Saturday 9 March 2013

Parliament Highlights - 8 Mar 2013

Committee of Supply Debate: MFA, MINLAW, MCI, MND

'Stay nimble in foreign ties'
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

SINGAPORE needs to stay nimble and alert amid the uncertain geopolitical situation and continuing global economic uncertainties, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday as he sketched out the country's foreign relations and the international landscape.

The world is seeing a deficit in global leadership, with the US and China preoccupied with domestic issues like economic growth.

Other major countries are not ready for "truly global leadership", he added during the debate on his ministry's budget.

"We are living through a period of transition and adjustment as relative power balances are adjusted. Thus, the geopolitical environment will continue to be volatile."

Singapore, however, is well-positioned despite the challenging times, and he pointed to how Asean has been strengthened and bilateral relations with neighbours and major powers built up.

"But we cannot be complacent. We will continue to stay alert and nimble, and to respond to challenges and opportunities."

Mr Shanmugam also touched on how growing US-China competition in the region might affect Singapore's bilateral relations with the two countries. He was replying to MPs like Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC).

Singapore's consistent position is to maintain strong links with both, he said. This is achieved through close cooperation and common interests, and good relations between leaders. He said he will meet new Secretary of State John Kerry during an official visit to the United States next week.

During the debate, Second Foreign Minister Grace Fu spoke on Singapore's continued efforts to engage Latin America and Europe while Senior Minister of State Masagos Zulkifli described Singapore's engagement with Middle East countries.

MFA handled 4,000 consular requests
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

SOME Singaporean travellers have an odd view of the role of the consular office in Singapore's embassies.

One Singaporean asked its officers to help him get a refund "after he had procured illegal sexual services".

Another, living in Indonesia, asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to ship him a desktop computer he had ordered online from the United States.

A third sought help to persuade his foreign girlfriend to expedite her divorce proceedings so they could get hitched.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Foreign Affairs) Sam Tan related these tales to an amused House yesterday, to show some of the strange requests for consular help that crop up from time to time.

The MFA handled 4,000 requests last year, he added, and most were reasonable.

But the unusual requests divert limited resources from handling genuine cases of distress, he said.

Singapore has 47 overseas missions, which are supported by another 29 Honorary Consuls-General offices that provide consular cover in countries where it does not have resident missions.

Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) later quipped: "Listening to the unreasonable requests reminds me of the saying that sometimes the twist to the words 'Foreign Affairs' may be taken too seriously by some Singaporeans."

Mr Tan was replying to Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir), who had asked what the MFA deemed reasonable or unreasonable consular requests.

Mr Tan told Parliament the MFA treats all requests for consular help seriously. Still, there are clear limits to what can be done, he said, as laws and judicial processes of other countries have to be respected, along with international conventions.

Legal avenues possible for settling spats
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

WARRING neighbours might soon have legal avenues to settle their quarrels, with the Government re-looking laws here to see if they can be applied to settling community disputes.

But Law Minister K. Shanmugam, revealing this in Parliament yesterday, stressed that legislation cannot be the answer to all such issues.

He was responding to questions from MPs Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) and Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who asked if formal frameworks could be set up to help settle community disputes in the face of a growing population.

Mr Tay proposed a tribunal that would establish community norms, incorporate compulsory mediation and provide for penalties.

Given Singapore's growing population and the close proximity of neighbours, he said, quarrels about "noise, dripping water, clogging of corridors to invasion of space" are likely to increase.

Speaking after him, Dr Puthucheary said that instead of prescribing a list of acceptable behaviour, the process of mediation itself should be made compulsory.

Refusing to attend these mediation sessions would then be made an offence, giving the process more "bite".

This will not only make sure that cases do not drag on, but also force warring parties to solve the problem before relationships are strained and become too adversarial, he added.

Thanking the MPs for their suggestions, Mr Shanmugam said that the Law Ministry is working with the ministries of National Development, Home Affairs and Culture, Community and Youth to develop a framework that may be applied to settling community disputes.

Whether they are bona fide, or the result of "extreme sensitivity", he said, such differences are hard to resolve.

"Emotions tend to run high and the views are very subjective on what is acceptable behaviour," he said.

Committee identifies 3 strategies to grow IP sector
By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 8 Mar 2013

The steering committee tasked with charting a master plan to develop Singapore's intellectual property (IP) sector, has submitted its proposals to the government, identifying three strategic outcomes to work on.

Senior Minister of State for Law, Indranee Rajah told Parliament during the Ministry's Committee of Supply debate that among the targets is for Singapore to be an international hub for IP transactions and management.

This is so that companies will use Singapore as a base and manage their IP portfolios from here.

Singapore should also aim to be a hub for quality IP filings for companies all over the world.

