Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Parliament Highlights - 20 Jan 2014

More police powers to secure order in Little India
Short-term move to help them take calibrated measures, says DPM Teo
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

DEPUTY Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday placed before Parliament for approval a new Bill to give police enhanced powers to pre-empt threats to public order in Little India.

The proposed law, to last up to one year until longer-term measures can be enacted, will empower law enforcement officers to control the movement of persons into Little India and enforce alcohol restrictions.

In a half-hour speech that addressed some of the 36 riot-related questions that dominated yesterday's Parliament sitting, Mr Teo also said he was confident the Home Team would learn from the Little India riot and emerge stronger and better prepared.

"We cannot be crisis-proof... but we can be resilient and we can be crisis-ready, both the Home Team as well as our population," he said.

The Home Affairs Minister stressed that peace could not be taken for granted.

He said Singapore was able to recover from the effects of the riot quickly because of the trust built up over the years between the Home Team and the community.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin fielded MPs' questions about the management of foreign workers. He refuted allegations of widespread mistreatment of these workers, and said he was puzzled that some had concluded that this was a cause of the riot.

He said foreign workers had consistently said, in surveys and in dialogues held after the riot, that they were happy to work in Singapore.

"Many consider Singapore to be an attractive destination country, and many foreigners at all levels continue to want to come here for work if they have the chance," he said.

The debate, which lasted about two hours, saw 13 Members of Parliament ask wide-ranging questions about the riots, from migrant worker issues to guidelines on alcohol sales.

Besides the new legislation, Mr Teo also gave an update on measures put in place after the riot to prevent another public order incident.

Additional closed-circuit cameras have been installed in Little India, with the authorities looking to further expand CCTV coverage in the area, and more street lighting has been installed in Race Course Road.

The Land Transport Authority has plans to provide waiting areas in Hampshire Road and Tekka Lane as well as queue-heads and shelters, and to monitor the operating hours and capacity of bus services for foreign workers to and from Little India.

Mr Tan said that the Government would provide more dedicated recreation centres but these would never replace areas like Little India, "which have naturally evolved over time to cater to foreign workers' physical as well as emotional needs".

He added that his ministry was working with companies to roster workers' days off to "spread the load, spread the numbers", while continuing to educate workers about local norms and laws.

Mr Teo said he was heartened that Singaporeans had responded rationally even though the riot had unexpectedly disrupted their lives, with many coming forward to help, and noted that no shots were fired or fatalities suffered in quelling the riot.

"If we consider what would have happened if we had woken up to headlines the next morning reporting that the police had opened fire resulting in serious injuries or fatalities, we would be having a very different kind of discussion in Parliament today," he said.

DPM Teo made call to repatriate those involved in riot
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

DEPUTY Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told Parliament yesterday that he made the call to repatriate 57 workers involved in last month's Little India riot.

DPM Teo, based on the statutory powers vested in him as Home Affairs Minister, decided to do so on top of the Attorney-General's Chambers' (AGC) move to issue stern warnings to the workers.

The 57 workers had "knowingly joined or continued to participate in the riot" despite being ordered to disperse by the police - an offence under the Penal Code, he added.

In doing so, they impeded riot control and emergency rescue operations.

Foreigners do not have an "inherent legal right to work and stay here", said DPM Teo, adding that they can do so only with the State's permission.

Human rights activists have taken issue with the workers' "arbitrary" deportation, claiming they did not have the opportunity to defend themselves in court.

But the police, DPM Teo told Parliament, had relied on evidence from forensic examination, video footage, photographs and officer and witness accounts to determine the culpability of various individuals.

The evidence against each person was reviewed by the AGC before decisions were made.

Mr Teo also told the House that the authorities had originally arrested and charged 35 persons, but the charges against 10 were withdrawn after the AGC reviewed further evidence.

"This shows due process at work," the minister said.

The 57 deported workers' actions also made them "undesirable" and "prohibited" immigrants under the Immigration Act.

Still, those charged or served with repatriation orders were given full consular access to the high commissions of India and Bangladesh.

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Nominated MP Laurence Lien had asked about the investigation process and the basis for the authorities' action against those involved.

