Saturday 16 March 2013

Parliament Highlights - 15 Mar 2013

Committee of Supply Debate: MCCY

Free entry to museums for Singaporeans and PRs
By Huang Lijie, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

FREE entry to museums year round for Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) tops the list of moves by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) to strengthen cultural identity and build a strong sense of belonging.

Artists and arts groups will also enjoy more than double - or about $94 million - in grants over a five-year period, starting last year, while a $200 million Cultural Donation Matching Fund will be set up to match private sector donations.

Acting Minister Lawrence Wong said in Parliament yesterday that Singapore's rapid development and social changes have made it "difficult to develop strong cultural anchors for our national identity". As a result, Singaporeans "feel disoriented, especially with the increase in population and new immigrants".

He painted a picture of how a vibrant cultural scene here can root people in shared culture and heritage, and burnish Singapore's appeal as a home for its people.

Free admission, for one thing, aims to make museums "central to the cultural and community life of all Singaporeans", he said.

It extends to six national museums and two heritage institutions, including the Singapore Art Museum and the Malay Heritage Centre. It will begin on May 18, in conjunction with International Museum Day.

Museum visitors can also expect a more comprehensive set of works on display, as the Government pumps in $62 million over the next five years to acquire and conserve artworks and artefacts.

Mr Wong noted that the scope of free museum admission has "progressively expanded".

Since 2011, the National Heritage Board (NHB), which runs the national museums and heritage institutions, has rolled out free admission pilots, offering citizens and PRs free entry in the month of August to mark National Day. The pilots saw visitorship increase by 10 per cent compared with August of the preceding year.

Mr Wong said it was "after careful consideration" that he decided to go ahead with free museum entry year-round. "I hope this move will encourage more Singaporeans to visit our museums and heritage institutions," he said.

Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), who raised the idea of year-round free museum admission in 2011, asked the minister how museums would cope with the lost revenue. Responding, Mr Wong said "the revenue foregone would be made good by MCCY".

NHB collects an annual admission revenue of $2 million. Its overall operating expenditure for the last financial year is around $151 million.

Sports to get $400m boost over 5 years
Better facilities, greater accessibility with total funding crossing $1.2b
By Sanjay Nair & May Chen, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

AN ADDITIONAL $400 million will be channelled into sports over the next five years - benefiting not just Singapore's top athletes but also all those who take up sports for recreation.

The extra funding will take the total budget for sports to over $1.2 billion over the same duration. The money will be used to help spruce up sports facilities and bring them closer to Singaporeans. It will also help national athletes reach higher and weekend warriors play harder.

Of the increase, $250 million will go into "software", such as funding community events and elite athletes, while the remaining will be put into infrastructure investments.

Announcing the boost yesterday, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said during the debate on his ministry's budget that the changes are aimed at encouraging a more sporting lifestyle, not just for individuals but communities.

As such, expenditure on sports infrastructure is set to double from the $146 million spent between 2007 and 2011.

This is part of the Sports Facilities Master Plan, which will transform the Republic's islandwide network of facilities into lifestyle destinations and sporting spaces in phases over the next 20 years.

Painting a picture of what the future of sports infrastructure will look like, Mr Wong outlined four tiers of facilities that will cater to sporting needs from the neighbourhood to national levels.

Besides the state-of-the-art Singapore Sports Hub, which will form the top tier of facilities when it opens next year, regional sports centres (RSCs) and town sports and recreational centres (TSRCs) will also be developed.

The Tampines Town Hub will be Singapore's first RSC, with Punggol among other future locations being considered.

Up to five RSCs are set to be built across the island by 2030, serving as focal points for sports competitions, leagues and events.

They will have a bigger seating capacity than stadiums now, LED screens for better spectator experience, and incorporate other lifestyle and recreational facilities.

The vision, said Mr Wong, is for these facilities to not just be areas "where people come to participate in a sport, and then leave".

"We want our centres to be vibrant community nodes, where people can pick up a new skill, participate in competitions and games, and connect with one another through sports."

TSRCs will feature broader amenities that are integrated with park connectors and other leisure offerings. This will include some older stadiums, to be converted into all-round sports parks.

At the basic level, community play fields will be created in every constituency to spur more to play sports in their neighbourhood.

Housewife Elizabeth Woo, 44, who jogs three times a week, said: "It's important to cater to all ages so that as a family, we can all go to one place and exercise, even if it means doing different activities."

