Thursday 14 March 2013

Parliament Highlights - 13 Mar 2013

Committee of Supply Debate: MOE, MOT, MSF

15 MOE kindergartens to set quality standards
New numeracy, literacy schemes will also help weaker students
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

FIFTEEN government-run kindergartens will be set up over the next three years in Housing Board estates, with the first five opening in January next year.

These kindergartens, sited at primary schools or in community spaces, will use the latest research in early childhood education to develop the best teaching methods and practices.

These would then be shared with other pre-schools to spur improvements all round.

The admission criteria, details on number of places and locations will be released in two weeks.

This is the latest and, as some pre-school experts say, "most significant" in a series of recent measures to lift standards in the pre-school sector.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Ministry of Social and Family Development have over the years raised the baseline qualifications of principals and teachers, developed and disseminated curriculum resources, and introduced a quality accreditation framework for pre-school centres.

During the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said MOE is prepared to go beyond these 15 centres. But it will study if indeed they create significant value for parents and children.

He said the Government is pushing for quality in the pre- school sector as it builds a strong foundation for lifelong learning.

But MOE will not stop there, said Mr Heng as he went on to announce literacy and numeracy programmes aimed at weaker students in primary and secondary schools, right up to post-secondary in the Institute of Technical Education.

Currently, there is the Learning Support Programme (LSP) in English and mathematics at the lower primary level for those lagging behind in those subjects.

The new schemes, starting from Primary 1, will cater to those who do not qualify for the LSP but who still need extra coaching. In the primary and secondary schools alone, about 60,000 students will benefit from the new schemes every year.

For English, students will receive extra coaching from specially trained teachers in small groups of about 10.

The numeracy programme will focus on helping weak students understand concepts through the use of learning aids.

"It is about providing the best opportunities for every child to succeed," he said, in response to MPs including Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), Dr Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC), Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) and Ms Low Yen Ling (Chua Chu Kang GRC) who had spoken earlier on help for weaker students.

He also put before the House some fundamental questions on the future of education, including those raised during the Our Singapore Conversation - such as the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and streaming.

Mr Heng said that on PSLE, the questions to ask concern how to maintain the rigorous standards and allocate secondary places without an objective benchmark like the national exam.

On streaming, the issue is if every child can learn at his own pace without streaming, and if schools would become even less diverse if they did not have students from various academic streams.

In many respects, the education system reflects societal norms and expectations, he said. "We cannot have broader definitions of success in education without our society accepting broader definitions of success in life."

Ms Catherine Teoh, 30, an administrative executive and divorcee with young children, hopes a government-run kindergarten will open near her Jurong home.

She said her elder daughter, who is in Kindergarten 2, is struggling. "I cannot afford to send them for tuition or phonics or speech and drama classes, so I worry if they are going to fall far behind... I feel an MOE-run kindergarten will be good and give them a leg up."

Heng concerned over exam focus and social mobility
Minister wants in-depth discussion, but cautions against hasty changes
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

THE ongoing national conversation has thrown up two key education-related issues for the minister heading the effort, and he wants to get a more in-depth discussion going on them.

These are Singaporeans' single-minded focus on examinations and grades and the accompanying high stress levels, and social mobility and inclusion in schools, as moving up the socio-economic ladder becomes harder.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who devoted about a third of his hour-long speech during the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday to the Singapore Conversation, said he had been thinking hard about the issues.

Various policy options could be discussed during the second phase of the national conversation which started this month and this might include the high-stakes Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), secondary school posting and streaming, he added.

He also said the suggestion by Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC) yesterday to stop publishing the range of school's minimal entry scores can be considered.

Important questions also need to be addressed if the PSLE is scrapped. Without such an objective benchmark, how can rigorous standards be maintained and secondary school places allocated, the minister asked.

As for streaming, he said more discussion is needed on issues such as whether subject-based banding, already done at primary level, can be replicated in secondary schools, a suggestion made by Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) yesterday.

Given that parents and educators differ in their views over such issues and there are significant trade-offs - a change may benefit one group while another feels it lost out - Mr Heng sounded a note of caution before any shift in policy.

"Whatever we do, we must be deliberate and thoughtful about what we need to change, how fast we can change, and how far we can sustain these changes," he told Parliament.

For instance, while there are concerns over high-stake exams, some see merit in them as they set clear standards.

Countries that have abolished exams or made them easier - such as Japan and Britain, and some areas in the United States - are reversing course after standards fell as a result, Mr Heng said.

There are also competing tensions in the area of social mobility.

