Thursday 13 March 2014

Parliament Highlights - 11 Mar 2014

Committee of Supply Debate: MOT, MEWR, MCCY

Govt to double number of additional buses
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

THE Government will nearly double the number of public buses it is financing under its Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) to 1,000 by 2017.

These come on top of 550 state-funded buses to be rolled out by the end of this year, bringing the total BSEP fleet to 1,000.

Singapore's bus fleet will grow by 35 per cent to about 5,400 by 2017, a total that includes new buses added by the two public transport firms as well as City Direct Services and short services run by private operators to ease peak-period crowding.

The expanded BSEP will mean the number of new routes will double from 40 to 80, Mr Lui said. Many will serve expanding towns in the north-east, several will bolster feeder services and about 20 will be City Direct services. The result will be less crowding and shorter waiting times, including for feeders.

Mr Lui said the Government will continue to draw on a $1.1 billion fund committed in 2012 to start and run the original BSEP for 10 years. But a fresh injection of funds is likely.

"Clearly, the ($1.1 billion) fund will now no longer be sufficient to last for the originally envisaged duration of 10 years," he noted, adding that "we will carry out a review" of the fund "at the appropriate time". He said the cost of the enhanced BSEP will be "proportionate" to funds set aside for the original programme.

If terms of the enhanced programme are similar to the original, observers reckon the eventual fund will exceed $2 billion.

Nominated MP R. Dhinakaran echoed concerns raised when the BSEP was first mooted two years ago, warning that "infusion of public funds into a private operator" can lead to misconception.

"It appears that the transport companies can continue to work on their profitability motive with a fallback that eventually the Government will step into areas where the marginal returns on investment are less than adequate to their shareholders," he said yesterday.

Mr Dhinakaran proposed that the transport industry adopt a non-profit operating model. Mr Lui said while this may seem "tempting", it would lead to operators having "less incentive to be efficient and productive". He reiterated that the BSEP was "a subsidy to commuters, not operators, who will make no additional profit" from the fleet boost.

'Morning MRT faults must be reduced'
Operators must make it a priority as they cause most inconvenience: Lui
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

TACKLING disruptions during the morning peak hour should be a priority for the two train operators, said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew yesterday.

He said incidents during peak hours need to be reduced, as these cause the greatest inconvenience to the most commuters.

To do that, both SMRT and SBS Transit need to ramp up maintenance works at night and conduct more stringent checks on the condition of trains before launching them into service, said the minister.

But he also acknowledged that both firms have invested more money in maintenance, and are adopting a more predictive approach to detect and prevent problems from occurring.

Mr Lui was responding to five MPs who raised the issue of reliability, after a spate of delays that hit the rail network this year, several of which happened during the morning rush hour.

Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport chair Cedric Foo (Pioneer) said there were 10 incidents in the first three months of this year on various lines.

"Although nowhere as severe as the two major service disruptions in December 2011, the increased frequency of train disruptions has further diminished the commuter's confidence in the public transport system," he said.

Mr Lui said this year's incidents are a stark reminder that improving reliability is "a lengthy and painstaking journey".

Still, he noted that withdrawal rates have fallen by at least 25 per cent for the North-South, East- West, North East and Circle lines.

The overall trend of fewer trains being pulled out of service shows a move in the right direction, he said, adding that the goal is to bring the withdrawal rate below that of 2008 by 2016.

With tighter operating performance standards in effect since January, operators are also now accountable for short delays even if they do not lead to service disruptions, he said.

Mr Lui also took issue with a Straits Times report which alleged that the MRT system was less reliable than the New York City subway. This was inaccurate, he said, as train reliability in the American city was measured in car-kilometres whereas Singapore uses train-kilometres.

As for capacity, new trains due this year and next year will allow the operators to improve frequency so commuters need not wait more than five minutes for a train, said Mr Lui.

Meanwhile, the Punggol West LRT loop will open in the middle of this year, with more rail lines to open in the coming years.

Mr Lui said: "As these new lines open, I think... crowdedness on certain existing stretches of the network should improve."

Satisfaction in buses closes in on trains: Poll
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

DESPITE multi-pronged efforts in recent years to improve the lot of public transport users, commuters are not happier than before.

The latest of an annual poll conducted last year revealed that the percentage of commuters satisfied with the public transport system remained hardly changed from 2012's 88.8 per cent.

At 88.5 per cent, it was in fact, the lowest score since 2007.

The proportion who were satisfied with buses went up to 88.3 per cent, from 86.4 per cent in 2012. The percentage satisfied with the MRT slipped from 92.1 to 88.9 per cent - its lowest since the first poll in 2006.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA), which commissioned the surveys, noted that MRT satisfaction was pulled down by "waiting time, reliability, travel time and customer service".

