Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Parliament Highlights - 4 Feb 2013 - Debate on the Population White Paper Day 1

White Paper to ensure a good quality of life, says DPM Teo
By Teo XuanWei, TODAY, 5 Feb 2013

Seeking to tackle the questions on Singaporeans’ minds since the White Paper was released last week — such as whether Singaporeans would end up becoming strangers in an overcrowded home, and whether the Government was pursuing growth at all costs, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean reiterated yesterday that the aim of the exercise is to benefit Singaporeans and ensure a good quality of life.

Kicking off the debate in Parliament on the White Paper, Mr Teo, who is also Minister-in-charge of the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD), stressed that the projected population range was “only to prepare infrastructure plans”.

“It is the ability to meet the needs of Singaporeans and provide a good quality of life that is the driver, not the numbers per se,” said Mr Teo. “If we are able to achieve this with a smaller population, whether 6.5 million or perhaps even lower, there is no reason to go higher.”

The White Paper projects a population of between 6.5 and 6.9 million by 2030.

Mr Teo also said the population projections were to give “decision makers sufficient capacity and flexibility” to plan for infrastructure that could take years to plan and build.

Mr Teo asserted that the ageing and shrinking citizen population was an issue “we need to deal with now”: In just 18 years, the proportion of citizens over age 65 will jump from 7 to 14 per cent; as compared to the 24 years it took in Japan, for example, he said.

He also cited how a shrinking working adult to retired elderly ratio would not only mean higher taxes and fewer job and career opportunities as business activity thins out, but could also see young Singaporeans heading overseas for greener pastures.

To prevent such scenarios here, Singapore will need to “augment” its population with new citizens and Permanent Residents (PRs), said Mr Teo, although he added that the “best and most fundamental way (to sustain our Singaporean population) is to encourage Singaporeans to start families”.

Noting the concerns that Singaporeans will feel like strangers in their own land, Mr Teo said the Government has significantly lowered its PR intake in the last three years. The number of new PRs will be maintained at between 0.5 and 0.6 million, he added, even as the Government keeps up efforts to encourage and help new citizens to integrate into society and become “more like us over time”.

On scepticism over whether the Government was “pro-Singaporean or pro-foreigner”, Mr Teo pointed out that the imported manpower is brought in “to support Singaporeans’ needs”. The majority of these foreigners will do lower-skilled jobs that Singaporeans shun and provide services that they need — such as healthcare, domestic services, construction, and cleaning — as opposed to the expected two-thirds of Singaporeans taking up PMET jobs by 2030.

Turning to the 2 to 3 per cent economic growth target from 2020 to 2030, Mr Teo noted that it was less than half of the 5.6-per-cent average annual growth which Singapore had in the 2000s.

“So we are certainly not pursuing growth at all costs, as some have mistakenly claimed. Instead, we have set our sights on high-quality, productivity-driven, sustainable growth that will help to create good jobs, raise wages and improve the lives of Singaporeans,” he said.

White Paper 'is for Singaporeans' benefit'
DPM Teo: Proposals are not aimed at growth at all cost or pro-foreigner
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

DAYS after it sparked heated debate, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday sought to refocus on the core aim of the White Paper on Population: that all its plans are purely to benefit Singaporeans.

Contrary to claims that it is pro-foreigner, or meant to pursue growth at all cost, he said that the proposals in the controversial paper are driven by the need to provide Singaporeans with a good quality of life, and seek to balance Singapore's future needs and constraints in housing, population, infrastructure and foreign workers.

The proposals mark a significant slowdown in workforce and population growth from the past, and are not about deciding on what the population size must be in 2030, he said, as the Government actually hopes that it will not need to reach 6.9 million.

The document and the accompanying land use report have triggered many negative reactions since their release last week, as Singaporeans worried aloud about the figure of a 6.9 million population in 2030, and the continued open policy towards foreigners.

Yesterday, eight MPs rose to speak, and many made a similar plea that policies must not dilute the Singaporean core, and that economic growth must benefit Singaporeans.

The Workers' Party opposed the motion. Party chairman and Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim countered with a proposal of its own that would allow for a slower- growing population to reach 5.9 million in 2030 instead.

Ms Lim said: "The well-being of Singaporeans, our quality of life and our very identity will be put at peril under the Government's proposal. Is it worth it?"

With an impassioned debate set to take place over the next four days, DPM Teo chose to highlight two points to allay concerns.

The first is that the population projections mark a "major shift" as there will be a significant slowdown in population and workforce growth from the past.

The labour force growth rate is being halved from the average rate of the past 30 years, to between 1 per cent and 2 per cent a year till 2020, and to 1 per cent till 2030.

The second point is that the Government is not deciding that Singapore will have a population of 6.9 million by 2030.

It is setting parameters to be able to build infrastructure ahead of time to avoid the problems Singapore now faces from under-providing. What the actual population will be in 2030 will depend on Singaporeans' needs, and decisions on economic and workforce policy along the way, he said.

With restructuring and productivity gains, Singaporeans living healthier and longer and therefore choosing to remain in the workforce longer, and more women joining the workforce, the Government hopes the population will not reach 6.9 million.

DPM Teo also rebutted criticisms that the policies were overly focused on foreigners.