More facilities will also be opened up in schools - beyond the usual indoor sports hall and fields - for community use.

Currently, 139 school fields and 60 indoor sports halls are available for public use on weekends under the Dual-Use Scheme.

There was also good news for both elite athletes and recreational sports enthusiasts.

Selected sportsmen will receive Sports Excellence Scholarships via a new $40 million scheme, getting financial support that will help sustain full-time training.

For everyday athletes, the Super Sports Club will offer an integrated network of sports events and opportunities irrespective of their proficiency level.

A super club open to all sports enthusiasts
By May Chen, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

NO MATTER what your sporting ability may be, regardless of how old you are, if you are game enough, the Super Sports Club has a place for you.

Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong told Parliament yesterday that the new programme - part of the Singapore Sports Council's Vision 2030 initiative aimed at promoting a strong sporting culture among Singaporeans - will allow Singaporeans to pursue lifelong interests in sports.

The public sporting club will offer an islandwide network of sports programmes, leagues and competitions at the regional and community level - and for all age groups and sporting abilities. The network will be integrated closely with sports facilities, and those who sign up to join the club will also get greater and affordable access to facilities and programmes.

"The venues and activities will also help to anchor a sense of belonging and affinity to the community through shared sporting experiences and memories. In this way, we will build the sporting culture," said Mr Wong.

A pilot phase in the Jurong region will be conducted this year to test and refine operational details before being expanded to other regions.

In his speech, Mr Wong also noted that while sports participation rates in schools are high, that statistic falls once students graduate and leave the structured programming offered in schools.

He said: "Outside of schools, there is no continuing pathway for people to pick up sports they are interested in, develop their skills and participate in competitions at their level of proficiency through their lifetime."

The Super Sports Club will seek to change that by beefing up schemes offered by sports programme providers and organisations so that sports enthusiasts at all levels of abilities can participate in competitions and leagues.

For Nasya Alyssa, 19, it means being able to play competitive netball regularly again. The third-year Republic Polytechnic student had decided against joining the school team because she felt intimidated by better players.

Said Nasya, who represented Serangoon Garden Secondary School throughout her secondary school years: "My former teammates and I will try to come together to play a game, but we play once every three or four months and there's no real structure to it.

"There should be more structure through the Super Sports Club and I will also get to meet more players living in the region."

National athletes to get more support
$40m in scholarships will go to about 60 elite performers in various sports
By May Chen, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

NATIONAL athletes aiming to shine on the international stage like the Olympic Games will be backed by a more comprehensive support system to help them go faster, higher, stronger.

Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong revealed yesterday that under a revised national High Performance System (HPS), $40 million will be set aside for top athletes for the next five years.

Of these, an elite field of about 60 athletes across various sports and performance levels will be offered Sports Excellence Scholarships worth $40 million.

Recipients will get financial support in the form of monthly stipends to help sustain full-time training for major events, funding for coaching and allowances for training, competition and equipment.

Previously, only an elite field of 11 identified for Olympic success had access to top-level assistance. The OPP budget was also a significantly smaller $6.5 million.

For student-athletes, the Singapore Sports Institute (SSI) will work with tertiary institutions to design flexible education programmes. Those who have started work will be linked up with athlete-friendly employers.

But Mr Wong assured that the majority of national athletes who do not come under the scholarship will still get comprehensive support including coaching, sports medicine, sports science and training allowances.

The Government yesterday pledged an extra $100 million towards sports excellence. The SSI and national sports bodies are expected to work even closer to support national athletes in and outside of their sporting careers.

Mr Wong will head an 11-member steering committee which will provide strategic guidance and evaluate the first batch of athletes receiving the scholarships.

The group includes Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck, who chaired the OPP steering committee. "This is about training athletes for the long term and not like the OPP or anything we've planned in the past which was usually targeted at one Olympic cycle," said Mr Teo.

"It is a step forward in the sense the SSI will execute the plans, but at the same time, the journey that the OPP started can be continued - while including the disabled athletes. That's the biggest progress."

Arts bodies' input sought on culture fund
Museums, arts groups to be consulted on $200m donation matching fund
By Huang Lijie And Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

ARTS groups and museums are among the organisations that will be consulted on an upcoming multimillion-dollar fund that aims to encourage private-sector donation to the cultural sector.

Yesterday, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong sketched the broad guidelines for discussions on how best to design the fund, announced last month by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in his Budget speech.

