Thursday, 7 February 2013

Parliament Highlights - 6 Feb 2013 - Debate on the Population White Paper Day 3

Major shift in planning strategy: Khaw
Govt will now build infrastructure well ahead of demand, he says
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

THE Government has made a major shift in the way it provides housing and public transport infrastructure - it will now invest and build well ahead of demand.

Complaints about overcrowding, congestion and the long wait for a Housing Board flat prompted the switch, which National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan described as "a major shift in planning and development strategy".

"We will do our best not to allow population to surge ahead of our infrastructure again," he told Parliament yesterday. "What we must do is to build infrastructure ahead of demand and where possible, we must also build in a buffer so that we can respond to unexpected developments and needs."

He said the Government had learnt "a valuable lesson" from the current problems.

"The congestion we experience today is real... We are not happy with the status quo. We are resolute in addressing these concerns... But we must also learn from this and be clear about the need to plan and build ahead of demand so that we will not be caught again with another infrastructure crunch like this one."

He was speaking on Day Three of the debate on the Population White Paper, which has drawn strong reaction for its projection of a population of 6.5 million to 6.9 million in 2030. That prospect has been criticised by the public as well as Members of Parliament.

"Many MPs have conveyed their strong sentiments. Singaporeans are upset. We know," said Mr Khaw. "Then why are we moving such an unpopular debate? Indeed, why is the Government, well aware that Singaporeans are already upset with overcrowding, still insisting on planning for a larger population?"

He pointed to the reasons given by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who explained on Monday that Singapore was heading for a crisis given its rapidly ageing population and shrinking labour force.

Mr Khaw said that having been caught wrong-footed, with an infrastructure mismatch that has been painful for Singaporeans and planners alike, the Government was now planning on a "stretched scenario of 6.9 million".

"We hope never to reach this level. However, for long-term planning, it is safer to prepare enough land and infrastructure for a larger number."

Focusing mainly on housing, his message to Singaporeans was: Don't worry. He said there will be more than enough HDB flats for everyone, prices will stay affordable, waiting times will be cut, and the quality of life preserved.

His ramped up public housing programme will add about 200,000 new homes within the next four years, with more beyond that, and building all these new homes would need more construction workers.

Taking a swipe at the Workers' Party's alternative road map, he said he was shocked by its recommendation to freeze the number of foreign workers if the local workforce can be grown.

"My housing plan will be badly affected! I will not be able to deliver the new flats as promised to 200,000 families," he said.

Urging the opposition party to rethink, he said its plan would seriously disrupt his efforts to stabilise the housing market.

Acknowledging anxiety over HDB flat prices, including resale prices, he outlined efforts to keep flats affordable and cool the market. "We are determined to tame the property market, especially the HDB resale market. We think the recent cooling measures will make an impact. If necessary, we will do more."

Mr Khaw also assured Singaporeans that the quality of life would not suffer in a more crowded Singapore. He was confident that the opposite would be achieved, with plans for parks, nature reserves, well designed neighbourhoods in new estates all helping to ensure liveability here.

Among those who spoke yesterday was former national development minister Mah Bow Tan, who called the White Paper "the most important document regarding our future since Independence".

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong praised Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for raising the population issue for discussion now instead of leaving it for his successor to deal with.

"Singapore has succeeded only because of the courage of our leaders and people to face challenges squarely, and because of our will to succeed and our ability to work together to overcome issues of survival," he said.

Minister Khaw Boon Wan's Speech at the Parliamentary Debate on the Population White Paper from NPTD PMO on Vimeo.

Enough homes so young Singaporeans 'need not worry'
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

SOME 200,000 homes will be ready by 2016, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday in Parliament, as he sought to assure Singaporeans that progress is being made in "relieving the strains we feel today".
Of these, 111,159 are HDB flats, 9,800 are executive condominiums and 76,600 are private property units.

And even as those projects are going on, the Government is continuing to launch more flats and sell land to developers.

Once the current backlog of demand is cleared, said Mr Khaw, the Housing Board will start to build up a "meaningful stock of unsold HDB flats to meet the needs of couples who may need housing urgently".

