Tuesday 22 October 2013

Parliament Highlights - 21 Oct 2013

Fair jobs for S'poreans go beyond just hiring
MOM will keep eye on firms' HR practices like promotion, retirement
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

THE need for firms to be fair to Singaporeans does not end once a worker has been hired.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin made it clear in Parliament yesterday that his ministry's scrutiny of firms extends to other human resource practices too.

"Firms will also be flagged out if there are repeated complaints of unfair HR practices, whether it is for hiring, promotion, retirement or retrenchment," he said.

He was responding to Nominated MP Eugene Tan, one of seven MPs who raised questions on the Fair Consideration Framework announced last month.

It includes a requirement for firms looking to hire skilled foreigners on Employment Passes (EP) to first advertise for 14 days on a government jobs bank.

The framework also features greater scrutiny of firms that may have discriminatory HR practices: They will have to provide the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) with information like organisational charts with data on nationality.

"Such firms will be subject to additional scrutiny in their work pass applications and those which are found to have poor employment practices may have their work pass privileges curtailed," said Mr Tan.

The Fair Consideration Framework drew the most questions yesterday. Of the five MPs who filed questions on it, three rose with more queries, as did two other MPs who had not filed questions.

The rush was such that Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) was unable to get a question in. His attempt to do so after Parliament had moved on was denied by Speaker Halimah Yacob.

Mr Tan also shed more light on the new framework. For instance, one factor that may land a firm under MOM's gaze is how fast its proportion of Singaporean professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) changes over time, he said in his reply to Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC).

MOM has an "internal sense" of what this should be, he said. "It's an assessment and a judgment based on where we see the whole economy going."

Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) asked why firms with 25 or fewer employees were excluded from the advertising requirement.

Mr Tan said small firms may not have "sophisticated HR management" to process many job applications. More importantly, larger firms hire most - 75 per cent - of EP holders. Those with 25 or fewer staff employ about two EP holders on average, while the others employ 18.

Mr Tan stressed that this was only a "practical exemption" from the advertising requirement, and not from other aspects such as scrutiny. "There are no exemptions to the need for firms to consider Singaporeans fairly. All firms must do this."

But he also stressed that Singapore must remain open: "It is not the intent, nor is it desirable for us, to ensure that every single PME job will go to Singaporeans.

"I think we do need to make sure that the economy remains competitive, and that's probably the best way to look after the interests of our Singaporeans."

Jobs bank: Only S'poreans can apply
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

WHEN the national jobs bank is set up next August, only Singaporeans will be able to apply directly on the site itself.

But all job seekers, including foreigners, will be able to see the jobs available, said Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin in Parliament yesterday.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will also look at working with private jobs portals in its running of the first national jobs bank.

This is to "improve the overall labour market efficiency and provide as much visibility of job opportunities to job seekers as possible", said Mr Tan.

He was responding to a question from Nominated Member of Parliament Teo Siong Seng, who asked whether the national and private jobs banks will be linked for better efficiency and cost savings.

The national jobs bank was announced last month as part of a broader Fair Consideration Framework.

It mandates that firms which want to hire foreign professionals must first advertise for Singaporeans in the jobs bank.

The aim is to nudge firms to give Singaporeans a fair chance at landing professional, managerial and executive jobs.

Firms with 25 or fewer staff, as well as those hiring for jobs that pay $12,000 and above a month, are exempted from the rule.

Private jobs portals welcome the prospects of working with MOM.

STJobs senior product manager Ang Yinghui said that the home-grown portal's collaboration with MOM will "help local businesses widen their reach to local job seekers... (and) help the Government achieve its objective of ensuring fair job opportunities for Singaporeans".

JobStreet marketing manager Frieda Chan added: "Private jobs portals can help by automatically re-posting the ad on the national jobs bank - with the employer's consent - on behalf of employers who are unable to find suitable local candidates."

Bosses who pay workers' CPF late face jail, stiffer fine
Minister introduces Bills to amend CPF Act and Employment Act
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

EMPLOYERS could be sent to jail for being late in making contributions to their workers' Central Provident Fund (CPF) accounts or defaulting on payments, under proposed amendments to the law.

