Wednesday 12 March 2014

Parliament Highlights - 10 Mar 2014

Committee of Supply Debate: MOE, MND, MCI


Deals not decided on COV under new HDB resale rules
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

CASH over valuation (COV) will take a back seat in Housing Board resale deals, as buyers and sellers must now agree on a price before seeking an official valuation.

This is in line with the private market, where negotiations are "rightly" based on recent transaction prices, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.

Previously, HDB resale sellers usually sought a valuation, then negotiated with buyers over how much more - or less - to pay.

These cash premiums or COVs caused unhappiness when they hit record highs, with the median COV peaking at $38,000 in mid 2011. Some units fetched six-figure premiums.

But they have since fallen. The median COV hit zero last month, and more deals have been closing below valuation.

The cooling resale market makes this a good time for change, said Government Parliamentary Committee for National Development chairman Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) yesterday. Mr Khaw agreed.

Now, a price must be agreed upon and the Option To Purchase (OTP) granted, before a buyer can get a valuation from the HDB. This will "restore the original intention of valuation, which is to help buyers get a housing loan", said Mr Khaw.

The change kicked in at 5pm yesterday. Sellers can no longer get valuations from the HDB.

But existing OTPs and valuations will be honoured. Buyers will also get 21 calendar days to exercise the OTP, up from 14 before.

HDB has also started publishing daily figures on resale transactions rather than fortnightly, as was previously the case.

"Negotiating on price rather than COV will take some getting used to," said Mr Khaw. "However, it is a useful move for long-term market stability."

Experts are optimistic that it will achieve this aim. Said PropNex CEO Mohamed Ismail Gafoor: "If people can come to terms with the new norm... I think we can have more sustainable growth and not unrealistic price rises."

The change came on the back of a cooler market, dampened by measures like home loan curbs and a higher supply of new flats.

Views differ on whether cooling measures should stay, noted Mr Khaw, but his take is that the market is not yet at the optimal state. "With prices still rising, though tepidly, in some market segments, it is premature to withdraw these measures."

The ministry will also listen to the people, with engagement exercises this year similar to Our Singapore Conversation.

Said Mr Khaw: "I intend to further engage Singaporeans on the relationships and values we hold dear as a society, and how housing policies can better support them."

Focus on meeting housing needs of seniors, needy folk
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

THE Ministry of National Development (MND) is studying a new reverse mortgage scheme to help seniors better convert the flats they own into cash, said its minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.

The move is part of a key focus this year on meeting the housing needs of the elderly, the poor and the vulnerable, he told the House when mapping out his ministry's budget and policies for the year.

"Our priority is to help them retire comfortably with security" and so, it is timely to revisit reverse mortgage as an extra option for the elderly, said Mr Khaw.

"MND has begun a serious study of this option. We hope to formulate a practical scheme for our seniors," he added.

A reverse mortgage is a financial scheme in which flat owners can use their home as security for a loan that will be dispensed in regular cash payouts.

Insurer NTUC Income previously offered such a mortgage scheme but it did not take off, Mr Khaw noted. Only 24 households took it up between the time it was introduced in 2006 and when it was scrapped in 2008.

But elderly folk asked for such a scheme last year during Our Singapore Conversation sessions, as they preferred to live in the same home and also retain it as an asset to bequeath to their children, the minister added.

The Government is also reviewing the Enhanced Lease Buyback Scheme, in which elderly households sell part of their flats' leases to HDB and use the net proceeds to top up their Central Provident Fund Retirement Accounts.

Currently, only those living in three-room or smaller flats qualify, but the scheme may be extended to larger flats.

It is also comforting for many elderly folk to have their children and grandchildren living nearby, said Mr Khaw, acknowledging the calls of Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) and Dr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang) to build more studio and multi-generation flats.

While it is not difficult to do so in non-mature towns where new flats are still being built, it is harder in mature towns with fewer opportunities for new units, Mr Khaw said.

"Nevertheless, I want to push the limits to enable extended families to live near one another," he added, without elaborating on how it will be done.

Another move for the elderly is that individual HDB flats are to be made more comfortable for them under the Enhancement for Active Seniors scheme, which is being reviewed.

The scheme subsidises the retrofitting of individual flats with elder-friendly equipment such as grab bars, ramps and slip-resistant bathrooms.

Its review, to be completed in a few months, looks at lowering the minimum qualifying age and subsidising more items.

Summing up his new focus, Mr Khaw said: "This year, I want to do more for the elderly, the vulnerable groups, and help extended families live near one another."