"In short, young Singaporeans, you do not have to worry," he said.

He revealed that for the longer term, the Ministry of National Development (MND) has reserved sufficient land to develop another half a million housing units.

If fully realised, this would increase housing stock at a proportion that is double the projected population growth, he noted.

This is a kiasu approach to give planners plenty of buffer, he said.

Mr Khaw also reassured young Singaporeans that flat prices are within their reach, especially since he has delinked the prices of Build-To-Order (BTO) flats from the resale market.

Since Mr Khaw took over the housing portfolio in 2011, he has unpegged the prices of BTO flats from resale flats in the vicinity.

So, BTO prices are stabilised by "increasing the government subsidy when resale prices rise, instead of following resale prices up", he explained.

This will continue until the resale market stabilises, he said.

"We are determined to tame the property market, especially the HDB resale market," he said.

Property cooling measures last month - the seventh in three years - should help to do that, he said, promising that "if necessary, we will do more".

Mr Khaw characterised his new approach to housing provision, and the Government's new strategy in infrastructural development, as being not just about building ahead of demand, but also setting aside enough space to provide options for future generations.

He described it as "planning for unknown unknowns", since no one could predict what the world would be like beyond 2020 and 2030.

"They (future generations) can decide what they want to do with the options, to create the kind of society that they want," he said.

Mr Khaw explained that new land reclamation and recycling the use of existing land was a key part of the move to create options.

He cited the Southern Waterfront City - to be created by moving port facilities at Tanjong Pagar, Pulau Brani, Keppel and Pasir Panjang to Tuas - as an example. It would serve as the western wing of the Central Business District where Marina Bay now serves as the eastern wing.

"So the CBD, eastern wing, western wing together will offer a bigger scope, much more than Marina Bay. This is an exciting option beyond 2030 and it is totally within our grasp." he said.

Singapore of the future won't be a concrete jungle: Khaw
Next-generation public housing will keep country as a 'city in the garden'
By Daryl Chin And Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

THE Singapore of the future will not be a concrete jungle to house a bigger population, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday. Rather, his vision of it is Punggol - "multiplied by many times".

Speaking in Parliament during the White Paper debate, he said he is confident of keeping Singapore "a city in a garden" even as the population expands, and that "the best is yet to come".

Punggol North, for example, will eclipse the already-built Punggol South in design and liveability. "The next generation of public housing will be even more comfortable and better designed despite a higher population density," he promised.

The Government has made a major shift in its development strategy due to current problems, and will now build ahead of demand, he said.

The Ministry of National Development (MND), he added, is confident of raising the quality of public housing; in new estates, everything from transport links to barbershops will be there from the start.

At a separate media briefing yesterday, Housing Board director of planning Chong Fook Loong revealed that new estates have done away with the rectangular slab block and surface carparks of yore, in favour of hybrid blocks linked directly to carparks and topped with roof gardens.

Despite a greater density - Punggol has a gross plot ratio of 3.5, compared with 1.8 to 2.8 for Ang Mo Kio - new neighbourhoods will have more green spaces per dwelling unit.

The planning for Punggol was based on estates of 1,000 to 3,000 dwelling units with a common green area of 0.4ha to 0.7ha.

This compares favourably with older estates where a large neighbourhood park of about 1.5ha would cater to about 6,000 units, said Dr Chong.

During his parliamentary speech, Mr Khaw reiterated MND's goal of having 85 per cent of homes be within a 10- to 15-minute walk to a park by 2030.

But he acknowledged that rapid development would take its toll on existing green spots.

Recently, groups of residents have petitioned the authorities to save their green spaces slated for development.

The Government cannot protect every local green area, Mr Khaw said, and some will have to give way.

"It is painful, I know, for the local residents. Actually, it is more painful for MND. We seek your understanding."

The big picture is that 9 per cent of Singapore's land will still be set aside in parks and nature reserves - "highly significant for a small urbanised city", he said.

The HDB's goal, he added, is not to make estates more luxurious, but to achieve greater liveability through cost-effective design and construction.