He acknowledged concerns that with students in some schools from similar backgrounds, there is less opportunity for interaction and consequently, society may lose its cohesiveness.

"But some have also cautioned that if we mix up our students too much, it will be harder to cater to the learning needs of different groups."

Ahead of any policy changes, he said there needs to be a reaffirmation of education's basic goals - that every child has opportunities to realise his or her potential, and be nurtured with a sense of responsibility and commitment to Singapore and other citizens.

He also listed three fundamental approaches that must accompany changes in policy.

First, children must learn the right things at the right time, and not be hothoused from as early as kindergarten level.

Second, each child is different in interests and rate of development, and must ideally be allowed to learn at his own pace.

Third, students must develop a "Singapore Heartbeat", with empathy for others, and a shared sense of responsibility.

He called for everyone to work together, and not see the education system in isolation.

"We constantly seek to improve, to better nurture our next generation so they can grow up to become the Singaporeans who will bring about the Singapore we aspire towards. And our children are the change we hope for."

Govt kindergartens can expand, if widely supported: Heng
Calls for kids from lower-income homes to get admission priority
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

THE diverse range of kindergartens here has served parents well and the new government-run kindergartens will share best practices and help raise standards across the sector, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

This was his response to calls from MPs that the pre-school sector be nationalised, as he laid out the massive undertaking before his ministry in venturing into the pre-school sector.

"As it is, the ministry has heavy responsibilities, and an expansion into providing affordable, quality kindergartens in the heartlands is a significant undertaking," he said.

He added that the Ministry of Education will go beyond the 15 centres planned only if there is strong public support, and they are shown to create "significant value" for parents and children.

While he spelt out in broad strokes the set-up of the kindergartens - that they will be in the HDB heartland which are the "catchment areas" for children from disadvantaged homes - the exact location of the first five centres and the admission procedures will be known in two weeks.

But even as the announcement was welcomed, welfare organisations and childhood education experts concerned about the widening educational gap between children from different socio-economic backgrounds called on the MOE to give priority to children from lower-income families. Several of them already predict a scramble for places by parents, as these kindergartens will be seen to be of high quality.

Pre-school operator Denise Lai, 42, who is enrolled in the National Institute of Education's doctorate in education programme, said there is likely to be a "rush for places".

"Even if priority is given to those living nearby, the slightly more well-off parents, even if they can afford private kindergartens, will want to place their kids at these centres as they may think that these centres will be of high quality, have more resources and better prepare them for Primary 1.

"Where does that leave your kids from the poor families? Their parents, who are too busy making ends meet, are unlikely to have even heard of these centres."

But she stressed that only a certain percentage of places should be reserved for children from poorer homes.

"At the end of the day it is good to have a healthy mix."

Mr Lee Poh Wah, chief executive of local philanthropic group the Lien Foundation, agreed that there is a need to reserve places for children who come from disadvantaged homes. He suggested that up to 20 per cent of the places be given to children from the lower socio-economic background.

"If we really want an education system that fosters social mobility, I think there should be a concerted effort to search and place children from low-income families in these centres as they will be the ones who will benefit most from a quality programme."

Lien Foundation recently launched a project to provide high-quality pre-schooling to children from disadvantaged families attending two childcare centres run by welfare organisation Care Corner.

Early childhood expert Khoo Kim Choo suggested that these centres go big on parental education.

"Parental involvement is key. They can support their children's learning at home through simple ways such as reading a book aloud to them or playing simple number games.

"Teachers can show them how this can be done."

Singapore Children's Society executive director Alfred Tan liked the idea of siting some of the kindergartens at the primary schools, as there will be better integration.

He suggested that the primary school teachers work closely with the pre-school teachers.

"And by the end of it, when the pupils are in K2, the primary school teachers can have a sense of how well-prepared these kids are for Primary 1," he said.

Adopt lessons from abroad but bear in mind local context
By Stacey Chia, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

SINGAPORE will adopt other education systems' best practices but it cannot borrow wholesale from them as the context here is different, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

And though Singapore is not perfect, he pointed out that its treatment of high achievers and levelling up of all students are studied by many countries.

He was responding to MPs such as Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) and Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC), who had asked if the Ministry of Education (MOE) would consider adopting features of the much-discussed Finnish system. These include abolishing streaming and high-stakes exams.

Finland is revered for producing students who do well in international tests without standardised high-stakes exams. But some note that it does not challenge bright students enough.

Said Mr Lim, who also chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education: "Tuition is unheard of in Finland and yet, Finnish pupils perform well in international tests."

