Thursday 23 January 2014

Parliament Highlights - 21 Jan 2014

'Rewards also needed' to improve bus arrivals
Lui Tuck Yew explains rationale behind carrot-and-stick approach
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

TRANSPORT Minister Lui Tuck Yew yesterday explained the need for a reward component in a new carrot-and-stick scheme to encourage timely arrivals of buses.

The reason is that it requires the bus operators to inject more resources.

"With greater demands, there will be calls for greater injection of resources, and so you are really trying to find a balance between incentive and penalty in order to arrive at a better situation than what we have today," he said in Parliament.

Also, the model "is fair to all parties concerned", he added.

Non-constituency MP Gerald Giam had asked why the Government did not just set high service standards and penalise operators for failing to achieve them.

This could spur operators to improve as well, while their reward would take the form of more satisfied customers and greater ridership, Mr Giam added.

The new scheme will be tried out on 22 bus services for two years, during which the Government will measure how far buses depart from their schedule during a journey.

For every six seconds it reduces from previously recorded waiting times, an operator stands to gain up to $6,000 every month.

On the other hand, it stands to lose up to $4,000 for every six seconds a previously recorded waiting time is exceeded.

It is modelled after a similar scheme in London and based on the city's experience, the additional stress on drivers was "not so significant and certainly manageable", he said.

He was replying to Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) and Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), who had asked if the plan would place stress on drivers or cause them to drive recklessly.

Mr Lui said the system actually places greater pressure on back-end staff in the operation control centres. They will have to decide if buses need to slow down or close the gap, and if an extra bus should be added to the route.

The operators will need to significantly improve back-end operations and train staff to monitor buses more closely and give directions accordingly, he said.

For the system to work, there is "a certain amount of investment" the operators have to make, Mr Lui said, in response to to Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), who had asked why the rewards are higher than fines.

DPM Teo explains why uniforms mustn't vary
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

DEPUTY Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday set out the reasons for not letting officers in the uniformed services vary their uniforms, in response to Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh's (Aljunied GRC) question on the wearing of the hijab by Muslim staff.

Mr Teo said uniforms are to project the common identity of the service, not just to meet operational requirements, and allowing variations would detract from this purpose.

"In particular, by disallowing variations for religious reasons, we visibly uphold the secular nature of the Government and reassure citizens that they will receive key services fairly and impartially regardless of race or religion," Mr Teo said, in a written reply on behalf of the Prime Minister.

Mr Singh had asked if the Prime Minister would consider studying with the heads of uniformed services the feasibility of allowing the hijab to be worn by Muslim staff, but subject to operational exigencies.

The hijab issue came up again late last year following calls to let Muslim women freely don the hijab at all workplaces.

In his reply, Mr Teo said the requirement of wearing uniforms without overtly displaying religious symbols is a practice in many countries.

He also said the Government has to balance the needs of various groups in Singapore's multiracial and multireligious society, and has maintained a "broad common secular space", even as it has allowed space for each community to practise its beliefs to the fullest extent possible.

"Fortunately, Singaporeans understand the need to balance what their own group wants with the need to accommodate other groups, and to preserve the common space that all benefit from, especially minority groups," he added.

New board to review early release for inmates
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

AN INDEPENDENT review board will be set up to consider early release for prisoners who have served at least 20 years, even if they have more than one-third of their sentence left to go.

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli announced the move yesterday before Parliament passed amendments to the Prisons Act.

A key change is the Conditional Remission System (CRS), which requires that inmates released early for good conduct not commit an offence while in remission.

Under the new system, the courts can impose an additional sentence if they commit an offence again before the term of their original sentence is up.

Currently, inmates who behave well can be released without any condition after serving two-thirds of their sentence.

An amendment passed yesterday lets inmates who have served at least 20 years be considered for remission, even if they have not reached the two-thirds mark.

Unsuccessful cases will be reviewed annually, as is done for those on life imprisonment.

During the debate, Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and Non-constituency MP Lina Chiam expressed concern about how these long-term cases would be reviewed. They cited Hong Kong, which has a board to review such inmates for remission according to publicly gazetted factors.

Replying, Mr Masagos said the new independent board will review these cases and advise the Home Affairs Minister, who has the final say on their release.

Like the board reviewing inmates on life sentences, the panel will look at a "holistic set of factors", including the inmate's conduct and progress in prison as well as his risk of turning to crime again, he said.