He also noted that Singapore has some way to go in giving to the cultural sector.

On a per capita basis, Singapore stands at about $7 per person compared to $13 in Australia, $14 in Britain and $35 in the US.

In setting out the guidelines, he made three points.

One, it would be better for beneficiaries, rather than a central agency, to do fund-raising as it would nurture ties with donors.

Two, the matching grants should benefit a range of arts groups and institutions, and "not (be) monopolised by a few large beneficiaries".

Three, the grants should be used in a way that will help the sector build up its capability over the long term.

He was responding to MPs' suggestions about the implementation of the fund, details of which will be firmed up when the consultation is completed later this year, he said.

Artists and arts groups will also receive greater support from the National Arts Council (NAC), he said. Its arts funding will increase to around $94 million over the five-year period that began last year. This is an increase of almost 140 per cent, compared to the previous five-year period.

Nominated MP Janice Koh urged the ministry to abolish or update the NAC funding guidelines, saying arts groups feel "straitjacketed" by them.

The guidelines state the NAC will prioritise funding for proposals which, among other things, do not advocate lifestyles "seen as objectionable by the general public" or "undermine the authority or legitimacy of the government and public institutions, or threaten the nation's security or stability".

Mr Wong said the guidelines are necessary for accountability in the use of public funds.

"NAC will apply this with a light touch and provide space as much as possible for our artists and arts groups to express themselves creatively," he added.

It is also important to build a discerning audience "that's supportive of artistic expression even if it may be sometimes provocative or controversial", he said.

This will require deep dialogue and engagement between the artists and the broader community, a move the ministry and the NAC will facilitate "so that we can gradually open up the space for more artistic expressions", he added.

Singapore Arts Festival to return in 2014 under independent company
By Huang Lijie, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

THE future of the Singapore Arts Festival, organised by the National Arts Council (NAC), has been determined.

The nationwide performing arts festival, which is on a one-year hiatus, will return next year under an independent festival company set up by the council.

The company will have the autonomy to determine the festival's artistic direction.

The decision was announced yesterday in Parliament by Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong. The ministry oversees the NAC and the move aims to spur the performing arts sector here to excel.

The change will see the arts community take on a bigger role and expand its programming capabilities.

It will also allow the festival to develop a stronger, independent identity over time.

The decision follows recommendations set out by a review committee formed last year to assess the future of the festival amid Singapore's maturing arts and culture scene.

As part of the ministry's bid to bolster excellence in the arts sector, Mr Wong said it is also holding consultations with relevant agencies and stakeholders to plan and pave Singapore's return to the prestigious visual arts show, the Venice Biennale, in 2015.

Last year, the NAC said it would not set up a pavilion at this year's biennale because it was reviewing its participation and evaluating whether the cost was worth its while.

To take part, a country can set up a pavilion to showcase its artists.

Artists may also be invited by the biennale's curated section to show their works.

Mr Wong said: "We have reviewed this, and decided that our participation in international platforms such as the Venice Biennale is important in profiling our artists internationally."

$100m for youth groups to champion social causes
By Lim Yi Han, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

YOUTH groups will be given a big boost, with the setting up of a $100 million new fund to support their initiatives to champion ground-up causes.

The National Youth Fund (NYF) will be created by pumping $72 million into the existing National Youth Endowment Fund, bringing the total amount to $100 million.

The new fund is being created instead of being kept as an endowment fund because the latter allows only a small investment income to be utilised annually.

The NYF will be drawn over the next 20 years to support youth activities, which means an annual budget of about $5 million - which is more than eight times the current annual funding.

This was announced by Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong in Parliament yesterday.

The youth scene is much more vibrant today, with over 200 youth sector organisations, compared with just 70 a decade ago, he noted.

Youth sector organisations and social enterprises, schools and institutes of higher learning may apply to the new fund from next month.

They can use the money, for example, to set up a social enterprise or start a new social initiative.

But encouraging the youth to champion ground-up causes is just one aspect.

Mr Wong said his ministry is also looking into how to sustain their interest after they leave school, a point raised by several MPs yesterday.

The National Youth Council (NYC), Mr Wong pointed out, will play a bigger role as "a connector", linking schools and institutes of higher learning with youth sector organisations "to engage youths outside the classroom and beyond the school years".

Youth groups said the increased funding gives their projects a kickstart or helps them to expand their initiatives and reach out to more people.

