Tuesday 18 February 2014

Parliament Highlights - 17 Feb 2014

Woodlands Checkpoint breach: Poor responses, judgment
DPM Teo tells of missteps that led to woman slipping in and evading police
By Hoe Pei Shan, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2014

DEPUTY Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday gave Parliament the first detailed account of missteps by Home Team officers that led to a Malaysian woman entering Singapore illegally through Woodlands Checkpoint and giving police the slip for three days.

On Jan 17, the woman, Nurul Ruhana Ishak, drove past an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officer at Woodlands Checkpoint without going through the required checks, by tailgating a car in front of hers. She also failed to stop for a secondary check on the car boot.

The ICA officer took 2-1/2 minutes to sound the alarm. By then, it was too late for a lockdown that would have stopped the car from leaving. The auxiliary police officer in charge of secondary checks also failed to trigger the alarm.

Their poor responses were compounded by the "serious error of judgment" made by two ground commanders from the ICA and police. They decided to treat the intrusion as a less serious immigration offence, instead of a serious breach of border security, as required in the protocol. As a result, the police did not trigger an alert to mount road blocks, circulate descriptions and particulars of Nurul and her car, and alert officers to be on the lookout for her.

"This was a major reason for the subsequent inadequate response which resulted in the vehicle and driver not being detected and arrested much earlier," said Mr Teo, who is also the Minister for Home Affairs.

Nurul was detained three days later when she tailgated another car into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs compound. She has been charged with criminal trespass.

The two ground commanders from ICA and police who made the error of judgment have been redeployed to non-operational posts pending disciplinary action.

Their supervisors and officers involved will also be disciplined.

Mr Teo said he had also expressed his dissatisfaction to the commissioners of ICA and police. Both have investigated the matter, apologised for shortcomings and presented their recommendations for corrective action, which Mr Teo has accepted.

These include ICA and police working closely together to make sure such lapses do not recur, a thorough review of processes to ensure quick and effective action, and more frequent drills and exercises to maintain officers' vigilance and validate emergency response plans, Mr Teo said.

ICA will also employ more advanced technology as it becomes available, and improve infrastructural design "to depend less on the reaction of the officers on duty, and enhance the overall security of the checkpoint".

Such cases of attempted or inadvertent evasion of immigration checks are "not infrequent", said Mr Teo, and "occur once every couple of months".

In the past three years to December, there were 26 incidents at Woodlands. All but one were stopped immediately within the checkpoint upon the prompt activation of the alarm. In the remaining incident, the driver was detained within two hours, prosecuted and jailed for 12 weeks.

Mr Teo acknowledged the challenges officers at Woodlands Checkpoint face. It is one of the world's busiest land checkpoints, and sees over 300,000 people and 130,000 vehicles each day. Still, the ministry holds its officers to high standards of professionalism and takes a serious view of the recent security lapse, he said.

Where they fall short, Mr Teo said he would hold them accountable and where warranted, discipline them. He added: "Acknowledging mistakes allows our officers and organisations to learn and improve."

What went wrong
- First ICA officer at passport check failed to sound alarm as soon as Malaysian Nurul Ruhana Ishak's car slipped past, doing so only 2-1/2 minutes later.
- Auxiliary police officer inspecting car boots failed to sound alarm. When checkpoint was locked down, she was gone.
- Ground commanders wrongly deemed the case "an immigration offence" rather than the more serious "border security breach", which would have led to road blocks being set up to search for the car.

What's being done

- Officers involved redeployed; to face disciplinary action.
- Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and police chiefs have presented recommendations on corrective actions.
- ICA and police will work closely to improve coordination and responses.
- Procedures to be reviewed.
- Police to treat all breaches as high-level security threats and take all necessary steps to locate intruders.
- ICA will use more advanced technology.
- Design of checkpoint to be improved to reduce dependence on reaction of officers on duty.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair: Why did the first two officers allow the car to go through without raising an alarm? Were any attempts made to locate the car while it was in Singapore for those three days? And why were those attempts not successful?

How many officers will be subject to disciplinary proceedings for this incident?