The proposals are first and foremost to stabilise and sustain the Singaporean population, with a careful balance of parenthood measures and a controlled number of new citizens. This will be complemented by foreigners, most of whom will be on work permits, doing jobs that Singaporeans do not want to do.

He concluded by sketching out what life could be like in 2030, with good opportunities, higher skills and a better living environment. "Let's strive together to realise the 'Singapore promise' - a better life, a better tomorrow, for Singaporeans of all ages," he said.

Most foreigners will be supporting citizens, says DPM Teo
Teo Chee Hean addresses concerns about foreigner numbers in 2030

By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

MOST non-resident foreigners in future will be on work permits, doing jobs and providing services that Singapore needs but which Singaporeans do not want to do themselves.

These foreigners - who are expected to make up about 45per cent of the population in 2030 - are necessary to support citizens' needs, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said yesterday.

"For example, we expect to need significantly more health-care, eldercare and domestic services workers to support our ageing population and working families," said Mr Teo, who oversees population matters.

These workers also build homes, transport infrastructure like rail lines and roads, and keep housing estates clean.

He added: "They thus enable Singaporeans to enjoy good social and municipal services while moderating the cost of these services, contribute to our quality of life, and allow more Singaporeans to be in the workforce."

As citizens become better-educated, they will have higher job aspirations and foreign work pass holders will be needed to fill up more lower-skilled jobs, he told the House at the opening of the week-long debate on the White Paper on Population.

The number of Singaporeans in lower-skilled jobs is predicted to fall by 200,000 by 2030.

The White Paper, released last week, projects that there will be 2.3 million to 2.5 million non-residents at that time, up from about 1.5 million today.

Those figures, coupled with the projection of the total population rising from 5.3 million today to between 6.5 and 6.9 million by 2030, have sparked concerns that the overall approach was pro-foreigner.

Addressing such worries, DPM Teo said the number of foreign workers will be controlled and the overall growth rate in their inflow will be "significantly reduced" in the coming years. "Industries currently dependent on foreign workers will have to learn to do more with less," he said.

Those on work passes are also in Singapore during their productive years and will return to their home countries, he added.

"Hence, they help boost our ratio of working persons to retirees, but do not add to our retiree population. We are also able to adjust the numbers and types of foreign workers flexibly, depending on our changing needs," he said.

He pointed out that foreigners, with their diverse skills and backgrounds, also bring benefits.

They can help companies expand to regional and international markets, set up regional headquarters here, or kick-start new high value-added sectors.

These new activities will provide more good job opportunities which citizens can eventually take up, he said.

Turning to the country's ageing population conundrum, he said the dependency ratio of working persons for each retiree will fall to just 2.1 in future.

In 2011, there were seven working adults supporting one retiree.

But, by supplementing the core workforce with foreign workers, Singapore can keep the ratio at about four in 2030, similar to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average today.

DPM Teo also acknowledged some Singaporeans' concerns that there are jobs which they want, but which are going to foreigners.

It is a fine balance, the minister said. To create jobs, companies may need to supplement their workforce with foreigners.

But the Government will ensure that Singaporeans "benefit from the good jobs", he said.

He added that the Ministry of Manpower will address some of these concerns later in the debate.

We have been asked by many why we even need to do this. It would be easier and less controversial to ignore our demographic challenge, and avoid dealing with it. But we believe in giving Singaporeans the full picture. It is more responsible to surface the issues and plan ahead while we are able to do so.
- DPM Teo 

Why maintaining stable core population is crucial to Singapore
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

AN AGEING and shrinking population could mean that workers will have to pay higher taxes to fund subsidised health care for a large number of seniors, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said.

Business activity could also slow down with less investment in new sectors and fewer job opportunities, he warned.

Hence, maintaining a sustainable and stable Singaporean population is the "first and most important part" of the Population White Paper, he said yesterday.

Mr Teo made these cautionary points when explaining why the problem of an ageing society needed urgent attention.

"Young Singaporeans may decide to leave for more exciting opportunities in other growing cities. This would hollow out our population and workforce.

"This is a real worry for parents, too, who wonder whether their children will go abroad in search of better opportunities, and they will be left alone here during their silver years," he told Parliament when introducing the White Paper for debate.

Mr Teo noted that between now and 2030, more than 900,000 Baby Boomers - or more than a quarter of the citizen population now - will enter their silver years. By 2025, the citizen population will start to shrink if nothing is done.

The total fertility rate of 1.2 means that for every 100 Singaporeans in this generation, there will be 60 Singaporeans in the next generation, and only 36 in the following generation.

"This threatens the sustainability of our Singaporean core population," said the DPM.

The ratio of working-age citizens to each citizen aged 65 and older will also fall, from 5.9 now to 2.1 by 2030.

"The issue is indeed upon us, and is an issue we need to deal with now," he said.

If no decisive action is taken, Mr Teo warned, Singapore could fare worse than Japan, which became an aged population in 24 years. This was faster than Italy's 61 years, Sweden's 85 years, and France's 115 years. Singapore will take just 18 years.

The best and most fundamental way is to encourage Singaporeans to start families, but new citizens and permanent residents are also needed, he said.

He estimated that taking in between 15,000 and 25,000 new citizens a year would keep Singapore's citizen core population stable and sustainable.