These bosses and those who fail to pay salaries may also face stiffer fines.

He had earlier called for stronger deterrence against errant employers, after the CPF Board recovered $293 million in arrears from employers owed to more than 200,000 workers last year.

Employers who are tardy with CPF contributions or default on them could be jailed for up to six months or fined up to $5,000, double the $2,500 now, or both, in the first instance. The minimum fine will be $1,000.

Repeat offenders may be jailed for up to 12 months or fined, or both. The maximum fine remains at $10,000.

A minimum fine of $2,000 will be imposed.

Employers who fail to pay salaries will have their maximum fines tripled to $15,000 for first-timers, and $30,000 for repeat offenders. The maximum composition fine will go up five times to $5,000.

A minimum fine of $3,000 will also be imposed for first-timers, and $6,000 for repeat offenders.

They continue to be liable for jail terms of up to six months and 12 months respectively.

Enforcement inspectors will be given more powers to investigate and arrest people.

The Bill proposing changes to the Employment Act also covers the Child Development Co-Savings Act and the Industrial Relations Act.

Changes first made public at the Committee of Supply debate in March include enabling more workers to qualify for overtime and giving professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) more protection.

But there will be caps on the overtime rate and PMEs have to serve with the same employer for at least one year to be eligible to seek redress against unfair dismissal.

The Manpower Ministry said in a statement yesterday: "The proposed amendments will help to ensure better protection for more workers and improve employment standards, while allowing flexibility for employers."

Another concession for employers: They will not have to give paid sick leave or pay consultation fees for workers getting cosmetic surgery.

Schooling allowed to defer NS to focus on Olympics
By May Chen, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

SINGAPORE'S top swimming prospect Joseph Schooling has been given time to focus on the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, after the Government granted his request for deferment from full-time national service (NS).

Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament yesterday that the 18-year-old swimmer, who was due to enlist next year, has been granted deferment until Aug 31, 2016.

"The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) supported the appeal for deferment, as they assessed that, based on his previous achievements in international competitions, Mr Schooling had potential to do well in the next Olympics," he said. "He will be enlisted for full-time NS once his deferment ends."

Dr Ng was speaking in response to a question from Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC) about the possibility of a flexible approach to NS enlistment for top athletes.

When further asked by Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) if athletes competing at lower-level competitions like the Asian Games would also be considered for deferment, Dr Ng responded that competitions must be sufficiently high-level and athletes concerned must be exceptional.

He added: "Individuals have to show why deferment is necessary for them to train full-time and compete successfully at international competitions.

"Each case will be assessed individually in consultation with the MCCY."

Schooling said he heaved a sigh of relief upon receiving the news.

"We've been asking for deferment for three years now. I'm just grateful that I can get on the good side of this," he said in a telephone interview from the United States, where he is based.

"I'm setting myself up for a good show in 2016. I still have a little more than two years to work towards my goal.

"At the rate I'm going right now, I'm confident."

The 2011 Sportsman of the Year won two golds at the 2011 SEA Games in Palembang, and qualified for last year's London Olympics. He also made his mark at this year's world championships in Barcelona, where he became the youngest swimmer to qualify for the semi-finals of the 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley - two events which he set new national records in.

As the top-ranked swimmer in the US for his age group in the 200m IM and 100m fly (short course yards), the Bolles School student has attracted interest from colleges such as the University of California (Berkeley), and the universities of Florida, Texas and Michigan, where famed American swimmer Michael Phelps had trained.

Said his mother May: "We've been holding back on (making a decision on the offers), because of all the uncertainties.

"Now all that is put aside and it's so much easier to plan his pathway.

"We've been waiting for this for so long. We're very grateful that he's been given a chance to do something for Singapore."

Local swim coach and former Olympian David Lim still feels a need for arrangements to be in place beyond 2016 to ensure flexibility for Schooling to continue training, but applauded Mindef's decision as "a breakthrough".

He said: "Exceptional athletes need to have exceptions. This will do Singapore sports a whole lot of good."