In his speech, DPM Teo also addressed MPs' questions on the Committee of Inquiry (COI) looking into the riot and the alcohol ban in Little India.

The COI members, he said, are "respected persons with many years of experience in the fields of law and security".

"They are familiar with worker issues, as well as relations between foreign workers and the local population," he added.

Seven MPs, including Moulmein-Kallang GRC's Ms Denise Phua, whose ward covers Little India, asked about liquor licences in Little India, and if the Government would consider implementing similar measures to restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol in other parts of Singapore.

Mr Teo said the Ministry of Home Affairs had already started on a comprehensive review of Singapore's liquor licensing regime before the riot.

The authorities are also reviewing regulations to tighten liquor control at specific places, for example, where large numbers of foreign workers congregate.

MPs divided on alcohol curbs in Little India
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

MEMBERS of Parliament were divided over the role of alcohol in the Little India riot and the restrictions put in place since the incident.

There was Nominated MP Janice Koh, who asked why alcohol was deemed an underlying cause, and fellow NMP Nicholas Fang, who asked whether breathalyser tests were carried out on foreign workers involved in the riot.

Then there were those like NMP Eugene Tan, who said that 374 liquor licences in the area - including 43 inactive ones - was excessive. He wanted to know how the liquor licensing board issues them.

Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean said licence numbers have been stable in the last five years: Between 2009 and 2012, they ranged from 347 to 357.

In response to Ms Koh, he said there were "indications" that alcohol was a factor in the riot, but added that he would leave the issue to the evidence in court.

He also explained that alcohol restrictions were part of efforts to stabilise the situation after the riot. On the first weekend, there was a total ban on the sale and public consumption of alcohol in the area. "Subsequent to this, police have calibrated the measures," said Mr Teo.

The ban on public consumption remains on certain days, and retail hours have been curtailed. But drinking in licensed premises is no longer banned.

As of Sunday, police have found 38 violations involving 10 business operators and 57 people. The operators will be investigated and could have their licences revoked if convicted.

Advisories were issued to those who drank in public.

Mr Teo also noted the ongoing review of alcohol controls across Singapore. Consultation had begun on Oct 29, even before the riot.

"In our review, we will draw on the experience with measures taken in Little India, and take in views of stakeholders, as well as any findings and recommendations from the COI," he said, referring to the Committee of Inquiry.

"The full set of liquor control measures will be announced when they are ready and where laws are needed, of course, we will come to Parliament," he added.

The review could consider laws on open containers of alcohol in public, suggested Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC). Mr Teo said he was "open to the idea".

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) hoped the process could be sped up. But noting that views on the matter differ, Mr Teo said: "Calibration is quite important, and also you need something that's enforceable."

Speaking up for fewer alcohol restrictions was Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC).

Some Indian Singaporeans he met were unhappy and wanted to know when "the no-alcohol zone" would be lifted, he said.

Mr Teo's rejoinder was that Mr Singh should have informed them that there was no total ban.

Ms Denise Phua, an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC where the riot occurred, offered an opposing view from residents living above liquor shops.

"More than 80 per cent of the residents say 'Please don't stop the ban'," she said.

Speaker Halimah Yacob then signalled the end of clarifications on Mr Teo's and Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin's ministerial statements.

She invited Mr Teo to make his concluding remarks, which he did, expressing his confidence that "we will emerge... stronger from this incident".

At this point, Mr Singh insisted on rising one more time to make a final point, speaking over Madam Halimah's reminder that the time for such clarifications was over.

Mr Singh proceeded to say he empathised with the residents Ms Phua spoke about, and that he would be satisfied with any future rules on alcohol "as long as they are applied across the board".

Mr Teo expressed his disappointment at his interjection, saying: "I think it's quite unfortunate that Mr Pritam Singh has taken liberties with this very serious matter to make points in a very loose manner."

He noted that Mr Singh was now supporting Ms Phua, despite arguing earlier for the restoration of alcohol consumption and sales. "So I really am very puzzled by the position that he's taking and quite disappointed," he said.

Proposed move to enhance police powers
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

THE proposed legislation tabled in Parliament yesterday seeks to give law enforcement officers enhanced powers in Little India, where a riot broke out last December following a fatal traffic accident.

The Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill is to last for up to one year.