Ms Indranee said these companies can then tap on Singapore's IP service providers and infrastructure.

This will allow them to use Singapore as a gateway to secure IP protection, in key markets all over the world.

The steering committee also recommends that Singapore become a choice venue for IP dispute resolution.

That is, by leveraging on the efficient, cost-effective and high-quality judicial system, and alternative dispute resolution method such as arbitration.

Ms Indranee said to achieve these outcomes, the committee has recommended that Singapore develop skilled IP professionals, networked to the region and beyond to effectively serve the international needs of companies.

It has also proposed that Singapore build a conducive and progressive environment to encourage IP players worldwide to bring their activities to Singapore.

She said this will create a thriving IP ecosystem in Singapore. "We are in general agreement with the recommendations of the committee, and we intend to aggressively develop Singapore into a regional and international IP Hub. Detailed announcements will be made over the next few months on this front."

Separately, Singapore's legal sector has also seen dynamic and sustained growth.

Ms Indranee said from 2008 to 2012, the nominal value added from legal services grew by 25 per cent, from S$1.48 billion to S$1.85 billion.

Singapore is also exporting more legal services.

Between 2008 and 2011, the value of legal services exported from Singapore increased by 51.8 per cent, from S$363 million to S$551 million.

Ms Indranee said the growth has been catalysed by the liberalisation of the legal services sector, mainly through the Qualifying Foreign Law Practice scheme.

The arbitration sector has also seen stellar growth.

Singapore is now recognised as the leading international arbitration hub in Asia.

Worldwide, Singapore is the third most preferred seat by companies, together with Paris and Tokyo, and after London and Geneva.

And the growing caseload of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre reflected the Republic's rising stature in international arbitration.

The number of new cases handled rose from 99 in 2008 to 235 in 2012.

The total value of disputes reached a record high of S$3.61 billion in 2012, well in excess of the total for 2010 and 2011 of S$2.67 billion put together.

Ms Indranee said this growth is the result of the aggressive and holistic approach Singapore has taken to develop the arbitration sector over the years - among them having a completely open regime for international commercial arbitration.

Parties engaging in arbitration in Singapore also have the freedom to engage lawyers of any nationality and to use any governing law.

And Singapore also has a supportive legislative framework in the form of the International Arbitration Act, which is continually updated in consultation with academics and practitioners.

She said: "I would encourage the younger lawyers to deepen and extend their arbitration skills and knowledge to advantage of this growth area so that, in the years to come, we will continue to have a strong pipeline of Singapore lawyers who are able to serve the local, regional and international markets for arbitration."

Parliament has passed the main and development estimates for the Ministry of Law.

Digital-ready TV sets to sport labels from April
They will help people buy correct sets for new signals for free-to-air channels
By Derrick Ho, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

FROM next month, consumers will be able to tell from a special label if a new television set can receive new digital TV signals for free-to-air channels.

These digital signals will start transmission from the end of this year.

The new labels are to help consumers buy new TV sets that are "future proof" and therefore enjoy better quality images and new services such as onscreen electronic programme guides.

Announcing this at the Committee of Supply proceedings yesterday, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim also said the existing analogue signals will continue to run simultaneously with the new digital ones for at least two more years to ensure sufficient time for households to make the switch.

To receive the new digital signals, viewers will need to pair their existing TV sets with a set-top box, or purchase new generation "Integrated Digital TVs" (IDTVs). Compatible set-top boxes will also carry similar labels as the IDTVs.

Pay TV subscribers will be able to receive the digital broadcasts without buying any extra equipment.

While retailers here are already selling IDTVs, most are not compatible with the new generation digital video broadcasting-terrestrial 2, or DVB-T2, signals which Singapore has adopted.

Compatible ones, which have a built-in tuner to receive the DVB-T2 signals, will be rolled out at major retail outlets here from next month.

Japanese electronics giant Sony, for example, will bring in as many as seven LED IDTV models, with screen sizes between 32 inches and 55 inches. These will be available here by the end of next month and will cost between $900 and $4,000, some $300 to $700 more expensive than regular LED TV sets.

Panasonic will bring in a mix of 13 plasma TV and LED TV models that will be equipped with DVB-T2 digital tuners. The screen sizes will range from 32 inches to 65 inches and they will cost between $800 and $7,000.

Digital transmission lets broadcasters send signals more efficiently, enabling viewers to receive more high-definition channels. They also free up valuable "spectrum" or airwaves for other uses, such as carrying Internet data to smartphones.

With the change, national broadcaster MediaCorp will start delivering more programmes in high-definition (HD), and not just on its current HD 5 English-language channel.

Channel 8, Suria and Vasantham will be in HD format from the year end; Channel U, Channel NewsAsia and okto in 2016.