Said Ms Audrey Tan, 25, who co-founded PlayMoolah, a local start-up which provides financial literacy education for children, in 2010: "For first-time entrepreneurs... it gives them an avenue to get that going; just having capital allows you to begin."

"For companies, like ours, which have been around, it allows us to then scale up."

Got ideas on promoting harmony? Dip into $5m fund
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

CALLING schools and non-profit groups with ideas on how to promote racial and religious harmony - a new $5 million fund can help turn those ideas into reality.

The Harmony Fund aims to encourage more ground-up initiatives allowing Singaporeans of different backgrounds to celebrate their diversity. Its launch takes place against a backdrop of recent incidents involving insensitive comments on people of different races and religions.

The $5 million Harmony Fund will be run over three years from April 1. Non-profit organisations and schools can apply for a grant, which will co-fund up to 80 per cent of net costs of eligible projects, up to a $100,000 limit.

The thinking behind it, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Sam Tan, is that "a genuine attempt to understand our fellow Singaporeans from other races and religions must... come from each one of us, and not from government policies and programmes alone".

The projects should raise awareness of the importance of inter-racial and inter-religious tolerance; promote understanding of various ethnic, racial or religious groups here; boost interaction among the groups or reduce negative stereotypes or misconceptions of them.

Mr Tan cited youth event Rafusicul (combining "racial", "fusion" and "culture") in his speech yesterday. Started in 2009, it featured 100 youth of different races performing a flash mob outside Mandarin Gallery last December.

Ms Aprilia Loke, 18, who has led the organising committee for the past four years, welcomed the news. "With sufficient funding, we are able to do more and execute more spectacular ideas without worrying too much about a limited budget," she said.

Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan- Toa Payoh GRC) asked about the need for such a fund, given existing schemes. Mr Tan said the ministry wanted to give more opportunities to individuals who may prefer to run projects on their own instead of being associated with existing institutions.

Individuals should apply through a non-profit group. Otherwise, they can approach the ministry with their project proposal. More information can be found at

Yaacob: Let's nurture Malay-Muslim talent
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

THE nurturing of talent must be the Malay-Muslim community's focus in its "next key phase" of development, Minister-in-charge Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.

He held up examples of individuals who have seized opportunities offered them to excel, such as Mendaki award recipient Nor Azman Mohammed Rohman, 26, now working at Lucasfilm Singapore.

He also spoke out against those who choose to paint "a picture of stubborn gaps and hopelessness" for the community.

After all, it was the Singapore system that spurred Mr Azman, a graduate of Ping Yi Secondary, Singapore Polytechnic and Nanyang Technological University, to succeed.

To groom more such gifted individuals, Mendaki will develop a talent management framework, Dr Yaacob said, observing also that there is a "growing appetite for a more all-encompassing definition of success".

In response to a question from Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC) on plans to develop talent, Dr Yaacob highlighted Project Protege, which was piloted last year.

The project sees emerging talents being mentored by established icons in the community across fields from music to science and sports.

Dr Yaacob also announced a new skills centre in Tampines to cater to students who fare poorly in national examinations. It will give these students a second chance at taking their N-, O- and A-level examinations.

To be run by Mendaki's subsidiary training arm, Social Enterprise Network Singapore (SENSE), SENSE College will also offer academic and enrichment programmes for youths, and applied skills courses for workers. It will accept students from all races and religions.

Mendaki Sense has also set up a student-care centre at Blangah Rise Primary School. It offers social and emotional learning programmes to students after school.

Dr Yaacob said: "With more of such centres, I believe mothers will have the peace of mind to re-enter the workforce while entrusting their children to qualified practitioners."

Two new Mendaki satellite centres will be set up in Pasir Ris and Woodlands to help families in need gain access to social services near their homes.

Dr Yaacob rounded off his speech by urging the community to "set our sights far, and scale new peaks along the way" without being trapped in a "negative self-fulfilling prophecy".

"Allowing a misplaced narrative of hopelessness perpetuates the very stereotype that we have worked hard over many decades to dispel," he said.

Our story is a mosaic of courage and fortitude, where individuals take pride in what they do, and together move our community forward.

– Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, in summing up the community’s progress over the years

Priority for first-time haj applicants
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013
THE Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) has reviewed its haj pilgrimage registration policy to give priority to first-time applicants.

They will be allocated 90 per cent of places in any given year, with the rest of the slots going to repeat pilgrims, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.