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean: As far as we can know, the first officer at the counter consulted another officer, and hesitated, and took 2-1/2 minutes instead of sounding the alarm immediately. So that caused a problem.

The second officer at the secondary security checkpoint did not do so either. I do not know the reasons why.

The officers are not new officers. They have been in the service for some years and, looking back at their records, have in general been good officers. So we don't know the reasons why they did not sound the alarm immediately despite being trained to do so.

With regard to disciplinary proceedings, I won't want to go into numbers right now.

What efforts were taken to locate the car over three days?

A major factor was to misclassify the incident as an immigration offence and not a major security breach. As a result... the police did not put out a high level and persistent alert to all ground forces. Therefore, they were not looking for the vehicle and driver as actively and vigorously as they should have.

Ms Lee Li Lian: Is the current number of immigration officers enough to deal with the surge in travellers during peak seasons? What is being done to ensure that the attention of immigration officers is not compromised as a result of tiredness and/or long working hours?

DPM Teo: Woodlands Checkpoint is one of the busiest land checkpoints in the world, with more than 300,000 people and 130,000 vehicles passing through each day.

The workload is high and officers need to remain vigilant and alert at all times. To manage this, we have over the years put more resources into Woodlands Checkpoint.

The total increase of manpower between 2008 and now is 58 per cent. During the same period, the total increase in travellers and vehicles is 26 and 36 per cent respectively.

In addition, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority has leveraged on technology and expanded the physical clearance capacity at Woodlands. ICA introduced an advanced automated clearance system and biometric identification of motorbikes in 2006. In the next phase, we'll see 30 car counters added to the 40 we currently have at the old Woodlands.

This is expected to be operationalised in 2016 for the car counters.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan: Is this a question of officers trying to downgrade the seriousness of the breach? Why couldn't the different agencies coordinate in a situation like this? How could this lapse have occurred in the added light of many other incidents involving the Home Team?

DPM Teo: I find the decision that was made by the ground commanders unacceptable. There is a protocol to classify this as a security breach... it's a serious error on their part.

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: What are the arrangements between the Home Team and the private security company in ensuring the suitability of the auxiliary police officers (APOs) for the various job functions?

What sort of decisions go into deciding what type of job functions can be outsourced? Is the training the same for the APOs and full-time officers performing the same duty? Are any of the APOs allowed to start their work before completing all their training?

DPM Teo: None of the APOs can start their duties without having completed the training. None of the ICA officers can either.

In general, we will employ APOs where there are very specific functions to be carried out.

Where there are functions which require a broader range of judgments, broader application of policies and so on, then we will employ our Home Team officers who will be able to understand and apply... more complicated and complex protocols in a better way.

Mr Nicholas Fang: Were the particulars of the driver and the vehicle not circulated to all the other ground forces? Is that why at Cantonment, when the officers responded to the 999 call by the taxi driver initially, and then at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the officers failed to respond immediately or recognise immediately that this was a vehicle involved in the breach three days earlier?

DPM Teo: Exactly so - that's why the mistake in classifying the incident was a major factor in the subsequent inadequate response.

But even on its own, the officers at Cantonment complex could have responded better.

Funding review not meant to 'level down' schools
Minister adds that education in independent schools will remain affordable
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2014

THE recent review of funding for independent schools was never meant to level them down, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat told Parliament yesterday.

The minister also assured parents who are concerned that the changes may result in higher fees that education in an independent school will continue to remain affordable and accessible to all eligible students.

"Independent schools have not increased school fees for 2014," he said. "We must keep our schools, including independent schools, open to all... The ministry will continue to work closely with our independent schools to ensure that fees remain affordable."

Mr Heng, who was responding to questions from MPs on funding for school programmes, added that the Ministry of Education (MOE) remains committed to providing independent schools with appropriate funding.

He said all schools are funded by MOE based on the programmes they offer and their enrolments, so that each has adequate resources to develop its students. "We have a school landscape that is made up of diverse offerings. Within this landscape, independent schools play an important role in exploring new approaches of developing and stretching students with a strong academic foundation," he said.

"We are committed to supporting and resourcing independent schools appropriately so that they continue to stretch their students in their areas of strengths, and, just as important, to inculcate a sense of service to our society."