This core population will then hold steady at around 3.6 million to 3.8 million in 2030, just like if Singaporeans had replaced themselves fully and had a 2.1 total fertility rate.

If 30,000 people are given permanent resident status a year, the permanent resident population will stay stable at between 500,000 and 600,000.

But at current birth rates with no immigration, the Singaporean core will shrink sharply below today's 3.3 million, he warned.

Many have also asked why the Government chose to table the White Paper, attracting criticism for projecting the population to rise up to 6.9 million by 2030.

The country, said DPM Teo, was at an "important turning point" where the citizen population will begin ageing rapidly and shrinking if nothing was done.

It would be easier and less controversial to ignore the demographic challenge.

"But we believe in giving Singaporeans the full picture. It is more responsible to surface the issues and plan ahead while we are able to do so," he said.

As the White Paper was being drafted, the Government worked closely with planning and infrastructure agencies to make sure that it could maintain a high quality living environment.

To address the immediate concerns of Singaporeans about over-crowdedness, it has stepped up development of public transport and housing to ease shortages, he added.

For example, about 800 new buses will be put on the road over five years, and more trains will be added to reduce waiting time during the peak hours.

Mr Teo ended his speech with a peek into what life would be like in Singapore for Singaporeans by 2030.

"You will have good quality jobs and opportunities, have access to services to support your family needs, and enjoy a high quality living environment.

"Let's strive together to realise the 'Singapore promise' - a better life, a better tomorrow, for Singaporeans of all ages," he said.

Govt 'not pursuing growth at all cost'
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

DEPUTY Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean stated unequivocally yesterday that the Government was not pursuing growth at all cost and just importing foreign workers to drive the growth.

Instead, it was seeking growth that would create good jobs, raise wages and improve the lives of Singaporeans, he said.

Mr Teo cited two scenarios eschewed by the Government.

One is to freeze the foreign workforce numbers at the current level.

Such a move will hurt businesses, investments and jobs. For instance, if it was done last year, the economy would have lost $16 billion worth of new foreign investments that would create 18,600 skilled jobs.

Also, there will be fewer workers to do the jobs that many Singaporeans shun, such as in construction, cleaning and caring for elderly parents or young children.

The other scenario is to continue to increase the foreign worker numbers as quickly as before. This would push the population well beyond 6.9 million and Singapore's physical capacity by 2030.

"Neither of these extreme scenarios leads to desirable outcomes... This is why the White Paper has sought to strike a careful balance in terms of workforce growth," said Mr Teo.

"We are proposing a significant change of gears in our development trajectory."

The White Paper proposes halving total workforce growth to 1 to 2 per cent a year for the next decade, and then down to about 1 per cent a year after that.

Productivity growth will be sustained initially at 2 to 3 per cent a year, before moderating to 1 to 2 per cent a year.

Gross domestic product growth may then average 3 to 4 per cent a year up to 2020, and between 2 and 3 per cent in the following decade up to 2030.

The 2 to 3 per cent range converges with mature economies and is less than half of Singapore's 5.6 per cent average annual growth in the 2000s.

Mr Teo said: "So we are certainly not pursuing growth at all costs, as some have mistakenly claimed.

"Instead, we have set our sights on high-quality, productivity-driven, sustainable growth that will help to create good jobs, raise wages and improve the lives of Singaporeans."

Citizens must feel benefits of growth: MPs
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

PAP MPs yesterday supported the Population White Paper, but urged the Government to ensure that the benefits from its growth strategy are more tangibly felt by citizens.

"The Government must illustrate clearly how, as a result of the population policies, an intended objective is to create better job opportunities and higher salaries for Singaporeans," said Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), who opened the debate.

"And then make it happen."

Singapore's high global rankings "must translate to better lives for Singaporeans", emphasised Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).

"They cannot be rankings in the abstract."

Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC) lamented that the dire consequences of a shrinking workforce and ageing population were not more apparent to Singaporeans.

He pointed out that the country is "finished" if harsh labour restrictions lead to a "twin exodus" of small and medium-sized enterprises and multinational corporations.

To make the White Paper's prescriptions more acceptable to Singaporeans, he said, housing prices - a bugbear for many citizens - must be curbed further.

Mr de Souza concurred, and asked the Government to adopt the Australian model of allowing foreigners to sell their properties only to locals, thereby preventing cash-rich foreigners from controlling the direction of the property market.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) and Mr Seng Han Thong (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said the Government must take more care and time to explain the White Paper's rationale to Singaporeans, with Ms Foo noting that alternative scenarios - and their consequences - should be made public.

By doing so, Singaporeans can understand the costs and benefits of each alternative, and feel they have "genuinely participated in the national debate and been part of the decision-making process".

"This sense is not offered by the White Paper," she noted.

In adding new citizens to the Singaporean core, Mr Seng and Mr Fong wanted to see foreign spouses of Singaporeans have the first bite of the cherry.

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) also lobbied for this.

Permanent residents with spouses and children who are citizens, they noted, are best placed to integrate into local society.


WP rejects road map, offers its own
It proposes lower growth targets, upper-end 5.9m population by 2030

By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

THE Workers' Party (WP) opposes the Population White Paper because its road map will dilute national identity and shrink the ranks of born-and-bred Singaporeans to a minority, said party chairman Sylvia Lim yesterday.