The new emphasis is possible because the property market is stabilising and the backlog of newlyweds needing their first home has been cleared, he said. As a result, vulnerable groups, such as divorcees with children, single parents and former convicts, can receive more attention, he added.

Ms Lee and Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) had shone a spotlight on vulnerable families.

Many are victims of circumstances and deserve society's support, said Mr Seah, who suggested that community development councils' input be sought when an applicant's housing needs are being evaluated. Ms Lee also suggested that the MND remove all forms of waiting periods for divorcees with children.

Both suggestions will be studied, said Mr Khaw: "Meanwhile, we will continue to exercise flexibility and compassion whenever we receive worthy cases."

The MND is on track to reach 60,000 rental flats by 2017.

Applicants now wait seven months for a rental flat, down from 21 months in 2008.

Per-minute parking rates for motorbikes
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

PARKING rates for motorcycles will be charged on a per-minute basis, instead of at a flat rate, to help delivery riders who use multiple carparks in a day.

These will apply to Housing Board (HDB) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) carparks with electronic parking systems, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.

It will be of "practical help to the lower income, particularly those who work hard to better their lives", he said in Parliament.

He was responding to Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC), who had highlighted a problem faced by dispatch and delivery riders who are "generally low income".

Many choose to indiscriminately park their motorcycles at void decks or on the roadside, instead of chalking up high parking fees when they use many different carparks in a day, she noted.

"My residents find them a hassle," she said.

Today, motorcyclists are charged a flat rate of 65 cents for either day or night parking at any one HDB and URA carpark.

"This is inexpensive but those who use multiple carparks in a day, such as dispatch or delivery riders, may still chalk up considerable parking charges. Apparently, they bear such cost, and not their employers," Mr Khaw noted.

This was why he accepted Ms Lee's suggestion to revise electronic parking system rates for motorcyclists and charge them on a per-minute basis instead, he said.

There will also be an enhanced season parking ticket so motorcyclists can park in all HDB and URA carparks for a flat monthly fee. HDB and URA will "work out the details and implement them as soon as possible", he added.

Facelifts for three more HDB towns
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

THREE more Housing Board towns will get facelifts under a scheme to make new and old estates more vibrant.

The Ministry of National Development is choosing these towns, and will announce them in a few months, said Senior Minister of State Lee Yi Shyan.

The first two phases of the Remaking Our Heartland initiative involved projects in Punggol, Yishun, Dawson, Hougang, East Coast and Jurong Lake.

These included wider pavements and park connectors, upgraded town centres, new community spaces and town plazas, and heritage trails and landmarks.

He also gave updates on other measures to upgrade existing towns. One is the Home Improvement Programme, for works such as repairing spalling concrete and upgrading the electrical supply.

This will be sped up, something Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) had called for.

The programme will be offered to 35,000 homes a year, up from 28,000 previously, said Mr Lee.

This year, there will also be another 14 projects under the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme, for features such as covered linkways and playgrounds.

And even as the Lift Upgrading Programme ends this year, lifts will be installed in more multi-storey carparks.

Works in 73 such carparks will end this year, and will start for another 400 carparks this year and the next.

As for new towns, the first Build-to-Order projects in Tampines North and Bidadari will be launched this year and next year, respectively.

The Tampines North project will have 1,500 flats, including 50 three-generation units for multi-generational families.

Ministry to seek ideas on protecting Pulau Ubin
Consultation exercise will focus on nature, heritage, education aspects
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

LOVERS of Pulau Ubin will be asked to give their ideas on how the popular island can be protected and enhanced.

The Government hopes that a wide range of people, from island residents to interest groups and experts, will give their views in an upcoming consultation announced in Parliament yesterday.

The 10.2 sq km island, about the size of Changi Airport, hit the headlines in April last year when a notice by the Housing Board led islanders to believe that 22 households would be evicted so an "adventure park" could be built.

The Government clarified shortly after that the island will be kept in a "rustic state for as long as possible".

Ubin's population has dwindled from 2,000 between the 1950s and early 1970s to just 38 today, but more than 300,000 visitors throng the place every year.

Mr Lee told Parliament yesterday that preserving and enhancing Pulau Ubin's rustic character and natural environment while sensitively providing access for the public require help from all Singaporeans.

He noted how the National Parks Board (NParks) has worked with researchers and nature groups to study its biodiversity.

In 2003, for instance, NParks conducted a survey with the help of butterfly enthusiasts and documented more than 100 species.

The enthusiasts - who call themselves ButterflyCircle - advised NParks to plant Butterfly Hill, a knoll made out of wasteland left over from Ubin's granite quarrying industry. The knoll is home to over 130 species today.

