Wednesday 10 July 2013

Parliament Highlights - 9 Jul 2013

Integrity is key issue in hawker centre cleaning saga: Balakrishnan
Don’t take advantage of people, Minister Balakrishnan tells WP
By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 9 Jul 2013

Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan says that the key issue in the cleaning of two hawker centres under the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) is about integrity.

He made the point in Parliament on Tuesday during an exchange with Ms Sylvia Lim, chairman of the Workers' Party and chairman of AHPETC.

Dr Balakrishnan called on the Secretary-General of the Workers' Party Low Thia Khiang to conduct an internal investigation into the matter.

Hawker centres are spring cleaned four times a year. During one of the sessions, the high areas are also cleaned and all costs are borne by the town council, said Dr Balakrishnan.

Hawkers there said they were asked to pay additional charges for the cleaning of high areas.

But Ms Lim and AHPETC vice-chairman Pritam Singh have denied this.

Dr Balakrishnan referred to minutes of the meetings attended by AHPETC's property manager Tai Vie Shun and representatives of the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Hawkers Association to prove otherwise.

The first was on 8 March 2013 at a meeting attended by representatives from the NEA, the hawkers and the town council.

The second was made on 26 April this year during a meeting attended by representatives of NEA, the town council and the Hawkers Association.

The third was on 28 April 2013 during a meeting with the chairman of the Block 511 Hawker Association.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "Subsequently the hawkers repeatedly asked the Aljunied Town Council by email to confirm whether they would clean the high areas. Mr Tai Vie Shun refused to give the hawkers a direct answer. Instead he responded three times via email with a stock answer."

The reply was: "Spring cleaning is a practice set by the NEA, not the Town Council. As such we advise the merchant association to liaise with the NEA directly on the requirement."

Addressing Ms Lim, Dr Balakrishnan said: "My point to you, which you still have not clarified, is 'did your Mr Tai Vie Shun tell the hawkers that the town council is not responsible for areas beyond 2.5 metres and if they wanted that cleaned, the hawkers will have to pay extra?'

"That is my question to you and that is the central question here, because we believe - based on consistent testimony of all the hawkers, based on file notes and based on email - this is what really happened.

"You have denied it and your denials are not consistent with the facts and I put to you that you have been untruthful and that your statements are false."

Ms Lim said: "As far as our investigations go, Mr Tai had at no point in time asked for extra money to be paid to the town council for high area cleaning.

"This whole confusion started from an email by an NEA official on 7 February. In fact if he looks at that chain of correspondence, the town council staff was asking NEA to confirm the date for the scaffold erection and dismantling and the reply that came was the hawker association would be making arrangements with their own contractors for the scaffold erection and dismantling. How is the town council supposed to read that. Is that something the town council is to be blamed for?"

Dr Balakrishnan asked Mr Low to conduct an internal investigation into the matter.

Mr Low said: "What I gather from the whole episode arising from a misunderstanding between annual cleaning and spring cleaning.

"Spring cleaning is conducted quarterly four times a year. Annual cleaning - cleaning the highrise area of the market - once a year. So if the town council is obligated to clean also the highrise area, the question is: how many times you have to clean.

"I have not spoken to Mr Tai. This is the first time I read all these things. I gather that is how he came about."

Dr Balakrishnan said: "Politics is a contest for power. But you know the key principle when you have power is: don't take advantage of people under your charge and always be honest and upfront with your people.

"When a mistake is made, just come clean and say so. But don't cover up. That's why I have not let this go, because it is not about cleanliness of the ceiling, it is about clean politics and I appeal to you, because I know you to be an honourable man, I appeal to you, go back, do a thorough investigation of what's gone on and what's gone wrong in your town council and put it right, set it right. I have confidence you will do so, Mr Low."

Foreigners cannot use Singapore for political activities: Iswaran
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2013

WHETHER they are politicians, social visitors or workers, foreigners cannot use Singapore to stage political activities that contravene local laws, said Second Home Affairs Minister S. Iswaran yesterday.

They should avoid any actions that can be misconstrued, he added, such as what happened during the recent Malaysian elections.

Malaysians held two protests here after the results, and a Malaysian politician visited Singapore during the hustings.

Singapore, Mr Iswaran told Parliament, has always taken a strong stand against foreigners importing their politics here, and categorically disallows such campaigning.

Firm action would be taken if foreigners flout Singapore's rules, he said. This can include the termination of work passes or visas, if they are working or staying here.

In the lead-up to the Malaysian polls on May 5, then Johor Menteri Besar Abdul Ghani Othman boarded a bus to cross the Second Link, and spent an hour eating with aides and speaking to journalists here.

This led to questions on whether he was campaigning here.