He said his ministry, whose mission it is to deliver a quality education, learns from all over the world, Finland. "We shall not cease exploring how we can build even better schools, institutions and universities," he pledged.

Students at all levels to benefit from ‘specialised help’
By Stacey Chia, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

REGARDLESS of background, every student will be given a chance to catch up and build a strong learning foundation throughout his years in school, pledged Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

Setting out what he called a comprehensive "levelling-up programme", he announced a string of schemes running from primary to secondary levels to complement existing ones that aid students who need the extra help.

As many as 60,000 primary and secondary students stand to benefit from these schemes that include a focus on English and numeracy skills.

Students will receive "specialised help" through extra coaching from specially trained teachers in small groups.

New teaching approaches, such as chips with numbers and the letters x and y printed on them, to help students understand algebraic equations in mathematics will be used.

There will also be online interactive resources to allow students to strengthen their language skills and learn at "a pace suitable to their learning needs", said Mr Heng.

The initiatives have been piloted in several schools, and the Ministry of Education (MOE) will roll them out across all levels - from Primary 1 to Secondary 4 - over the next two years.

This means that support will be available for students throughout their primary and secondary school years.

Mr Heng said when fully rolled out, these programmes "will ensure that any student who needs additional help to achieve a strong foundation in numeracy and literacy will get it".

Responding to queries from MPs on large class sizes, he said the "range of differentiated learning programmes and teaching approaches are better than simply reducing their class size".

Teachers will identify students who need extra coaching based on their performance in class, and they will continue to attend the programmes until they show improvement.

Currently, at the primary school level, there are two programmes - the Learning Support Programme (LSP) and Learning Support for Mathematics (LSM) - for weaker pupils who are identified via a screening exercise conducted at the start of Primary 1.

About 6,000 and 1,800 students are supported by LSP and LSM respectively every year. But their reach is limited. LSP is only for Primary 1 and 2 pupils, while LSM is only for Primary 1 pupils.

There is no structured programme for older students, even though most schools have remedial programmes. The new programmes will also benefit those who are not weak enough to be put on the LSP and LSM, but are still lagging behind the rest of the class.

About 600 teachers will be trained to conduct these new programmes. Teachers interviewed welcomed the expanded support as a timely intervention for struggling students. At Da Qiao Primary, one of five primary schools that piloted the additional learning support for English last year, teachers noticed their pupils now have more confidence.

They were put into groups of about eight, where they learnt writing, sentence structure and spelling, using techniques not available in regular classes.

Fourteen-year-old Jasper Tan, a student at Bedok View Secondary, one of six secondary schools which piloted the new support scheme for mathematics, said the learning aids have helped him visualise algebraic equations better.

"It's still a struggle sometimes, but I do not dread maths as much."

Extended ITE programme to help weaker students
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

NEXT year, the Education Ministry will pilot a programme to help Institute of Technical Education (ITE) students who are weak in literacy and numeracy skills.

A student in a Nitec programme usually spends two years in the course: the first on foundation training and the second on career core modules.

However, those selected for the new Extended Nitec Foundation Programme will spend two years on foundation training.

The programme targets Normal (Technical) students with fewer than two N-level subject passes and who may find it hard to complete the Nitec courses at ITE. Currently, more than half of those with fewer than two N-level passes do not complete the ITE courses successfully.

For a start, the programme will take in 180 students.

It is also be open to candidates from NorthLight School and Assumption Pathway School, which are for students who did not pass the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah, announced the initiative in Parliament yesterday.

Rising economic expectations and the shift in emphasis to more highly skilled manpower have resulted in a more demanding technical curriculum at ITE, said Ms Indranee.

As a result, some students may find it hard to complete their Nitec courses within two years.

After the first two years of the extended programme, students will be awarded a Nitec Foundation Certification. It will be useful to those who are unable to finish their final year as they can use it to find a job first and perhaps continue studying in the future.

Said Ms Indranee: "We are striving hard to give each student the right kind of support at every step of the way to bring out the best in them depending on his or her aptitude, ability and speed of learning."

Support programme for dyslexic pupils widened
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

A SUPPORT programme for pupils with dyslexia will be extended to 22 more primary schools, following encouraging results from a trial run.

About 340 Primary 3 pupils will benefit from the expansion.

The school-based reading programme, introduced in 20 schools, starts at Primary 3 and aims to help pupils overcome their difficulties in reading by the end of Primary 4.