As 40 per cent of households here are not on a pay TV service, Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad stressed it was important that poorer households are not left behind. Dr Yaacob said that the MDA is already looking at ways to assist them. These plans will be ready by next year.

"It has been 50 years since Mr S. Rajaratnam went on air to launch our television service. It was a momentous occasion for our people," he said. "And it is fitting that this 50th year will herald another milestone in our broadcasting history - going digital."

IDA spearheading 'work from home' pilot programme
By Aaron Tan, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

A NEW home-based work programme will help Singaporeans achieve work-life balance and minimise travel during peak hours.

Spearheaded by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), the programme will let employees work from home by tapping infocomm technologies and the nationwide high-speed fibre broadband network.

Announcing this at the Committee of Supply proceedings for the Ministry of Communications and Information yesterday, Minister Yaacob Ibrahim noted that the programme will increase labour force participation and benefit the economy.

He added: "Businesses may also derive long-term cost savings in office space rental."

Earlier this year, the IDA awarded two proposals to pilot the home-based work programme.

One of the awarded proposals went to a five-company consortium led by SingTel that will test-bed job functions such as providing call centre and tuition services from employees' homes.

The second proposal was awarded to IT service provider Business Gateway Asia and Rasa Sayang Healthcare, where nurses, equipped with computing devices and broadband connectivity, will file patient reports from home, rather than from the office.

Dr Yaacob said the reduced travelling and time saved will help the nurses at the home nursing care provider spend more time with patients and improve productivity. "In addition, Rasa Sayang's customer service staff will be equipped with proprietary customer relationship management and call routing solutions," he added.

Mr Clement Teo, a senior analyst at research firm Forrester, noted that while home-based work programmes are useful, the success of such programmes will depend on the level of support received by employees.

"For example, not everyone is IT savvy and will require some support from the office IT staff to troubleshoot technical problems," he said. "Also, companies may want to subsidise the cost of an employee's IT equipment and broadband subscription."

Mr Teo also stressed that in a home-based work scheme, companies should enforce stringent security controls to protect corporate information, especially sensitive data such as patient records when staff are working from home.

Meanwhile, the IDA will also call for proposals to establish Smart Work Centres (SWCs) located near homes. These centres will be furnished with office equipment such as printers and scanners, and are targeted at workers whose homes are less conducive for work.

Dr Yaacob revealed that the IDA is working with the National Library Board to pilot SWCs at selected libraries.

Freelance writer Mike Lee, 38, said: "I already work at libraries, but the new centres will be useful to those who require printing and video conferencing services that are not available at places such as cafes."

Public service programming gets $182m boost
By Derrick Ho, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

PUBLIC service broadcast programming will receive a $182 million shot in the arm after the Government sharply raised funding for such programmes yesterday.

In announcing the top-up to the $630 million already set aside for public service broadcast programmes yesterday, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said that these shows help "foster a knowledgeable people who are appreciative of our past, informed of our present, and prepared for the future".

Dr Yaacob said the Government has continued to support such shows even after it stopped collecting TV and radio licence fees in 2011. Those fees used to be a major source of funding for the programmes.

The increased budget will be dedicated towards bumping up the number of current affairs programmes and documentaries in the four languages, he added.

These programmes will touch on issues such as culture and heritage, the environment and public housing, he added.

About 40 per cent of overall funding for local public service broadcast programmes will be set aside for independent production companies, the Media Development Authority said. The remainder 60 per cent goes to national broadcaster MediaCorp.

Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the accounts for his ministry, Dr Yaacob said the Government hopes to see more quality documentaries such as History From The Hills.

The programme, which was broadcast on MediaCorp's okto earlier this year, recounted the history of Singapore through stories revolving around the Bukit Brown cemetery.

"It shed light on our past and brought to life important pieces of Singapore's heritage," said Dr Yaacob.

Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) had earlier raised the issue that some public service broadcast programmes lacked creativity and quality.

"With the additional funding, we hope to bring more of such insightful and interesting programmes to our people - not only to inform and educate, but also to inspire our people to pursue and fulfil their dreams," said Dr Yaacob.

New fund for projects showcasing memories of S'pore
By Aaron Tan, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

A NEW fund will be launched later this year to encourage community groups and filmmakers to collect and showcase memories of Singapore.

Announcing this at the Committee of Supply proceedings for the Ministry of Communications and Information yesterday, Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said the irememberSG fund is aimed at supporting ground-up initiatives for creating products and showcases related to memories.

"Such products could include short films and publications featuring Singaporeans' stories that were collected," Dr Yaacob said.

The National Library Board (NLB) is in charge of the two-year-old Singapore Memory Project which aims to preserve and provide access to photos, videos and other materials that document Singapore's history.