He said that to promote a "kampung spirit", local residents will be involved in the estate planning.

In Tampines, for example, 15,000 residents recently gave their views on how to design the town hub.

Meanwhile, MND will continue to explore ways to deal with Singapore's land constraints.

Mr Khaw will chair an inter-ministerial committee on underground developments.

PM Lee and team show courage, leadership: Goh
PM lauded for tackling demographic issue now, not leaving it to successor
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

FORMER Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong yesterday lent his support to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his team for having what he described as "the courage and leadership" to table the Population White Paper now, instead of kicking the can down the road.

Making his first speech as a PAP backbencher since leaving the Cabinet in 2011, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh said that the politically expedient alternative would have been for Mr Lee to leave the issue to his successor, given that the demographic challenge was unfolding "imperceptibly over one or two decades like a slow, sinking ship".

Mr Goh said his challenge as prime minister from 1990 to 2004 was to keep Singapore going and growing the economy to improve the lives of Singaporeans.

During his tenure, Singaporeans weathered tests like the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 and Sars in 2003 by coming together.

"In all of these crises, the critical success factors were the leadership of the country, the bond between the Government and the people, our unity, our trust and support of each other," he said.

"People could see and sense the immediate danger. We instinctively came together to tackle issues head on. We knew we would otherwise be worse off. We weathered the storms, emerging stronger from each."

The difficulty for PM Lee and his team now is that they must think long term to "forestall an impending crisis".

But feeling the effects of overcrowding and competition, Singaporeans want these pressures eased now, Mr Goh noted.

"PM and his team did the right thing by laying out the problems, the trade-offs, and our options in a transparent manner so that all Singaporeans can become more aware of our demographic destiny, debate it and build consensus on the way forward," he said.

Beyond debating how the White Paper will affect Singapore domestically, Mr Goh also cast an eye on its implications for the country's global competitiveness and international stature, since he said the country will always be a "price-taker" in international economics and geopolitics.

It would thus need to remain vibrant and successful to keep attracting companies to provide good jobs for Singaporeans, and to shape international developments to its advantage.

Meanwhile, foreign businesses based here are also watching the debate and the next steps closely.

He warned: "If our institutions are not forward-looking, our economy flat, our society divided, Singapore will not be able to punch above its weight. It will lose its lustre and influence."

He was personally unsure about the idea of a 6.9 million population, said Mr Goh, but he had been assured that it was a planning parameter and not a target.

What matters, he added, is not the number, but the White Paper's broad approach to switch to a lower gear of economic growth and foreign intake, and to build infrastructure ahead of needs.

Endorsing it, he called on all Singaporeans, including members of the Workers' Party, to work with PM Lee and his team, and forge a consensus on the way forward.

"Singapore has succeeded only because of the courage of our leaders and people to face challenges squarely, and because of our will to succeed and our ability to work together to overcome issues of survival. This is the only way for us to ensure that the Singapore Story can continue."

Review projections in five years' time, suggests Mah
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

THE population debate has been inward-looking as Singaporeans lament about their discomforts, but they seem to be taking for granted that the good life will continue, former minister Mah Bow Tan said yesterday.

They expect more infrastructure and more subsidies even as growth may be slowing, he noted.

"We expect new infrastructure to be rolled out even as growth slows, more houses, more rail lines. We want more subsidies for health care and housing," he said.

But he asked: "Where will the revenue for all this come from?"

He said he pored through the Population White Paper for the answer, and found it in small print in a footnote that the Tampines GRC MP said should have been in bold and highlighted in a box.

The footnote said that the Government's revenues will come mostly from income, consumption and asset taxes.

These depend on economic growth, said Mr Mah, who held the National Development portfolio from 1999 to 2011.

Singapore, he said, needs a bigger population with better-educated citizens and talented non-residents for growth, as cited in the White Paper.

But to make it more palatable to Singaporeans, he suggested splitting up the Government's priorities.

In the short term, the focus should be on fixing the infrastructure and social integration problems being faced today.