The review came after the Saudi government granted Singapore its official quota of 680 last year, without the additional 1,500 visas previously offered between 2008 and 2011 as a result of appeals by Dr Yaacob and Muis.

The revised policy will also see repeat pilgrims, including current haj applicants, having to wait 10 years, up from the current five, before they are allowed to register to perform the haj again.

Muslims apply to perform the haj under the Advanced Haj Registration System run by Muis, which uses a queue system to allocate spots.

He added that Muis would inform all affected applicants of their new allocated haj year based on the revised policy.

Responding to queries on the korban, the slaughter of sheep on Hari Raya Haji, Dr Yaacob said the korban review committee would continue to work with Australian authorities to secure livestock.

As a contingency plan, it would also explore alternative sources.

Australia's new regulations require foreign livestock importers to meet internationally accepted animal welfare standards.

Mr Hawazi Daipi (Sembawang GRC) suggested using funds for wakaf - Islamic endowments used for charitable or religious purposes - to set up a sheep farm to meet the needs of korban.

Dr Yaacob said these funds are "disbursed strictly according to the wakif's will or indenture, for specific purposes such as education and mosque building".

The wakif is the person who puts his endowment in trust, and has to state clearly how the income generated should be used, either orally or in writing.

On mosque building projects, a new mosque in Punggol will be built by 2015.

Two other mosques to be built in Jurong West and Woodlands are expected to be completed by 2016.

Budget debate marks national shift: House Leader and Speaker
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

SINGAPORE has moved into a new and uncharted phase, and the shift is reflected in the tenor and concerns raised in the past two weeks of debate on the Budget, said Leader of the House Ng Eng Hen yesterday.

"If in the past, our country was like that of a young man springing along with boundless energy, Singapore is now moving at a much more measured pace, a mature adult conscious of his or her limitations," said Dr Ng in his wrap-up speech in Parliament.

He touched on the key themes of the debate, ranging from ideas such as closing the income gap and the Singaporean identity to policy changes like building more hospitals and kindergartens, tightening the foreign workforce and raising car and property taxes.

Dr Ng also commented wryly on the "power of free - free museums and maybe even free MRT rides for some". These were suggestions raised by MPs among the 483 cuts filed this year - 7 per cent more than last year.

But underlying these, he said, are fears for small and medium- sized enterprises, economic restructuring and the ageing population.

"These preoccupations reflect a nation paying more attention inwardly, appropriately making sharp adjustments to catch up with infrastructure needs and rising cost of living but also preparing ahead for a slowing economy and an ageing population," said Dr Ng, who is also Defence Minister.

Still, he cautioned that Singapore has to watch against being overtaken by external forces.

Like Dr Ng, Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob praised the "palpable policy shifts" in this year's debate, which she presided over as Speaker for the first time after taking on the role this year.

She noted another shift. "I have yet to sit through a debate where the word 'consultation' had popped up so frequently - 33 times to be exact," said the MP of 13 years.

"This shows the strong desire on the part of policymakers to involve Singaporeans more in shaping their own destiny," she said.

Dr Ng and Madam Halimah lauded the quality of debate but issued tongue-in-cheek reminders to front and back benches to keep future speeches concise.

"Brevity is not a sin," said Madam Halimah.

Marathon debate reveals a new side to Parliament
Fresh mood, collegial atmosphere, despite a record 10 opposition MPs
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

APTLY enough, this year's marathon Budget debate ended with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

After going through the ministries that ensure survival, like Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Defence; and the economic ministries like Trade and Industry, Finance and National Development; the House moved on in the last three days to social ministries like Education and Social and Family Development.

Yesterday, it was the MCCY's turn. In the Maslovian hierarchy of needs, culture - a self-actualising aspect of a society - comes after basic needs are met.

Luckily for Singapore, basic needs are met so well, culture is not just an optional extra, but an integral part of the way of life.

So much so that the ministry will offer free entry to museums for Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) from May18, International Museum Day. Including PRs - at a time of national angst over immigration - is significant. It says PRs are welcome and have a place here. It also encourages PRs to make full use of the free entry to acquaint themselves with Singapore's diverse cultural and historical heritage.

At 3.30pm yesterday, Parliament approved a Budget of $56billion - or $56,339,374,800 to be precise - for the year's operating expenses. Another $20billion was approved for development expenditure.