Setting the agenda of the WP's nine MPs for the parliamentary debate, Ms Lim charged that the Government has its priorities the wrong way around in aiming for economic growth targets and using the population to get there.

"While we accept that trade- offs have to be made, we believe such trade-offs should be made in favour of the well-being of Singaporeans and not GDP targets," said Ms Lim, on the first day of the debate.

The WP is proposing an alternative approach of an upper-bound population size of 5.9 million by 2030, and economic growth targets of 2.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent annually from now until 2020, and 1.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent annually from 2020 to 2030.

This is about 0.5 to 1 percentage point less than the White Paper's, and will be achieved largely through productivity improvements and more foreign spouses, homemakers and senior citizens in the workforce, she said.

Ms Lim zeroed in on the White Paper's goal to have a "strong Singaporean core" at the heart of the population, arguing that it is an empty one given that the number of Singaporeans is projected to fall to 55 per cent of the population in 2030, from the current 62 per cent.

In fact, she noted, this percentage includes new citizens who, while making good economic contributions, "see Singapore through a different lens, and can equally make a decision to leave if the circumstances change".

"Instant citizens can be Singaporean in name and have all citizenship rights, but for the Singapore core to be strong, the core must be strongly Singaporean in values, world view, culture, sense of place and history, and network of friends and family," she said.

Hence, a real Singaporean core must be made up of those who "grew up in and with Singapore".

Under the proposed road map, indigenous Singaporeans will be a minority, a demographic outcome that will "change the character of Singapore forever", she warned.

The best way to boost the Singaporean core, she said, is to do more to raise the total fertility rate (TFR) but the Government's efforts in this area have been "half-hearted", as it believes "immigration top-ups" remain its key population strategy.

She compared its seemingly "resigned" attitude towards the low TFR to that of countries like South Korea, where a committed approach to removing the institutional and structural obstacles to childbearing has been taken.

Later, WP MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap (Aljunied GRC) expanded on the point, saying the Government should "lead the way through action and legislation" on work-life balance and flexi-work arrangements. He pointed to high housing prices as a reason for young couples' reluctance to start families, and said there is a global correlation between low fertility rates and population density.

As for the ageing population, Ms Lim said that senior citizens "may not be as much of a burden as the Government makes out".

A key premise of the White Paper is that by 2030, there will be only 2.1 working citizens to support each person who is 65 and above, down from 5.9 now.

But this ignores the possibility that many senior citizens may have their own economic resources and be able to work until they are much older, she noted.

In a parting shot, Ms Lim concluded that the White Paper's title, "A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore", illustrated its muddled priorities.

In the WP's view, it should be "A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore", she said.

Concern that Malay proportion will shrink
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

TWO Malay MPs expressed concern yesterday that the Malay-Muslim share of the population will shrink along with the size of the Singaporean core.

Speaking on the first day of the parliamentary debate on the White Paper, People's Action Party (PAP) MP Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said that "a common feeling among the Malay-Muslim community is that a decrease in our population will affect racial stability and interracial relations in Singapore".

She urged the Government to try harder to attract Malay graduates and professionals from Malaysia and Indonesia to become Singapore permanent residents (PRs) or new citizens.

It should also share information on the type of immigrants of Malay origin in Singapore, as well as the measures it takes to attract more of them here, to assure the community, she added.

The Malay share of the population has decreased slightly over time, from 14.1 per cent in 1990, to 13.9 per cent in 2000, to 13.4 per cent in the latest census in 2010.

This is despite the Malays' total fertility rate (TFR) outstripping that of the other ethnic groups. In 2011, the TFR among Malays was about 1.6, compared with 1.1 for the Chinese and Indians.

Statistics on the racial breakdown of PRs here are not available, but of the half a million PRs, only 5.5 per cent are Muslim.

Workers' Party (WP) MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap (Aljunied GRC) said he was concerned that the ethnic group's share was falling due to a large number of local Malays emigrating and renouncing their citizenship. A big reason they do so is that they perceive a lack of equal opportunities for them here, he said.

He pointed to the under-representation of Malays in public universities and in top positions in the Singapore Armed Forces as reasons why "the issue of equity is still lingering in the minds of the Malays".

'Instil confidence that Govt is for the people'
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

THE need to instil in Singaporeans the confidence that political leaders have their interests at heart, whatever the circumstances, was underlined by Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) yesterday.

To him, re-looking the People's Action Party's long-held view of self-reliance may help.

The first of eight MPs to speak on the Population White Paper, he said: "We must give greater security to Singaporeans for them to feel that whatever hand life deals them, the government of the day is for them."

Presently, this means the needy must continue to be subsidised and infrastructure built ahead of demand, to avoid the bottlenecks that plague the country today.

But in the future, with the prospect of the well-heeled entrenching themselves and making it harder for the less well-off to move up the social ladder, the Government must ensure more is done for the poor and needy. The ruling party, he suggested, has to examine its long-held "bias" against welfarism, and see if this can fit into the Singapore of the future.

Posing a series of questions to set out the issues to ponder on, Mr Seah, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, said: "What if (success) is because both your parents are rich, and can afford $1,000 in tuition each month?

"What if your grades are good, not because you work any harder, but because you are chauffeured to school every day and back?

"What if, no matter how many times you tried, how hard you worked, you never made your business work?"