Commenting on the news, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said in a Facebook post yesterday: "Joseph has tremendous talent and commitment. He has proven himself in major meets such as the World Championships earlier in the year.

"I am sure he will continue to strive for the best results in the pool, and in the process, inspire all of us, and do Singapore proud."

Many elderly people affected by shutdown of Teletext, says WP chief
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

WORKERS' Party chief Low Thia Khiang took aim at the Government for allowing Teletext to end, saying it affected many elderly citizens who depended on the 30-year-old analogue information service.

He asked Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday if he was aware there were "a lot of complaints on the ground from the elderly".

The service, which could be accessed by anyone with a television, was shut down on Sept 30 by MediaCorp. The state broadcaster cited declining usage as the chief reason.

Mr Low (Aljunied GRC) said that many older Singaporeans have yet to get accustomed to accessing information online.

He quoted a 2011 survey by the Infocomm and Development Authority (IDA) which found that only 15 per cent of those aged 60 and above used the Internet, while less than half of those in their 50s had used a computer or the Internet in the past 12 months.

He asked why MediaCorp was in "such a hurry" to shut down Teletext before government programmes had ensured seniors were sufficiently prepared to switch to and use the alternatives.

Dr Yaacob replied that "a long list of programmes" had been rolled out "long before 2011" to help the elderly learn how to use the Internet.

So far, about 77,000 seniors have been trained under the ongoing Silver Infocomm Initiative.

MediaCorp had found the number of people who accessed Teletext's stock price information fell from 187,000 in 2011 to 28,000 this year.

Dr Yaacob said his ministry had to "give them the leeway (to cancel Teletext) because they are basically in the market and they know better how to conduct such a service".

He also highlighted the case of 81-year-old Lim Chan Kong, who has written in to newspapers advocating the learning of new technology, as an example that one "is never too old to learn".

Yesterday, Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) also called on the Government to have a "more rigorous communication and coaching plan" for senior citizens, suggesting that training could be conducted in multiple languages. Volunteers could act as "community coaches" to the elderly while the Government could highlight success stories. Dr Yaacob said his ministry would consider her suggestions.

Prices of studio and other flat types not comparable: Khaw
Studios reasonably priced and value is linked to their locations, he adds
By Daryl Chin, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

COMPARING studio apartments to other flat types is akin to equating apples to lemons, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament yesterday.

This is because studios are tailored specifically for the elderly, and are kept affordable so buyers can monetise after right-sizing, he added.

He was responding to queries from Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang, who asked if studios were becoming too expensive as an option for the elderly.

The price range in July's Build-To-Order exercise for Bukit Merah studio units was between $113,000 and $163,000 each.

In 2003, studios sold for between $47,800 and $71,700.

The latest prices are higher than those for the Sengkang two-room units sold in the same July exercise; they went for between $76,000 and $124,000 each.

Mr Khaw said he read comments on social media comparing the studios and two-room units, but argued that studios were still reasonably priced. "They are comparing apples with lemons. Some studios were in very popular locations, versus two-room flats in non-mature estates. And of course there must be a price difference to reflect this," he said.

The studios come in two sizes - 35 sq m and 45 sq m. They are sold on 30-year leases, have elderly friendly features such as non- slip tiles, and most are located in mature towns.

Mr Khaw also assured the House that the authorities will inject greater flexibility in selling the studios.

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) had called for more leeway to be given to those under 55 years of age - the minimum age requirement for studios, while Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked for leniency for those who can qualify for one, but have their equity tied up in their current flat.

Mr Khaw noted that the Housing Board would generally look at each case based on its merits, and exercise flexibility under extenuating circumstances.

He also replied to Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), saying about 300 couples - comprising a citizen with a foreign spouse - had bought two-room BTO units since such couples were first allowed to in July.

Meanwhile, Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin revealed that the Central Provident Fund Board is working with the National Development Ministry to study more options to help buyers with pre-existing health conditions who are not covered by the Home Protection Scheme.

This mortgage-reducing insurance helps with repayments should disaster strike. Since 2011, about 1.3 per cent of all applications were rejected due to serious pre-existing medical conditions.