It will empower officers to search and interview anyone within the area for prohibited items - such as weapons or explosives - and alcohol, and also to ban individuals from entering the area if their presence is deemed likely to threaten public order.

Police can also search and enter premises within the area where they reasonably suspect alcohol has been consumed, prohibited items have been kept, or a banned person is, without need of a warrant.

Powers will also be granted to officers to swiftly cancel or suspend the business licence - whether it be for a hotel, restaurant or entertainment outlet - of licensees who are suspected to have flouted the new law.

"This new law is scoped more tightly compared to the wide-ranging powers that come into effect when the Public Order (Preservation) Act is invoked," said Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean, referring to the law under which temporary measures there have been implemented so far.

Why the one-hour reaction time to Little India riot
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

At 10.04pm, it was activated.

At 10.42pm, the first troop of 29 SOC officers arrived.

After that, no more vehicles were overturned or set on fire, and the rioters were soon dispersed.

Given this timeline, Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang yesterday wondered in Parliament if the SOC's earlier arrival could have averted the damage of so many vehicles - 23, of which five were burnt - that night.

He also asked if Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean was satisfied with the reaction time of approximately an hour.

Mr Teo said it was possible that the SOC's earlier arrival could have prevented the damage of emergency vehicles, and that "a faster response is always better". But he explained that it was reaction, decision-making and travel time that accounted for that hour.

For example, the 19 minutes that passed between the call for assistance from Little India and the activation of the SOC was due to police commanders assessing the seriousness and urgency of the situation, and the need for the SOC to be deployed.

"(The SOC) is an asset," Mr Teo said. "The police commanders have to decide whether you should use it for this or not... if you deploy it for one thing, then you may not be able to deploy it for another thing.

"And therefore, some assessment has to be made on the seriousness and urgency."

And while some SOC troops are generally stationed at their base on "very high alert" and can be activated within minutes, some others do "deterrence patrols" in areas where there are large congregations of people to keep an eye on things.

On the night of the Little India riot, one SOC troop was out on such a deterrence patrol, although Mr Teo did not disclose where.

So when the alert went out, these officers "recollected themselves and then deployed".

"And while Singapore is not a very large island, it does take time to move from one place to another," added Mr Teo.

In his question to Mr Teo during the parliamentary debate on the riot yesterday, Mr Low also said the "bright side of the incident" was its illustration that Singapore has become a mature multi-racial society; the public largely remained calm and race relationships were not affected.

Mr Teo said he welcomed this comment.

MP calls for COI to be open in examining riot causes
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

MS IRENE Ng (Tampines GRC) yesterday asked Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean for an assurance that the Committee of Inquiry (COI) tasked with looking into the causes of the Little India riot will be open and transparent in its examination, and not just focus on the role of alcohol or adrenaline.

She urged that it also looks into factors such as the "cultural map" of foreign workers, which influences how they react to uniformed groups like the police, as well as "festering grievances that may have been related to their employment issues or social exclusion".

While ultimately giving this assurance, Mr Teo at first lamented that Ms Ng was "indulging in speculation" as to the causes of the riot.

He said in Parliament: "I would say that we should be careful of this kind of speculation on various kinds of causes... because (Ms Ng) is suggesting a variety of causes, some of which may be true, some of which may not be true."

Ms Ng took exception to this characterisation, responding that she was reflecting concerns from Singaporeans on the ground.

Mr Teo said he apologised if he mistook what Ms Ng said for speculation, and clarified that the COI's terms of reference "(give) it the latitude to examine any factors that (it finds) relevant, to consider them as causal factors or to dismiss them".

On foreign workers in Singapore
No basis for allegations of widespread abuse: Chuan-Jin
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

THERE is no basis for saying that there is widespread and systemic abuse of foreign workers in Singapore and that it was a reason for the riot in Little India, said Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday.

Foreign workers here are, by and large, treated well by their employers and Singaporeans, he said in a ministerial statement in Parliament, and the problems and complaints by foreign workers are restricted to a very small fraction of work permit holders here.

"I believe that the situation is generally good, but it is not perfect. There is always room for improvement," said Mr Tan.