His comments come two weeks after The Straits Times reported that six independent schools had their funding cut. This was on the basis that they used to receive funding under the Integrated Programme (IP) and Gifted Education Programme (GEP), but have now had the IP portion cut.

The report had raised concerns among alumni and parents of children attending the schools.

Seeking to "set the record straight", Mr Heng said the recent review to assess if independent schools are resourced appropriately had, in fact, resulted in six out of 10 independent schools receiving up to 5 per cent more funding.

The four schools that did not saw funding reduced by about 3 per cent at the most.

"The main reason for the review is that schools with higher enrolments can spread their overheads better, while schools with lower enrolments cannot enjoy the economies of scale," he said.

"To adjust for this, MOE introduced a fixed component, and a variable component depending on the student enrolment number."

Students who are both on the GEP and IP also need not worry that their school will now receive funding only for the former, said Mr Heng.

He added that the funding review had found students can develop "well and fully" with funding provided under just one grant.

Schools are funded on a needs basis and it is not a "zero-sum game", said Mr Heng, responding to Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong's question on funding for the different categories of schools here.

"We do not have to cut funding to one school to give to another, he said. "With good economic growth and a healthy fiscal position, the Ministry of Finance provides sufficient resources to fund every school to meet our educational objectives."

His ministry has invested more in education across all levels and schools in the past decade.

The per capita cost of educating a primary school pupil more than doubled from $3,600 in 2004 to $8,700 last year.

The per capita cost of secondary education almost doubled during the same period, from about $5,700 to $10,800.

The funding review also covered areas where the independent schools may utilise their resources more effectively, such as "the judicious use of air-conditioning as we strive to be ecologically sustainable and cost-effective in operating our schools", he said.

"The ministry appreciates and welcomes the strong support of the alumni of these schools in donating funds and in volunteering their services," said Mr Heng.

"In fact, the strengths of many of these schools include their long histories and a tradition of alumni support.

"At the same time, we should not put too heavy a burden on teachers, parents and students to raise funds, as that may deter some students, especially those from less well-off families, from applying to the school. This is all about striking a good balance."

Heftier fines for rail disruptions 'will better reflect their severity'
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2014

RAIL operators will face heftier fines in future whenever their trains break down.

Instead of a top fine of $1 million for each disruption, the maximum penalty is raised to 10 per cent of the annual fare revenue of the affected line or $1 million, whichever is higher.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said yesterday the stiffer fines will be a greater deterrent and "better reflect the severity of incidents and their impact on commuters".

The new cap is very significant, said National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng. "For the two major events in December 2011, it was very obvious the impact was so substantial and $1 million was not enough to make passengers feel justice was served," he added.

The two North-South Line disruptions affected 221,000 commuters and Professor Lee said disruptions on a similar scale would warrant the new 10 per cent fine.

With this maximum, operators could face fines many times higher than previously.

Take SMRT as an example.

It earned $607.9 million from its three MRT lines in its last financial year ending March 31, 2013.

There was no breakdown of each line's revenue and the North-South and East-West lines are considered as one system. Hence, any fine will be based on the combined revenue of both lines.

Given that the Circle Line's ridership is 19.3 per cent of the total, The Straits Times estimates that its revenue contribution would be around 20 per cent.

This leaves a revenue of about $490 million for the combined North-South and East-West lines. This means the fine for a large-scale breakdown could be as much as $49 million.

This would wipe out any revenue gains from a fare hike. Using the same approach, SBS Transit could face a fine of up to $12 million should there be a big disruption on the North-East Line.

Meanwhile, Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam is concerned that higher fines could indirectly contribute to fare increases.

The Bill also gave the Land Transport Authority (LTA) powers to ask the two operators to beef up their board of directors, including having enough engineering expertise, to fulfil their "primary role as public rail transport operators".

MPs also asked about the lack of provision for the LTA to cut bonuses or sack senior management if standards are not met.

Mr Lui said: "I am less interested in heads rolling. I am more interested in heads fixed on and focused on identifying as well as resolving the problems... Whether the CEO should be removed or not, I leave it to the board."