Then, in five years' time, the assumptions and estimates in the White Paper - which for now projects population plans until 2030 - can be reviewed with an eye on what Singapore's policy should be after 2020.

Mr Mah said: "This will give everyone a clearer picture of whether our trains and buses are getting less crowded, our housing prices have stabilised, our people are having more babies, and our companies more productive and learning to cope with less foreign workers.

"It would be a much more informed and meaningful debate by then."

With the transport bottlenecks from the rapid expansion of the past not solved yet, it is hard to get Singaporeans' buy-in that the country needs to take in more people, he said.

"One resident put it to me bluntly: Fix the problems first, then talk. Seeing is believing."

Calling the White Paper "probably the most important document regarding our future that we have seen since independence", Mr Mah urged citizens to keep an open mind.

He ended with a call for unity: "Give the Government a chance to explain their plans and time to implement them, and work together for our beloved country.

"We have done so over the last 50 years, we will do so again."

Ageing Japan offers lesson on consequences of keeping out immigrants: Yi Shyan
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

JAPAN’S present struggles illustrate the consequences of a silver tsunami, and provide Singapore with a glimpse of future problems, said Mr Lee Yi Shyan, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry as well as National Development.

With Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC), Mr Lee yesterday warned of the need for Singapore to avoid a similar fate.

With economic recession, higher taxes and fewer job opportunities, Japan – the world’s fastest-ageing country – is paying the price for closing its doors to immigration, said Ms Lee.

Now, some local government and grassroots organisations are advocating welcoming immigrants, she noted.

“Now they try to advocate welcoming immigrants through petitions and open dialogues,” she added.

But she did see some rays of light in Japan’s ageing situation, such as more youths being interested in entrepreneurship – as stable jobs become more difficult to find – and profitable businesses aimed at the silver dollar.

Mr Lee said that Japan’s experience “serves as a useful reference point for us to anticipate our problems going forward” as Singapore’s rate of ageing today is similar to Japan’s in 1984.

He painted a bleak picture of life in Japan’s smaller, ageing cities, where shops are either closed or mainly selling goods for the elderly, and young people leave for opportunities in the big cities.

In Yubari, Hokkaido, a small working population meant a “measly tax base”, leading to an 18-year austerity drive which saw the town’s civil service halved, six primary schools merged into one, and the shutdown of hospital facilities.

This story was one repeated across the country, said Mr Lee.

Low fertility plus no immigration have caused Japan’s workforce to shrink since 1996. Economic stagnation has seen public spending soar while tax revenue falls.

“The huge silver tsunami is destabilising Japan, so why doesn’t it increase its working population to maintain a vibrant economy?” asked Mr Lee.

The answer, he said, was simple: “Japan couldn’t build a consensus to allow immigration to boost their workforce.”

He noted that as Singapore ages, its old-age support ratio will fall to 2.1 working citizens for each elderly person. He asked if this “unbearable” burden on the young will be sustainable. Singapore cannot even assume that young people will stay, he added. Competition for talent will increase, not least from cities in the region.

Singapore thus needs to prepare for the silver tsunami now: not just by building up infrastructure, but also by striking a balance between “catering to the present needs and saving up for the future”.

In doing this, he added, Singapore should avoid the experience of another East Asian neighbour: Taiwan, where welfare spending has outstripped public means.

“The experiences of other countries in coping with low fertility, ageing population and rising social expenditure are instructive,” said Mr Lee. “Let us learn the lessons well.”

WP wants aid for SMEs from reserves
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

THE Workers' Party (WP) yesterday called on the Government to dig into the national reserves to provide more aid to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and to fund radical measures to improve work-life balance and the total fertility rate.

A day after its zero foreign worker growth policy was questioned in Parliament by People's Action Party (PAP) MPs and raised the ire of the business community, it also declared that it stands on the side of business.

Stressing that the WP was not turning off the tap and letting businesses dry up, Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said: "We will stand with SMEs by pressing the Government to do more for them, especially on rentals, so that they can devote more resources to productivity."