Mr Lee, who will be leading the project and the conversation, said the ministry will build on these efforts, adding that it will "consult and engage widely". More details on the project will be announced later this year.

During the debate, Nominated MP (NMP) Faizah Jamal asked for more to be done to conserve places such as Pulau Ubin and Chek Jawa. She also called for a national nature conservation policy where, among other things, there is a fair distribution of nature areas across the island.

Nature groups and wildlife enthusiasts said the Pulau Ubin initiative is a step in the right direction. For years, it has lacked a central body to coordinate efforts to enhance its green and rustic character, said the Nature Society (Singapore).

"This process will allow the Government to take into consideration the multiple views on what Ubin can grow to become - like a biodiversity hub or an ecotourism site," said society vice-president Leong Kwok Peng.

Madam Kamariah Abdullah, 54, who opens her 100-year-old Malay kampung on the island a few times a month to visitors, hopes the authorities will also consider conserving the kampung homes. "The kampung vibe and the people living here are integral to the island's identity," she said.

Higher pre-fab requirements
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

DEVELOPERS who bid for government land sale sites from the second half of the year will have to meet a certain level of prefabrication, the Government said yesterday.

In line with the push for higher productivity in this year's Budget speech, those tendering for residential sites must now use only pre-fabricated bathroom units.

And for industrial sites, there will be a minimum "pre-fabrication percentage" requirement, with the quantum to be announced later.

For non-government land sale sites, developers must also raise building standards from September, including more pre-fabricated components and labour-efficient methods.

The Building Construction Authority (BCA) will enforce the rules by issuing stop-work orders, on top of existing measures such as fines.

Encouraging the use of pre-fabrication technology has become an increasing priority, BCA chief executive John Keung said at a briefing last week. "Buildings can be completed faster and with more labour efficiency. As they are assembled off-site in a controlled environment, we can expect less noise and dust, and minimise mistakes," he said.

To aid the change, the Construction Productivity and Capability Fund will get a $30 million top-up, bringing the total to $280 million.

Launched in 2010, the fund has already committed about $160 million to 4,000 companies.

A second five-year tranche of funding is in the works, said Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan.

To meet the anticipated increased demand for pre-fab-ricated units, BCA will have more land tenders for "pre-fab hubs", he said.

There will be 10 such factories by 2020.

At the same time, the public sector will take the lead in adopting new technologies.

Nanyang Technological University will be the first local developer to adopt two new methods for more complex buildings.

One of them will be used in a new high-rise hostel, where rooms will be built in a factory, and completed units transported to and assembled at the site.

Food waste a big concern: Maliki
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

SINGAPORE needs to cut food waste, and its food industry should share resources such as procurement and equipment to improve food security.

These were the recommendations of an inter-ministry committee formed in 2012 to tackle Singapore's food security risks and vulnerabilities, Minister of State for National Development Maliki Osman said in Parliament yesterday.

Some companies are already cooperating, he said. For example, the Restaurant Association of Singapore set up an online portal that allows restaurants to automate procurement processes, and so far, 62 restaurants have signed up. But food waste from households, food manufacturing and catering, retail, malls and other sources is still a concern, he said.

"In 2012, about 703,200 tonnes of food waste was generated in Singapore. This is equivalent to, on average, an individual wasting about 650 bowls of rice per year."

So, the National Environment Agency, Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, and Spring Singapore are developing guidelines for food manufacturers and retailers to manage food waste, while the NEA and AVA are "looking into developing a comprehensive public education outreach programme" on food waste targeted at schools, the community and retailers.

Dr Maliki also said that diversifying Singapore's food sources "will continue to be our core strategy" for food security.

Still, Singapore produces some of its fish, leafy vegetables and eggs locally. So, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority will pay 70 per cent of restocking costs for fish farms which suffered losses during a spate of mass fish deaths last month.

Dr Maliki also said the AVA will review and strengthen the current alert system that warns fish farmers of adverse environmental conditions, and "work with the fish farms to develop a more sustainable sea-based farming system so that they are less susceptible to changes in environmental conditions".

For those keen on small-scale community farming, Dr Maliki said all new multi-storey carparks in HDB estates will get facilities such as planter beds and irrigation systems for community farms.

New online guide on buying foreign property
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

SINGAPOREANS looking to buy property overseas can get advice later this month from an online guide drawn up by the Government.

The Council for Estate Agencies will launch the guide to give some general tips to people thinking of doing so, National Development Minister (MND) Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday.

"Do read it, exercise due diligence, caution and good judgment before you invest," he said.

He noted that as Singapore reins in its property market, some Singaporeans have turned to investing in foreign properties.