Maximum fines for worst rail crises only
LTA will look at factors such as safety breaches in deciding penalties
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 22 Feb 2014

WHILE rail operators face much stiffer fines for disruptions now, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said it will consider imposing the maximum penalty only for "the most serious of incidents".

Its spokesman said these could involve safety breaches or multiple violations of service standards and regulations. For instance, the LTA has imposed the previous maximum fine of $1 million twice - for the massive North-South Line disruptions on Dec 15 and Dec 17 of 2011, which crippled the network for five and seven hours respectively and affected 221,000 commuters in total.

On Monday, Parliament raised the penalty cap for each incident to 10 per cent of the annual fare revenue of the affected line or $1 million, whichever is higher.

Based on SMRT's fare revenue for its 2013 financial year, the maximum penalty for a disruption on the North-South or East-West line could be about $49 million.

The spokesman said the LTA will look into the facts of each rail incident, how severe the breaches were, and if other licensing conditions were violated when deciding the size of a fine.

It will also consider aggravating or mitigating factors such as whether the operator had full control of the incident, how it managed the breakdown and its service recovery, she added.

Dr Park Byung Joon, head of the urban transport management programme at SIM University, said the previous cap would not have any critical impact on the financials of SMRT or SBS Transit.

The new cap, however, sends a clear message that the Government will not just issue an "institutional reminder" if the operators fail to perform. "The maximum fine now can put the operators in an instant financial crisis - 10 per cent of annual fare revenue is a huge amount," he said.

The fines however should not be so high as to put the operators out of business, he added. Hence the decision on how much to fine must be carefully made on a case-by-case basis.

In response to the heavier penalties, SMRT and SBS Transit said they remain committed to improving the reliability of their train services.

The legislation passed on Monday also gave the LTA power to beef up the boards of both public transport operators, if needed.

The LTA spokesman said that there are "no current plans to invoke this provision".

Meanwhile, the authority has awarded $1.09 billion in contracts to a trio of firms from Japan and Hong Kong to build the Sin Ming, Havelock and Marina Bay stations on the Thomson Line.

Construction work is expected to start by the first quarter of this year. Sin Ming station will be completed in 2020, and Havelock and Marina Bay stations will be ready a year later, in 2021.

The biggest contract, to build Sin Ming station and its tunnels for $454 million, went to Japan's Penta-Ocean Construction. Another Japanese contractor, Taisei Corporation, won the $425 million deal to build Marina Bay station, while Hong Kong firm Gammon Construction Limited Singapore Branch clinched the $210 million contract for Havelock.

All three companies have won previous tenders. Penta-Ocean, for instance, was responsible for the already completed Expo and Kranji stations, while Gammon is currently building the Thomson Line's Mayflower station.

To date, the LTA has awarded 13 civil contracts worth $4.26 billion for the $18 billion, 22-station Thomson Line.

To be completed in three phases from 2019 to 2021, the 30km line runs from Woodlands in the north to Gardens by the Bay in the south, where it will connect to the future Eastern Region Line.

MRT more reliable following upgrades: Lui
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2014

SINGAPORE'S MRT system is more reliable nowadays, with fewer delays because huge sums are being spent to maintain and improve the network, said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew.

But he acknowledged that SMRT could have done "much better" in handling the three breakdowns last month, especially in providing timely information on the situation to commuters.

Mr Lui said the SMRT and Land Transport Authority (LTA) are spending about $500 million to overhaul older trains on the North South and East West lines by 2016, as well as upgrade the signalling system by 2018.

SMRT also increased its annual spending on repair and maintenance by 65 per cent, from $38.3 million in 2011 to $64.5 million in 2013, he added. These figures refer to its financial year, which ends on March 31 each year.

SBS Transit, the other rail operator, is also improving its network. It is replacing problematic parts of the North East Line overhead power system, and doing a mid-life upgrade of major systems of its 10-year-old trains.

The improvements made by both operators have led to fewer delays that exceed five minutes - from 396 in 2012 to 309 last year.

Fewer trains are also being withdrawn from service on all lines, Mr Lui added. "We have made some strides in the right direction, but there is certainly room for improvement."