He was one of three WP Members of the House to oppose the motion yesterday, the third day of the debate on the White Paper on Population.

Mr Singh argued that "far from throwing SMEs under the bus", the WP proposal will reduce the uncertainty for SMEs, by giving productivity incentives, rental grants and help for other costs that severely affect SMEs.

Adding that people would ask how it all will be funded, he said: "In light of the existential challenge ahead of us, we should not rule out a deliberate and planned draw-down of our reserves".

He also urged businesses to "make do with what they have" and called on Singaporeans to accept a slower pace of construction as a result of having fewer foreigners.

"When the bosses of these SMEs appreciate that the Singapore of the future will be a more sustainable one, they would have understood this turn was one that we have to negotiate as a country, in spite of the turbulence it causes," he said.

In the WP's alternative population proposal, which it produced in Parliament on Tuesday, there will be a freeze on the number of foreign workers until 2020 while moves are made to grow the resident labour force at 1 per cent a year through increased labour force participation.

The result would be a slower growth in the population than that projected in the White Paper on Population. It would hit 5.8 million by 2030, not 6.9 million.

But how would it actually work, several PAP MPs had asked.

The Singapore Business Federation, on the other hand, said it would be "disastrous" for Singapore's economy and competitiveness as well as delay the moves made to expand capacity in the housing, transport and health-care sectors.

Yesterday, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan also opposed the plan.

With hands clasped and a smile, he pleaded with the WP not to "throw a spanner" into his home-building plans for 200,000 Singaporeans, as he would not be able to deliver otherwise.

"On behalf of these families, I ask the WP to rethink its idea and approach. They are our people too, Singaporeans. Many people need to move house, set up families and have babies. Please do not disrupt the plan," he said.

The WP's Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong sought to assure businesses by illustrating how Singapore has "two taps": one for local labour and another for foreign labour.

"As foreigners leave, we turn on the non-resident tap to fill it back up. We try to get more out of the resident tap by increasing it at 1 per cent per annum. If the resident tap cannot fulfil that, we turn up the non-resident tap. We are not leaving the sink dry," he said.

In calling for more radical measures to improve work-life balance and raise the low total fertility rate (TFR), Mr Singh said the Government should have a White Paper on pushing up the TFR, including a plan on increasing the labour force participation rate.

He wants the Government to consider legislating an eight-hour workday for all, regardless of income, after which an employer has to pay overtime.

Ms Lee Li Lian (Punggol East) proposed introducing a two-week "bonding leave" for fathers, on top of the existing one-week paternity leave. She also called for an independent commission to look at long-term solutions for work-life balance.

MPs praise bold move to hold open debate on issue
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

SEVERAL MPs yesterday praised the Government for its decision to invite discussion on Singapore's population plans, even though it knew the scenarios would cause public discontent.

Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) as well as Chua Chu Kang GRC MPs Low Yen Ling and Zaqy Mohamad all acknowledged the unhappiness, but stressed that the discussion would ultimately benefit Singaporeans.

Current strains on infrastructure, housing and health care make population a "particularly sensitive" issue now, observed Mr Baey.

"That is why it is extremely bold, and some may even say foolish, for the Government to want to subject itself to full scrutiny by laying down its cards to try to explain itself and take up the uphill task of convincing the populace," he said.

And while it could have avoided the unhappiness by silently rolling out policy plans, he said the open debate on the White Paper on Population is more appropriate for Singaporeans of today, who want greater transparency and a chance to express their views.

"It is a move in the right direction since we want to encourage more active citizenry and participation from Singaporeans."

In echoing the sentiment, Mr Nair said that the Government "has stuck its head up and is prepared to take the blows", even though it would have been more politically convenient to do nothing.

"But would Singaporeans be better off if the Government had kept silent?" he asked. "Would you trust a party that ducks difficult questions?"

The courage to deal with hard questions is what is needed now, said Ms Low - and it is something which both "this Government and the people have".

She urged Singapore not to "shrink back from hard choices", and instead to "move forward to face off the enemies of anxiety and reassert our strength - the Singapore gumption and fortitude to beat the odds once more".