Cedar Girls' school to lose 400m track to make way for Bidadari estate
By Daryl Chin, The Straits Times, 23 Oct 2013

The well-known Cedar Girls' Secondary School track will make way for the new Bidadari estate.

This was confirmed in Parliament on Monday, when the Ministry of National Development (MND), replying to a question by Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin, said the lease on the 400m track will not be renewed when it ends in 2017.

The latest lease on the field, which began in 2007, was given the green light as the Government had no immediate need for it. "It was understood and agreed that the lease... will be a temporary one," the statement read.

Now the field, which is also used by Cedar Primary, is set to make way for around 600 public flats, a road, a medical facility and a place of worship, leaving those who had been fighting to keep the track disappointed.

For the past 56 years, Cedar Girls' Secondary has been using the parcel of land behind the school as a track.

While queries sent to the school went unanswered, Singapore Athletics Association chief of sports development Loh Chan Pew said the loss of the track was a pity, given that few girls' schools featured such facilities. "It is a very good track, and good facilities are always a boon to the school team," he noted.

A Facebook page titled "Why Cedar Running Track should be saved", which garnered more than 2,800 likes, pointed out that the track is also "regularly used by other schools".

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, in reply to another question from Mr Sitoh, said secondary schools are provided with a standard set of sports facilities, which are sufficient to meet the curriculum.

Cedar Girls' Secondary currently has a 110m track on its premises. He also recommended that students make use of nearby 400m tracks in stadiums in Toa Payoh and Serangoon if need be.

"At the end of the day, I think everybody tried very hard," said Mr Sitoh, adding that he had meetings with the school's representatives several times after the Housing Board revealed its plans for the area in August.

"I understand MND even went back to the drawing board and relooked at the plans, but it looks like it's been decided."

Law firms chided for 'inaccurate picture' on scope of work
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

A TOP foreign law firm and the local firm it tied up with have been chided by the Law Ministry for presenting an "inaccurate picture" that could suggest the foreign partner can do litigation work in Singapore.

They had done it in media statements and publicity materials.

But yesterday, Law Minister K. Shanmugam made clear that such domestic legal work "remains and must remain the province of Singapore lawyers and Singapore law firms".

The two firms are London-based Clifford Chance and Singapore's Cavenagh Law. They entered into a Formal Law Alliance (FLA) last year, after the law was amended to further enhance tie-ups.

Mr Shanmugam, in his reply to to Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who is also a lawyer, referred to an article in Legal Business magazine, published in July.

It quoted a partner of Clifford Chance saying it is "the first full service firm in Singapore offering litigation advice".

Similar statements promoting the FLA, called Clifford Chance Asia, as "the first international firm with a full service, integrated law practice in Singapore" were repeated in earlier press releases.

Mr Shanmugam said these statements could be read to mean a foreign law firm can now practise litigation in Singapore, but "that would not be accurate".

Senior ministry officials had called in the partners of both firms and told them their statements "conveyed an inaccurate picture and should be stopped", he said.

Under an FLA, local and foreign law practices may collaborate as two free-standing firms. They can share office premises, resources and client information as well as engage in co-branding and billing.

Lawyers may hold concurrent partnerships in both practices, subject to the Attorney-General's approval.

However, specific areas of domestic law - such as litigation, criminal law, family law and conveyancing - are "ring-fenced" and can be handled only by Singapore firms, through lawyers called to the Singapore Bar, Mr Shanmugam said.

The local firm in the FLA must use its own letterhead and file court papers in its own name for these legal areas.

Mr Shanmugam urged local and foreign law firms in FLAs to exercise restraint in their publicity and refrain from overstating the facts. "Clever wordplay" should be avoided, he added.

His ministry will also not condone arrangements where the local law firm is acting as a proxy of the foreign firm, he said.

A Clifford Chance spokesman said yesterday the FLA allows its firm and Cavenagh Law to provide the broadest range of Singapore and international legal services from a single platform, with local litigation representation provided through Cavenagh Law.

"The FLA, approved by the Ministry of Law and the Attorney-General's Chambers, has at all times fully complied with all applicable regulations and will continue to do so," she said.

