Wednesday 14 August 2013

Parliament Highlights - 12 Aug 2013

All public officers must soon declare visits to casinos here
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2013

ALL public officers who visit Singapore's two casinos frequently or who buy annual entry passes will soon be required to declare their actions, in a move by the civil service to maintain its integrity and public confidence.

The impending change was disclosed by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in Parliament yesterday, as he sought to assure MPs that standards of integrity in the public sector have not been allowed to fall.

"Although the statistics do not show an uptrend, we are concerned that these cases should not undermine public confidence or convey the impression that standards have slackened over time.

"This is why we are prosecuting the cases vigorously," he said, referring to several recent high- profile criminal cases involving public servants.

Four MPs had raised the issue, with two PAP MPs asking how the Government intended to address public concerns, particularly in the light of the latest case involving a senior anti-graft officer.

An assistant director with the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), Edwin Yeo, was charged last month with misappropriating $1.7 million from 2008 to last year, apparently to fund his gambling habit at the Marina Bay Sands casino.

But in the move to tighten the rules, the Public Service Division will "strike a balance between strengthening safeguards and imposing too many checks and rules on the system and public officers", said DPM Teo, who is the minister-in-charge of the civil service.

He did not say when the new rules will take effect.

Currently, officers whose work involves the casinos are barred from visiting them other than on official duties. They include officers of the Casino Regulatory Authority and police officers working on casino-related matters.

In addition, officers who do general law enforcement work have to declare their casino visits within seven days. Those who must do this include officers with the police, the Central Narcotics Bureau and CPIB.

Some other agencies, including the Trade and Industry Ministry, also require their officers working on casino-related issues to declare their visits to these places.

Mr Teo, replying to Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, also gave figures on whistle-blowing.

Public servants, he said, had made 81 reports of suspected misconduct since an internal disclosure framework was introduced in February 2011.

Of these, 70 cases led to further investigations, and 35 resulted in disciplinary action.

The cases included moonlighting without approval, misuse of staff passes, sexual harassment, assault, falsifying of transport claims and inappropriate relationships with subordinates.

Mr Teo stressed that the Government continued to emphasise integrity very strongly.

There are systems in place to ensure integrity is maintained - from the security vetting of law enforcement officers to the multiple avenues for whistle-blowing - and these systems are reviewed regularly, he said.

The code of conduct on how public officers deal with suppliers and vendors, for example, was updated recently.

But he added: "There will still be people who try to circumvent (the tight processes and systems). They may succeed for some time, but sooner or later, they will be caught. This is because Singaporeans, including our own public officers, reject corruption."

CPIB director 'didn't implement changes well'
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2013

SHORTLY after taking up his post in 2010, Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) director Eric Tan tightened its work processes.

These improvements could have led to the uncovering of the alleged fraud by its former assistant director Edwin Yeo, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament yesterday.

But the new measures were not implemented well and were circumvented, which led to continued loss of funds, added Mr Teo.

Mr Tan was given a letter of warning for the weaknesses in CPIB's internal processes, and he accepted responsibility for the lapses, the House heard.

The CPIB director will be replaced by Mr Wong Hong Kuan, chief executive of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, when his term ends on Sept 30.

Meanwhile, Yeo has been charged with misappropriating $1.7 million from the CPIB between 2008 and last year.

DPM Teo disclosed the flawed implementation in his reply to Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang, who had asked to what extent supervising officers should be held responsible for corruption in their departments.

Mr Teo said: "Each case is unique... and has to be considered in the light of the facts and the actions of the individuals, including the supervisors and the heads of the different agencies."

In the CPIB case, both Mr Tan and the previous director, Mr Soh Kee Hean, "had supervisory and command responsibilities" over the particular unit in the CPIB where the wrongdoing was uncovered.

The two directors were given letters of warning.

In issuing the letters, the Prime Minister's Office considered their lapses as well as their past contributions and performance in other aspects of their duties, Mr Teo said.