Meanwhile, Mr Zaqy saw boldness not just in the holding of the debate and making population projection figures public, but also in the proposals themselves, such as the "bold promise of 700,000 new homes".

Yet he called for the Government to make further "bold" moves, such as being more transparent to businesses regarding foreign worker quotas or making firms explain why a Singaporean cannot fill a job opening before giving it to a foreigner.

MPs tackle issues of declining TFR, ageing population and cost of living
By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 6 Feb 2013

Fifteen members of Parliament on Wednesday tackled the issues of a declining total fertility rate (TFR), an ageing population and cost of living in the debate on the Population White Paper.

MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC, Zaqy Mohamed argued that an area which the White Paper on Population has not addressed substantially was Singapore's cost of living and economic competitiveness from a cost perspective, and how these will be projected into the 2030 scenario.

Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the White Paper on Population, Mr Zaqy said he appreciated the plans for Singapore to provide quality housing, quality education, attract quality investments and so forth.

But reading the booklet, he noted that while there is a lot of mention of 'quality', concerns on 'affordability' is not covered in the same depth.

Mr Zaqy said Singaporeans appreciated the government being upfront and transparent on its planning projections.

However, he added this has also created fear not just about the perceived lack of space but also on managing costs as Singapore tried to move towards high value-add industries, higher quality housing and education.

Mr Zaqy said the narrative about 'quality' lifestyle became synonymous to high-cost.

Mr Zaqy said: "The government needs to make clear where we stand on managing our cost structure. Should we make it a goal to reduce our cost structure to move our ranking down the ladder? And on the wages benchmark, we should be conscious of how real wages move in line with inflation and cost of living indices.

"In fact, the government should avoid statements that aim to compare our costs to other global cities as the primary indicator. On February 5, I noted the Transport Minister's statement that our public transport fares have not increased compared to other global cities. It is a credit that the ministries try to keep our costs low by comparing to similar economies. But in addition to such comparisons, the government should consider and share with the public how our fares and other public costs are also benchmarked to increases in real wages, especially at the median and the lower income groups."

In his speech, MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Hri Kumar touched on the Workers' Party plan which places less emphasis on foreign workforce growth and focuses more on local workforce and productivity growth.

Mr Kumar said: "What about other effects, would we have to pay more taxes, what will it mean to our retirement age, would we have more workers in essential services like domestic, health and geriatric care and construction to meet the additional infrastructure and healthcare services we needs. These are all important for the daily lives of Singaporeans.

"Under the Workers' Party plan, there will not be enough and it is a pipe dream to think that Singaporeans alone will make up the difference. These and other questions will have to be answered if there is to be a credible alternative or at least a meaningful debate. It is not enough to say simply there has to be structural changes.

"It is simply not enough to say you empathise with SMEs which kill off with your plans and say it is for the government to find a solution to help them. It is also not intellectually honest to suggest that shareholders will suffer and Singaporeans will not when what we are dealing with is Singaporean owners, Singaporean employers, Singaporean shareholders, all Singaporeans supporting Singaporean families in Singapore."

Pritam Singh from the Worker's Party urged the government to take the White Paper back to the drawing board and seek the views of ordinary Singaporeans.

Mr Singh, who is MP for Aljunied GRC, said: "The White Paper needs to be reworked with more aggressive measures to raise TFR as a start and it has to be populated with more detail about the quality of life of Singaporeans should anticipate when the projected figure is reached."

For newly-elected Punggol East MP Lee Li Lian, her maiden speech focused on tackling the declining total fertility rate. 

Ms Lee said: "Singapore sees an average of 12,000 abortions a year and four out of ten women who went for abortions were single women. Reducing the discrimination against single mothers may reduce the likelihood of single mothers having to resort to terminating their pregnancies for fear of lack of support. Furthermore, for a country suffering from a fertility crisis, each child should be valued and not punished because he or she is born to unmarried parents."

A sobering picture of an ageing population and shrinking workforce was of concern to Senior Minister of State Lee Yi Shyan.