He also said SMRT is changing its approach in dealing with breakdowns. Instead of having a generic plan for stretches of rail, it will have a station-by-station contingency plan.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) asked Mr Lui if he would ask the SMRT to forgo an upcoming fare increase as service is still not satisfactory.

The minister replied that while he understood the emotions involved in the matter of a fare rise, he felt "it's best to separate the two issues".

Report on defence spending 'flawed'
Ng Eng Hen questions credibility of watchdog after S'pore's 'poor' rating
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2014

DEFENCE Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday took issue with an international anti-corruption watchdog that gave Singapore a "poor" rating last year for the way it spends money in buying weapons.

He also questioned its move to group Singapore in the same category as Iraq and Afghanistan as he pointed out the "credibility gap" in its report.

Dr Ng noted that in a separate report, TI's Corruption Perception Index, Singapore was placed as the fifth least corrupt nation in the world. "The fact that the same organisation, albeit through another publication, can now produce a completely different assessment, again calls into question TI's credibility," he said.

In fact, Singapore's high-standing reputation as a country with a clean and honest government is also backed by the findings of other think-tanks and bodies like the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, he said in his reply to Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC).

Dr Lim had asked whether Singapore's defence budget oversight and procurement processes were sufficiently robust, in the light of TI's poor rating for Singapore.

Dr Ng said his ministry has strict procedures to ensure procurement systems "adhere to the highest and most rigorous standards".

Citing publications such as Jane's Defence Weekly, Financial Times and Aviation Week, he told the House that these credible publications acknowledge Singapore's stringent, transparent and cost- effective procurement practices.

Singapore is also a "reference customer" that is closely watched by other suppliers and countries buying weapons.

"Mindef has examined TI's assessment and found its assumptions to be flawed and processes weak," he added.

He rebutted two points on Singapore in the TI report.

While it stated that there is "no evidence of illicit economic activity", it added that "we may assume some off-budget allocations, perhaps on a limited basis".

Said Dr Ng: "I don't know what the basis of that assumption is but it is a very, very serious allegation."

The report's evaluator further claimed he had it "on good personal authority" that there was a phantom employee on the Defence Ministry's (Mindef) payroll, without giving details.

TI's processes need to be strengthened "by relying on more authoritative sources and substantiated facts", Dr Ng said, pointing out that its analysis seems to be based mainly on Internet sources.

He said Mindef tried to reach out to TI to give it more information, but it "flatly declined our offers of more information to debunk their false assertions".

Dr Ng also said the defence budget is presented and passed by Parliament, and approved by the President, each year.

Parliament appoints a watchdog panel, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), made up of MPs, to work closely with the Auditor-General's Office to scrutinise expenditure and accounts of ministries and statutory boards.

"This is further complemented by strong executive oversight, and we have a robust system of checks and balances, an independent Auditor-General who reports to the President, and a clean civil service," he said.

Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer), who chairs PAC, said he was shocked to read of Singapore's poor rating. He told The Straits Times that Mindef and its procurement arm, the Defence Science Technology Agency, have often been held up as good examples for other ministries to emulate.

Except for a few administrative lapses, he said, there have been no systemic issues in Mindef pointing to corruption.

When contacted, TI said it had tried to contact Singapore's defence officials in September 2011 and followed up with an e-mail a month later to invite Mindef to review the findings in December that year.

But Mindef replied in July 2012, which was past the review deadline, said TI's advocacy and communications lead Leah Wawro.

She told The Straits Times that TI sent another three letters. "We still wanted their input and published their response to the findings on our website... Mindef was well aware of that. So it's not true that we have not been willing to engage."

Ms Wawro added that TI is still keen to work with Mindef on this research. "We hope to have an earlier engagement so that the review can be included and we can improve the integrity of the study."

MOM to tighten safety enforcement
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2014

THE Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will step up safety enforcement measures on several fronts, in the wake of a spike in construction site deaths.

Contractors that fail to improve their safety records can be barred from hiring foreign workers, he said.

Details of the review will be announced by the middle of this year.

The MOM will also ask the courts to hand out deterrent sentences, including jail time, for serious breaches of the law, Mr Hawazi warned.