Formal letters of warnings can have implications on an officer's bonuses, salary increments and his career progression, he added, without elaborating.

Stricter oversight of procurement audits to prevent lapses
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2013

TOP brass in the public sector will have to exercise active oversight over procurement audits under a new reporting system.

It means permanent secretaries and heads of government agencies will have to report to the Finance Ministry each year their assessment of findings on procurement audits, whether done internally or by the Auditor-General's Office (AGO).

They will also have to set out follow-up actions and pre- emptive plans to avoid future weaknesses, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told Parliament yesterday, in response to questions from seven MPs on recent procurement lapses unearthed by the AGO.

The public sector's procurement needs will grow and become more diverse, Mr Tharman said, adding: "It is crucial that the top management sets the right tone."

He assured MPs that the lapses reported last month were due to non-compliance with rules, rather than gaps in the rules.

The lapses were administrative or procedural, and came down to a lack of knowledge, carelessness or poor supervision, with no evidence of fraud or corrupt intent, he said.

Most of the lapses were committed before further checks were put in place last year to ensure single bids had competitive terms, and the minimum period to submit quotations was extended from four to seven working days.

He also suggested that the AGO's finding partly reflects its recent focus on procurement in its audits.

One impetus was last year's graft probe over the purchase of Brompton bicycles by the National Parks Board after a tender received only one bid.

Outlining the remedial steps taken, he said 60 officers and supervisors had been counselled, reprimanded or issued warning letters in the past two years. Performance bonuses or increments were docked when warranted.

His ministry is reviewing the need to further tighten approval processes for transactions between related parties, such as those between a government agency and its subsidiary.

One such lapse was uncovered in the latest audit by the AGO.

Come next year, plans to build a pool of procurement specialists will be launched.

Senior management and auditors will also be equipped with more analytical software to review procurement activities.

Mr Tharman also acknowledged the need to avoid "causing civil servants to become risk averse and bureaucratic in handling procurements".

He said vendors benefit from the new rules, citing how the share of quotations with single bids fell from 15 per cent last year to about 4 per cent this year, suggesting that more vendors could submit bids.

And while the time taken to evaluate tenders has doubled over the past five years to up to four weeks, this is also due to the rise in the number of tenders that specify outcomes instead of process, and which take longer to evaluate.

He disagreed with opposition MP Sylvia Lim's (Aljunied GRC) view that the AGO's legal scope for audit was narrower than that of countries such as Malaysia.

Mr Tharman said its ambit "allows it to look at virtually all the internal controls and processes".

No government agency sees the AGO's scope as too limited, he said, adding: "In fact, the AGO is... feared."

However, he said, "the external auditor is not the fulcrum".

"At the end of the day, supervision within an organisation, the tone that is set and internal audit are critical to a well-functioning procurement system," he said.

Inmate's death: Govt accepts responsibility
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2013

THE Government accepts responsibility for the death of a prison inmate in 2010 and will compensate his family, Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran said yesterday even as he gave the reassurance that investigations into the case had been rigorous.

But he declined to provide a figure or more details in Parliament, pointing to ongoing discussions with the family of Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah.

Mr Iswaran was responding to questions by MPs after senior prison officer Lim Kwo Yin pleaded guilty last month in court to causing the inmate's death by a negligent act.

The officer was fined $10,000.

He was the direct supervising officer when Dinesh was subdued by several officers after an unprovoked assault on a warden.

The 21-year-old was later found to have died from breathing difficulties after he was placed chest down on the ground in an isolation cell.

Responding to MPs who asked if more information could be provided into the matter, Mr Iswaran said that investigations had been rigorous and thorough.

Govt taking disciplinary action against officers
Authorities 'take serious view of lapses, neglect or misconduct by prison staff'
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2013

DISCIPLINARY action against the superintendent, supervisors and other officers involved in the death of a prison inmate in 2010 have begun, Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran told Parliament yesterday.