Mr Iswaran said the police had taken action against 55 people who were involved in the first protest on May 8.

No permission was sought and no permit was issued.

The authorities are reviewing what actions to take against the remaining four.

All are foreigners.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) pointed out that the illegal event lasted for up to two hours, and asked why the police allowed it to continue.

Mr Iswaran said the authorities were on the ground within 15 minutes of receiving reports, and plainclothes policemen were present as well.

They allowed the event to finish because they felt that it was the best course of action, which the Government has accepted, he added.

"They made a tactical assessment on the ground that they would continue to observe, identify who were the main participants or players and then take action against them subsequently - which was what happened - rather than make an intervention."

Banks' senior management 'in the dark'
Lawrence Wong: MAS has taken firm action against traders' rate rigging
By Alvin Foo, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2013

THE senior management of 20 banks recently implicated in the rigging of crucial financial rates were not aware of their traders' actions, said Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) board member Lawrence Wong yesterday.

Still, he told Parliament, the regulator took a serious view of the traders' inappropriate behaviour, and has taken "firm and appropriate" actions.

Among other things, MAS has censured the banks' senior management for failing to exercise proper governance and oversight, and to institute robust rate submission processes.

His comments were in response to MPs' questions following revelations last month that a year-long MAS review uncovered 133 traders from 20 banks who had tried to influence the setting of local interest rates and foreign exchange benchmarks.

This included the Singapore interbank offered rate (Sibor) that most home-loan rates are pegged against.

But there was no conclusive finding that the rates were successfully manipulated.

MAS has referred five cases of attempted rate rigging to the Commercial Affairs Department, said Mr Wong, but there was insufficient evidence to support any prosecution based on existing criminal laws.

He also noted that the banks' senior management took the MAS review seriously and cooperated fully. He said: "Their strong commitment to do the right thing showed that banks here believe in upholding the integrity of Singapore's banking system, its financial markets and its banking professionals."

He was responding to the House on behalf of Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is also Finance Minister and MAS chairman.

In the wake of the findings, MAS has proposed a new regulatory framework for financial benchmarks. This includes criminalising attempts to rig such rates and subjecting the setting of several key benchmarks to regulatory oversight.

Mr Wong, who is also Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, said MAS' actions on the banks were proportionate to the scale of the misconduct uncovered.

MAS has ordered 19 of the 20 banks to set aside extra reserves - ranging from $100 million to $1.2 billion each - with it at zero interest, depending on the severity of their traders' attempts to fix rates. Holland's ING, British RBS and Swiss giant UBS are putting aside the most, between $1 billion and $1.2 billion each.

Mr Wong said this represents a financial cost to the banks in terms of the borrowing cost or the income forgone.

He added: "MAS' prompt supervisory response, together with the enhancements to the regulatory framework for setting key financial benchmarks, will safeguard the credibility and reliability of such benchmarks set in Singapore."

Fewer elderly suing their children for maintenance
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2013

FEWER elderly parents are suing their children for maintenance.

The number of cases has declined from 110 in 2011 to 84 last year, said Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing yesterday.

Annually, there are 300 requests for maintenance from parents, but most do not reach the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents.

They are resolved through mediation by the Commissioner for the Maintenance of Parents, he said.

The issue was raised by MPs Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and David Ong (Jurong GRC).

Mr Chan said the fall in number was because "we have cleared the stock of people who need such services," and that "mediation has taken over the bulk of the load".

Mediation is also the Government's "preferred route", he added.

"In an Asian context, very few families would like their dirty linen washed in public and most of them would like their cases to be settled amicably."

Mr Chan is wary of "naming and shaming" children who flout maintenance orders. This option should be "thought through very seriously", and the impact on the elderly, some of whom feel very ashamed of their situation, must be considered, he said.

In the past three years, 5 to 7 per cent of maintenance orders were flouted every year.

As for children abandoning their elderly parents, like the case of an 82-year-old man, a wheelchair user, found in Johor Baru in April, Mr Chan said his ministry comes across fewer than five such cases annually, while social service agencies and hospitals report fewer than 10.

Pulau Ubin to remain a rustic getaway: Maliki
Processes set up to avoid repeat of notice that upset residents in April
By Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2013

PULAU Ubin, a popular weekend getaway for Singaporeans and home to families who have lived there for decades, will be kept in its current state for as long as possible.

There are currently no development plans for the island, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for National Development Mohamad Maliki Osman reassured the House.

"Our intention is to keep Pulau Ubin in its rustic state for as long as possible, and as an outdoor playground for Singaporeans," he said in his reply to Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam.

Dr Maliki, an MP for East Coast GRC, which Pulau Ubin falls under, admitted that communication to households on the island could have been better.