Satisfaction in buses, at a three-year high, was attributed to over 300 buses rolled out so far under the $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP).

"Waiting time saw the biggest jump in satisfaction from 54.2 per cent to 61.5 per cent," said LTA. "This is the first break in downward trend in satisfaction with bus services since 2010."

Transport economist Anthony Chin at National University of Singapore said the bus satisfaction figure was not entirely surprising.

"People value waiting time about 1.5 times more than in-vehicle time," he said, explaining that delays to bus arrivals will be felt more than delays to journey time.

But despite an expanded rail network, a reduction in total delays, and incremental additions to train trips, MRT commuters reported a 7.1 percentage point drop in satisfaction from 2009's high of 96 per cent.

The overall dip in satisfaction notwithstanding, the poll revealed that 61.4 per cent of commuters felt that public transport had improved from a year ago. But this was slightly lower than the 63.6 per cent who felt that 2012 was an improvement over 2011.

Public transport users rated their satisfaction level at seven out of 10 - unchanged from 2006.

LTA said it will continue to work with operators to improve rail service, but Professor Chin said it will take 15 years or so before the MRT network is mature. In the meantime, he said the BSEP "will continue to be there".

Availability of taxis improves as more operate in two shifts
By Fang Zhiwen Joy, TODAY, 12 Mar 2014

The standards of taxi availability have seen some improvement due to measures implemented last year, with the most significant progress seen in the number of taxis operating in two shifts, said Senior Minister of State (Finance and Transport) Josephine Teo yesterday.

The percentage of two-shift taxis had steadily declined over a six-year period, dropping from 60 per cent in 2006 to 52.5 per cent in 2012. However, the figure climbed to 58.9 per cent last year, signalling the reversal of a longtime downward trend.

Mrs Teo said this reversal was noteworthy as the average daily mileage for a two-shift taxi was 450km, which was one-and-a-half times that of a single-shift taxi. “In other words, taxi availability can be improved without expanding fleet size if more taxis operate on two shifts,” she said.

However, this did not mean taxi drivers had to drive unreasonably long hours, she said.

When Ang Mo Kio GRC Member of Parliament Ang Hin Kee asked if taxi drivers were cruising empty to cover the mileage requirements of the taxi availability framework, Mrs Teo said the monthly gross earnings for two-shift taxis were “generally one-and-a-half times that of one-shift taxis”, suggesting that was not the case.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) also commissioned a Taxi Customer Satisfaction Survey last year and found that 95.6 per cent of respondents were satisfied with taxi services, but customer expectations were “exceptionally high”, said Mrs Teo.

Only 82.8 per cent and 66.3 per cent of respondents indicated they had been satisfied with waiting times and taxi booking success, respectively. More than half of about 1,200 respondents, or 54 per cent, did not feel that taxi services had improved from a year ago.

Mrs Teo said: “We recognise and appreciate that some drivers have made adjustments, and will monitor the situation before raising standards further.”

On the ongoing review of the differing taxi fare structures, Mrs Teo admitted they were indeed confusing and frustrating to commuters, but said a simplified fare structure may lead to a levelling up of rentals and fares. Surcharges, on the other hand, played a part in matching demand and supply, and could be retained with some refinements.

Any transition would be “tricky” and would need to be “thought through carefully”. The LTA will engage taxi commuters to get a sense of their preference and share the findings with taxi companies and the National Taxi Association before considering any further steps, she said.

Soil at third runway site 'poor'
Significant amount of time will be needed to prepare it for development
By Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

THE plan to add a third runway to Changi Airport, announced a year ago to handle a growing number of flights, is proving more challenging than expected.

Engineers have found after extensive tests that the quality of the soil at the site was "very much poorer than expected", Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew told Parliament yesterday.

It will take "a significant amount of time" to prepare the land for the development, he said. But the target is still for Changi to have a three runway system around the early 2020s.

It currently has two, which serve the three terminals there. An existing third runway near Changi Airport is currently used for military flights.

It sits on a piece of reclaimed land which is separated from the existing airport by Changi Coast Road.

To convert it for commercial flights, this third runway will have to be linked to the existing two runways.

There are also plans to build Changi's next mega terminal, T5, next to this third runway. Final plans for the new passenger terminal will be unveiled later this year, Mr Lui said.

When completed in the middle of the next decade, T5 will be able to handle up to 50 million passengers a year, boosting Changi's total capacity to 135 million passengers annually.

While Changi has done well so far, at least two MPs - Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer) and Mr Charles Chong (Joo Chiat) - expressed concerns that neighbouring airports in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Dubai were growing at a much faster rate.

Changi's emphasis is sustainable and quality growth, Mr Lui said.