It is a trend that worries Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) and Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).

Mr Seah hoped MND could provide more public education on the topic, while Mr Liang asked if measures could be taken to rein in excessive speculation by Singaporeans in overseas property.

Replying, Mr Khaw said: "The Government does not interfere with such investment decisions." But he added that he shared their concerns.

Investing in foreign property comes with added risks and complexities, as the legal and regulatory frameworks in other countries are different, he noted.

"And they may change suddenly when domestic politics push for a change in policies," Mr Khaw added.

The council will also step up efforts to regulate estate agents who are marketing overseas developments to buyers in Singapore.

Mr Khaw urged people to report any marketing by unlicensed foreign estate agents to the council so it can investigate and take appropriate action.

Estate agents themselves will also get guidance, to ensure that they "adopt professional practices when they market foreign properties," said the council's director of licensing and investigation, Ms Purnima Shantilal.

The council will introduce practice guidelines on marketing foreign properties.

These will give details on estate agents' responsibilities, and what they must do in preparation for marketing such projects.

Making all the right turns in housing
By Peh Shing Huei, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

IT IS not often that a Cabinet minister cites the lyrics of a pop song in Parliament.

So, when National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan quoted a line from Stephanie Sun's Mandopop hit To Meet (yu jian) yesterday, a few giggles could be heard in the House. "Turn left, turn right, go forward (xiang zuo, xiang you, xiang qiankan)," he chimed, referring to the need for caution in Singapore's housing policies.

The lightheartedness which Mr Khaw afforded himself was understandable and more importantly, well-deserved.

As he pointed out in his speech, he had to face only 27 "cuts" or questions from MPs this year, compared to the 40 he "suffered" - his words - last year.

Clearly, housing is cooling as a political hot potato. Or, again in Mr Khaw's words, the market is "turning the corner".

The high resale prices and the supply crunch for new flats - the double irritants which had irked so many prior to the 2011 General Election - have eased.

The HDB Resale Price Index turned negative last year, the first time in eight years. Median cash-over-valuation (COV) has hit zero.

More than 77,000 Build-to-Order flats have been launched in the past three years. Some 14,000 units were completed last year, and twice that number will be handed over this year.

Much mileage has been chalked up by the MND in the past three years, and the people behind the policies can be proud of their work.

Many MPs thumped the armrests of their seats at the end of Mr Khaw's speech in approval.

But exercising typical caution, Mr Khaw is not celebrating yet. Hence, cooling measures remain in place.

The road ahead is not straight forward, as he said, and many more turns will arise. For instance, the new reduced role of the COV will be watched closely for its impact on the market.

The job is not done. After all, the title of Mr Khaw's speech was "negotiating the turn".

But the reward at the end may be worth it.

As the words in Sun's song, which come after the line quoted by Mr Khaw, say: "Love will only come after a few turns."

Khaw, Zen and the art of motorcycle parking charges
Change demonstrates not just good government, but also a caring one
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

IF THE late Mr Lim Kim San is credited with having "broken the back" of Singapore's housing problem in the 1960s, Mr Khaw Boon Wan can be said to be the man who is whipping today's HDB market back into shape.

The National Development Minister took on the portfolio in May 2011 when there was a shortage of new Housing Board (HDB) flats, forcing buyers into the resale market, and spiking prices. Buyers paid high cash-over-valuation (COV) amounts as sellers would sell only at prices higher than the valuation of their flats.

In one fell swoop, he abolished the COV scheme. Rather than use valuation reports to negotiate prices as now, buyers and sellers of HDB resale flats will get access to daily transacted prices. Only after a price is agreed on and the deal signed can the buyer get a valuation price for the flat.

By so doing, Mr Khaw wants to use market information to influence market behaviour. He is repeating what he did in 2005 when, as Health Minister, he ordered the release of bill sizes of hospitals and, later, average lengths of stay for common procedures. This gave patients immediate access to transparent price information. Over a few years, competition led to hospitals lowering prices.

Presumably, the hope is that access to nearly real-time price data will lead buyer and seller of resale flats to come to a more realistic price equilibrium.

But will it do so?

In a bearish market, this information is likely to lead to more caution. Some property experts say the move creates uncertainty which will lead buyers to bid more conservatively for their flats.

But my fear is that in a rising market, prices can creep up by the day, so there is every possibility that such a system will fuel price spikes in a bull market.

Right now, valuations in a rising market serve as a check on prices. If a flat is valued at $400,000 and sells for $500,000, the buyer knows he is paying a premium. Even though the HDB website does not show each flat's COV, the agents will know and will inform other buyers about prevailing COVs for units sold recently. As few buyers are willing to pay very high COVs, a single high transaction has limited ability to influence prices of other flats, if the COV is transparent.