He pointed to figures showing that his ministry helped some 7,000 foreign workers with difficulties last year, or less than 1 per cent of the 700,000 work permit holders. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) referred about 640 cases of mistreatment, or less than 0.1 per cent of work permit holders.

"I therefore find it puzzling as to how some individuals can so quickly conclude or criticise that there is widespread and systemic abuse of the foreign workforce; or that these were the reasons for the riot."

The minister was responding to questions from MPs such as Nominated MPs Teo Siong Seng and Mary Liew, who had asked about how foreign workers were treated here.

Some NGOs had claimed that the abuse of foreign workers was a cause of the violence. Mr Tan rejected these allegations, saying: "We do not think that there is a basis for these assertions but we do look forward to the COI's perspective on the matter."

He was referring to the Committee of Inquiry set up to investigate the causes of the riot.

The Indian High Commissioner to Singapore said in the aftermath of the riot that there was no discontent among the Indian community of foreign workers in Singapore as well, Mr Tan pointed out.

Nonetheless, the Government will continue to go after errant employers, he pledged, and continue its "strong enforcement stance".

Mr Tan also announced that more recreational centres will be built for foreign workers. These centres will provide amenities such as remittance services, supermarkets and sports facilities that dormitories may not be able to provide.

There are now four such centres at Jurong, Woodlands and Kaki Bukit. Mr Tan did not elaborate on how many more new centres will be built or where they will be located.

But these centres will never fully replace shared spaces such as Little India, which evolved over time to cater to the physical and emotional needs of foreign workers, Mr Tan stressed.

"Foreign workers need a place to come together... catch up on news from the village, have a taste of food from home, meet friends, relatives from across the island for the few precious hours that they have... Recreation centres can try, but I don't believe that they can always meet these psychological and emotional needs."

Mr Tan said the Government will continue to monitor closely the overall number of foreign workers and their impact on the communities they interact with.

"Importantly, we must also continue to enhance the management of their well-being."

When asked by Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) on what the Government is doing about the "unfair portrayal" of Singapore in the foreign media, Mr Tan replied: "We will continue to put up our positions. How the foreign media chooses to carry it really depends on them."

But the minister pledged that he would continue to work with NGOs, though some of their representatives have hit out at the Government. He added: "I would believe that the views of some of these individuals may not necessarily reflect (those of) the NGOs themselves.

"I fully understand where the NGOs are coming from... So we will continue to work with the NGOs."

Speculation or fair questions over riot?
MPs' queries on causes reflect worries not all questions may get proper airing
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

FLASHING a slide several times for all to see, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean repeatedly assured the House during a lengthy debate yesterday that all causes of the Little India riot will be considered by the Committee of Inquiry (COI).

This is set out in its first term of reference. For anyone still unfamiliar - it is to establish the factors and circumstances that led to the riot in Little India on Dec 8 last year.

DPM Teo emphasised this raison d'etre, as he urged members of the House to avoid "indulging in speculation" - another phrase he returned to a few times early on in the debate.

He first said it in response to Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC), who wanted reassurance the COI will consider all possible factors.

Beyond the influence of alcohol, the committee could look at issues such as differences in the cultural background of the foreign workers from that of Singaporeans, and any grievances related to employment issues or social exclusion in Singapore, she said.

While DPM Teo gave her that assurance, his call to her and other MPs was that they ought not to jump to conclusions about the causes of the riot while the investigation is ongoing. He later repeated the point in response to Nominated MPs Janice Koh and Nicholas Fang, who wanted to know whether the disorderly behaviour had anything to do with the relationship between the authorities and the foreign workers.

"I am sure that this is one of the areas which the COI will look into, and I wouldn't want to indulge in speculation," he said.

It is only right that the COI be given ample time and space to determine the causes of the first riot of such a scale in decades.

But the MPs' questions reflect a concern that the authorities may appear to have already drawn their own conclusions of the causes of the riot: Taking action on some factors, while rejecting others. As Ms Ng said, far from indulging in speculation, she was reflecting the concerns and views from the ground.

And indeed, there is wide interest, going by the larger-than-usual turnout at the public gallery yesterday.

The MPs' questions suggest that such concerns have not been allayed by the measures being taken since the riot to better manage the flow of human traffic to Little India and to impose alcohol restrictions in the area.