This was after nine days of MPs scrutinising the Government's overall budget philosophy the first three days, and then moving on to individual ministry budgets. In all, 483 speeches were made on ministries' budgets. These were in the form of token "cuts" proposed to the budget which gave MPs a chance to speak on pet topics.

I sat through eight of those nine days of debate - either in the press gallery in the cavernous parliamentary chamber, or in the press room near the chamber, or in The Straits Times office where I watched a live television feed.

It wasn't tedious, because there were many new announcements and the mood was fresh.

There was a time after the May 2011 General Election, when the People's Action Party (PAP) suffered its worst defeat since Independence and PAP leaders went rather quiet, when many of us wondered if the PAP was in retreat.

This year's Budget debate shows clearly that Singapore continues to have an activist state. Policy-wise, the PAP will not cede the initiative.

It has, however, changed tack. A bird's-eye sweep of the key changes show up a government that prioritises social spending: more hospitals, polyclinics, childcare centres, seniors homes, social assistance, payouts for low-income workers. Citizens, meanwhile, will pay less: for medical bills, Housing Board flats, preschool centres.

Workers' Party (WP) MP Pritam Singh remarked on this shift to the left. The PAP may not admit to this characterisation. But making the tax system more progressive, and expanding subsidies to cover the middle-income, such as those for long-term care and childcare, are certainly left of laissez-faire capitalism.

I would say this year's debate shows the PAP wearing more of its socialist heart on its fiscal sleeve, even as it remains decidedly pro-business.

Another notable trend was the collegial atmosphere, despite the presence of a record number of 10 opposition MPs. PAP ministers, especially younger ones like Mr Tan Chuan-Jin and Mr Chan Chun Sing, made it a point to address or acknowledge points made by the opposition.

The Best Speaker among MPs in my view was Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin. Whether on the need for the Government to win back trust, or on heritage as something we live, not just preserve, he spoke his mind eloquently.

The new ministers made an impact individually and collectively: Mr Chan and Mr Tan, and MCCY Acting Minister Lawrence Wong and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat. Leader of the House Ng Eng Hen observed that new MPs and office-holders "were more assured and forceful in their speeches" this year.

My favourite policy change is the move to give unwed mothers the same extended childcare leave as married mums. That corrects a gross injustice. It's a baby step for sure, since they are still denied the extended maternity leave of other mothers. But it moves Singapore's family policy in the right direction.

I enjoyed watching the newest MP, Punggol East MP Lee Li Lian, who was elected only on Jan 26. The bright-eyed WP MP was passionate in her advocacy of flexi-work and family issues. She was also quick to jump to her feet to press ministers to site facilities in her ward: a polyclinic and more childcare centres.

It has been a productive fortnight professionally. Personally, as a Singaporean, and after the bruising debate on the Population White Paper, which I also sat through, I'm just glad the House seems to be showing more unity of purpose and more heart these days.

The budget and what matters to us
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 16 Mar 2013

1: MPs get their due

IN HIS first - and famous - parliamentary speech after stepping down as Speaker in 2002, Mr Tan Soo Khoon got a hearty round of applause when he said that ministers hardly ever give a nod to MPs when suggestions are accepted.

"There is nothing wrong with a turnaround in policy... but not a squeak of acknowledgement was given to the MPs who first raised the matter," said the now-retired MP who was known for his frank and forthright manner.

His speech came at a time when it was not entirely uncommon for a minister to make a snide remark when shooting down a suggestion he disagreed with.

However, today it now seems more surprising when a minister does not acknowledge MPs in some way during a speech. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the nine-day Budget debate - ministers seemed to go out of their way to credit MPs.

Numerous policy measures were announced by first flagging the names of the MPs who had raised the concern. Some ministers went even further.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan got some laughs when he called Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng the "father" of the Parenthood Priority Scheme (PPS).

"Mr Seah was the first who suggested giving housing priority to young couples with children. This was some three years ago. I would like to record his role as the father of the PPS. I am just the midwife," he said.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew also gave a sizeable mention to Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Janil Puthucheary for a seemingly out-of-the-box suggestion to waive public transport fares at certain times.

Said Mr Lui: "Over the past week, there has been a lot of discussion on Dr Janil Puthucheary's idea to allow commuters to travel free on public transport before the peak hours... Dr Janil's idea is something that I will not dismiss off-hand."

And while ministers have been more than willing to recognise MPs' contributions in recent years, the recently concluded debate does seem to set something of a high water mark.