In the new system, the data will only show a transacted price of $500,000, which could lead other buyers into thinking that is the "reasonable" price, not the "premium" price.

The HDB housing market is a fickle creature that twitches easily to government tweaks. Government policies over the years have had a major impact on its ups and downs. Given the already cooling market, hopefully Mr Khaw's move will kill just COVs and not the entire HDB resale market.

Having tackled the big piece of the housing problem - building new flats for young couples - Mr Khaw said he will focus next on making housing more inclusive, for the elderly, singles and "vulnerable families" such as single parents and divorcees.

Any decision to, say, permit unwed mothers aged below 35 and their children to buy subsidised HDB flats, or give priority for new HDB flats to divorcees with children who are left homeless after the divorcing couple sell the matrimonial home, will be highly controversial.

Here, Mr Khaw demonstrated his consummate politician's skills when he said: "I intend to further engage Singaporeans on the relationships and values we hold dear as a society, and how housing policies can better support them."

Changes to values-driven housing policies need public buy-in.

Not so market-sensitive COV changes, which are best made blitzkrieg style, without public consultation.

Another kind of decision can be made by fiat, and it is one I am glad Mr Khaw made.

MP Lee Bee Wah raised the plight of motorcycle dispatch riders who end up parking their motorbikes haphazardly to avoid having to pay parking fees when they do deliveries.

Ms Lee noted that riders, who are not well-paid, bear the cost of such fees, not their employers. As motorbike riders are charged 65 cents per entry into HDB and Urban Redevelopment Authority carparks, she suggested having per-minute parking fees which would reduce their cost.

One way a minister might deal with such requests is to reiterate the virtues of a flat rate, mention the impractical nature of changing to per-minute charging for all HDB and URA carparks, and add a pious hope that employers will do the right thing and reimburse riders the parking costs.

Instead, Mr Khaw took up Ms Lee's suggestion on per-minute charging for bikes. He went further, saying there will be a season parking ticket for motorbikes which can be used across all HDB carparks. And, he promised, rates will be affordable.

Amid the other announcements yesterday - the Ministry of Communications and Information's new heterogeneous network (HetNet) that will let users move seamlessly from one Wi-Fi or mobile service provider to another; and new HDB flats coming up in Tampines North, and in Bidadari - it was the change in motorbike parking fee that I liked most.

All the above require good government. But the motorbike rule change requires a caring one.

When an MP cares enough to raise an issue in Parliament and has a specific proposal on how to deal with it, and the minister cares enough to make a change, even at some cost and trouble to his ministry, I would chalk it up as one win for responsive government. And, of course, such responsive changes that improve people's lot must not be too few and far between.


Automatic switching of wireless networks mooted
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

SWITCHING automatically to another Wi-Fi or mobile network if one telco goes down or is too slow may become a reality here.

This idea of a nationwide heterogeneous network (HetNet) was mooted in Parliament yesterday as one way Singapore could take advantage of the growing IT and media sector convergence.

Singapore could be among the first countries to adopt HetNet, after Holland, which rolled out a system after a 2012 outage of operator Vodafone's mobile services affected about a quarter of its five million users for days.

A 14-member committee headed by Mr Koh Boon Hwee, chairman of private equity fund Credence, is behind a masterplan which will be released later this month for public consultation.

The new "Smart Nation" masterplan will expand on the previous Intelligent Nation 2015 plan - conceived in 2005 - that focused on boosting adoption of IT.

Dr Yaacob said it also includes plans to make home-based health care available more widely through the use of sensors.

"Sensors can help stable chronic disease patients self-monitor their conditions in the comfort of their own homes, and receive health-care services only when necessary," he noted. For example, floor mats embedded with sensors can help patients regularly monitor their weight.

Dr Yaacob said computational thinking is also one of the key ideas proposed in the masterplan. In Britain, for instance, computing will be included in the national curriculum from September for children aged five and above.

Specifically, coding will be introduced in schools here via enrichment programmes, competitions and infocommunications clubs to teach fundamental programming concepts as part of a national Code@SG movement.

The ministry is also looking into revamping infocomm clubs in schools and increasing students' interests in computational learning by playing computer games.

But these ideas are still in the early stages. "Considerable work remains, as the masterplanning process will only conclude next year," said Dr Yaacob.

More protection for pay-TV customers
New rules proposed to address unfair penalties, extra charges in contracts
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

CONSUMERS may soon be able to cancel their pay-TV subscriptions without paying a penalty if the service provider changes programming or pricing.