He said: "We will... ask for custodial sentences on individuals who have blatantly disregarded the law and press for maximum sentencing as allowed under the Workplace Safety and Health Act for egregious cases."

In severe cases, employers who failed in their duties have been fined up to $200,000, he said.

Those who have been ordered to stop work because of safety breaches will also find it harder to resume their operations, unless the safety lapses are corrected.

Finally, the scope of a ministry watch list for firms with poor safety records will also be expanded, to ensure closer scrutiny on these firms.

Mr Hawazi announced these moves in response to questions from Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) and Nominated MP Eugene Tan, who wanted to know what MOM was doing to enhance safety in the wake of a spate of workplace accidents.

There were 22 construction deaths between July and December last year, which was double the fatalities in the first half of the year. Eight workers died in construction sites last month.

Mr Hawazi also disclosed that his ministry found 114 safety breaches at 89 construction sites in the first two weeks of this year.

Seven construction sites were ordered to stop work, 45 fines were handed out and 69 firms were given official notices that they had not complied with workplace safety rules.

Besides these moves, Mr Hawazi said that a construction firm's safety record will determine whether it gets government contracts.

But he acknowledged that it will take time for firms to accept that safety measures can also affect their productivity.

The moves taken by the ministry will not stop workplace deaths unless the industry comes onboard, stressed Mr Hawazi, adding: "Workplace safety and health is everyone's responsibility."

Police get more powers to flush out suspected litterbugs
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2014

IN A move to curb killer litter, the police have been given powers to compel flat dwellers to reveal the names of suspected litter-bugs.

Even those who throw litter out of vehicles are not spared, under changes to the Environmental Public Health Act.

Car owners have to provide details of drivers or passengers suspected of littering when asked to by the authorities.

Those who refuse may be punished, unless they have reasonable excuses.

These moves are necessary to nab those who dirty public places and pose danger to others by tossing killer litter, said Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday.

The maximum penalties for littering have also been doubled. A first, second and third-time offender can now be fined up to $2,000, $4,000 and $10,000, respectively.

The penalties for first and second-time offenders have not been revised since 1987 and have lost their sting, said Dr Balakrishnan.

He conceded that high-rise litterbugs are difficult to nab - only 19 offenders out of more than 1,300 complaints were prosecuted last year.

But the authorities will step up surveillance, using closed-circuit television cameras, the minister said.

Elaborating on what constituted a reasonable excuse not to give details of littering suspects to the police, Dr Balakrishnan whipped out his smartphone to read a message from the Attorney-General's Chambers.

"If you, the owner, were to say you were overseas, the flat is unoccupied, the flat was burgled at the time... That's an example," he said.

The four MPs who joined the debate on littering supported the tougher measures, including Hougang MP Png Eng Huat.

"Littering from a residential flat is beyond just an anti-social behaviour. It poses a danger to lives and properties as well," said Mr Png as he recounted how a resident's flat nearly caught fire from a cigarette butt thrown by a neighbour.

The House also passed changes which allow the authorities to compel malls and hotels to recycle, as well as to impose heavier penalties on illegal hawkers.

Cleaners to get tiered wages based on type of jobs
But MPs express concern over how the pay scales will be drawn up
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2014

CLEANING companies will soon come under a new licensing scheme that requires them to pay cleaners tiered wages according to the type of cleaning jobs they do.

This scheme was given the nod by Parliament yesterday when it passed the Environmental Public Health (Amendment) Bill.

The wage scales, however, are to be decided by a separate tripartite committee of employers, unionists and government officials.

Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) asked if their pay could be set "with reference to objective criteria such as the minimum living level and inflation rate, with automatic annual increases linked to changes in the cost of living".

Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam also asked for the tripartite committee to publish the basis for its decisions.

Replying, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said he would not compel the panel to publish how it came to the wage recommendations.

"In the spirit of not being overly intrusive... I do not want to prescribe that."

Earlier, in presenting the Bill for debate, he described the scheme as a "very major move to institutionalise progressive wages through licensing".

"It was not a step which this Government embarks on lightly," said Dr Balakrishnan, adding that the Government was careful not to micromanage the sector or add to companies' costs.