The project seeks to build a national collection of content in diverse formats, to preserve them in digital form, and make them available for discovery and research.

By 2015, it hopes to collect five million personal memories as well as a substantial number of published materials on Singapore. In August, heritage buffs can look forward to a digital showcase of memories collected so far.

This year, NLB is organising a campaign to collect the memories of the first generation of leaders and people who have contributed to Singapore's growth. Roadshows in the heartland will also be organised to reach out to seniors.

NLB to add 820,000 e-books to collection
Library will have over three million e-books to meet growing demand
By Aaron Tan, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

BOOK lovers will soon be able to read a greater variety of e-books on their computers and mobile devices for free.

The National Library Board (NLB) will be adding 820,000 more e-books to its collection by the end of this year, said Ms Sim Ann, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Communications and Information, yesterday.

The announcement comes on the back of a steady increase in loans of e-books over the years. According to NLB, the number of e-book downloads rose from 3.9 million in the financial year ended March 2011 to 4.9 million in the financial year ended March 2012.

The additional titles will boost the size of NLB's e-book collection to over three million, covering everything from fiction titles to audio books and interactive titles for children.

Education technologist Preetam Rai, 40, welcomed the new additions. He said: "It often takes a while for new titles to be available in NLB's e-book collection, and popular titles are always out on loan.

"It will be good if NLB brings in more copies of new and popular e-book titles as soon as they are available," he added.

As the library's e-books are supplied by different vendors, readers often need to go through various procedures to download and read NLB's e-books on different devices.

To make it easier for library members to download e-books, NLB said it is working to create "a single portal to enable users to access e-books from different vendors so that we can improve the user experience".

From May 2, Singaporeans and permanent residents with basic library memberships will also be able to borrow up to eight items instead of six previously.

NLB said the new loan quota is aimed at meeting the rising demand from library visitors and encouraging Singaporeans to read more widely.

Bank associate Jonathan Soh, 36, noted that the higher loan quota will benefit library members who stock up on several books at one go. "For example, parents who borrow lots of children's books can avoid making multiple trips to the library."

However, Mr Kapil Goswami, 34, an analyst at a global IT company who borrows at least one book a week, said the new loan quota may not necessarily boost the number of interested readers.

"If you increase the quota, the reader might borrow many books which are popular and hog them, depriving others," he said.

In response, an NLB spokesman said book titles will be actively monitored to allow the board to respond quickly to demand for popular titles by increasing copies.

"Popular items in physical copies will also be supplemented by digital versions when there is an e-book version available to libraries," she added.

To reach out to groups that have less access to information resources, the NLB will also be adding two more mobile libraries by the end of this year.

Govt agencies need to learn to handle ‘diverse views’
By Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 9 Mar 2013

Government agencies will have to learn from recent experiences and be better equipped to handle increasingly diverse views to improve their engagement with citizens, two ministers said yesterday.

Acknowledging that Singaporeans want a greater say in policies, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim told the House that the Government is “committed to making public engagement a cornerstone of policy-making”, adding that it has enhanced efforts to do so.

However, he said there is room to improve: “We are seeing different pockets of society forming quickly to ... take their positions around an issue or a cause. Government agencies, therefore, have to be better equipped to engage an increasingly diverse society of Singaporeans.”

One way to do so, said Dr Yaacob, is for REACH, the official feedback arm, to take on a bigger role to spearhead engagement efforts across the whole of government.

Mr Zaqy Mohamed and Mr Baey Yam Keng questioned whether there is any value in giving feedback. Mr Mohamed had said there are those who believe the Government has made up its mind on some policies even before it seeks public consultations.

Responding, Senior Minister of State Lawrence Wong said: “Government agencies can and must do more to consult at the early stages of the policy process, and consider all public input seriously and with an open mind. Agencies also need to do more to close the loop ... to explain the reasons for their decisions, so that people can understand how their inputs helped shape the final decision.”

He said those who offer feedback must realise that not all of their suggestions can be accepted.

New HDB flats to become cheaper
Khaw vows to make them nearly 30% cheaper to keep homes affordable
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

THE prices of new flats will become almost 30 per cent cheaper to keep the Singapore dream of home ownership alive, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan pledged yesterday.

The ambitious goal makes clear the Government's commitment to "restoring and maintaining" the affordability of flats for first-time home buyers, he told Parliament.

Hinting at a fundamental redesign of public housing, Mr Khaw said that he wants new flat prices in non-mature estates at around "four years of salary" - what they were before the property bull run of the last six years began.

That is, new homes in non-mature estates will be priced at four times the annual median income of flat applicants.

This would mean a sharp drop from current prices, which are about 5.5 years of salary.

Referring to young first-timers, the minister declared that "their Singapore dream of owning their own homes, like their parents', is safe".