The Government does not always know best, he acknowledged. "It may only know what is efficient, what is rational, what costs the most, or the least."

Sometimes, he pointed out, it is right to do what the people want. "Not because we think it is right, but because they do."

The Government must resist the "self-righteous, sanctimonious chant that 'We do what is right, rather than what is popular'", he said.

He also called for a rethink of some of the White Paper's assumptions and urged policymakers to review it, if needed. His deepest concern was the ratio of citizens to foreigners; this is fewer than two Singaporeans to one foreigner now. In future, this may become fewer than 1.5 to one.

"I hope the ratio can be maintained at current levels and not decline further by 2030," he said.

"We do need to do more to have more citizens. Not just by getting new citizens in, but also by getting our people to get married, and getting married couples to have more children."

With more than 40 MPs from the PAP and the opposition set to speak over the week, he called for a cool-headed debate. "Let us all focus on the outcomes that the paper seeks to achieve. By all means, raise ideas and suggestions and not simply criticise for the sake of scoring points."


"The current integration programme has not been as effective as we desired. For better integration, more social gatherings and activities can be organised to promote better communications and understanding between local and new citizens."
- Mr Seng Han Thong (Ang Mo Kio GRC), on reviewing the programme to integrate new citizens

"Many consider the current Employment Pass system somewhat liberal in its assessment of foreigners vying for attractive PMET jobs... Could we ensure employers invest to train Singaporeans for good jobs in order (for the employers) to qualify for Employment Pass for foreign PMETs?"
- Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC), on two-thirds of Singaporeans becoming professionals, managers, engineers and technicians in 2030

"A further concession to the foreign domestic worker levy, or better still, a waiver of the levy altogether, will be useful especially for households where both husband and wife are working."
- Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), on encouraging parenthood, on top of a reduced levy of $170 a month that parents with children below 12 years old enjoy

Expect this debate to be different
Confusion abounds over population White Paper; MPs admit misgivings

By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

SELDOM has a parliamentary debate been carried out amidst such confusion - and criticism - even before a single word is uttered.

But such is the reaction to the White Paper on population released last week, that even several People's Action Party (PAP) MPs admitted to misgivings.

The White Paper on Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore had laid out a road map of the Government's proposal on how to cope with an ageing population: by allowing for moderate immigration that would see the workforce growth slow from the 3.3 per cent of the last 30 years, to about 1 to 2 per cent for the rest of this decade, and then to 1 per cent from 2021 to 2030.

The White Paper also laid out infrastructure plans to cope with an anticipated population of 6.5 to 6.9 million by 2030.

Many people were fixated on the 6.9 million figure, asking how an already overcrowded Singapore of 5.3 million today would cope with that number in 17 years.

Most of all, confusion reigned over what the 6.9 million represented. As PAP MP Seng Han Thong asked pithily: Was the 6.9 million a worst case, best case or just-in-case scenario?

He noted that National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan had called it worst case - but a booming economy that can absorb a large number of external workers can't be such a bad thing - so should it be a "best case" scenario instead? Or perhaps it was a "just-in-case" scenario - better to over-provide than under-provide and have land use, transport and housing options able to cater to up to 6.9 million?

So much confusion reigned that some people have been asking in all seriousness if the White Paper is just a policy paper in draft form, to be debated and then revised after the parliamentary debate.

Or perhaps the 6.9 million figure was just a "kite" flown to test reactions, and the Government would later say, actually, six million is enough?

Judging from Day 1 of the debate, that is just wishful thinking.

Moving the motion asking the House to endorse the White Paper, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean did shed light on some of the swirling doubt: the 6.9 million figure is used to prepare infrastructure plans. It is not a Government target. Neither is the Government making a decision on the population figure it wants.

Why the haste over the White Paper - why table it now?

Mr Teo explained that Singapore is ageing rapidly. "Japan moved from an ageing population as defined by the World Health Organisation where 7 per cent are over 65, to an aged population where 14 per cent are over 65, in 24 years. This is much faster than Italy, which took 61 years, Sweden 85 years, and France 115 years. So Japan took 24 years. Singapore will age even faster, taking just 18 years to make the same transition. We are projected to be an 'aged' population by 2016."

The PAP appears to be in business-as-usual mode in tabling a White Paper it wants Parliament to endorse in five days. In the past, MPs would speak heatedly on concerns raised, before endorsing the paper. Singaporeans may grumble, and then accept it and move on. But this White Paper is different.

For one, it has tremendous impact on the lives of every Singaporean - and his children and grandchildren, in a real, concrete, day- to-day way. Few policy papers will have such widespread impact.

Two, there is a perception of undue haste about this debate. Even PAP MP Arthur Fong confessed to feeling uncomfortable at the pace of discussion, pointing out there was "national anxiety and angst" and "little buy-in" on its proposals.

Three, even PAP MPs who supported the motion were critical about fairly pivotal aspects of it. Many wanted to see more done for Singaporeans, before taking in more immigrants and migrant workers.

PAP MP Seah Kian Peng, who led the backbenchers' response to the motion, had "severe" reservations about diluting the proportion of Singaporeans in the population mix from 62 to 55 per cent in 2030.

A fourth and critical reason why debate on this White Paper is different: Because the opposition Workers' Party (WP) is proposing a serious alternative.

