Replying to Mr Yee's question on what is being done to counter the threat, particularly in the hot spots in Telok Kurau and East Coast Road, he said the National Environment Agency has been working closely with local grassroots groups to educate residents on what to do.

Inspections have been stepped up under an inter-agency task force which looks for breeding sites in public outdoor spaces.

Last year, 900 mosquito- breeding offences were detected in construction sites, of which 626 were first-time offences.

As of yesterday, there were 33 active dengue clusters.

The Poh Huat and Park Villas vicinity - the worst-hit cluster - had 72 cases in all.

At Terrasse Lane alone, there were 29 cases.

Dengue symptoms include sudden fever, aching joints, headaches, rash and nausea.

More subjects to choose from, so fewer take pure literature
By Stacey Chia, The Straits Times, 26 Feb 2013

FEWER students are taking pure literature as a subject at the O levels because of the availability of more subject options.

The perception that it is difficult to do well in literature is also another factor, said Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law and Education.

She was responding to questions from Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh on the huge drop in O-level pure literature candidates.

Only about 3,000 students took the subject last year, versus 16,970 in 1992.

Ms Indranee said the decline needs to be understood in the context of "an education system responsive to a changing social context" and which has offered more choices over time.

The main reason for the drop in students taking pure literature, as well as geography and history, is linked to the introduction of Combined Humanities as a subject in 2001, she added. For this compulsory subject, students take social studies and choose from elective versions of geography, history or literature.

They can also choose a second humanities subject different from the elective component. Over the years, subjects such as drama, physical education, computing and economics have also been introduced for students to choose from.

Data from the Ministry of Education shows that, contrary to popular belief, "performance in O-level literature has been consistently good".

Ms Indranee said there has been a slight upward trend in the pass rate of pure literature, from 90 per cent in 2002 to 95 per cent last year. More students are scoring distinction grades - from 35 per cent to 40 per cent in the same period.

Ms Koh also asked if the emphasis on academic achievements has led to schools discouraging students "from taking up softer subjects like the humanities".

Ms Indranee's response was that "even if you take literature, there's an academic grade attached to it". While she hopes that schools are not putting pressure on students regarding what subjects to take or drop, she noted that the system allows the students to choose.

Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Yee Jenn Jong asked if the smaller number of students taking literature has led to a shortage of literature teachers. Ms Indranee said there are enough teachers but the ministry will boost the pool if needed.

Separately, in a written response to Ms Koh, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said the number of students taking pure geography and history had also fallen between 2001 and last year.

471 takers for HDB's Lease Buyback Scheme

THE HDB's Lease Buyback Scheme, which lets the elderly unlock the value of their flats, has yet to gain traction since it was enhanced on Feb 1. In all, 471 households have taken it up, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in his written answer yesterday to Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC). This is slightly higher than the 466 families reported in December last year, since the scheme's launch in 2009.

Fewer families with HDB loans in arrears

THE proportion of households with HDB loans in arrears of three months or more has dipped in the past three years - from 6 per cent at the end of 2010 to 5.2 per cent last year. The number of cases in arrears fell from 22,900 to 18,000 over the same period, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in his written answer to Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC).

More spent to combat gambling addiction

SPENDING to combat gaming addiction rose from $3.8 million in 2009 to about $10 million in the latest financial year ending next month, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in a written answer to Nominated MP Mary Liew. He said revenue from betting and sweepstake duties was $1.5 billion for the nine months to December last year, and $2.2 billion in the preceding full financial year.

'High' take-up rate for productivity credit

OVER half of all active firms with at least one employee have claimed the Productivity and Innovation Credit, which gives them tax benefits to innovate and be more productive. That translates to about 34,000 firms. The take-up rate was "also high" for those with a turnover of $10 million or less, said DPM Tharman in his written answer to Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC).

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