Another measure passed is the Mandatory Aftercare Scheme (MAS), a structured programme for inmates released under the CRS, but who are deemed to be at higher risk of recidivism.

Ex-inmates on MAS, which lasts up to two years, are assessed before being placed on a tailored programme involving halfway house stays, home supervision and community reintegration.

MPs such as Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Nominated MP Eugene Tan had voiced worries about the adequacy and capacity of the prisons and aftercare infrastructure arising from the changes.

Yesterday, Mr Masagos assured them that the prisons will have enough capacity should their population go up owing to the tougher measures for those who breach the CRS and MAS.

The Government will also ramp up the aftercare sector. A new halfway house at Selarang Park Complex is in the works, while prisons will engage more counsellors and case workers.

The Prison Service is also working on a pilot programme with the National Council of Social Service to give better "wrap-around" care to former inmates and their families via family service centres across the island, Mr Masagos said in response to a call by Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap (Aljunied GRC) for support services to be made more accessible.

Existing rehabilitative measures have also been effective. To Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), Mr Masagos said the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises placed 5,840 offenders on its employment and reintegration programme in 2012 - double the 2008 figure.

Status of lower courts elevated
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

THE Subordinate Courts will be renamed "State Courts" and the office of Chief District Judge elevated to one held by a judge or judicial commissioner of the Supreme Court.

The bar will also be raised for its judicial officers, who will need a minimum of three years' legal experience to serve as magistrates, up from one year. As for district judges, the minimum is now seven years, up from five.

The changes reflect the primary role the lower courts play in the judicial system and the growing complexity of the cases before them, said Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah yesterday.

Parliament passed these changes to the Subordinate Courts Act, marking yet another milestone to enhance the courts' standing, a concern of Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon.

Ms Indranee noted that the vast majority of people come before the lower courts, which handle more than 95 per cent of the judiciary's total case load, or about 350,000 cases a year on average.

Calling them "State Courts" underlines the reality that they are the primary dispensers of justice and the important national function they play.

The new office of the Presiding Judge of the State Courts reflects the more complex cases handled, with the value of claims under civil jurisdiction up from $100,000 to $250,000, and judges' greater sentencing powers.

"It is also an assurance of the highest standard of leadership for the State Courts," said Ms Indranee.

While officers of the Singapore Legal Service used to occupy the office of Chief District Judge, a High Court judge will now sit in the elevated office.

And raising the bar for judicial officers will guarantee a more experienced and mature bench, Ms Indranee said.

The Chief Justice will be able to waive the higher requirement for deserving people, such as mid- or second-career officers with substantial work and life experience.

Supporting the changes, Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said the public will feel more confident appearing before judicial officers with longer working experience.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) suggested that new judicial officers spend a stint at a community development council or voluntary welfare organisation, to "better appreciate the need sometimes for mercy whilst dispensing justice".

Ms Indranee promised to relay the proposal to the Chief Justice.

Singapore's World Bank fee raised to $857m
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

SINGAPORE'S contribution to the World Bank will rise by more than 17 times to US$672 million (S$857 million), after Parliament gave its approval yesterday.

The higher subscription to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) - the main arm of the World Bank that supports developing countries - is part of a move by the IBRD to increase its overall capital by US$86.2 billion.

In explaining the reason for the increase to Non-constituency MP Gerald Giam, who had asked how the new figure was derived, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said Singapore cannot be a "free-rider" in the global system.

Singapore has to play a part in the global effort to supplement the World Bank's resources, as the Republic has a vested interest in having strong and effective multilateral institutions, he said.

"Given our role as a major financial centre and the importance of a healthy global economy to our economic prospects, we should participate in this global effort... we cannot be a free-rider."

Of this new fee Singapore is paying, US$38 million, or about 6 per cent, had been set aside in the national Budget last year, Mr Tharman said.

The remainder, known as callable capital, will not be drawn by the IBRD except in extreme circumstances, when it cannot meet its obligations on borrowings or guarantees.

The increase in subscription to the IBRD is the first since 1966, and will also mean a rise in Singapore's voting power in the IBRD, from 0.05 per cent to 0.25 per cent.

But Mr Tharman said the Republic's larger 0.24 per cent stake in the World Bank would still be lower than its share of global gross domestic product, trade and cross-border investments. Singapore's share of world GDP is about 0.4 per cent.

This is because Singapore started out as a developing country making small contributions, he said, when, in fact, the amount should be in proportion to Singapore's size and role in the global economy.

"We are playing a responsible role and increasing our contributions, but we are not over-committing," Mr Tharman said.