"Singapore is not operating in silos. The world around us will continue to move forward regardless of Singapore's demographic and internal problems. In fact many Asian cities will grow, attracting talents, ideas and capital from their hinterlands. It is against this dynamic and larger picture that Singapore has to define its path forward," said Mr Lee.

In his first speech since he became a backbencher, veteran MP and former National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan urged the government to deal with the White Paper in two parts.

"Leave the debate on post-2020 scenarios to another date but continue to improve our infrastructure. Second, in five years' time, review the White Paper's assumptions and estimates for post-2020. This will give everyone a clearer picture of whether our trains and buses are getting less crowded, our housing prices have stabilised, our people having more babies, our companies more productive and learning to cope with less foreign workers, will these happen and if so by how much. It will be a much more informed and meaningful debate by then," said Mr Mah.

Mr Mah added: "Let us not be sidetracked by numbers. Numbers can change, numbers are not targets. The real target and the objective of the White Paper must be the well-being of Singaporeans - happy, confident, optimistic, hopeful now and into the future. Population is a means to that end."

Another 25 more MPs have been slated to speak on the debate which continues on Thursday.

Assess impact on nature: NMP
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

NOMINATED MP Faizah Jamal yesterday opposed the White Paper on Population, accusing the Government of emphasising economic growth at the expense of the environment in planning Singapore's future.

Calling for an environmental impact assessment of the infrastructure plans to be carried out and shared with the public first, she said the White Paper should be one that speaks from the heart, rather than from the head.

"In the midst of all those numbers we were crunching, it is astonishing to me that no mention was made of how all those numbers impact on something bigger than ourselves, the environment," said Ms Faizah, a Nature Society member and polytechnic lecturer.

She said the paper did not mention the impact of a growing population on Singapore's carbon footprint, food security, and energy and water costs, while its building plans would affect Singapore's nature reserves and marine and coastal life in a big way.

She singled out the proposed construction of the 50km cross-island railway line, which would cut through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve comprising four large reservoirs and forests containing rare and endemic species.

She noted that the Land Transport Authority has informed the Nature Society that there is no decision yet on whether the line will be above ground or underground, and that an environment assessment will be made by joint agencies.

Similarly, the proposed reclamation works would mean the loss of rich biodiversity areas such as Chek Jawa on Pulau Ubin and mangroves and mudflats, as well as small coral reefs and inter-tidal areas, while choking and live-burying fish, corals and marine life.

Thus, a compulsory environmental impact assessment is needed, she said, and should be open to public scrutiny "so that there is openness, transparency and public accountability".

Concluding her impassioned speech, she said: "We have been very good at thinking with our heads and devising linear systems that are efficient and which run well... Along the way, we seem to have forgotten that, in the end, it is about connecting with people, with our natural environment."

EPL screening negotiations closely monitored by Govt
By Derrick Ho, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

THE Government is closely monitoring ongoing negotiations involving the right to screen English Premier League football matches here, to ensure that pay-TV providers are not flouting the rules under the cross-carriage regulatory framework.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said this in Parliament yesterday, in response to Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad, who had asked whether the cross-carriage rules were effective.

"We have to look at every contract that is agreed upon between the provider and the content owners, (that it) does not in any way violate our cross-carriage measure," Dr Yaacob said. He added that the authority is on the side of the consumer, and that it is paying close attention as to whether there are "any built-in barriers which will bypass the regulator".

In October last year, SingTel's mio TV announced that it had signed on the non-exclusive broadcast rights for the next three seasons of the league, even before bidding was opened up to other Asian broadcasters. The fact that no other broadcaster has since signed a deal raised questions on possible loopholes.

In a statement to The Straits Times, StarHub said it had tried to open negotiations with the Football Association Premier League (FAPL) in November, but was told by FAPL that it was in an exclusive negotiation period with another pay-TV operator in Singapore. "Most recently, the FAPL has advised us that it can only commence discussions after Lunar New Year at the earliest," said Ms Jeannie Ong, head of StarHub's corporate communications.