Some might point to the irony of DPM Teo saying yesterday that there are "indications that alcohol was a factor", even as he called on others not to speculate about the reasons for the riot. Or, to Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin rising several times to state categorically that foreign workers here did not face systemic abuse, calling the notion "far-fetched".

Understandably, following the riot, the Government has had to take swift action to restore order and confidence in Singapore, not just of Singaporeans, but of the many who watch the country closely. It did not have the liberty of waiting six months for the COI to conclude its investigation.

But what the debate yesterday showed is that the foreign worker issue is a highly sensitive and complex one, affecting many people with different interests.

That the Government and all groups concerned abide by DPM Teo's assurance that the COI is given the "latitude to examine any factors that they find relevant" is therefore crucial to the credibility and independence of the COI's findings, due within six months.

Only a hard, honest look at these findings will help in the establishment of the most appropriate measures to prevent another riot from ever occurring, and these measures to garnering the support of the public.

After the findings and action lines to be taken, the discourse over the Little India riot should not end at just its causes. How the Government and Singaporeans as a whole view foreign workers has to continue being debated.

This is beyond the scope of the COI, but not beyond the scope of Parliament. As some MPs asked: Are they a group of transient workers that need to abide by laws, be controlled and be given their own space? Or are they a group of people who should be helped to exist within mainstream society as much as possible as long as they are in Singapore?

Answering these questions is as important as establishing the causes of the riot, and will have a more far-reaching impact.

Ageing society contributes to hospital bed crunch: Gan
By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 21 Jan 2014

With our ageing population, there are now more frail and old people who need hospitalisation, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong in Parliament yesterday, saying this was one of the factors that contributed to the high bed occupancy rate at public hospitals.

Mr Gan, who was responding to a question from Sengkang West Member of Parliament (MP) Lam Pin Min on the shortfall of beds in hospitals, said the proportion of patients aged 65 and above admitted to public hospitals rose from 28.6 per cent in 2006 to 33.4 per cent last year.

This group is also staying in hospitals for a longer period — from an average of 7.8 days in 2010 to 8.2 days last year. In contrast, the average length of stay for patients aged 14 and below shrank to 3.4 days in 2013 from 3.7 days in 2010.

“Older patients (tend) to stay longer in hospitals because it takes longer for their condition to stabilise and for them to be eligible for discharge,” said Mr Gan. “With shrinking family sizes and weaker family support over time, family members may not be ready to take the patients home in a timely manner, and this also will result in a longer stay in the hospital.” He made the same point at the topping-up ceremony of the new 700-bed Ng Teng Fong General Hospital earlier yesterday, which is set to open in December.

The hospital bed crunch came under the spotlight after it was reported that hospitals have been setting up temporary bed space and sending patients to other hospitals with higher capacities. The bed occupancy rate stands at 87.2 per cent, higher than the 85.8 per cent a year ago.

While the Ministry of Health is building more hospitals to increase the number of beds, there is also a need to transform the healthcare model because a hospital-centric system is not ideal for the needs of an ageing population, said Mr Gan.

He reiterated the importance of helping the elderly to recuperate in the community and manage their chronic conditions.

Asked by Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam if hospitals could convert A and B1 class wards to the more affordable C class wards to relieve the crunch, Mr Gan said infrastructure constraints such as whether the plumbing or wiring systems are able to accommodate more beds have to be considered. He added that hospitals can upgrade C class ward patients to B class wards when necessary.

Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa asked if the ministry would allow patients to tap subsidies to offset their home nursing costs, which can result in high expenses for families and deter them from earlier hospital discharge.

Mr Gan said the financing for home nursing is one of the areas the ministry is reviewing and some ideas will be presented in a few months’ time. The funding model, he added, would not penalise low-income patients for staying at home — this group could be given higher subsidies and pay less cash up front for their hospital stay.

Request for websites to register 'an interim step'
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

THE Government's request to two sociopolitical sites to register with the Media Development Authority (MDA) was an interim measure, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

They were required to do it while the Government looked into introducing more comprehensive safeguards to prevent foreign interests from influencing local politics through the Singapore media, he added.