He already broke with HDB convention in 2011 by delinking Build-to-Order (BTO) prices from the rising resale market when he took over the housing portfolio.

This meant that while the resale market has risen 12.5 per cent since, prices of new flats launched have stayed stable. Since 2007, when the current property upswing began, the resale price index has spiked 95.8 per cent.

Yesterday, Mr Khaw made clear that he would be going much further than price stabilisation.

Bringing down BTO prices in non-mature estates will be partly through market cooling measures, and "partly by seeing if an alternative housing option can be designed", he said.

He did not elaborate, but analysts said the remark portended major policy changes - perhaps shorter flat leases or different classes of new flats.

In a budget debate speech chock-full of policy announcements, Mr Khaw answered calls from MPs to meet the housing needs of groups that have been on the sidelines in the first half of his term. He had something for everyone, from singles and divorcees to second-timers and young couples waiting for their new flats to be built.

Fulfilling a promise Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made in last year's National Day Rally, he announced that singles aged 35 years old and above will be able to buy new two-room flats from July.

The first batch will likely be in Sengkang, but only those earning $5,000 and less a month will be eligible, he said, as they face the most financial difficulty in getting housing.

Lower-income families looking to buy their second new flat will now get double the chance: 30 per cent of two- and three-room flats in non-mature estates will now be for second-timers, up from 15 per cent. Of this 30 per cent, 5 per cent will be reserved for divorcees or the widowed who have young children.

The new scheme for young families waiting for their new flats to rent subsidised flats from the HDB in the interim will also now be extended to young, childless couples. SLP head of research Nicholas Mak said that Mr Khaw's plan to slash BTO prices would reverberate through the entire property market. Demand may drain from the resale market to the new, cheaper flats.

But with construction costs rising and curbs on foreign workers, he feared the Government might fail to meet its promised supply.

Teacher Lim Yan Han, 24, welcomed Mr Khaw's message but said the proof of the pudding was in the eating. She and her engineer boyfriend have failed in four ballots for new flats, three in mature estates, and one in non-mature. "It is already so competitive. I'm worried that lower prices will mean more people competing for flats."

'Time to relook housing policies for the future'
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

EVEN as changes are being rolled out to meet the housing needs of Singaporeans of today, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan is casting his eye on the desired future of public housing in the decades to come.

After announcing several policy shifts during the debate on his ministry's spending yesterday, a philosophical Mr Khaw turned to what he said were fundamental questions about housing policy in light of "significant demographic and economic changes".

Signalling a critical rethink of the role and nature of public housing, he said: "After 50 years of public housing, it is good to re-examine some old assumptions and revisit some key policies."

He raised four key questions:

Should Housing Board flats continue to be an appreciating asset or return to being treated simply as a social need?

Should the HDB build to meet sophisticated tastes or go back to basics?

How to keep flats affordable while continuing to encourage couples to be prudent?

How should public housing respond to the needs of an ageing population?

"They are not trivial questions, and forging consensus on what the answers should be may be challenging," said the minister.

On the notion of an HDB flat as an asset, Mr Khaw noted that this was not the intent of public housing when it was first started. "At that time, we were all first-time applicants of HDB flats. Having basic, no-frills, low-cost homes was top priority."

Yet, as the country changed, so did housing policy. From very strict rules, changes were gradually made to allow owners to sell their flats for a profit and later to rent them out. And the changes meant many were allowed to accumulate large nest eggs, he said.

"Looking ahead, as we may no longer get the same kind of returns from reselling an HDB flat as in the past, how will its role as an asset be affected?"

On the re-evaluation that is afoot, he intends to mull the key questions "jointly with Singaporeans". He urged them to join the Government in a serious conversation on these issues and agreed with a suggestion from Parliamentary Secretary Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim that sessions be dedicated to housing in the ongoing Our Singapore Conversation.

"Share with us your worries, your fears, your hopes and your dreams. We hope to hear many views and ideas so as to better inform our housing policies. Let us work on the challenges together and shape better housing policies for our future generations."

All have a part to keep market in check: Khaw
By Esther Teo, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

HOME prices are determined by the market and heavily influenced by sentiment, and everyone plays a part in keeping the market in check, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan stressed yesterday.

He said that efforts to tame the market, which has seen prices surge more than 50 per cent since the start of 2009, are "a collective exercise". "Nobody wants the property market to continue to escalate, building up a possible bubble. I think nobody will benefit... All of us are in the same boat together; we want to calm down the property market," he said.

Mr Khaw called on the media to play its role in guiding sentiment. He noted a Channel NewsAsia report earlier this week highlighted that several five-room resale flats had sold for more than $900,000. But these are outliers, he said. The Straits Times, on the other hand, focused on the plunge in resale flat transactions, which had "a calming effect", he added.