"Beyond Primary 4, their learning will be monitored and continuing support will be provided by their teachers and the allied educators to those who need it," said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Sim Ann yesterday.

Dyslexia is a mild learning disorder and those who have it struggle with reading, spelling and comprehension.

They form the largest group of children with special education (SPED) needs, Ms Sim added.

But they have a very good chance of overcoming their literacy difficulties if appropriate intervention occurs early.

One success story is Bukit Panjang Primary pupil Boong Guan Ming, who can now read story books on his own after spending slightly more than a year on the programme. Allied educator Siti Fadhilah Atkha, 25, taught him to read by breaking down words into vowels and consonant sounds.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry is helping SPED schools and students in other ways.

A programme that gives guidance to parents of SPED children will be expanded to all primary schools by year end, after being piloted in 14 primary schools.

All SPED schools will also receive $2,500 in seed funding to set up parent support groups.

Ms Sim said when these students move on to polytechnics or the Institute of Technical Education, their secondary schools can share their diagnosis and support details with these institutions.

This will allow tertiary institutions to "provide necessary support for students... from the point of admission", she added.

'Good Citizen' textbooks to make a comeback
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

The "Good Citizen" series of textbooks will make a comeback when the Ministry of Education (MOE) rolls out the national curriculum for character education in primary and secondary schools next year.

But the content will be updated with stories and lessons that will resonate with students' experience of life in Singapore. The books will also suggest activities that can involve parents.

The textbooks will also be made available in the other vernacular languages.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat revealed in Parliament yesterday plans to reintroduce the textbooks as he reiterated the importance of a holistic education centred on values.

Many have fond memories of the textbooks which were used in the 1980s in primary schools to spread the message of being a good citizen. The books made use of short stories and poems to teach children values.

The series was replaced in 1994 by the Civics and Moral Education textbooks used in primary schools today.

In a further boost to Character and Citizenship Education (CCE), MOE will develop a core group of teacher-mentors to spearhead efforts, said Mr Heng.

Mr Heng pointed out that students will learn values not just in specific periods set aside for CCE but through a range of subjects and activities in schools such as community work.

Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) participants have expressed their wish for a society with broader definitions of success, said the minister, who heads the committee for the OSC.

Mr Heng added: "A continued focus on CCE will stand Singapore in good stead as we face new challenges together. It can help nurture the Singaporean that participants at the OSC have said they wish to see in future."

An A for Heng Swee Keat's pre-school plans
After years of refusal, Govt has finally stepped in to level the playing field
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

I GIVE Education Minister Heng Swee Keat an A for his ministry's plan on pre-school education and to help children from disadvantaged homes.

I've sat through many Parliamentary debates in the last two decades, when one minister after another rejected calls for more to be done at pre-school level.

First, it was on grounds that empirical research didn't show much benefits to the children; and later, when research was promising, that the benefits were not sustained and levelled off after the kids turned eight, or 10, or in adulthood, depending on the studies cited.

And meanwhile, cohort after cohort of children from low-income homes either didn't go to pre-school or went to low-cost centres staffed by teachers who spoke broken English, where they did worksheets and learnt to sit still at their desks, while better- off children went to $1,000 a month centres taught by teachers with master's degrees where they learnt through play, did projects on climate change and learnt what an oxymoron was.

Parents, educationists, social activists and columnists pressed the Government to level the playing field.

And this year, finally, it is changing. The early announcements were made outside the House, earlier this year: A doubling of the budget devoted to the pre-school sector over five years to $3 billion, and marked increases in subsidies to bring the cost of pre-school down so it's negligible to low- to median-income families (as little as $10 a month).

Mr Heng fleshed out just what the Government would do in this area yesterday:
- The Ministry of Education (MOE) will set up 15 pre-school centres in Housing Board estates and share good teaching practices with other centres. Mr Heng called these centres a catalyst. I think of them as yeast that leavens bread, or salt that flavours food. They are a tangible commitment by the Government to raising standards in the sector, and keeping fees affordable.
A new agency to coordinate pre-school education will be set up. This replaces the current unwieldy system where kindergartens come under MOE and childcare centres come under the Ministry of Social and Family Development (and formerly the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports). The call to have one ministry or agency oversee the sector has long been made - and long been rejected without good reason.
- A Level-Up programme to support weaker students in literacy and numeracy through primary and secondary school which will benefit 60,000 children. Schools will identify such students and teachers will use teaching methods tailored to their "differentiated learning" styles.
Mr Heng showed a video clip where students learnt algebra not by maths formulae, but by using colourful discs they pinned on cardboard sheets as they worked out equations. Visual and tactile cues aid learning.