The current class licensing scheme, instituted in 1996, does not have specific provisions that prohibit such sites from accepting foreign funding, he said.

Mr Wong, who is also Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, explained the Government's move when replying to Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC), who had asked what the MDA takes into account when deciding which websites have to register.

Sites that are now required to register with the MDA include those that promote or discuss political or religious issues relating to Singapore, and those of registered political parties.

The two sites that had to register were The Independent, which was asked in July last year, and Breakfast Network, in November.

The move is "necessary", said Mr Wong, so that they are aware from the outset that they are not to receive foreign funds - which is better than a situation where they accept such investment only to have to unwind it later.

"The case of The Independent revealed potential problems when sites which engage in the propagation, promotion or discussion of political or religious issues structure themselves as corporate entities to receive investment, including from foreign sources," he said.

The ban on foreign funds stems from the longstanding principle that forbids foreign entities from engaging in Singapore politics, and which "responsible operators do not disagree with", he added.

The Broadcasting Act, which regulates these websites, also recognises the principle.

Most online sites are covered under an automatic class licence, and newspapers are subject to the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act which limit foreign influence.

But when the Broadcasting Act took effect in 1996, foreign funding of Internet content providers was not seen as a likely scenario.

Also, all the 12 sites the MDA had registered for providing political content had been gazetted as political associations and prohibited from receiving foreign funding under the Political Donations Act.

But The Independent and Breakfast Network are not political associations, and so they are not prohibited from receiving foreign funding.

Mr Wong said requiring registrations for class licences is an integral part of the MDA's licensing framework and "has been used selectively, but consistently".

The authority will continue to adopt this approach, he added.

Hard to enforce exemption rule in Do-Not-Call registry
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

SENIOR Minister of State Lawrence Wong yesterday acknowledged it would be hard to enforce an exemption rule in the operation of the Do-Not-Call registry.

The rule lets companies send text messages and faxes to customers with whom they have an "ongoing relationship" without having to check the registry, which has the phone numbers of those who do not want to receive a sales pitch by phone, SMS or fax.

But making sure companies abide by it is a challenge that "all countries that have set up DNC registries grapple with".

He promised the House that the Government will investigate every complaint and "follow up with prosecution, if necessary".

Mr Wong, who is Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, was replying to Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC), who said she had received an SMS from a tuition centre she had no ongoing relationship with.

"What enforcement action is going to be taken?" she asked.

The registry is run by the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC), which announced the exemption rule one week before the registry's launch on Jan 2.

Its move prompted a barrage of protests from consumers and privacy advocates.

But the commission said the exemption gives more options to consumers and is limited in scope.

This point was reiterated by Mr Wong, who said the United States has a similar rule. He was defending the commission's position to MPs Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) and Nominated MPs Tan Su Shan and Eugene Tan.

They wanted to know the rationale for the exemption and how consumers' rights can be adequately protected.

Replying, Mr Wong, who is also Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, said it was "one of the most contentious issues" when the US National DNC registry was set up a decade ago.

American businesses can call customers with whom they have an existing relationship.

He said the commission had considered "whether the exemption should be structured with an opt-in facility". He added: "Such a system would also have been very complicated." No registry in the world had taken such a step.

Mr Wong also said about 600 organisations have checked a total of 37 million phone numbers.

'More could have been done' to improve MCE opening
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

PUBLICITY could have been stepped up closer to the opening of the Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE) and more signs provided to give motorists earlier guidance on route changes, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said yesterday.

A combination of factors, including motorists driving more carefully and not taking the most appropriate routes, contributed to major traffic snarls on the morning of Dec 30, he told Parliament.

That was the first working day after the MCE opened, and congestion along the $4.3 billion expressway and surrounding roads to the Marina financial district left motorists stuck for up to two hours.

"I think we could have done more to help motorists familiarise themselves with the new road network," said Mr Lui, in response to a question by Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) about key lessons from the traffic snarl.

Apart from the morning of Dec 30, peak-hour traffic along the MCE tunnel and adjoining roads has been generally smooth, though traffic volumes have returned to levels before the December holidays, the minister said.

He added that speeds along the MCE and the downgraded East Coast Parkway (ECP) are now generally faster than on the old ECP, exceeding the threshold of 65kmh at some points in the morning and evening.