The notice, which was issued in March, caused much worry because its subject topic read "Clearance Scheme: Clearance of Structures Previously Acquired for Development of Adventure Park on Pulau Ubin".

The families thought their homes were slated for "clearance".

But, Dr Maliki said, it was to inform residents of a census survey to determine how much resettlement benefits they are entitled to and the amount of rent they need to pay.

This is because the land that their houses occupy had been acquired by the Government in 1987 and 1993.

To continue living where they are, residents will in the near future have to pay for a Temporary Occupation Licence, which is the equivalent of rent.

Most households will pay less than $20 a month in the first year. This will go up to less than $120 a month in the sixth year.

Several MPs voiced concern over the misunderstanding. Nominated MP Faizah Jamal asked that in future such information be given to the residents in a language or dialect that they understand.

"Some of them have never been to school. This letter was in English and naturally they were concerned," she said.

Agreeing, Ms Ng asked how such a misleading notice could have been sent out in the first place. "Is there a process and system in place to vet important notices that go out to residents, especially those which are potentially sensitive and distressing?"

Replying, Dr Maliki said processes have been rectified to prevent similar incidents.

While the MPs welcomed the assurance that Pulau Ubin's rustic character would be maintained, they also put forward ideas to better preserve the cultural heritage of the 1,020ha island.

Ms Penny Low (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said it might be "worthy" to gazette the place as a cultural heritage site. She suggested the Government help residents upkeep their old kampung houses.

Ms Faizah cited a resident who had put in effort to maintain her kampung house, which is open to visitors keen to learn more about village life there.

Madam Kamariah Abdullah, 54, had previously told The Straits Times she was worried she could not afford the rent. Dr Maliki replied he was open to further discussion on how to help her.

He, however, would prefer not to turn the island into a tourist attraction. "I don't like to see it as a tourist destination but as a destination for Singaporeans to experience what rustic life is about."

No signs of Middle East respiratory virus in Singapore
By Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2013

SINGAPORE has tested 51 people for the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus and none of them showed any sign of the disease, the Health Ministry said yesterday.

Most of them are Singaporeans, and had been treated at public hospitals. Their ages range from seven to 90, the ministry's spokesman added.

Earlier, Parliamentary Secretary for Health Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim told Parliament that measures are in place to ring-fence the killer virus should it strike Singapore.

All suspected and confirmed cases will be isolated and the ministry will conduct contact tracing when needed.

Also, people who have been in close contact with confirmed cases will be quarantined.

In addition, eight holiday chalets in Pasir Ris have been put on standby since June 17 as a possible quarantine location.

The national stockpile of N95 masks, which had been partially released to the public during the haze, is being replenished as well.

Associate Professor Faishal told the House that the risk of a heavy toll on public health from an imported case remains low.

So far, the World Health Organisation has reported 80 cases of the MERS virus worldwide, with 44 deaths.

Many of the cases reported were in countries such as Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Italy.

Meanwhile, Haj and Umrah pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia, where the virus has been active, have been given health advisories, Prof Faishal.

"All pilgrims are advised to avoid close contact with persons suffering from acute respiratory infections and to adopt good food safety and hygiene practices to reduce the risk of being infected."

Pilgrims are also required to go for medical checks and get vaccine jabs, like for influenza.

Both the Health Ministry and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore are in contact with local travel agents organising the trips, through the Association of Muslim Travel Agents Singapore.

The move is to ensure the ministry is alerted early to possible cases of the virus, said Prof Faishal.

'Encouraging' start to free-ride trial
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2013

THE trial of free train rides during pre-peak hours has got off to an "encouraging" start, said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew yesterday.

In a written parliamentary reply to Nominated MP R. Dhinakaran, Mr Lui revealed that some "smoothening" out of commuter traffic has occurred at the 16 stations involved in the trial.

The number of exits for the period between 8am and 9am is now 2.1 times the exits from 7am to 8am.

Before the free-ride trial started, this was 2.7 times.

Also, there has been an 18 to 19 per cent increase in exits at the specified city stations from 7am to 8am.

Concurrently, there was a decrease of 6 to 7 per cent in exits from 8am to 9am.

These numbers were arrived at after adjusting for seasonal effects that cause changes in ridership.

Mr Lui emphasised that the success of the initiative to ease peak-hour congestion by encouraging commuters to travel earlier will be helped by employers allowing staff to work flexible hours.

The Public Service has implemented flexible working hours, and the Government is working with several large private sector organisations to offer similar arrangements, he said, urging other employers to follow suit.

The free-ride initiative is one of several measures the Transport Ministry is undertaking to ease congestion, he added. New rail lines, additional trains and upgrading of signalling systems are also in the pipeline.

"We are determined to do whatever it takes to reduce crowdedness on our rail network, both in the short term and the longer term," he said.


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