He also stressed that the licensing move is different from setting a national minimum wage, saying it was a targeted measure to lift the persistently low wages of cleaners. Also, the wage ladder was negotiated and not "set by political decree".

He credited the wage ladder to the National Trades Union Congress.

Dr Balakrishnan also said "no" to Ms Ng's call to raise the pay of foreign cleaners.

"They come on agreed terms and there's no reason for us to insist that those terms be exactly identical to the terms of employment and to the wages of local Singaporeans."

Labour MP Zainal Sapari, who was among seven members of the House to speak on the Bill, asked if cleaning companies could be allowed to get out of existing contracts without penalties if they cannot renegotiate their contracts to take into account the higher salaries.

Workers' Party's Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) was concerned that the requirement to train all workers would be a burden on the cleaning companies.

Replying, Dr Balakrishnan said the Government has tried to strike the right balance: "You don't want to squeeze employers so hard the whole business collapses."

The new licensing scheme is expected to be implemented later this year.

Wage model: A case for more transparency?
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2014

SLOWLY, but surely, cleaners who have suffered through low wages are getting higher pay.

This was after the House passed a Bill yesterday that will ensure that only cleaning companies which adopt a system of paying wages that increase progressively with higher skills and training will be given a government licence to operate.

The Government is putting a lot behind the progressive wage model, as it is called, and yesterday, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan urged the sceptics to put their "faith" in it.

That the model is effective is especially important as the Government sees it as a better alternative to a national minimum wage model to raise wages of low-wage workers in tandem with productivity.

And as unionist Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) noted, the labour movement plans to extend the model to other sectors soon, first to landscaping and security services, and then eventually to even white-collar jobs.

"We will go sector by sector, company by company, and job by job to share, cascade and implement the progressive wage model," he said.

But crucially, if the wage model is to be extended further to more sectors, the public will need to be convinced that the wage levels set are the right ones.

That is why while the decision was roundly praised, several Members of Parliament still had reservations over how the wages were set and sought more clarity.

The MPs hoping to know why the base wage for cleaners was set at $1,000 and not higher, or how wages will be determined for other sectors, were left disappointed.

They were told no more than that it was negotiated behind closed doors by a committee made up of employers, unionists and government officials - the Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners.

"This is tripartism that works," he said. "It has worked so far and without us having to be overly intrusive, without asking them to be overly officious and everybody just takes an official position, digs trenches and becomes defensive about it."

He also explained that this process means that the model is therefore not a minimum wage "by political decree", and the wage should never be determined by Parliament or by civil servants.

Under the model, cleaners in office buildings and hawker centres will start at a wage no lower than $1,000 a month, while cleaners hired by town councils and doing public cleaning will earn not less than $1,200.

While the wages for other sectors have not yet been set, Dr Balakrishnan said the thinking behind the mandatory licensing and progressive wage model is to give workers a "fair wage".

But without explaining how the wage levels were decided, it leaves the understanding of what is fair decidedly vague.

Hence, Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) wanted to know if the salaries of the cleaners could be set "with reference to objective criteria such as the minimum living level and inflation rate, with automatic annual increases linked to changes in the costs of living".

Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam asked twice for the committee behind the decision to make public its reasons for setting the wage levels.

Dr Balakrishnan's explanation that the guidance from the Government to the committee was "whatever you do, do not kill this sector, do not destroy jobs, do not deny job prospects for the people who need it most", gives some insight into the serious considerations and deliberations that must have taken place.

The next useful step would be to explain how these considerations then led to the salary levels set.

While the progressive wage model is a novel way to institute a wage increase in the sectors that have long suffered from cheap sourcing and low wages, as the breadth of its reach grows, the questions being asked about it will also grow.

Starting with a clear understanding of how the wage is set will go some way to achieving the model's goal not just of raising wages but also of convincing the public that it is the best move for Singapore in the long term, and one that will put perennial calls for a national minimum wage to rest.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "I would urge this House, have faith, let's see how this works. I'm sure we will make adjustments over time and we will make the necessary adjustments."

Might that faith be increased with more transparency over the wage? In this case, an "intrusion" on tripartism may be worthwhile.

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