The new rules proposed by the Media Development Authority (MDA) aim to address the problem of one-sided contracts that leave the consumer at a disadvantage.

They will cover instances where pay-TV operators impose higher fees or remove channels or important programmes while contracts are still in force. These are situations the MDA may deem "detrimental" to subscribers.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said in Parliament yesterday there are "concerns" over unfair practices.

Pay-TV providers changing the terms of contracts that have already been activated has long been the bane of consumers, an area highlighted by Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC).

Many irate customers have written to The Straits Times Forum Page in the past three years to complain about being forced to pay more for fewer or unwanted programmes, among other gripes.

Reader Simon Goh complained in a letter published on Nov 10, 2012, that SingTel removed Champions League football from the Ultimate Sports Package he bought in 2011 and then asked him to pay more to watch the games.

Two other rules to tackle complaints are also being considered as part of the MDA's Media Code review, Parliament heard. One is to prohibit telcos from forcing subscribers to upgrade non-pay-TV services when they want to alter only their pay-TV package. "Occasionally, subscribers are required to upgrade their non-pay-TV services, for example, broadband services, when they change their pay-TV services. These upgrades are typically not necessary to support the changes in the pay-TV services," Dr Yaacob said.

Real estate agent Wong Peng Khuen, 61, said he was forced by SingTel in 2012 to pay more to upgrade his fixed broadband plan to qualify for its Champions League pay-TV package.

Mr Wong, who complained in a letter to the ST Forum Page on Jan 22 last year, told The Straits Times yesterday that he applauded the move, saying the rule was "long overdue". "Pay-TV operators should not have been allowed to do this; broadband and pay-TV are two different things."

Operators will also be required to highlight important contractual terms such as the expiry of promotional prices or early termination charges before customers sign up.

The MDA will consult the public on these proposals next month.

A SingTel spokesman said yesterday it tries to minimise customer inconvenience but its contracts with content providers are not always renewed. "(When) our content contracts... are not extended, we always try to find a replacement that is equally appealing."

StarHub said that when it raised the price of its basic pay-TV package to $33.17 from $27.82, customers still in a contract were not affected.

Since 2012, all pay-TV contracts have been capped at two years. Early cancellation charges have also been pro-rated, so the closer a customer is to the end of his contract, the lower the cancellation fee due. Pay-TV contracts were previously not regulated.

Free switch to digital TV for low-income by Sept
By Kenny Chee, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

THE gadgets needed to watch MediaCorp's digital television programmes will be installed for free in low-income households, under a scheme to be launched by September.

The Government will pick up the bill for the digital set-top box, indoor antenna as well as the installation of the equipment.

About 160,000 to 170,000 Singaporean households are expected to qualify for it. One group that will qualify automatically is Singaporeans living in one- or two-room rental flats, or on ComCare programmes, including the Public Assistance Scheme.

Broadcaster MediaCorp began its digital transmission of TV programmes last December in several estates, including Bukit Batok, and will extend it to the rest of Singapore in the next two to three years. It is expected to discontinue transmitting in analogue format by 2020.

Meanwhile, homes given the the digital set-top box and antenna, which together cost about $130, will not have any interruption to their TV watching as these can also be used with analogue TV sets.

Families that are not included automatically can apply for the free package if their household monthly income is $1,900 and below, or per capita income is at most $600. Households with no income could qualify as well if the annual value of their home is at most $13,000.

But one mandatory condition for getting the free package is that at least one family member is a Singaporean.

Families with a pay-TV subscription or a TV set that already supports the digital format that MediaCorp is using will not be eligible for the package.

Dr Yaacob said the benefit of digital-TV signals is that they can be sent more efficiently than analogue ones, giving higher-quality images and sound. The move to digital format will also free up radio frequencies for new and better mobile services to be offered.

$10 million fund to boost idea creation, start-ups
IDA initiative includes test labs, programmes for youth and firms
By Kash Cheong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

A $10 MILLION war chest has been set up to give youngsters an opportunity to tinker with the latest technology and help start-ups grow beyond Singapore.

Two facilities will be set up, one at Mapletree Business City in Pasir Panjang, and the other at the National Design Centre in Rochor, over the next two months, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.

The labs will boast 3D printers and laser cutters, allowing budding talent to build prototypes, test new ideas and speed up the development of new products and services.

Enrichment programmes exposing students to new technologies will also be organised to promote a culture of building and experimenting with technology from a young age.

At the Mapletree lab, products from local technology start-ups can be tested to see if they are feasible for a government context.

The 300 sq m lab will also be used for a new accreditation programme to help start-ups establish their credentials and increase their visibility to potential buyers.