More student-care centres will be set up on school grounds, offering homework coaching and good nutrition - things not all children get at home.

Having done a great deal at the higher ends of the spectrum over the years, the focus of education policy is now shifting to the lower end: from tertiary to pre-school education; and from programmes for the academically able to programmes for weaker students. This is certainly helpful for social mobility.

The grit to tackle an intractable problem and the initiative to develop a holistic approach to boost the chances of kids from disadvantaged homes, earn Mr Heng his A.

To get an A-plus, he can consider suggestions from MP Lily Neo that schools actively identify students from disadvantaged families and place them in student- care centres, paired with social workers; and from MP Irene Ng to proactively rotate good teachers to different schools.

In addition, MOE could work with Community Development Councils, the prisons and drug rehabilitation centres to identify families in distress who have school-going children, to keep these children in school even if their parents are jobless, in prison or in DRCs.

Singapore's education system has won accolades, and its students top international performance rankings annually.

But problems persist, as MPs pointed out. Press "reset" and stop the tuition syndrome, said Ms Irene Ng. Mr Lim Biow Chuan complained of schools that expected students to finish their homework and revise for exams over the Lunar New Year.

The Workers' Party's Yee Jenn Jong wanted to remove priority for children of community leaders in primary school admission.

These concerns point to more fundamental issues that need tackling in the school system: its hyper-competitive nature, and rising concern about whether unequal access to quality pre- schools, brand-name primary schools and expensive private tuition, will reduce social mobility.

Mr Heng flagged a prevailing concern about the high-stress, exam-oriented school system. But he pointed out that some of these are issues the Singapore community, not just MOE, needs to address. Reducing exam stress for example, can't be done by schools, teachers or MOE alone.

It takes all of Singapore. What can you and I do?

Don't compare exam results. Comparisons are a big source of stress, said students. Or as Mr Heng urged: Behave like good aunties and uncles and don't ask children of your friends or relatives how they fared in their PSLE or O levels.

COE system: No major changes in near term
Longer-term review to look at issues like criterion for COE categories: Lui
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

A REVIEW of the certificate of entitlement (COE) system is under way, but major changes - if any - are unlikely in the immediate future.

"This is a longer-term study, and we will not be making major changes to the COE market in the near term," Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said yesterday.

Mr Lui, however, gave hints on the likely issues his ministry will explore during the review.

One of them is to categorise COEs according to a vehicle's emission level or its Open Market Value (its approximate cost price), instead of engine capacity.

"With changes in technology, using engine capacity as the criterion for COE categorisation may no longer be so valid," he said, without elaborating.

He also said the social equity aspect of Singapore's car policy is better addressed via other taxes, like the Additional Registration Fee (ARF).

It is an approach taken in Budget 2013, with the introduction of a tiered ARF system that imposes significantly heftier taxes on luxury cars.

These ideas were among several his ministry had received from MPs and the public on ways to improve the COE system.

Another is to introduce a "family car" COE category, a suggestion made yesterday by Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) during the debate on the ministry's spending.

But such a needs-based system is likely to pose implementation challenges and create loopholes, Mr Lui said. "It would be extremely difficult for the Government to decide fairly who deserves and needs a car, and who does not."

Mr Gan had also asked if the commercial COE category could be split so that buyers of light and heavy vehicles do not compete with one another.

Mr Lui said his ministry would "study carefully" if buyers of the two types of vehicles "should pay the same COE premium".

Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer), who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, called for more COEs to be allotted to smaller cars to mitigate the bidding pressure from premium cars, which are increasingly competing with budget cars for COEs.

This move, he argued, is necessary because when COE prices decline, it will offset the higher taxes premium cars incur in the tiered ARF regime.

Replying, Mr Lui said it would take time for a clearer picture to emerge on how the Monetary Authority of Singapore's car loan curbs and tiered ARF system affect buying behaviour and COE prices. It is best to let the dust settle first, he added, pointing out that there is "no shortage of suggestions" from various interest groups on how COEs should be distributed.

Mr Lui, however, seemed clear on one change he wants to effect: smoothening the cyclical COE supply pattern.

He has asked the Land Transport Authority "to see if there is a practical way of putting aside some of the supply from the peak that we expect in the next few years, for the future when COE supply becomes tighter".

He was referring to a foreseeable supply bonanza between next year and 2018, when cars bought during the supply boom a decade earlier approach 10 years of age and are likely to be scrapped.