Govt may block websites to fight piracy
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

SINGAPOREANS who download pirated movies and music from certain websites could soon find it difficult to do so, as the Government is considering blocking some of them.

The Law Ministry is discussing such a possibility with other agencies, said Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah yesterday.

But before any implementation is done, the industry and the public will be consulted on the appropriate way to do it, she added.

Ms Indranee announced the likely move in Parliament when replying to Nominated MP Janice Koh on measures to stop digital piracy.

One reason for looking at site-blocking as a measure to help counter the ease of accessing copyright-infringing material online is that it is simple to administer, she said.

Also, it targets the law-breaking sites rather than users, she added.

But how it might be implemented will be "carefully considered", and there will be a public consultation in the coming months.

Site-blocking was one of several anti-piracy proposals made by the Government-convened Media Convergence Review Panel (MCRP) last year.

However, it is not a silver bullet that provides a "100 per cent solution" to the problem, said Ms Indranee.

So the Government will take a multi-pronged approach, which includes more public education, regulations and ensuring legitimate content is available at a reasonable price.

But initial findings show that site-blocking can restrict access to pirated content, said the Senior Minister of State, citing an International Federation of the Phonographic Industry report.

It says that within a year of five European countries restricting users' access to the website Pirate Bay, traffic to the site dropped by 69 per cent.

Pirate Bay is popular among users who upload and download pirated versions of television shows, movies and music.

But diehards can get around site-blocking, said experts, by using virtual private networks (VPNs) or simply going to less well-known sites to download.

"It will not stop the general trend of how people are now getting hold of content for free," said a 48-year-old tutor who regularly downloads British TV programmes illegally as they are not shown on local channels.

But some argue that it will, at least, send a signal that the Government means business.

As MCRP chairman Koh Boon Hwee said last year, site-blocking is "symbolic" and "a signpost of what our society stands for".

Intellectual property law expert Bryan Tan recommends the Government focus more on public education.

"People should know more about what is at stake and learn to have greater respect for intellectual property rights," he told The Straits Times.

Compliance costs for financial bodies to rise
But Singapore's competitiveness 'should not be affected'
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

THE cost of compliance for financial institutions is set to go up due to new tax legislation coming out of the US, but this should not affect Singapore's competitiveness as a financial hub.

Senior Minister of State for Finance Josephine Teo said countries all over the world will be grappling with the requirements of the US' Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).

She was responding to questions from Members of Parliament about ongoing negotiations between Singapore and the United States over the Act.

FATCA is an inter-governmental agreement that will provide automatic information sharing by financial institutions here with the US tax authorities.

The new law, which takes effect globally in January, will oblige financial institutions based outside the US to report information about the assets owned by American taxpayers.

Non-compliance will attract a hefty 30 per cent withholding tax on all US investments both for banks and their customers, restricting access to US financial markets.

Mrs Teo added that the inter-governmental agreement with the US on its new tax legislation is intended to reduce the cost of compliance for financial institutions here, as they will automatically be deemed compliant unless they fail to meet reporting requirements.

The Government is also making other moves to combat cross- border tax offences.

An amendment to the Income Tax Bill will allow the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) to directly obtain confidential tax information from financial institutions, without having to seek a court order. The Republic will also extend agreements which allow for the exchange of information for tax purposes to 83 jurisdictions, from 41 currently.

Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) and Nominated MP Tan Su Shan were concerned that the new measures might not sufficiently safeguard taxpayers' rights.

Ms Tan, who is also the group head of consumer banking and wealth management at DBS, said that the changes send a clear signal that Singapore "does not want to be a tax haven" for illicit funds.

However, they might also allow corrupt foreign governments to obtain information on individuals here for political reasons, she said, adding: "We have to ensure this exchange of information does not lead to abuse."

Ms Foo, previously of Standard Chartered, said client confidentiality should not be compromised in the process of tackling tax fraud.

In response, Mrs Teo said the tax authority will only share taxpayer information in accordance with international standards.

"The removal of the court process does not mean that IRAS will freely share information with (our partners)," she said.