The IDA will look at a company's financial status and its product's functionality, among other criteria, before accrediting it. Details of the application process will be announced later.

Meanwhile, the 400 sq m National Design Centre lab is being envisioned as a meeting point for technology and media professionals, as well as designers, to collaborate on new products such as sensors and games.

During the debate on his ministry's budget, Dr Yaacob also said the IDA will work with industry partners to introduce accelerator programmes from this year. The schemes will allow promising companies to secure early funding and grow to excel globally.

Dr Yaacob said the statutory board has already partnered private sector firm Joyful Frog Digital Incubator (JFDI) for mentorship programmes that may connect start-ups to a network of investors for funding, and teach them how to develop customer-centric products.

JFDI and the investment arm of IDA, Infocomm Investments Private Limited (IIPL), could put $25,000 to $50,000 into each start-up, in exchange for a small equity stake, the IDA said.

It added that some start-ups may receive further investment from IIPL, and at least 90 per cent of each cohort from the accelerator programme is expected to set up significant operations here.

Start-ups and technology makers applauded the new initiatives.

Mr Bong Jun Hao, 23, recently learnt to program mini-computers, but is looking for more mentorship. He said: "The IDA Labs is the perfect platform. It connects me with mentors and designers to build well-designed tech products in future."

Groups already promoting local films
By Kenny Chee, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

THE roles of a national film centre are already being performed by various organisations, and the Government will focus on strengthening each of these functions, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

He was responding to Nominated MP Janice Koh's suggestion for an independent centre to facilitate audiences' appreciation of film and promote stories, film culture and heritage.

She cited a lack of awareness of local films among Singaporeans and the need to take local cinema to the next stage of growth as reasons.

The idea was also supported by local film-makers Anthony Chen, Boo Junfeng, Jasmine Ng and Tan Pin Pin, who issued a joint statement yesterday.

Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) had also suggested a centralised film body, which could be an existing agency, during the debate on the Ministry of Communications and Information's budget.

Mr Wong, in his reply, said a national film centre would, among other functions, typically showcase local films and hold a film festival.

The other key function of curation and promotion of local films is undertaken by the MDA's Singapore Film Commission, he said.

Mr Wong acknowledged that there were merits to centralising a film centre's different functions - others include archiving and curating - under one entity. The MDA is open to reviewing this, he added.

But focusing on strengthening each function was "a more important priority than to get bogged down with organisational structures", Mr Wong said.

NLB to open corner for pre-schoolers
By Kash Cheong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

Speaking at the Committee of Supply debate yesterday, Minister of State for Education and Communications and Information Sim Ann said the corner - dubbed the Early Literacy Library - will feature more than 60,000 curated books and audio-visual items in the four official languages which cater to children aged six and below.

Current libraries have some books that cater to pre-schoolers, but nowhere on a scale as large as the Early Literacy Library. Materials will be further classified into two groups - one for toddlers until the age of three, and the other for those aged four to six.

One parent, Ms Sandy Low, 35, is excited about the new initiative. "Good Chinese books for young kids are hard to come by. I hope to find more Chinese books for my four-year-old so I can teach her the language at a young age," said the teacher.

This is part of NLB's initiatives to reach out to a wider audience.

Two other libraries, the new Library@Orchard and the revamped Sembawang library, will also be opening later this year. The latter will be fitted out with activities and materials to promote parent-child interactions.

Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC) said that while Singapore's library network has expanded, more can be done to reach out to the low-income and disadvantaged.

In response, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said the NLB will be introducing two new mini mobile libraries to take books to the community. These "Mollies" vans will each have about 1,500 books and will reach out to more than 160 organisations, including special needs schools, orphanages and welfare homes.

NLB has also been reaching out to seniors who find it tough to travel to the library.

Under the Read@Community scheme, the NLB will help community groups such as senior activity centres and community centres set up their own reading corners, close to the people they serve. There are already 22 of these reading corners.

NLB has also partnered the Early Childhood Development Agency to introduce reading activity toolkits for teachers and parents to help them start reading to their children as early as possible.

Committee set up to improve translation
By Kash Cheong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

A NATIONAL committee has been set up to improve the quality of translation in government agencies, in a move to avoid such glaring errors as "Hungary" Ghost Festival (Hungry Ghost Festival) and "Bust" Basah (Bras Basah Road).

The chairman is Ms Sim Ann, Minister of State for Communications and Information, as well as Education.

It was established at the beginning of this month.

In announcing its establishment yesterday, Ms Sim said it will aim, among other things, to help set up a code of practice to ensure public agencies pay attention to translated material before releasing it to the public.