It would be followed by a supply "drought" between 2019 and 2023, as the number of cars scrapped decides the number of COEs available in the following year.

This peak-and-trough pattern has given rise to wide fluctuations in COE prices over the years.

Repeated calls have been made from many quarters for the supply pattern to be flattened.

If achieved, a plunge in premiums widely expected between next year and 2018 may not happen, motor industry watchers said. Similarly, prices are less likely to skyrocket between 2019 and 2023.

Evening, Sat ERP to stay

TRAFFIC is heavier on roads where Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) charges had been removed or reduced.

Hence, there are no plans to remove ERP charges in the evenings and Saturdays, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said, in response to calls to abolish them. ERP is needed to manage traffic congestion, he added.

More get green car rebates

MORE than 50 per cent of cars qualified for incentives given out under the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme, which was introduced at the start of the year.

In all, they received more than $13.5 million worth of rebates off their Additional Registration Fee, said Mr Lui. The proportion is more than double that achieved by an earlier scheme for green cars, in 2011.

'Buses can't ply every road'

A COMPLAINT by new MP Lee Li Lian from the Workers' Party prompted Mr Lui to remark that it was not possible nor desirable to have buses ply "every crescent, every drive, every avenue, every road or street".

On Tuesday, Ms Lee had bemoaned the lack of trunk and feeder bus services that run into Rivervale Crescent in her Punggol East constituency.

Yesterday, Mr Lui, in his initial reply, pointed out that there were 16 services running through and along the constituency.

"About 90 per cent of the HDB blocks in Punggol East are within 200m of either an LRT station or a bus stop or both," he said.

Later, she clarified that her issue was with the lack of bus services within Rivervale Crescent, not the entire Punggol East ward. "I probably spoke too fast yesterday," said Ms Lee, who speaks in rapid-fire fashion.

Mr Lui, saying he must have misunderstood her, explained that if buses were to ply every crescent and drive, the route will be more circuitous.

Also, the time taken for the journey will be much longer and commuters have to travel a longer distance to get to their destination.

Bus sector may be open earlier to new players
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

THE public bus sector may be open to competition from new players earlier than expected.

The signal for this change came from Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew yesterday, when he hinted that other players may be allowed to bid for some bus routes run by SMRT and SBS Transit, even before the pair's licences expire in 2016.

Responding to Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer), Mr Lui said he is studying carefully how to move ahead with contestability for bus packages "to some extent", before current bus licences run out.

Singapore will move towards a model like London's, in which seven operators compete to run different packages of bus routes.

"The challenge is in putting together packages of routes with the supporting infrastructure like depots and interchanges that will support this contestability framework," he said.

Packages must also be "configured appropriately".

Likewise for rail operations, Mr Lui said the Government is chugging along with liberalisation and has already done so with the Downtown Line tender, which was awarded to SBS Transit in 2011.

Under the new MRT operating and financing rules, SBS Transit can operate the Downtown Line for only about 15 years.

The Government also assumes ownership of operating assets, leasing them to the operator for a fee that will go into a Railway Sinking Fund managed by the Land Transport Authority.

The money will eventually go towards replacing assets.

For new lines like the Thomson Line, soon to be built, and the future Eastern Region Line, Mr Lui does not rule out the possibility of inviting foreign players to bid.

Going forward, existing rail lines, run by SMRT and SBS Transit, will also be tendered out. "How to do so... we will have to work out, but we certainly hope to see some progress within the next two to three years."

Responding to Dr Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC), he admitted the Government would be open to legal challenges if it takes rail lines back before the operator's licence expires, unless "there is a proper negotiation and an agree- able exchange by both parties".

Referring to bus operations that have become less profitable, he said operators are "more than happy" to return routes to the Government. "So the challenge indeed is actually how to have good and proper continuity rather than the returning of the routes."

More than $1.1b needed to ramp up bus services
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

THE Government will have to fork out more money in its bid to ramp up bus services, on top of the $1.1 billion set aside last year.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew raised two factors that would lead to increased costs.

First, short feeder services that will be tendered out to private operators do not fall under the $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP).

Second, the speeding up of the programme's roll-out will also affect costs, Mr Lui said.

On Tuesday, he said the aim is to implement the bulk of the BSEP by next year end, instead of 2016.

Doing so would mean bringing forward the implementation of new routes and recruitment of drivers, as well as spending more on fuel and maintenance, he said.

"Once we decide that we want to accelerate the programme, then obviously the cost will have to change and we have to look at this more closely together with MOF (Ministry of Finance)," he said.