That prompted Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) to ask a supplementary question: Whether Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) charges at that location would be reviewed.

ERP rates can be as high as $6 at some gantries near the city.

In response, Mr Lui said the Land Transport Authority is currently reviewing ERP charges for the coming quarter, and will announce the results in due course.

Turning to the MCE's design, Mr Lui said: "Some observers had concluded in the immediate aftermath of the jam that first working day morning that there was a design flaw with the MCE. I think that was a premature conclusion.

"If indeed there had been a design flaw, we would likely have seen congestion not only that particular morning, but in a number of mornings to follow, and perhaps in the evening as well."

MP moots scrapping retirement age
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

REMOVING the statutory retirement age of 62 and restoring CPF employer contribution rates for workers aged 50 and above will drive home the message that age is no barrier to productive employment, Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC) said yesterday.

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor said in turn that the Government has adopted two key strategies to tackle the challenges of an ageing workforce. These involve expanding employment opportunities for older workers and shaping positive mindsets towards them.

There are schemes to encourage such attitudes, such as the Workfare Income Supplement, which encourages older workers to stay employed, and WorkPro, a fund that employers can tap to hire and retain more back-to-work Singaporeans.

Mr Ong, who made an adjournment motion to raise the issue of aged workers in Parliament, said the statutory retirement age should not be a barrier to active ageing.

"Workers should be given the flexibility to choose how long they want to work, or when they wish to retire," he added.

But Dr Khor said the minimum age in fact protects workers below 62 from being dismissed on the basis of age. "It is not meant to, and it does not impede people from working beyond 62," she said.

Mr Ong said reduced CPF employer contribution rates for older workers were "discriminatory".

Dr Khor agreed it was "timely" to review the rates, but said this should be done carefully so as not to affect their employability.

Conditions for early release from prison get thumbs up
But MPs note that new scheme for ex-inmates needs more resources
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

FIVE MPs yesterday rose in support of amendments to the Prisons Act, which will make inmates' early release for good conduct conditional on their not re-offending.

While praising the changes, which combine tougher deterrent measures with a structured programme to ease higher-risk inmates back into society, the MPs raised concerns such as the adequacy of infrastructure and manpower.

Opening the debate yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said the measures mark a "paradigm shift" in Singapore's approach to aftercare, or the process of reintegrating ex-inmates into society.

He noted that over 80 per cent of those in prison are repeat offenders, though the prison population fell from 17,000 in the early 2000s to about 12,500 last year.

To address this, the new Conditional Remission System (CRS) requires that inmates released early for good conduct not commit an offence while in remission.

The remission period refers to the length of the sentence not served by the inmate due to early release.

If they commit an offence while in remission, the courts will impose a sentence for the new offence, and can also give an additional sentence for re-offending.

The extra jail time will be capped at what remains of the original sentence from the time the new offence is committed.

Currently, inmates with good conduct can be released after serving two-thirds of their sentences, with no conditions imposed upon their release.

Noting that the remission system has not changed since the mid-1950s, Mr Masagos said the CRS brings Singapore in line with practices in other jurisdictions such as Canada and Hong Kong.

Under the CRS, those released early will be issued a Conditional Remission Order (CRO) lasting from the day of their release to the end of their sentence.

Ex-inmates given CROs but who are deemed to be at higher risk of re-offending will be placed on the Mandatory Aftercare Scheme (MAS).

This is the second measure the Bill introduces, and it provides a structured aftercare system of up to two years. There are three phases: A halfway house stay, home supervision and community reintegration.

Inmates on the MAS, including drug and serious crime offenders, will be supervised more closely and given enhanced counselling and case management.

About 1,700 of the 7,000 inmates released with CROs each year will be placed on the scheme.

Mr Masagos said it seeks to ease the transition from the prison environment to society, which can be especially tough for those who lack family support, accommodation and stable employment.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) lauded the mix of deterrence and compassion, "tough" and "tender", in the two main prongs of the Bill.

But he was one of three MPs who asked whether the current aftercare infrastructure is ready for the MAS, which will require more halfway houses and counsellors.