"There are robust safeguards in the international exchange of information standards to ensure that only clear, specific and relevant requests are acceded to."

More firms claim tax rebates for productivity
By Chia Yan Min, , The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

MORE micro-enterprises are taking up a tax rebate scheme aimed at spurring firms to boost productivity.

Among companies with revenues of less than $1 million a year, about a quarter claimed benefits under the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) last year, up from one in five the year before, said Senior Minister of State (Finance & Transport) Josephine Teo.

Mrs Teo was responding to Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC), who had asked if the criteria for claiming benefits under the PIC scheme could be reviewed to benefit micro-enterprises.

The PIC scheme, introduced in 2010, gives tax deductions or cash payouts to firms if they take steps to boost productivity.

These include automation and training.

Members of Parliament also raised questions about the effectiveness of government schemes aimed at raising productivity.

Despite the resources being channelled, labour productivity fell 0.3 per cent in the second quarter - its sixth straight quarter of decline, said Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC).

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam questioned if "improvements in innovation can be objectively measured".

In response, Mrs Teo said raising productivity is "a medium- to long-term endeavour", and comparisons should be made across decades.

In the process of economic restructuring, "we can expect short term productivity fluctuations due to economic cycles and volatility".

She added that the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) - which administers the scheme - has been reaching out to small businesses to educate them about the PIC, and will not hesitate to take action against fraudulent claims.

Match-fixing case: 4 held without trial
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

FOUR of the 14 suspected international match-fixers arrested last month in an islandwide sting are being detained without trial, Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean confirmed yesterday.

In a written reply to parliamentary questions, he explained that the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA) is used "as a last resort in cases where accomplices and witnesses dare not testify against criminals in court, for fear of reprisal".

"Like drug trafficking and unlicensed money-lending, illegal soccer match-fixing activities are carried out by organised criminal syndicates with complex and layered structures motivated by financial gain," wrote Mr Teo.

The nature of cross-border illegal activities also makes it more difficult to secure evidence and witnesses, he added.

One of the four detained is believed to be 48-year-old Tan Seet Eng - better known as Dan Tan, whom Interpol has labelled the "leader of the world's most notorious match-fixing syndicate".

Their cases will be reviewed by an independent advisory committee which will then submit its findings to the President, who can cancel, confirm or vary the orders, said Mr Teo.

He also revealed that steps to apprehend the 14 suspects started "well before the media reports in 2011". Then, Tan's name was linked to a major match-fixing scandal in Italy. But he explained progress was hampered as the alleged offences occurred overseas, and the information obtained was sketchy. In February, after the European Union's Europol named Singapore as the base for some of the operations of an extensive match-fixing syndicate, the police and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) formed a team to work with Interpol.

This culminated in last month's arrest of the 14 suspects. Nine have been released on police bail and one has been issued a police supervision order in lieu of prison detention.

Emphasising the "strict vigilance" against illegal football activities, Mr Teo said in the last decade, CPIB has probed 10 cases of football-related corruption, with six ending in court convictions and three in stern warnings.

Yesterday, the Home Affairs Ministry tabled a Bill to extend the CLTPA for another five years, starting Oct 21 next year.

SMEs want help with rental issues
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

SINGAPORE'S small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have given up petitioning the Government to change its strict stance on foreign labour. Instead, they want help to overcome another challenge: leases and rental costs.

This need was set out yesterday in Parliament by Nominated MP Teo Siong Seng, immediate past president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI).

Referring to a survey the chamber released earlier this month, Mr Teo said the findings show that manpower and premises are the two problem areas for SMEs. Companies have accepted the former, but want help with the latter.

"Hence, we hope the Government would be able to provide affordable space for the SMEs," said Mr Teo in Mandarin, citing two problems they face.

One is the uncertainty over whether land leases will be renewed.

"Our businesses hope that early notification on the possibility of future renewals can be given before the expiry of the land lease," he said.

Such certainty would let businesses plan ahead.

Replying, Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck said industrial developer JTC Corporation engages its tenants six years before their lease expires.

It also gives at least three years' notice if the lease cannot be renewed, he added.