Denise Phua proposes new education model
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

MS DENISE Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) yesterday proposed a new education model, in which students stay in school for 10 years without "make or break" tests such as the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

This could be done in a "pilot cluster of schools" that would form the basis for a new model of education for Singapore, she said in a speech in Parliament on the future of education.

Her proposed pilot schools would not sort students into streams, nor "excessively assess their students through competitive tests". They would be inclusive, letting students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, race and religion interact.

And special effort would be made to help the disadvantaged, from providing them with computers to allowing them longer school days, she said during an adjournment motion that lets her speak for up to 20 minutes.

While she understands the need to move at an acceptable pace of change, she said there is a segment of Singaporeans who want to move "more boldly and swiftly", and take the education changes "beyond the current trimming of the excesses of the system", hence her proposal.

In his reply, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said innovation was important and the means by which "we can do better".

"But for innovations in our education system to bear fruit, our approach must be guided by certain principles," he said.

One principle is a "multi-layered approach", with innovations at the system level, in individual schools, and in all schools - the last of which he highlighted as "very important".

"It may not have the same visibility as setting up a specialised school," he said. "But its impact is systemic."

He said he would give Ms Phua's proposal "serious consideration". But he added: "I should also caution that having debated many of these issues in my ministry, there are significant policy and implementation issues that we would have to consider."

The proposal should also be set in the context of the many changes the Ministry of Education is rolling out, he said.

These include changes to the PSLE system, a renewed focus on values and more flexibility for Normal stream students - all of which Ms Phua herself noted.

This need for "pacing and prioritisation" was among the principles of innovation he laid out.

Another was "to build on and retain our strengths" - even if these can have adverse effects.

"For all the areas we are critical of, we also have to recognise that our system is highly regarded internationally, and has served our students well," said Mr Heng.

This is because Singapore has encouraged effort and the pursuit of excellence, and created opportunities for all, and also because parents value education and teachers are dedicated.

250 return to work in health-care sector
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

ABOUT 250 Singaporeans who studied medicine and dentistry abroad have come home to work since 2010, Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said in Parliament yesterday.

They came home under a scheme that offers them pre-employment grants of up to $150,000 each to cover their tuition fees in return for a commitment to work in local hospital clusters for a few years.

The scheme is part of the Ministry of Health's push to ramp up the health-care professional workforce to prepare for the country's ageing population. It projects that their numbers have to go up by 50 per cent, or another 20,000 people, between 2011 and 2020, said Dr Khor.

The ministry will also continue to recruit qualified foreign professionals and help them assimilate into the local work environment.

Another of its strategies is to attract more young Singaporeans to join the sector.

Eventually, the local medical intake across the three medical schools will be 500 a year.

At the same time, the ministry is raising the profile of the nursing and allied health professions with branding campaigns and scholarships.

Salaries will be adjusted from time to time to attract and retain talent in the public and intermediate to long-term care sectors, said Dr Khor.

Illegal workers an issue in all countries
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

THERE will be foreigners working illegally in Singapore even though there are rules in place forbidding it, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said yesterday.

Noting that it is a problem confronting every country, he said: "We will always have in our economy certain segments that perhaps operate under the radar."

He made the point when replying to Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), who wanted to know how many Malaysians cross the Causeway regularly on social visit passes to work illegally in the informal sector as freelance plumbers, technicians or electricians.

Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang said he had received feedback that the Ministry of Manpower shuts its eyes on such practices, including that of Malaysians holding construction work permits, but working in other sectors.

Mr Tan replied: "I do urge Mr Low to provide us with the alleged information... and we will be quite happy to follow up."

He also said his ministry conducts random checks and acts on public complaints.

The ministry told The Straits Times that 482 foreigners were found to have worked illegally in Singapore last year, down from 528 in 2012. Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, employers who hire foreigners without valid work passes can be fined up to $20,000 or jailed up to two years. The illegal worker may be banned from entering Singapore for up to two years.

Call to review laws against errant cyclists
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

MS LEE BEE WAH (Nee Soon GRC) yesterday disagreed with Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli that the existing avenues of redress for pedestrians injured by cyclists are enough.

Those injured now can take out a civil suit, make an insurance claim, go for mediation or settle privately. That is enough, Mr Masagos said.

She also wants it to be made compulsory for cyclists to be insured so that those they injure can make claims against them.