The authorities take a serious view of professional misconduct, procedural lapses, neglect or excess of duty by prison commanders and officers, and will take firm action against them, he said.

"This is important in maintaining public confidence in the institutions, and also in the people who continue to serve in them," the minister said.

Pointing to confusion over what exactly happened in the 2010 incident, several members of the House such as Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) later rose to press for more transparency, including making the findings from a Commission of Inquiry (COI) public.

Mr Iswaran made clear that the COI's purpose was not to establish criminal guilt or liability.

Rather, it was to audit the prison system and its processes, and identify additional measures to prevent a recurrence.

In response to the COI's recommendations, the minister said the Prison Service now puts greater emphasis on the risk of positional asphyxiation, the cause of Dinesh's death.

Protocols such as applying control and restraint techniques on violent inmates in a standing position where possible have been introduced.

All supervising officers must now also be re-certified in the techniques every two years, instead of only officers who directly manage inmates.

These techniques were used 331 times in the past four years to deal with a range of violent incidents, the minister said.

Before Dinesh's case, no inmate had died or suffered serious injury from the measures, which were introduced here in 1990.

Three years ago, the 21-year-old assaulted a warden at Changi Prison. He was subdued by several officers.

Dinesh was found to have died from breathing difficulties after he was placed chest down on the ground in an isolation cell.

Mr Iswaran stressed that the Government had endeavoured to "run a robust investigation to make sure the facts are clear".

"And I think the facts have all been presented in totality," he said.

Mr Singh also asked if the coroner's inquiry could be re-opened.

But the minister said it was not unprecedented nor uncommon for one to be discontinued at the state coroner's discretion after the accused had pleaded guilty.

Lawyers acting for the inmate's family also did not object to the inquiry being discontinued.

The minister then turned to the concerns of Jurong GRC MP Ang Wei Neng, who related how the inmate's mother, a resident in his ward, had said prisons officers did not give her the full story until the court case.

"I think they would have been constrained by the fact that the matter was still under investigation," replied Mr Iswaran.

There was regular and appropriate communication with the family and their lawyers throughout, and on compensation, he said.

The COI also found the Prison Service's overall system and processes for managing violent inmates to be appropriate, safe and effective, Mr Iswaran said.

The Government recognises that maintaining order and discipline in such facilities is difficult and challenging, but expects prison officers to perform their duties with integrity and professionalism, he added.

"It is important that the Prison Service has a team of disciplined and well-trained officers who obey the law, and manage inmates conscientiously according to rules and procedures," he said.

Law protects kids born via assisted reproduction
It clarifies who the legal parents are in the event of a mix-up
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2013

WITH the number of children conceived with the help of assisted reproduction technology (ART) on the rise, Parliament yesterday passed a new law that ensures none of them would be left parentless, even in the event of a mix-up.

It puts the child's interests and welfare front and centre even as it clarifies the legal status of babies born through methods such as in-vitro fertilisation (IVF).

"The premise of the Bill is that a child conceived through ART should have at least one legal parent," Law Minister K. Shanmugam told the House in the debate on the Status of Children (Assisted Reproduction Technology) Bill.

The law makes it clear, for instance, that the woman who gives birth to the child through ART is the legal mother, even if the child did not come from her egg.

Her husband is legally considered the father of the child if he fulfils one of three criteria:
- he is the genetic father
- he is not the genetic father but consents to the procedure
- he is not the genetic father, did not consent to the procedure but accepts the child, knowing the child is not genetically his
If the mother is not married but in a relationship with a man as though he were her spouse, her "de facto partner" can apply to be declared the legal father if he meets one of the same three conditions. However, the de facto partner is not treated as the legal father until the court declares so.

But if a mix-up should happen and the wrong egg, sperm or embryo is used, the law also sets out the default rule: The child's parents will be determined as though the mix-up had not happened.