After the swearing-in of Punggol East MP Lee Li Lian yesterday, the WP now has seven elected MPs and two Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) in Parliament. Chairman Sylvia Lim led the party's opposition to the paper, saying Singaporeans' identity would be "put at peril" by it.

She proposed the WP's alternative: a population of 5.9 million and growth rate 0.5 to 1 percentage point lower than the 2 to 3 per cent projected by the PAP.

Rather than bring in many migrants, she suggested tapping indigenous labour such as women and the elderly and foreign spouses of Singaporeans.

Her WP colleague, Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, urged more efforts on pro-fertility policies, rather than pro-immigration ones to boost the population. Other WP MPs speaking this week will flesh out the WP ideas.

After the Aljunied GRC victories in May 2011, Hougang in 2012 and Punggol East in 2013, the WP is on a winning streak with electable candidates. It has also attracted volunteers who presumably help give inputs to craft its party policy proposals.

The WP's last major alternative proposal to a PAP policy - on ministerial salary - came unstuck when it proved unable to back its numbers.

But this time, the broad strokes of its position - slower growth that can be sustained with minimal immigration - is similar to proposals spelt out by economists like Mr Yeoh Lam Keong, whose ideas gain easy traction online and among Singapore's socially-conscious intelligentsia. The WP alternative will thus appear viable.

Mr Teo did not respond to the WP proposals yesterday, but it is likely that WP MPs can expect challenges to its policy alternative in the next few days.

As the debate unfolds in the House, MPs should be mindful that the real debate and battle will be won outside, in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans following the debate.

MOM mulls new body to tackle workplace disputes
Intermediary would address non-statutory complaints, avoiding need to go to court

By Ashley Chia, TODAY, 5 Feb 2013

The Ministry of Manpower is looking at setting up an intermediary body to address complaints of unfair workplace practices — such as contractual disputes — that do not run afoul of the law, as part of its review of the Employment Act.

Such complaints can be dealt with, without having to go to the civil courts or the Industrial Arbitration Court — as is the existing practice, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin told Parliament yesterday.

“This is something we will go through consultation and gather suggestions and ideas,” Mr Tan said. He also reiterated the need for cooperation between the Government, employers and the unions, in the aftermath of November’s illegal strike by some SMRT bus drivers from China. Nevertheless, he stressed that tripartism — the Republic’s much-vaunted approach to industrial relations — alone cannot ensure workers are given fair contracts.

Explaining that it is “difficult” to “legislate for employers to learn to be fair”, Mr Tan said: “What we want to make sure is that we do not want to be intrusive ... we need to be careful not to overdo it ... but where it’s statutory and where it’s required for the Government to step in to implement laws and regulations, that’s something we should do.”

A total of 171 SMRT bus drivers had failed to report for duty on Nov 26 last year in a protest over pay and living conditions.

Several Members of Parliament (MPs) had tabled questions on the episode — the first strike in 26 years — including Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, who asked, among other things, whether the illegal strike “is a wake-up call for tripartism” and what lessons can be drawn to ensure that low-wage workers will be treated fairly by employers.

Mr Tan noted that unfair workplace practices concern not only Singaporean and foreign low-wage workers but also junior professionals, managers and executives.

However, the Government can only step in when employers breach regulations, such as not ensuring that their foreign employees have “acceptable accommodation”.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) conducted about 3,000 inspections last year to detect “potential breaches” of the Employment Act and Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, and more than 850 inspections of premises used as foreign worker dormitories. More than 350 employers were prosecuted last year.

Responding to some MPs’ concerns about foreign workers being exploited under contracts that were signed overseas, Mr Tan said that these contracts was “something of a concern”.

He added that the Singapore authorities “don’t have the remit to actually go upstream and govern” such contracts, as the different jurisdictions remain a “challenge”.

To address this, the MOM issues an In-Principle Approval (IPA) letter to foreign workers who are successful in their applications for an Employment Pass. The letter states all the details — such as job requirements and contractual terms — that were submitted during the time of application.

If the details differ from what were promised by their agents, foreign workers can “raise alarm bells” and seek some recourse at that stage, Mr Tan said.

Non-profit organisations also play a “useful bridging role”, he said. Between 2011 and the end of last year, the MOM received more than 900 case referrals from Transient Workers Count Too and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics.

The Migrant Workers’ Centre also assisted about 3,000 foreign workers by solving their employment grievances and providing interim humanitarian assistance such as accommodation and food.

Three-quarters of SMRT's PRC drivers now union members: Lim Swee Say
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

A MAJORITY of SMRT bus drivers from China have now signed up to join the labour union, said labour chief Lim Swee Say in Parliament yesterday.

Mr Lim said that the joint efforts of the unions and SMRT to reach out to the drivers have led some three-quarters of the transport operator's 400 People's Republic of China (PRC) drivers to become union members.

Prior to the Nov 26 strike involving 171 PRC drivers, less than 5 per cent of the firm's PRC drivers were unionised.

He added that more than 90 per cent of bus operator SBS Transit's 600 bus drivers from China are already union members. And of the 1.2 million foreign workers here, about 100,000 are unionised, he said.

The role of unions in protecting the rights of foreign workers was a key concern for several MPs yesterday during a debate on the SMRT saga.

Apart from Mr Lim, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin also weighed in on the matter, stressing that unions do look out for foreign workers.