Ms Lee also feels there is under-reporting of accidents between cyclists and pedestrians. On average, there were 10 such accidents each year between 2011 and last year. But she said: "I am sure the number at the ground is much higher than that because I have been receiving feedback very regularly."

Replying, Mr Masagos said civil suits are for claiming damages, whereas prosecution is for the act itself. As for mandatory cyclist insurance, it is under the purview of the Land Transport Authority, he said.

Pioneer Generation definition by Budget day
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

THE Government is working out a package of measures to honour the group of seniors who worked hard in the early years of nationhood and laid the foundation for today's Singapore.

It will provide details on how it defines the Pioneer Generation, the phrase it has coined to refer to this group of seniors, by the time Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announces this year's Budget on Feb 21. Mr Tharman gave this written reply yesterday in response to Nominated MP Nicholas Fang, who asked what criteria would be used to define the term.

A Pioneer Generation package was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech last August, to honour this group and help fund their MediShield Life premiums, under a new scheme that will provide medical insurance for all for life.

Mr Tharman said of the Pioneer Generation: "They paved the way for subsequent generations to live a better life. They are now in their golden years, and it is timely for us to recognise their contributions and sacrifices."

He said the Government has received several useful suggestions on how to define this group of seniors, and has also consulted with various groups of Singaporeans.

More suggestions through government feedback channel REACH or the Ministry of Finance website are welcome, he said.

The power behind a name change
Right words help spread the right message, and can be just as important
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2014

YESTERDAY, Parliament voted to rename the Subordinate Courts the State Courts, in a move to convey the appropriate dignity and gravitas of the institution.

Rid of connotations of inferiority, this new name would enhance the stature of the courts that most ordinary Singaporeans interact with, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said in Parliament.

With similar belief in the power of words, Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), in a separate debate, made an earnest plea for ex-convicts to be referred to as "released persons" instead.

Speaking before the passage of amendments to the Prisons Bill, he said this term would acknowledge that these men and women had done the time for their mistakes and deserved to be re-integrated into society.

A rose by any other name would perhaps smell as sweet. But as several MPs pointed out in different ways and forms yesterday in Parliament, this Shakespearean wisdom does not necessarily hold true in most other things.

Whether Medifund or dangerous cyclists, the point was made more than once. Messaging - the narrative, the story - can matter as much as the actual policy itself.

The public relations aspect of policymaking comprises two components: The first is to make sure the right people hear the message; the second, that the right message is heard.

Members of Parliament showed that the Government sometimes falters on both counts.

Told that there are brochures, he suggested posters instead, in all four languages.

Medical social workers also inform patients about Medifund, but another MP, Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC), said many residents and patients do not know where to go for assistance, nor of the existence of medical social workers - much less that they can talk to them.

That needy Singaporeans do not make full use of the schemes available to them, whether through lack of knowledge or access, is a pressing issue that has lately gained urgency in the House.

More effective communication, better outreach and improved accessibility must go hand-in-hand with the generous social policies the Government has rolled out and will continue to.

But the second component - of crafting the right message for the policy and finding the right name with the right connotations - has gained less traction, and still faces its fair share of derision.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten SMC), for example, argued that the Subordinate Courts' name change was unnecessary as it was the workings and accomplishments of the courts that mattered.

Writ large, this is a dominant strand of thought in local political culture, which tends to distrust and dismiss rhetoric in favour of the nuts and bolts of sound policy - at one with technocrats with more substance than style.

But this neglect has exacted a political cost.

In Parliament yesterday, Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) unexpectedly reinforced this point when she asked what avenues those injured by errant cyclists had to seek redress.

She recently met a resident who was badly injured by a cyclist, and was told by the police that she could file a civil suit, but there was nothing that they could do for her.

But as it turns out, such errant cyclists can be charged under various acts, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said in his reply to Ms Lee.

For egregious cases, the Penal Code can be invoked to charge them with rash negligence, which could result in a fine of up to $10,000, or a jail term.

Mr Masagos pointed out that this was, however, separate from any compensation the accident victim might wish to claim, which he or she would have to pursue through civil means.

Ms Lee said in reply that if the police had provided this explanation to the resident she met, it would have prevented the resident from "walking away thinking they are always at the losing end".

Perhaps the police would not end up finding the cyclist's behaviour bad enough to charge. But it is obvious this matters less than creating a feeling of empowerment for a resident in a moment of indignation and vulnerability.

It would have gone a long way towards informing her view of the State and the level of assurance she feels from the Government.

And all it required was the right words.

No comments:

Post a Comment