In the last two years, 38,000 HDB first-timer families have benefited from a new pricing policy of delinking Build-To-Order prices from the resale market.

Almost all HDB first-timers are now buying new flats instead of resale flats, noted Mr Khaw.

"This has diverted significant demand from the resale market and helped to moderate the rise in resale prices. But we know that this is not enough to tame the resale market because resale flat prices, like that of private properties, are determined by the market and heavily influenced by market sentiments."

$260m to give seniors a hand at home
By Esther Teo, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

FROM this month, seniors living in Housing Board flats across the island will be offered a programme that will fit their homes with elderly-friendly improvements such as grab bars and slip-resistant tiles.

About 130,000 households are expected to benefit from the Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) scheme, which was introduced in July last year.

The new move to bring the elderly greater comfort and safety will cost $260 million.

It follows the good response to the initial rollout in the mature estates of Bukit Merah and Kallang/Whampoa, said Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan in Parliament yesterday.

About 300 applications were received from these pilot towns. At the same time, HDB received about 600 applications from other estates.

Under EASE, facilities such as grab bars, ramps and slip-resistant tiles are fitted in homes at highly subsidised rates.

Citizen households need to pay only between $100 and $250, depending on the flat type, if they select all the EASE improvements.

"To reach out to seniors who might be at risk of falls, HDB is also working with some hospitals and grassroots organisations to refer to HDB cases that need the EASE improvements most, so that these seniors can get to enjoy the benefits of the Ease programme earlier," Mr Lee added.

Since its launch, 40 per cent of residents living in older flats undergoing the Home Improvement Programme have opted for the EASE package, he disclosed.

Mr Lee also touched on new technologies, such as mechanised car parking, that HDB is studying for possible implementation.

Last year, the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for National Development and the Environment led a study on the issue.

The GPC has since recommended piloting mechanised car parking in a few sites in HDB estates that are short of parking space, Mr Lee said.

HDB will work with the GPC on these pilots and announce the details when ready, he added.

The budget and our renovation
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

RETIREE Michael Lim, 72, read last year about a Housing Board upgrading scheme to retrofit the flats of senior citizens.

Under this Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) scheme, HDB subsidises 95 per cent of the cost of installing grab bars, non-slip tiles and ramps in their flats. Seniors who are home owners pay between $100 and $250 in cash.

The scheme was piloted in Bukit Merah and Kallang.

The only problem is that his four-room flat, which he shares with his wife, 72, his mother-in-law, 87, and her sister-in-law, 85, is in Woodlands.

He was not deterred. Said Mr Lim: "I wrote to HDB and asked, what about those people like us who are urgently in need of these facilities? When do we have to wait until?"

In about a month, the authorities responded, ascertained his eligibility for the scheme and retrofitted his flat. He paid $118.

Yesterday, Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan said in Parliament that the EASE scheme will be expanded islandwide at a cost of $260 million. It is expected to benefit 130,000 households.

Mr Lim is all set to be an EASE ambassador.

After his flat was retrofitted last week, HDB officers gave him several extra copies of the EASE application form.

"There are quite a few people in my neighbourhood in wheelchairs. I can help them apply," he said.

MPs: Use video to record statements
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

THE camera was focused on statement-taking by police and other law-enforcement officers yesterday when two MPs suggested the use of video recordings to make sure that statements are accurately recorded.

Referring to recent high-profile cases heard in court, Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said a lot of time had been spent during the trials on determining whether statements taken from accused persons and witnesses had, in fact, been recorded properly.

One such case was the recently ended corruption trial of former anti-narcotics chief Ng Boon Gay.

The MP did not refer to the case specifically, but the prosecution's star witness had insisted that she had not said certain things recorded by Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) officers and also complained of being tired when her statements were taken.

In the end, the three CPIB officers who took her statements had to take the stand to rebut her allegations.

Recording the statement-taking process on video would help solve these disputes quickly, said Mr Nair.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), who also brought up the issue yesterday, said the practice would protect law enforcement officers against groundless accusations, and can also safeguard against wrongdoing by them.

The video footage would show, for example, whether someone was truly sleep-deprived, so judges would be able to see for themselves when statements are challenged.

The practice is already prevalent in other jurisdictions such as Australia, Britain, South Korea and Taiwan.

"It is a safeguard to maintaining high standards of law enforcement," said Ms Lim, adding that it was even more important in Singapore since people arrested here had limited rights to counsel under the law.

In response, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said there were no plans to introduce the practice for now.

"There should be a fair system which seeks to ensure that crimes are solved, and the system should also seek to ensure that the rights of the accused are protected.