"I've very little doubt that the unions take this responsibility in representing all their workers seriously, meaning that if there are concerns raised by the foreign workers, even though they may form the minority, these things will be registered and will be brought upstream," Mr Tan said, in response to a question from Nominated MP Laurence Lien.

Mr Lien had asked if foreign workers, who form a minority in the union, are adequately represented.

Mr Tan reiterated that employers and unions believe that open and direct communication between bosses and their employees is key to harmonious industrial relations.

He said that the second stage of the review of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act will continue later this year.

This is aimed at better protecting the well-being of workers, as well as to "ensure an equitable balance of rights and responsibilities between employers and workers".

He also disclosed that his ministry is studying whether foreign workers can be allowed to change employers in "instances where there has been a genuine mismatch in expectations".

KKH baby mix-up the only reported incident in last 10 years: health minister

Channel NewsAsia, 4 Feb 2013

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament the recent baby mix-up at KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) is the only reported incident in the last ten years.

Giving a detailed account of how the mix-up occurred in 2012, Mr Gan said the error came about when two babies were removed from their cots at the same time and were returned without counter-checking their identity tags.

In addition to recommendations by a review committee, Mr Gan said regular and ad-hoc audits will be carried out.

Mr Gan said: "KKH's Patient Safety Committee will step up its oversight of patient safety and ensure supervision and compliance of protocols by staff. KKH will also undertake a comprehensive review of its quality assurance framework to further enhance patient safety. We will learn from this incident.

"It should be a reminder to all healthcare institutions in Singapore, both public and private, to strengthen their quality assurance programmes to improve patient safety and outcomes."

Medisave does not cover purchase of hearing aids, says health minister

Channel NewsAsia, 4 Feb 2013

About 8,600 elderly Singaporeans suffered from hearing impairment and sought treatment in 2012, compared to 6,800 cases attended to by hospitals in 2010.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong revealed these figures in Parliament on Monday in response to a question by Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, MP for Nee Soon GRC.

Of the 8,600 seniors, Mr Gan said about 1,500 or 17 per cent needed a hearing aid and went through a hearing aid evaluation test.

About 800 seniors took up the use of these hearing aids, which cost about $1,000 to $1,500.

But Mr Gan said Medisave does not cover this.

"Medisave coverage does not extend to the purchase of hearing aid because Medisave is primarily meant to support large hospitalisation bills. We need to be careful not to over expand the use of Medisave so that Singaporeans will still have enough in their Medisave to cover their hospitalisation expenses. To help the low-income elderly, the Centre for Enabled Living (CEL) has a Special Assistance Fund that provides subsidy for such hearing aids," he said.

SMC panel to complete review 'in six months'

By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

THE review committee appointed by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) to look into doctors' disciplinary proceedings is expected to finish its work in about six months, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday.

The committee, made up of senior doctors and lawyers, will review existing frameworks for the proceedings and "optimise and strengthen" them, said Mr Gan in a reply to Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC).

The aim is for disciplinary matters to be dealt with in a "just and expeditious manner", he added.

The SMC said it would set up the committee last October after the High Court overturned its guilty verdict against aesthetic doctor Low Chai Ling for using medicine whose effectiveness has not been scientifically proven.

The court also released a 54-page judgment criticising the way Dr Low's disciplinary hearing had been carried out.

Yesterday, Mr Gan said the disciplinary processes and requirements for doctors are set out in the Medical Registration Act.

Organisations like the Complaints Committee and disciplinary tribunals must comply with the Act and they carry out their proceedings and deliberations independently of the SMC council, he said.

Director of Medical Services and SMC registrar K. Satku wrote to all doctors last month to clarify the SMC's disciplinary processes, said Mr Gan, adding that health-care professionals must play their part to ensure patients receive "the best care possible".

Dr Janil also asked Mr Gan for his views on the balance between internal and external regulation of the medical profession.

Replying, Mr Gan said the Act was amended in 2010 to include more external bodies. For instance, a legally trained person can now chair a medical disciplinary hearing.

But the changes will need time to take effect, he added, as many current cases began before the change in the law and so, they have to be heard under the old framework.

WP's Singh responds to Shanmugam's challenge over UN vote

By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

WORKERS' Party MP Pritam Singh yesterday responded to an earlier challenge by Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam on Singapore's decision to abstain from a United Nations resolution on Palestine.

In a written reply last month, Mr Shanmugam asked Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) to state if he believed a change in Singapore's voting position would make the country more secure, adding he would take "serious note" of his views.

Mr Singh had asked if Singapore's abstention on the UN vote, which elevated Palestine to a non-member observer state, increases its vulnerability to terrorists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Yesterday, Mr Singh said the minister's reply explaining why Singapore chose to abstain showed the country was "pro-peace" rather than "pro-Israel".

"It also reduces my own concern that Singapore's decision to abstain made us insecure."

Mr Singh said it was "noteworthy" that Mr Shanmugam's reply states that Singapore sees Israel and Palestine as having legitimate rights and shared responsibilities.

He also welcomed the statement that Singapore does not support Israel's activities that contravene international law, including its settlement activities in the occupied territories.

Singapore has consistently voted in favour of all the approximately 19 resolutions on Palestine-related issues tabled in the UN General Assembly annually, said Mr Shanmugam in his reply.