Observers say the tone is to be expected, given the current political climate. It is now no longer palatable for any politician to appear aloof or unreceptive to ideas. MPs also now seem more eager to push for their causes and their own brand. Countless MPs made the point of reminding the House of suggestions they had made.

Mr Seah said he was pleased that his suggestion is being taken on board, although he did not expect to be called the "father" of PPS.

"In the end, it's good for the MPs to be able to close the loop with residents and grassroots leaders who may have been the ones giving the feedback. And it helps show that suggestions are not falling on deaf ears."

2: A subdued opposition

AS HE was wrapping up the debate on the Budget announcement, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam aimed some comments at Workers' Party (WP) members.

He called out party chairman Sylvia Lim for not quoting an International Monetary Fund report in context and quipped that Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam's suggestion on getting women back to work was straight out of the People's Action Party (PAP) Women's Wing playbook. "I think Gerald can become an honorary member of the PAP Women's Wing, honorary," he said.

So when the DPM sat down and MPs had an opportunity to pose clarifications, many were expecting WP hands in the House to shoot up. Surprisingly, none did and Parliament swiftly moved on to its next order of business.

The relative silence at the end of the first three days of the Budget debate appeared to set the tone for a rather subdued performance from the WP during the following six days. None of the combative speeches or exchanges so prevalent during the debate on the Population White Paper emerged.

In fact, after the first seven members spoke, it was still not clear if the party would ultimately vote to oppose the Budget.

And unlike the earlier debate, the party did not come armed with an alternative or a clear party line. Party chief Low Thia Khiang sat out the debate until Day 5, when he spoke about technology and working at home.

All this made for a broad ranging, if disjointed, performance from the opposition camp. Speeches from the nine WP Parliamentarians and Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam were all over the map, covering topics such as CPF Minimum Sum, maternity leave for single mothers and the country's rat problem.

Some, like opposition figure Goh Meng Seng, felt that an oppostunity was missed when they did not press the Government on car ownership restrictions. Mrs Chiam, Mr Pritam Singh and Ms Lee Li Lian did comment, but the strongest attacks against them came from PAP MPs such as Ms Lee Bee Wah.

The former National Solidarity Party chief wrote on Facebook: "I was expecting opposition MPs to raise this concern... why are PAP MPs snatching all these topics?"

The WP's subdued approach could simply be due to the fact that the Budget, with its emphasis on economic restructuring and an inclusive society, was difficult to disagree with. And with no clear sign that the electorate opposed the Budget, it could be that there was little to gain by being confrontational again.

Said opposition veteran Wong Wee Nam, 64: "For the White Paper, I think they were riding on the wave of public anger. The Budget is a much more complicated thing and they might not have a way to show their empathy to the public."

3: Less fear of welfarism

MOULMEIN-KALLANG GRC MP Denise Phua said in an interview last year that the Government had "crossed a psychological chasm" in terms of its aversion to entrenched benefits.

And in this year's Budget discussions, she referred to crossing the "chasm of fear of welfarism".

Indeed, it did appear in this Budget and the last that the Government had lost at least some of its long-time antipathy towards giving things away for free.

And having crossed that chasm, this year it became clear how this increased social spending would be funded: from taxes targeting the wealthy.

This year's Budget had a distinctly redistributive slant, so much so that some observers had described it as a "Robin Hood Budget" - one that took from the rich to give to the poor. It featured a significant increase in aid to the lower income, coupled with a jump in taxes on high-end property and luxury cars.

The measures were well received in the House. If anything, MPs from both sides of the aisle wanted the Government to do even more. Calls for prudence, once a staple of debates on welfarism, were largely absent.

Only two MPs - Sembawang GRC MP Ong Teng Koon and Nominated MP Eugene Tan - sought to issue warnings about what the impact might be of this shift towards taxing the rich to fund social spending.

Mr Tan urged the Government to "keep redistributionist tendencies to a minimum", a call that few have had to make before. "Redistribution tends to harden class distinctions. A class war between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' is debilitating," he said.

Mr Ong, in turn, warned that bumping up taxes on the rich did not come cost-free. He questioned if the overall tax pie would in fact increase when higher taxes are imposed on the mobile rich.