"If an accused wishes to challenge the statement given by him, there are clear avenues available today," she said, adding that the issue was under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Other laws 'not ready for pre-trial disclosure'
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

TWO years ago, criminal law was revised so that the prosecution could share information with defence lawyers at an earlier stage.

And although results have been encouraging so far, the Law Ministry is waiting for more time and experience before extending the regime to other laws.

Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said this yesterday in response to Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), who called for a more level playing field in other areas of the law too.

For now, the sharing of information, known as pre-trial disclosure, covers all High Court cases and also Subordinate Court cases which fall under 23 laws, such as the Penal Code, the Internal Security Act and the Computer Misuse Act.

But it leaves out others, like the Prevention of Corruption Act, a piece of legislation that has been the subject of high-profile trials such as the sex-for-contracts trial of former anti-narcotics chief Ng Boon Gay and the sex-for-grades trial of law professor Tey Tsun Hang.

Ms Lim, saying she had seen first-hand as a defence lawyer how the sharing of information had contributed towards fair trials, asked when it would be expanded to cover more laws.

The information shared during these pre-trial disclosure conferences include names of witnesses who will be called and also statements and documents that both prosecution and defence plan to admit during the trial.

Ms Indranee said that even in those cases not currently covered by pre-trial disclosure, the prosecution is required to disclose any relevant material that can help the accused person's case.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam, drawn into the debate, added that whether or not pre-trial disclosure was expanded to cover more laws would also depend on the ability of the relevant law enforcement agencies to comply with the processes.

He added that the agencies would have to decide whether or not it was workable for them to do so.

'Misperception' of President's powers
Some candidates in last polls seemed unclear about role: Law Minister
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

THE role of the elected President has been clearly set out several times but some candidates in the last election still seemed to have the wrong understanding of the position's powers, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

"It's not a problem of public misunderstanding, it's perhaps misperception of what they might have considered to be the powers of the elected President," he told the House.

His remarks were in response to Nominated MP Eugene Tan, who said presidential candidates must "run for the office that exists, and not one they wished to have".

Mr Tan was referring to candidates who had made promises that went beyond the head of state's powers during the 2011 Presidential Election.

"That certainly got a segment of the electorate rather excited," the law don added, without naming any of the four men who ran in the polls.

Hence, it was important for the electorate to be informed so that people do not get "too politically entrepreneurial", he said during the debate on the Law Ministry's budget.

Responding, the minister pointed out that "we on this side of the House" knew all about such behaviour because they had seen it.

He also said that given the candidates' qualifications and clear explanations on the presidential powers, "one would assume that if they applied their minds, they would clearly know what the powers are and what the role is, and yet they make these statements".

He said he did not want to delve into the candidates' motivations, but people have to draw the conclusions on why the candidates did what they did.

"When appeals to emotion are made and played up, it's not easy to counter them with logic. But we will continue to try," he added.

Mr Shanmugam gave the House the assurance that the Government will continue to educate people on the President's role, including students through subjects such as social studies.

Mr Tan had earlier noted that the role is "much misunderstood" in Singapore's system of constitutional government, and asked if the Government would consider using the time before the next presidential election to increase awareness.

"More importantly, the electorate must be discerning to know which candidate is over-promising on the elected President's constitutional powers and mandate," he said.

The Constitution states that the President acts on the Cabinet's advice, with exceptions.

These are in specified areas that relate to the use of past reserves, appointments of key public officers, Internal Security Act detentions, Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau probes and restraining orders that relate to maintaining religious harmony.

Essentially, though holding the "second key", the President cannot initiate a drawdown of the reserves or make key appointments, laws or policies.

It thus differs from the powers of executive presidents in countries such as the United States and France.


Act against hateful conduct online

"MY POINT relates to the need for laws against hate speech and greater privacy laws in Singapore.

The advent of the Internet and social media has improved access of information and allowed the ordinary citizen to air his opinion online.

This is a good thing. However, the anonymity that the Internet affords has also led to the deterioration of social mores and etiquette on online platforms.

While rude expressions per se should not be restricted simply because they are unpleasant, we should be concerned when hate speech and hateful ideas are spread online.

By vilifying, disparaging, ridiculing, or inciting violence against particular groups of people, hate speech threatens social cohesion and stability.

Some countries have enacted legislation prohibiting and criminalising hate speech.

We have the Sedition Act, but that may be too blunt a tool. A more focused legislation against hate speech and other inappropriate conduct online, with more effective and responsive remedies, may be timely.

Related to this is the need for stronger privacy laws. In January this year, following the horrific accident in Tampines that claimed the lives of the two young brothers, photographs showing the mangled state of their bodies were circulated rapidly on the Internet.

The photographs made a spectacle out of a tragedy and robbed their family of the privacy and dignity that they deserved. This is only one incident.