The second problem was rising rent for factory and retail space.

With many commercial spaces under private owners or Real Estate Investment Trusts (Reits), companies feel squeezed by short rental periods, rent hikes and having to share profits with landlords, said NMP Teo.

He added that companies have said: "We are simply working for Reits."

He hoped the Government would provide more SMEs with affordable space, for instance by expanding schemes like JTC's Small Footprint Standard Factories for SMEs.

NMP Teo also voiced two other wishes: a single government agency which SMEs can approach to solve their problems, and easing policy criteria so that SMEs' compliance costs are reduced.

To this, Minister of State Teo noted that firms can call the EnterpriseOne hotline for information on government schemes, or visit SME Centres for one-stop help.

Fair play needed all round to work
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2013

THE challenges of governing in an era when Singaporeans have become more vocal surfaced in Parliament yesterday, when Mr Tan Chuan-Jin addressed MPs' questions on a new framework to give fair consideration to the interests of Singaporean professionals and executives.

His ministry, and others as well, have to deal with "many people providing a lot of feedback", the Acting Manpower Minister told the House.

But "there are complaints, and there are complaints", he said as he sought to describe how the Government is unable to help an aggrieved Singaporean if there is insufficient evidence of discrimination, or the worker chooses to remain anonymous.

"Certainly I've read many complaints," he said.

"And we've spent quite a number of man hours actually investigating some of them."

Some workers, disgruntled after losing out on a promotion or being retrenched, lodge a report with the authorities due to such "personal issues".

But investigations show that there are insufficient grounds for a complaint, the minister said.

Others would lodge a report but not back up their claims. And when the Manpower Ministry wanted to follow up, the workers refused to identify themselves.

"We have a whole range of complaints and issues being raised, and we need to then prioritise to see how best to address it," he lamented.

This is not to say that complaints are not useful, he pointed out, given that a company's internal workings are usually not obvious to outsiders.

It could be a useful way of signalling to the authorities which companies are errant and favour foreigners over locals, and is one way the ministry will monitor the employment market even as it implements the Fair Consideration Framework.

Five MPs rose to speak on the policy, which requires employers to consider locals fairly before hiring foreigners for professional, managerial, and executive positions.

From August, firms making new Employment Pass applications must advertise vacancies in a government jobs bank for at least 14 days.

The gamut of questions posed by MPs included whether it would be extended to rank and file jobs (yes, but not the advertising requirement), whether it would cover promotion, retirement and retrenchment decisions (yes) and if there are particular industries the ministry is watching closely (no).

Mr Tan dealt with the variety of issues but what stood out were his comments on the veracity of complaints his ministry receives.

That formed a substantial portion of his replies to Nominated MP Eugene Tan's and Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim's questions.

Both touched on the issue of complaints, but sought more clarity on other aspects of the new framework.

Mr Eugene Tan asked about what mechanisms, other than complaints by employees, the Government would rely on to go after errant companies.

Ms Lim queried if Singaporeans can lodge a report with the new national jobs bank if they find through experience that the hiring process is unfair.

The Acting Manpower Minister may have taken pains to assuage Singaporeans' concerns yesterday. But amid his reassurances that the Government has heard workers' calls for help and moved to protect them from discriminatory practices, was a cautionary note to Singaporeans - to desist from trying to take advantage of the new safeguards.

Simply crying wolf each time they feel aggrieved, without citing good evidence to back up their claims, would be counter-productive both for themselves and the government officials tasked to look into complaints.

Mr Tan stressed that the new framework is not a "silver bullet", and "will not completely solve every single problem". If things are to change, a lot has to do with attitudes and mindsets, he added.

Indeed, the Fair Consideration Framework is not just about Singaporeans getting fair treatment from companies.

It also requires Singaporeans to play fair, rather than abusing the framework to get an unfair leg-up. Doing so would be a disservice to themselves and other citizens, as it will ultimately end up hitting their own employment prospects over the longer term.

Parliament Questions & Replies

Written Answer by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower to Parliamentary Question:

Written Reply by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen to Parliamentary Question:

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