He also sought to clarify the definition of "minor" and "major" breaches of mandatory aftercare, as the latter can lead to the offender being sent back to jail for the rest of his remission period.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) praised an amendment allowing inmates imprisoned for at least 20 years to be considered for remission, even if they have not reached the two-third mark. Their cases will also be reviewed annually, placing them on par with those on life imprisonment.

But she called for greater clarity on how such cases are reviewed. Debate on the Bill continues today.

Philippine typhoon aid efforts 'ongoing'
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

THE Singapore Red Cross has raised $9.4 million altogether for the areas of the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.

Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Grace Fu said yesterday that this started with $200,000 "seed money" from the Government.

Non-governmental organisations such as Mercy Relief have also been raising funds, while local groups have organised charity concerts and events.

"Many of these efforts are still ongoing, which is a testament to the solidarity and deep kinship that Singapore shares with the Philippines," she said.

Ms Fu was responding to a parliamentary question from Mr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) on the assistance that Singapore and Asean have given to the Philippines since the disaster last November that killed 6,000 people.

She noted that Singapore was one of the first countries to render assistance on the ground, with two C-130 aircraft deployed by the Ministry of Defence immediately to send essential relief goods such as tents, blankets and medical supplies to affected communities.

At the Philippine government's request, one of the C-130 aircraft stayed behind to ferry supplies and personnel between Tacloban, the worst-hit area, and Manila, the capital.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force also deployed a two-man team to help the United Nations Office that was coordinating humanitarian efforts in the area.

The Government asked its Philippine counterparts what supplies were most urgently required, and a week after the C-130 aircraft were deployed, several tonnes of potable water and 90 boxes of medical supplies were handed to the Philippine Embassy in Singapore.

On the regional front, Ms Fu said Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh, in his capacity as the bloc's humanitarian assistance coordinator, visited the disaster-hit areas and met Philippine officials to discuss how to help with recovery efforts.

"The Philippines is now embarking on the arduous task of reconstruction and rehabilitation. This will require support from Asean and the international community," she said.

"We will continue to do what is within our means, both bilaterally and through Asean, to assist and support the Philippines in its recovery and reconstruction process."

Fewer international students receive tuition grant since 2010
Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2014

The number of international students who receive tuition grant in each of the matriculation cohorts has decreased over the last few years from 2010.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said currently, international students who receive tuition grant in each matriculation cohort comprise about six per cent or 1,700 in the polytechnics, down from nine per cent in 2010.

In the publicly-funded universities, they make up 13 per cent or 2,200, compared to 18 per cent in 2010.

In his written Parliamentary answer to a question filed by Hougang MP Png Eng Huat on tuition grants for international students, Mr Heng said international students in the tertiary institutions here pay higher fees than Singaporean students.

The tuition grants for international students total about S$210 million per year, which is less than 10 per cent of the total annual subsidies to tertiary institutions in Singapore.

Mr Heng added that international students who receive tuition grants are required to work in a Singapore-based company for three years upon graduation to supplement our labour force.

Most of the grant recipients have been working and are contributing to the Singapore economy, while some did not start work immediately as they had deferred their bonds to pursue further studies.

Mr Heng said actions will be taken against those who default on their obligations.

Bill sets stage for tiered wage system in cleaning industry
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2014

A BILL to amend the Environmental Public Health Act was introduced in Parliament yesterday, setting the stage for a new compulsory licensing regime for the cleaning industry.

If passed, all cleaning companies must pay their workers according to a tiered wage system as part of the licensing requirement.

The law will not specify these tiered salaries, which will be negotiated by a committee of unionists, employers and government officials.

Those who handle cleaning machines will earn at least $1,400, and a supervisor at least $1,600.

The Bill also proposes a change to help the National Environment Agency (NEA) better pinpoint and catch those who litter from vehicles or flats. Car owners and drivers, as well as flat owners and occupiers, will have to provide information which may lead to identifying a litterbug, when asked to do so by the NEA.

Six other Bills were introduced yesterday.

The Rapid Transit Systems (Amendment) Bill will raise the maximum overall financial penalty for rail incidents or regulatory breaches.

The proposed new maximum is $1 million, or 10 per cent of the operator's annual fare revenue from running the rapid transit system, whichever is higher. The current maximum penalty is $1 million.

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