Its formation will "signal professional respect for skilful translators who understand the local context and are able to meet the public sector's requirements for accuracy and speed", she added in her reply to MPs.

Among these MPs were Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC).

They urged the Government to ensure it could communicate effectively to those who knew only their mother tongue, many of whom are in the pioneer generation.

Replying, Ms Sim said a resource panel will be set up for each of the official languages: Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

These panels will support the national committee's initiatives, standardise translation of terms and advise on the appropriateness of the terms adopted by the media and government agencies.

The committee will, among other things, also look at nurturing the next generation of translators.

This includes giving scholarships to young translators.

Forming the national committee is a critical first step in upgrading the sector and making it professional, said Mr Tan Dan Feng, executive director of translation company Interlexis.

Added Mr A. Palaniappan, Parliament's head specialist of languages, English/Tamil: "For a country that is multi-lingual and which has a bilingual education policy , the setting up of a committee of such a nature is long overdue."

Release of govt papers: Guide is good governance
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

SINGAPORE should not release government records to encourage transparency for transparency's sake.

Instead, the goal of releasing such information should be to encourage good governance, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Lawrence Wong said. This is why only some Cabinet papers, such as those that do not touch on internal security, will be declassified.

He was responding to Workers' Party MP Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC), who called for the first tranche of Cabinet papers to be made available to the public.

Noting that countries such as Israel and United Kingdom have laws mandating the release of government papers after 30 years, Mr Low said it would be timely for such a law here.

After almost 50 years of independence, there must be some Cabinet papers that are no longer considered sensitive, he said. Releasing them can also encourage historical investigation and writing, which will foster a stronger sense of national identity.

Mr Wong noted that government records are deemed part of the public archives after 25 years. But classified papers relating to national defence, foreign relations and internal security, as well as documents which may be bound by confidentiality obligations, are excluded.

He said some countries had "gone somewhat overboard" with freedom of information laws, and open access had not always led to better governance. In some cases, it had instead led to more opaqueness and avoidance of records.

"Policy papers or Cabinet papers which are written which may not have full information and full details because the civil servants writing them know that these will be made available," he said.

MP suggests having single govt spokesman
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

THE question of whether the Government should have just one spok-esman was raised by Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) yesterday.

Mr Baey, a full-time MP who was managing director of public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, said it may be easier for the public and media to deal with one government spokesman instead of having to go to various ministries when their questions cut across many areas.

Citing China and the United States, he said having one spokesman makes their governments more accessible.

Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann said the Government wants the information given to be timely and com-prehensive, so a spokesman has to be very familiar with the subject.

Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) later asked about the Government's chief of government communications. The post is held by Mr Janadas Devan.

She wanted to know if there was any conflict of interest as Mr Janadas also heads the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), which does research on governance. "This dual role... is not quite a desirable state of affairs," she said.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said it was very clear the two roles were very different. The Government had considered the matter seriously before it hired Mr Janadas, he said, adding that the man had done his job well for the past two years or so. "We don't see any conflict," he said.


Presence of foreign students is beneficial: Heng
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2014

SINGAPOREANS develop a greater understanding of the wider world by having foreigners studying here, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

He told Parliament that mixing with foreigners helps local students learn how to work with people of other races and cultures.

Foreign students who go on to work here also augment Singapore's manpower supply and help local companies seeking to expand overseas, he said.

Companies can tap these foreign students who understand the "Singapore way of doing things" and can promote the Singapore brand overseas, he said.

Citing his experience when he was a civil servant at the Trade and Industry Ministry, he noted that when he travelled in the region negotiating trade agreements, he met many people who had studied in Singapore institutions. "There is such a reservoir of goodwill and friendship and trust that allows us to do things together," he said in his reply to Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang).

The opposition MP had asked about the Ministry of Education (MOE) tightening the process for tracking foreign students to ensure they fulfil their bond obligations after graduating.

His question was among the last before the MOE's budget was passed, after a debate that had started on Friday afternoon and which covered issues such as further help for disabled students.

In his reply to Mr Png, Mr Heng also noted that Singapore was not the only country seeking to draw talented students from abroad.

China has given several Singaporeans scholarships to study in its universities.

Foreign students studying at a polytechnic or university on a MOE grant must work in a Singapore-based company for three years after they graduate.

Mr Heng said 80 per cent either start work immediately or apply to the MOE to start serving their bond at a later date. The rest are not necessarily bond defaulters, he added. For example, some could still be looking for a job.

He also said the Government tracks foreign students once they graduate and will pursue them for liquidated damages if they default on their obligations.

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