In other words, the woman who gave birth to the child and her husband or partner will still be considered the parents.

However, any interested party - such as the other couple involved in the mix-up - can apply to the court to be declared as parents of the child within two years of the mistake being discovered.

Mr Shanmugam said this provision, which is "unique to Singapore", ensures that the child will not be left parentless if no one wants to take care of him or her after the mix-up is uncovered.

But it also gives the court flexibility if a different result is in the child's best interests, he added.

The law stresses that when the court exercises its discretion in determining a child's parents, its "first and paramount consideration" must be the welfare and best interests of the child. It can consider factors such as the child's wishes and the bond he or she develops with any party.

Mr Shanmugam said reform in this area had been studied since early 2010 - even before the famous case that year when Thomson Fertility Centre used the wrong sperm in an IVF procedure.

The Government also studied the Law Reform Committee's 1997 report on the status of children born by artificial conception.

Most of the six MPs who rose to debate the Bill lauded its intent to keep up with real-life circumstances, but some raised grey areas and ethical issues.

Nominated MPs Tan Su Shan and Eugene Tan asked how children born to surrogate mothers would be affected by the new law, though ART services are not allowed to be used for surrogate arrangements in Singapore.

Mr Shanmugam said the Bill does not seek to deal with surrogacy, which is under the Health Ministry's purview, nor does it cover situations such as egg-freezing and reproductive tourism.

The law applies to children born in Singapore even if the fertilisation procedure was done overseas. It also applies if parties like the birth mother or the sperm or egg donor are residing in Singapore at the time of the birth.

Overstretched borrowers unlikely to default: Minister
By Yasmine Yahya, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2013

SINGAPOREAN households are in sound financial health and even home owners who seem overstretched on mortgages are not likely to default if interest payments rise.

That was the reassuring verdict yesterday from Mr Lawrence Wong, a director on the board of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).

Mr Wong, who is also Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, told Parliament that Singaporeans are not in as much debt now as they were in the last decade.

He was replying to Nominated MP Laurence Lien and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong.

Mr Wong, speaking on behalf of Deputy Prime Minister and MAS chairman Tharman Shanmugaratnam, noted a point made by Mr Tharman last month that 5 to 10 per cent of mortgage holders may have overstretched themselves, given that their monthly debt repayments amount to more than 60 per cent of their income.

A rise in interest rates will cause this group of borrowers some difficulty, but this does not necessarily mean they will default, Mr Wong said, who noted that most of them are better off than the average household and servicing only one property loan.

"If you look more closely at the profile of these borrowers, they are not necessarily in the vulnerable category. The bulk of them have above-average household income levels," he added.

"More than 90 per cent (of them) are servicing private property loans and more than 80 per cent of them are servicing one (property) loan, not multiple loans so (their properties) are owner-occupied."

So while this group of borrowers may have a relatively high debt service burden, they also have a larger buffer in terms of incomes and assets and they would be at a lower risk of default, Mr Wong said.

He also noted that there is really no precise measurement of over-leverage, and that looking at a household's debt service burden is just a "rough guide".

Overall, households are in good financial shape, he added. Even excluding the value of property assets, the cash and deposits owned by households exceed household debt in aggregate.

The household debt-to-income ratio has fallen from its peak.

This ratio was estimated to be 2.1 times last year - "significantly lower" than in the middle of the last decade when it peaked at 2.6 times, Mr Wong noted.

Still, he said the Government has taken some proactive measures to curb household debt, as it has to prevent a situation in which cheap credit drives property prices beyond levels that can be sustained by underlying income growth.

Fair consideration to locals: Govt to release details soon
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2013

FOLLOWING study trips to several countries and extensive consultations here, the Government will release details of how it plans to make firms give fair consideration to Singaporean job-seekers soon.

"We are in the midst of finalising some of the possibilities and should be able to provide more details in the coming months," Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said in a written reply yesterday.