Mr Lui was responding to Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, who had asked if the new feeder and city direct services would be covered by the funds set aside for the BSEP.

Under the BSEP, the Government will buy and fund the costs of 550 new buses. Operators SBS Transit and SMRT will add another 250 buses to increase the overall bus fleet size by 20 per cent.

Mr Giam also asked if private operators, which will be tapped to run express and feeder bus routes, are subject to the same service standards and penalties as SBS Transit and SMRT.

So far, one parallel bus route has been tendered out to private bus operators.

Mr Lui said he is waiting to see the operators' response to the tender, before discussing "how much of the standards that we would like to impose is acceptable".

The bringing in of private operators to run some bus routes is still an experiment, he added.

Private Car Rental Scheme may be liberalised
By Dylan Loh, Channel NewsAsia, 13 Mar 2013

Car owners may have an easier time renting out their vehicles in future.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) will study if the Private Car Rental Scheme can be liberalised.

LTA is also looking at other ways to ease the private transport situation as vehicle ownership aspirations remain.

Forty-five per cent of Singapore households owned a car in 2012, compared to 38 per cent in 2004.

With Singapore's land constraints, the government said the growing trend in car ownership is simply not sustainable.

If the Private Car Rental Scheme can be made more flexible, it means Singaporeans will have easier access to renting private transport, without needing to own a car. 

The aim is to increase the convenience of door-to-door options to get around for family outings, or ferrying elderly parents, for example.

While this is one way to manage the private transport situation, the government said the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) system of allocating vehicle ownership will stay.

Authorities are doing a longer term study on the practicality of putting aside some COE supply from the upcoming peak expected in the next few years, for the future when supply becomes tighter.

"Most people accept the logic in restricting the number of cars on the road in the need to keep traffic smoothing smoothly but no one likes to pay more. As a result, we have heard many suggestions on how to change the system, usually with a view to keeping COE prices low for some," said Mr Hri Kumar.

Transport Minister Lui Tuk Yew said the COE system is by no means perfect, but is preferable to a balloting system.

"It is a difficult undertaking to try to allocate cars based on needs, such as to raise a family, to ferry elderly family members or for work purposes. Setting aside the likely problems with implementation and loopholes, I think it would be extremely difficult for the government to decide fairly who deserves and needs a car, and who does not," said Mr Lui.

To make better use scarce land space for roads, the Kranji and Pan Island Expressway stretch connecting the residential areas in the north to jobs in the west may be where a 'reversible flow' scheme will be implemented.

This scheme allows roads heading one way to head the other direction according to demands of peak period travel.

Inter-agency panel to boost road safety
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

An inter-agency committee to look into improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists has been set up, in the wake of a spate of high-profile fatalities on the roads.

It will comprise members from the Land Transport Authority (LTA), the Traffic Police and the Education Ministry.

To be called the Committee on Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety, it will be chaired by Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim and pay special attention to the needs of the elderly and school children.

He told Parliament yesterday that local communities, and people in the public and private sectors, will be canvassed for views. A five-year plan will then be rolled out.

While Singapore has a fairly good track record in road safety - last year's road fatality rate of 3.2 per 100,000 persons was lower than the 3.8 in 2011 and better than many other countries' - Dr Faishal said this gives little comfort to those who have lost their loved ones.

To reduce accidents, the LTA will put more markings on roads and warning lights to alert motorists to be more careful.

Top on the committee's list is safety in school zones. The Traffic Police will clamp down harder on traffic offenders, though no details were given yesterday.

The committee is also looking into reducing speed limits around schools, and installing more signs, speed humps, flashing LED lights, and railings on both sides of the road in these areas.

These measures may be tested out in selected locations, said Dr Faishal, responding to suggestions from MPs such as Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC).

He added: "Our message is clear. For school zones, our priority is to ensure the safety of our children."

Since January, the spotlight has been on heavy vehicles plying the roads, especially in school zones, after two young brothers died after being hit by a cement mixer in Tampines. Calls for action have grown louder with a 73- year-old motorcyclist dying after he was hit by a lorry in Tuas on Monday. There have been at least nine fatalities involving heavy vehicles in the last three months.

Dr Faishal said the LTA will also be putting more eyes on the road to spot and stop illegal parking, and improve traffic flow.

After a successful trial at Beach Road and Marine Parade Central, surveillance cameras will also be installed at more locations.