A SingTel spokesman said, however, that its exclusive negotiation period with the FAPL - during which detailed terms of agreement were worked out - had already ended in late December.

'No conflict of interest' in George Yeo's HK post
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2013

THERE is no conflict of interest in the appointment of former foreign minister George Yeo to Hong Kong's new Economic Development Commission, said Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli. It also does not violate the Official Secrets Act, he added.

In fact, his position is in Singapore's strategic interests, Mr Masagos told Parliament yesterday. "We expect that Mr Yeo's appointment to the commission will contribute to the strengthening of Singapore's relations with Hong Kong, and through Hong Kong, with China," he said in his reply to Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam.

Mrs Chiam had asked whether the appointment would violate the Official Secrets Act or jeopardise Singapore's strategic interests.

Mr Masagos said it was not uncommon for governments to appoint foreigners as advisers, to tap their professional expertise and experience.

Singapore too has appointed prominent foreigners to its national advisory boards on finance and economic development.

Mr Yeo, who in a 23-year political career headed the foreign affairs and trade and industry ministries, among others, was appointed to the Economic Development Commission this year to help strengthen Hong Kong's growth and development. It will be chaired by Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying.

Mr Yeo is now based in Hong Kong, where he is chairman of Kerry Logistics Network, part of the Kerry Group that is owned by Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok.

Said Mr Masagos: "Throughout his career, Mr Yeo has been well known to all of us in this House - indeed to all Singaporeans - as a man of the highest personal integrity and patriotism, who has consistently served Singapore's national interests."

Govt to assess effectiveness of early travel discount scheme
Channel NewsAsia, 6 Feb 2013

Three to four per cent of MRT commuters have moved their travelling times into the Central Business District out of the peak 8am to 9am period since the SMRT implemented its Early Travel Discount Scheme.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said the scheme was enhanced from 10 cents to 30 cents in October 2011, and then to 50 cents last August when the scheme was extended to include the Circle Line.

Mrs Teo was replying to MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, Gan Thiam Poh had asked if the scheme could be extended to other stations with high human traffic, other lines and travel during other non-peak hours.

She said: "We should bear in mind that travel behaviours take time to change because commuters and employers need time to accommodate new travel and work arrangements. Accordingly, travel patterns cannot be expected to shift so rapidly. Therefore, we will continue to monitor and assess the effectiveness of the early travel discount scheme for a period of time before deciding whether to make further changes."

Mrs Teo thanked Mr Gan for his suggestions to enhance the scheme and assured him that the ministry will consider them for the next review of the scheme.

64 athletes granted Singapore citizenship under Foreign Sports Talent Scheme
Channel NewsAsia, 6 Feb 2013

Sixty-four athletes have been granted Singapore citizenship since the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme started in 1996.

Over the last five years, 10 of them were granted citizenship while four have since renounced their citizenship.

Among the four, two were footballers who felt that there were more playing opportunities in their place of birth.

Another was a marathoner who decided to settle back in her native country after retirement, and one was a young basketball player who felt she could not adapt to the Singapore lifestyle.

Acting Minister for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong revealed this in Parliament on Wednesday in response to questions posed by Nominated MP Assistant Professor Eugene Tan.

Mr Wong said these athletes lived in Singapore for an average period of two years and 10 months before they were granted Singapore citizenship.

Mr Wong pointed out National Sports Associations (NSA) that wish to bring in foreign sports talents are required to put in place integration programmes to assimilate them into Singapore society.

He added the Singapore Sports Council will continue to work with the Sports Associations to improve their integration programmes.

Assistant Professor Tan also asked Mr Wong how important is sporting success to Singapore given that the public has still not warmed up to the idea of sporting success of new citizens.

Mr Wong replied: "You do see success stories of foreign sports talents who have integrated very well. When our Lions support the Suzuki Cup, for example, they won it with people like Aleksandar Duric who was on the team and he is embraced by Singaporeans as part of the team.

"And doing this doesn't mean that we neglect talent development of young Singaporeans. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, we have to do more to invest in training and develop our young Singaporeans, which we are doing."

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