But he made clear the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) planned framework is to ensure a level playing field and maintain meritocracy, and will not be a "magic bullet that ensures Singaporeans are hired first for every job".

He was responding to Nominated MP Mary Liew, Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) and Mr Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC), who had filed questions on foreign labour policy and the need to ensure fair consideration by bosses.

During this year's Budget debate, Mr Tan had said his ministry was looking at measures to achieve the latter.

Yesterday, he said the framework must strike a balance between ensuring a fair chance for Singaporeans and not being too onerous on employers.

MOM has visited countries such as the United States, Canada, Britain and Germany to speak with officials, firms and labour unions, he said.

Representatives from the Singapore National Employers Federation, National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore Business Federation tagged along.

A theme that emerged was that "an overly onerous system could lead to unnecessary bureaucracy that affects competitiveness", said Mr Tan.

MOM has also gathered views from the public and held focus groups with industry players and human resource practitioners, he added.

Heftier fines for those who fund terrorism
Fine raised to maximum of $1m; disclosing terrorism financing probes now a crime
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2013

THOSE who fund terrorists or their activities will face stiffer fines of up to $1 million, as the laws to thwart such financing were strengthened by Parliament yesterday.

The Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) (Amendment) Bill also makes it a crime for someone to disclose information about investigations into such offences.

Speaking during the debate on the Bill, Mr S. Iswaran, Second Minister for Home Affairs, said the changes were to "boost our fight against terrorism by strengthening our counter-terrorism financing regime and supporting our terrorist rehabilitation efforts".

Those caught providing monetary help to terrorists face a fine not exceeding $100,000, or imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both.

The fine will now be raised to a maximum of $500,000 for individuals, and $1 million for entities such as companies, bringing it in line with that for money laundering offences under other pieces of legislation.

Members who spoke during the debate supported the changes. But some, like Mr Desmond Lee (Jurong GRC) and Nominated MPs R. Dhinakaran and Eugene Tan, felt the fines were inadequate and did not reflect the potential damage such acts could inflict.

Responding, Mr Iswaran said the new fines were comparable to those in other jurisdictions such as Canada, Germany and Hong Kong. He added that the Government would monitor the situation and review the fines if necessary.

To strengthen Singapore's regime against terrorism financing, the Bill also makes it an offence to tip off others about probes into financing terrorism, with the penalty for doing so pegged at a fine of up to $30,000, or imprisonment of up to three years, or both.

Another clause in the Bill protects informers by making sure their identities are kept secret during legal proceedings.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked if the clause was too "broadly phrased" to provide adequate protection, since the courts can decide to disclose an informer's name when it determines that "justice cannot be fully done" without doing so.

But Mr Iswaran said the exception was necessary to "safeguard against injustice resulting from protecting the identity of informers".

The Bill also gave a nod to the importance of rehabilitating those involved in terrorism, and will make it easier for them and their families to meet basic expenditure needs.

Under the law, those detained for terrorism-related offences face certain financial prohibitions. The Bill will make it easier for transactions related to basic expenses - such as payment for food, medical treatment and mortgage - to be exempted.

Said Mr Iswaran: "Even as we strengthen our laws to fight terrorism, we must also find ways to rehabilitate and reintegrate terrorist detainees and former detainees."

PR via family ties: 4,000 a year

BETWEEN 2010 and last year, an average of 3,800 spouses and 340 children and parents of Singapore citizens were given permanent residency each year based on their family ties.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean gave the figures in a written reply to Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC).

At end-2012, there were 58,600 spouses and 9,800 children and parents of citizens who were permanent residents under this scheme.

PRs fully own 6% of HDB flats

AT END-JUNE, there were 51,000 Housing Board flats fully owned by permanent residents. This represents 6 per cent of all HDB flats, Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan said in a written reply to Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC). This year, 130 flats were sold by PRs within three years of their purchase 320 were sold within four years of purchase, and 490 within five years.