210km of cycling paths in 16 towns by 2020
LTA identifying areas to test on-road lanes, piloting bike-sharing in 2015
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

CYCLISTS can look forward to another 90km of cycling paths here, bringing the total network of such dedicated off-road paths to 210km in 16 HDB towns by 2020.

And there are plans for every town to have a comprehensive cycling network eventually.

This will allow residents to cycle to the MRT station or to buy groceries at the neighbourhood centre. Work is under way to build paths in seven towns.

Transport Parliamentary Secretary Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said the priority will be to build off-road paths, which "provide a safe cycling environment for a larger group of cyclists".

He has asked the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to prioritise plugging short gaps in the cycling network, such as connecting existing park connectors to the nearby MRT station at Sengkang. This is so cyclists need not go onto the road or footpath when riding to the MRT station.

He pledged that cycling paths will be well integrated with park connectors in the long term.

The LTA is also studying the possibility of building cycling paths at major industrial estates for workers to use.

Moving to commuting by bicycle, Dr Faishal said he supports the idea of allowing foldable bicycles on public transport during the morning pre-peak window.

"This will enable cycling to effectively close the last-mile connectivity gap for trips to work," he said, adding that the challenge lay in finding the right cut-off timing in the morning. The idea will be carefully studied, he said.

Several MPs, including Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Teo Ser Luck, raised the issue of safety for cyclists yesterday.

Dr Faishal said more signs alerting motorists to the presence of cyclists will be put up by the middle of this year on popular routes.

The LTA will also launch a guidebook on safe cycling tips in a few months' time. To encourage more cyclists to dismount at crossings, new markings at zebra-crossings will be on trial at three locations in Tampines.

Responding to calls for an on-road cycling lane pilot, Dr Faishal said Singapore may not want to follow other countries' examples due to the heavy traffic situation here.

He added: "On-road cycling is risky, and no one, young or old, who is not confident of cycling on the road, should do so."

He noted that on-road cycling lanes would "also affect the movement of buses, require the removal of street-side parking and expose cyclists to turning traffic" if lanes are not properly designed.

Still, he said the LTA is identifying roads where these issues could be overcome, and studying if it is feasible to try out on-road cycling lanes along those roads.

Many cyclists have been requesting for more to be done for those who cycle on the roads.

Dr Faishal also said the LTA plans to conduct a pilot bicycle-sharing scheme in the Jurong Lake District in 2015, which will have a network of cycling paths by then.

Proposals from the industry will be requested in the coming months. He added that bicycle-sharing can be piloted in other cycling towns if there is interest from the community.

In terms of bicycle facilities, another 600 bicycle racks will be built at 12 more MRT stations by the third quarter of next year.

Changi Airport to get third runway by 2020
By Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2013

CHANGI Airport will get a third runway and it will be ready by the end of this decade to meet the growing number of flights on the horizon.

It will be on a plot of reclaimed land near the airport, with Changi Coast Road separating them.

The new runway will be redeveloped from an existing one that is now used for military purposes.

Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo gave the project update in Parliament yesterday, saying detailed plans will be finalised by the year's end.

She was replying to Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer) and Mr Charles Chong (Joo Chiat) who had asked how the Government intends to secure Changi's future growth. By 2018, Terminal 4 will be ready and Terminal 1, expanded.

The added capacity will enable Changi to handle up to 85 million passengers a year compared to the current 73 million, she said during the debate on her ministry's budget.

A fifth terminal will not be needed until the mid-2020s, she added.

Capacity plays a pivotal role in ensuring that Changi continues to fly high, said Mrs Teo, who heads a high-level committee looking into the airport's future needs.

Citing Dubai Airport, she noted it was rapidly adding capacity for home carrier Emirates and other airlines to expand their networks.

Its extensive connectivity, with more air links than Changi, is a key reason Australia's Qantas recently partnered Emirates and rerouted its Europe-bound flights via Dubai instead of Singapore, she noted.

Still, Singapore has an edge in connectivity in the region, including to countries such as China, India and Indonesia, she said.

But she added: "Changi must take the competition seriously and work hard to retain superior air connectivity."

Giving details of the third runway and other plans for Changi's future development, Mrs Teo said the plot being redeveloped is about 1,080ha. It will house Terminal 5 and probably other facilities as well, including an air cargo centre plus aircraft maintenance and repair shops.

New roads and public transport links will also be built.

Despite stiff competition from Dubai and cities such as Hong Kong, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, Changi has done well, industry analysts said.

On Monday, Airports Council International - a global airports organisation - named Changi the best large airport last year. In Asia, however, it was second to South Korea's Incheon.


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