The recent sex-corruption cases have seen photographs of innocent women circulated on the Internet speculating whether they were involved.

There are many instances online where people snap photographs of others in public spaces for the purpose of subjecting them to online ridicule and scorn.

The question is whether we as a society find this acceptable, and if not, whether the Government should step in.

Beware spiral of rising expectations
More giveaways today will mean bigger burden on future generations
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

THERE was the Singaporean who asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help him get a refund from a prostitute.

To be precise, he sought help to "seek a refund after he had procured illegal sexual services", in the euphemistic words of Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sam Tan.

Mr Tan also shared the story of a Singaporean living in Indonesia who asked the ministry to ship to him a desktop computer ordered online from the United States.

He was responding to a question on Singapore's consular services when he gave these examples of unusual - read unreasonable - requests received.

As Singaporeans' lifestyles improve, their expectations of public service and public policy are on an upward spiral.

They want more reliable mobile phone coverage and faster broadband infrastructure for surfing on their home networks and mobile devices, as MPs pointed out when debate shifted to the budget of the Ministry of Communications and Information.

During debate on the Ministry of National Development's budget, People's Action Party MP Lee Bee Wah and Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh both called for more large flats for multi-generational living. Ms Lee added that when new flats are built, residents want amenities such as childcare centres, transport links and food centres up and running immediately, not one year later.

To be sure, rising expectations by themselves are no bad thing. They spring from confidence and drive. But expectations get alarming when they ratchet up to unsustainable levels, ahead of resource constraints. When expectations keep spiralling up, sometimes unintended consequences occur.

What is good for one group, or even an entire generation, is not necessarily good for another.

This has been the case in housing. Indeed, MPs like Mr Liang Eng Hwa and Mr Hri Kumar Nair called for a stocktaking of housing policy.

In housing, the problem of ever-rising expectations creating an upward spiral of prices has led to what some criticise as a Ponzi scheme.

It starts this way: Generation A buy a subsidised Housing Board flat from the Government at a low price. They sell it to Generation B at a big price and pocket the gains for retirement.

Since HDB resale flat prices feed back into prices of subsidised flats, this means Generation B start off on a higher base price, whether they buy a new or resale flat. Their only hope to amass capital gains to fund their retirement is to sell off their flats to Generation C at an even higher price.

And so it goes.

From being a home, an HDB flat also became an asset. Asset enhancement of one's HDB flat was the buzzword through the 1990s and 2000s. This made sense at a time when income increases tracked or outpaced housing prices, and Generation B could afford the increases. But that spiral is untenable, even dangerous, when Generation C get income rises of, say, 3 per cent a year but flat prices rise 10 per cent a year.

The assumptions of 50, 30 or even 20 years ago no longer hold.

As Mr Khaw noted, economic growth - and hence income growth - is slowing, preventing future generations from paying high sums for flats. An ageing population means fewer young couples getting married and needing homes, slowing down demand for housing. Similarly, having fewer immigrants and foreign workers - a direct response to Singaporeans' concerns - will dampen demand for housing.

What will all this mean for Singaporeans today who are flat-owners who depend on their HDB flats for retirement? For Singaporeans today who aspire to own an HDB flat? For their children?

The truth is that what is good for today's retirees - high HDB resale flat prices - may not be good for today's young couples.

There is no easy alignment of interests across generations. It is thus important for the Government, and Singaporeans, to have a frank dialogue about expectations.

MPs offered suggestions on what might need to change: price flats lower, lower the loan tenure, and raise the income ceiling so more Singaporean couples qualify to buy one.

Mr Khaw's response to the general debate on housing, delivered at 6pm close to the end of the day's sitting, had plenty for Singaporeans to cheer about.

After two years of "fire-fighting", the supply crunch should be eased in the next three years as 167,000 new flats will be built by 2016. He also announced that singles with incomes of up to $5,000 a month can buy subsidised two-room flats, and introduced changes to help parents with children, and divorcees, get HDB flats faster.

But fire-fighting is in some ways the easy part. The tougher bit lies ahead: how to reshape Singapore's public housing policies so they make sense to a rapidly changing and ageing Singapore.

It used to be that the 90 per cent of flat-owners were happy to have ever-rising prices. But at some point, the flat-owners also became unhappy since those who cannot afford HDB flats are their own children.

And therein lies a lesson on the problem of rising and unrealistic expectations.

The spiral of expectations in areas such as housing or welfare handouts, or almost any area of public policy, is like a dog chasing its own tail.

When we demand better, bigger subsidised homes, free transport, more subsidies, we must understand that it all comes back to us in the end - if not today, then tomorrow.

If we demand generous entitlements today, it is our children who will pay the price tomorrow.


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