At a fundamental level, it's about values
Sustainable corruption-free culture cannot be created by rules alone
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2013

THE issues at the heart of the recent financial improprieties involving public officers were set out by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean right at the start of yesterday's parliamentary sitting.

He began his reply to the first few questions of the sitting by stating categorically how seriously the Government views the recent scandals. "Although the statistics do not show an uptrend, we are concerned that these cases should not undermine public confidence, or convey the impression that standards have slackened over time," he said.

DPM Teo had rightly identified the risk that many Singaporeans have begun to conclude that the civil service is not as scandal- proof as it used to be, even if the numbers might not necessarily produce a conclusive pattern.

Cases like those involving former Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) chief Peter Lim, former Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) assistant executive Liew Chee Meng, former Singapore Land Authority (SLA) officers Koh Seah Wee and Lim Chai Meng, and more recently former Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) assistant director Edwin Yeo have come close enough together to prompt some inevitable connecting of the dots.

Yet, though the exchanges over the issue were numerous throughout question time in Parliament, talk seemed to centre on a rather narrow tranche of the public trust problem.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and opposition chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) all stood up in turn to ask DPM Teo about accountability, disciplinary measures and avenues to report wrongdoing in the civil service.

Mr Nair and Mr Low, for instance, both wanted to know where the buck stops when some wrongdoing has been identified.

"When investigating a public servant's wrong, how far up the command chain does accountability flow?" asked Mr Nair.

But while talk of enhanced disciplinary and reporting measures are welcome, they are moves aimed at one end of the problem - catching or discouraging errant public officers. They do little to reassure the public that public officers remain of unimpeachable integrity. If anything, some may conclude that more safeguards are needed now to head off what might be an increasing number of rogue public officers.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) did try and tackle the problem slightly further upstream when he suggested casino curbs in the light of news that CPIB's Yeo was allegedly a heavy gambler.

DPM Teo said that the Public Service Division intends to require public officers who visit casinos frequently or who purchase annual entry levies, to declare their actions. While this is a start, the integrated resorts seem like an unlikely smoking gun. Among the recent cases, only in Yeo's was there some mention at all of any alleged gambling. In other cases, there was often little to suggest that gambling was at the heart of them.

But even if the opening of the casinos had somehow played a part in recent problems, banning public officers from the gaming floor presents only a small part of the solution. The other part, the one largely absent from yesterday's parliamentary sitting, is the matter of culture and values.

Said DPM Teo towards the end of his reply: "We have prevented corruption from becoming a way of life in Singapore, and succeeded in keeping Singapore clean. This differentiates us from many other countries and is a distinctive part of what makes us Singapore." And that is key in any conversation about trust in Singapore's public institutions.
The country's clean reputation was built on both the swift punishment meted out to anyone caught as well as the knowledge that most officers were incorruptible on a more fundamental moral level. So while it was good to talk about strengthening safeguards and disciplinary measures, the fear of getting caught alone cannot create a sustainable corruption-free culture.

Building up Singaporean management team for fifth schedule companies
Written Answer by Ministry of National Development on public rental flats
Written Answer by Ministry of National Development on implementation of capital gains tax for foreigners purchasing private housing in Singapore
Written Answer by Ministry of National Development on the income ceiling for the purchase of HDB flats
Written Answer by Ministry of National Development on the repair of ceiling leakages
Written Answer by Ministry of National Development on monitoring the commercial properties market
Written Answer by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower & Senior Minister of State, National Development, to Parliamentary Question on Help for PMEs Who Were Unfairly Dismissed
Written Answer by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower & Senior Minister of State, National Development, to Parliamentary Question on Dependency Ratio Ceilings for New Growth Industries
Written Answer by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower & Senior Minister of State, National Development, to Parliamentary Question on the Continuing Education and Training (CET) programme
- Written answer by Minister for Law, K Shanmugam, to Parliamentary Question on court process for road accidents

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