However, Mr Singh said Singapore's recent decision to abstain "is more likely to be remembered than our previous voting patterns" because of the weight and profile of the resolution to elevate Palestine's international status.

"Singapore's even-handed position sharing the desires of the Palestinians for an independent state and that of Israel for its security may have been misunderstood by some Singaporeans in favour of the latter," he said.

He urged the Foreign Ministry to consider profiling its stance on Palestine and other controversial issues "front and centre", before the public raised concerns, to prevent misunderstanding.

Replying yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said his ministry has set out its position publicly and regularly, but would take note of Mr Singh's suggestion.

"I thank the honourable Member for accepting that our position is even-handed, welcoming it and recognising it as pro-peace," he added.

Another 300,000 people may qualify for legal aid

Means test remains unchanged but deductibles have been increased
By Jessica Cheam, The Straits Times, 5 Feb 2013

ABOUT 300,000 more people stand to qualify for legal aid after changes in the law to relax requirements for such inexpensive help were passed in Parliament yesterday.

While the test remains unchanged - those who qualify must have an annual disposable income and disposable assets each of $10,000 or less - the deductibles have been increased.

For instance, the amount applicants can deduct as living expenses for themselves, their spouse or dependants has been raised to $6,000 each. This is an increase from $4,500 for his own expenses, and $3,500 each for his spouse's and dependants'.

New deductibles were also created for calculating disposable capital, such as surrender value of life insurance policies of up to $46,000, and entire Central Provident Fund investments.

Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah, who introduced the Legal Aid and Advice (Amendment) Bill for debate, said the changes to means testing will result in one out of four Singapore residents qualifying for legal aid, up from the current 17 per cent.

In addition, the director for legal aid will have greater discretion to relax the means test for family cases involving children or protection orders.

The changes also seek to improve the general administration of legal aid. In her speech at the start of the debate, Ms Indranee said the changes reaffirmed "the Government's commitment to providing access to justice for the most needy amongst us".

Several MPs rose to speak, with many seeking even greater flexibility.

While Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) supported the Bill, he asked if means testing could be more flexible, a point also raised by Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC).

Responding, Ms Indranee noted that the law allows for the director for legal aid to have some discretion, but added that "at the same time, discretion cannot be unfettered because, if so, it would not be transparent".

Nominated MP Eugene Tan asked why Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) are treated equally when it comes to legal aid and whether the threshold for PRs to qualify should be higher.

Ms Indranee said there is already a differentiation between the two: While means testing for both groups is the same, PRs are charged a higher contribution fee when they are granted legal aid.

On giving legal aid for criminal cases, she said the Government already funds the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences and makes contributions to the Law Society's Pro Bono Services Office, which runs the criminal legal aid scheme.

Ms Indranee also noted that support from the legal community and pro bono services was important.

"This is very much to be encouraged and it's heartening in particular to see the private lawyers coming forward to do this," she said.

Range for PSLE median scores

ABOUT 80 points separate the median PSLE scores of the best performing and worst performing primary schools last year, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat as he urged people not to read too much into the scores.

The range is from 160 to 240. If students from the Gifted Education Programme were included, the highest median score goes up to 247, he added, in a written reply to Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC).

Mr Nair had asked for the highest and lowest median scores.

Mr Heng pointed out, however, that complex factors affect performance and said the school with the lowest median also had several students who were in the top 10 per cent of the PSLE cohort.

He added that schools help students develop in different ways and they should not be judged just on test scores.

$2.3b in Baby Bonus paid out since 2001

MORE than 310,000 children have received a cash gift and over 240,000 have opened a Child Development Account (CDA), in which savings are matched by the Government dollar-for-dollar, since 2001.

All in, $2.31 billion had been disbursed through the Baby Bonus scheme, said Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing in a written reply to Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap (Aljunied GRC).

In 2011, the top three uses of the cash gift were child-related expenses such as milk powder and diapers, vaccinations and hospital expenses.

The top three uses of CDA monies were for childcare centres, kindergartens and health-care institutions.

Resource use of 26 large-scale projects

SINCE 2010, the Finance Ministry has assessed the management of 26 large-scale projects to ensure they make the most efficient use of resources, said Minister of State Josephine Teo yesterday.

These were put through the "Gateway Process", during which the projects' concepts and designs are reviewed at a series of "gates" said Mrs Teo.

In addition, the Centre for Public Project Management (CP2M) was set up in 2011 to build up public sector expertise in building design and project management, said Mrs Teo.

One success story is the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

The CP2M team recommended that its tennis court be relocated to the roof and a service driveway be given a different route.

The changes reduced the campus footprint and freed land for other uses, she said.

PRs with HDB flats and private homes

ABOUT 400 Housing Board flats are owned by permanent residents (PRs) who also own private property.

These owners do not live in their HDB flats, and are most likely living in their private homes.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan disclosed the figures yesterday, in a written reply to Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC).

Mr Nair also asked what would happen in cases where PRs own HDB flats with tenancy agreements that run beyond the six-month deadline given for them to sell their flat.

A new rule requires PRs to sell their HDB flats within six months of buying a private property.

Mr Khaw said these PRs with subletting arrangements will have to time their property purchases "to meet the stipulated timeframe" for selling their HDB flats.

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