"The marginal increase in taxes from a higher rate might not be more than the marginal decrease from an exodus. We might end up with a smaller tax pie instead, and in the process also succeed in decreasing the incentive to work," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam did acknowledge the Government was increasing its social spending, but he made it clear that the move to have a more progressive tax system was not for the purpose of making the system look progressive. "The litmus test is whether it will truly help lower- and middle-income Singaporeans have better lives," he said.

Mr Tan told Insight that though he is ultimately in favour of redistribution, his concern was whether the tenor of the debate had shifted too far. "I am concerned this might be an over-correction to make up for the past where we might have been too tight-fisted. And if we do too much, we might actually be stoking the fires of envy."

4: More in tune with people

ONE blew up into a debate debacle. The other was a debate decoupled from drama.

The relatively subdued Budget debate that concluded this week was a contrast to the angsty outpourings over the White Paper on Population. It seems the Government has learnt a valuable lesson in communicating its message to people.

That is: While it is all well and good to plan for the future, the needs of the present must be met first.

It is difficult to get buy-in for a solution in the future, when problems of the present remain unsolved. Hence numerous Parliamentarians such as Dr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang) and Nominated MP Tan Su Shan suggested then that the Government break up the population discussion into different parts.

Deal with the current infrastructure problems first, and then talk about the future population.

And while those suggestions came too late to trigger a change in the White Paper, they do seem to have influenced how ministers pitched the Budget.

For ministries such as housing and that are going through long-term fundamental reviews, the ministers were deliberate in laying out all the solutions to current shortfalls first, before even venturing to cast a vision for the future. This was in sharp contrast to the White Paper which focused mainly on what Singapore would be like some 17 years ahead.

During the debate on the Health Ministry's spending for the year, its minister Gan Kim Yong delivered two speeches under the theme "Better Health For All - Peace of Mind for Today and Tomorrow".

In his first speech, he announced the construction of six hospitals and 14 polyclinics to meet the demands of Singaporeans.

It was only in his second speech that he set his sights on a fundamental review of health-care funding in Singapore.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan took very much the same approach. He first set out to announce policies that would deal with Singaporeans' main grouses about the high cost of property, before moving on to deal with the important questions about the future direction for his ministry.

The approach certainly appears to pay dividends. The ministers did not face any blowback for their future plans, having made sure to first defuse any unhappiness in the present.

Said Ms Tan Su Shan: "Compared to the White Paper, I think the presentation has definitely improved and the Government is more in tune with the people.

"There is still a groundswell of unhappiness on things like the foreign workers but if you look at blogs talking about the Budget, there are those who complain but there are also those who say the Budget is fair."

5: Keeping the views going

TALK about a seachange. Many can remember when the Government appeared reluctant to solicit public feedback. Now, it cannot seem to get enough of it.

Throughout the nine-day debate, numerous ministers called on Singaporeans to offer feedback on policy changes. Some were invited to Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) sessions. Others were told that working groups would canvass widely for views.

At the heart of this shift towards increasing consultation and conversation is that the nature of the policy changes being sought have changed.

The ministers are not seeking feedback for a small tweak to solve a problem or plug a loophole - they are conducting a fundamental review of key policies.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan was looking to review housing policy as a whole, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew wanted to reconsider the approach for the Certificate of Entitlement for cars, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat wanted a rethink of the Primary School Leaving Examination and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was conducting a comprehensive review to strengthen National Service.

But what is eye-catching is how the Government is not rushing to prescribe conclusions. Rather, ministers are asking Singaporeans for their answers to key questions on broad principles.

For example, Mr Khaw issued this call: "I invite concerned Singaporeans of all ages to mull over these issues with us. Share with us your worries, your fears, your hopes and your dreams. We hope to hear many views and many ideas so as to better inform our housing policies."

This stronger-than-normal emphasis on consultation might have its roots in the Population White Paper. It was not clear at the beginning if the White Paper was a work in progress or a final version, but most people, understandably, took the projections such as the population figure of 6.9 million to be a fait accompli.

Several quarters, including opposition parties such as the National Solidarity Party, reacted by calling on the Government to put the White Paper to a referendum.

During the Budget, there was little danger that the long-term policies were deterministic. The narrative here was clearly: This one will be up to you.

Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC), who is an OSC committee member, said that much goodwill garnered during the first phase of national conversation had been lost by "hasty introduction and less than perfect communication of the White Paper".

But she felt the Government was back on track and it was thus natural for ministries to get back to the ground and seek views. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood. I believe this must be the new norm of policy-making."


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