"If we grow at 18 per cent each year like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, we will need to double our airport capacity every four to five years, and I think that is certainly not sustainable given our land and manpower constraints," he said.

For the rest of the decade, passenger traffic at Changi Airport is expected to grow by about 4 per cent to 6 per cent annually, he said.

To ensure that Changi remains the region's premier air hub, Singapore will continue to pursue a liberal air policy, Mr Lui said.

For example, Singapore and Indonesia agreed to allow more flights between the two countries last year.

This has led to a 40 per cent jump in the number of weekly flights, Mr Lui said.

LTA to roll out safety zones for the elderly
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

THE Land Transport Authority (LTA) will introduce safety zones in five housing estates, in a bid to make the roads safer for elderly pedestrians.

Named "silver zones", these areas will be fitted with safety measures such as speed humps to slow vehicles down, centre dividers with railings to deter jaywalking and signs to alert motorists.

Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim announced yesterday that the zones will be tested in five towns with a high elderly population and relatively high accident rates involving the aged.

The estates to get the silver zones by year's end are Yishun, Jurong West, Bukit Merah, Marine Parade and Bedok.

Dr Faishal said in Parliament: "We are particularly focused on improving road safety for the elderly, who are over-represented in pedestrian accidents."

He noted that although elderly pedestrians make up only 16 per cent of the total, they account for 40 per cent of all pedestrian fatalities.

The elderly population is also growing on average by 32,000 each year, he said.

His ministry will look at adding these zones in other estates if the safety measures prove useful.

Yishun resident K. Rajandra, 83, welcomed the news. He noted that traffic is heavy in the estate, and called for roads to be better lit at night so motorists can spot pedestrians more easily.

On road safety, Dr Faishal said the LTA will tighten the criteria for a nine-year programme for accident-prone areas.

From this year, an area with 12 accidents over three years will be marked as a "black spot", down from 15 accidents. The LTA treats these accident-prone spots with measures such as controlled right-turn arrows.

The stricter criteria will increase the locations under the programme by 11 per cent, from 90 today to about 100.

Cycling and the safety of cyclists also featured prominently in yesterday's budget debate for the Ministry of Transport, with six MPs raising the issue.

Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) called for urgent action to make the roads safer for cyclists, and for "an integrated and coordinated" strategy for cycling as a mode of transport.

Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong urged that cycling be made safer and more comfortable, while Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked if a target could be set for cycling as a primary mode of commuting.

Replying, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said he does not see the rationale in setting a target, and questioned if "people really want it that way".

He added that cyclists are safest when segregated from motorists, and also from pedestrians.

Dr Faishal said cycling paths will be built in Bishan, Bukit Panjang and Woodlands, to bring the number of cycling towns to 15.

On cycling safety, he said the Singapore Road Safety Council is leading an initiative to design and implement a voluntary cyclist education programme, which will have customised lessons for different groups of cyclists, such as students and commuting cyclists.

Govt moving to replace ERP system by 2020
By Joy Fang, TODAY, 12 Mar 2014

The development of the next-generation Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system will soon be underway: The Government plans to call a tender over the next few months to build the system, which should be completed by around 2020, Senior Minister of State (Finance and Transport) Josephine Teo said yesterday.

It is necessary to look into a new system as the current one is coming to the end of its shelf life, she said. “If we do not replace it, it will become more expensive and difficult to maintain and repair.”

The new system will allow the Government to calibrate the charging of motorists in proportion to the congested road segments that they use — “a fairer approach”, as Mrs Teo put it. It can also provide value-added services, such as navigation, payment for roadside parking in lieu of parking coupons and real-time traffic information.

While some Members of Parliament (MPs) raised concerns over the loss of privacy due to the new system, Mrs Teo said there would be appropriate safeguards to minimise privacy concerns.

There will also not be any change in the pricing policy and ERP gantries will not be set up at additional roads while transiting to the new technology, she said.

Mrs Teo also announced that the Government is planning to ramp up support for car-sharing services by making available more lots in Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates for shared vehicles at car parks with sufficient capacity.

She pointed out that if 60 per cent of households here owned a car — or 15 percentage points more than today — the Government will need to find parking space for another 150,000 cars, by building more than 500 additional multi-storey car parks in HDB estates. While car-sharing has not caught on widely here, Mrs Teo said she was optimistic about its prospects.

On commercial vehicles, Mrs Teo announced that the one-year-old Early Turnover Scheme would be enhanced. The scheme seeks to encourage vehicle owners to replace their old and polluting diesel commercial vehicles. The Ministry of Transport is “sharply increasing” the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) bonus offered under the scheme if the owners switch to models that comply with at least the Euro 5 emission standards, she said.

From today, owners of light commercial vehicles registered before 2001 will get a 20 per cent COE bonus, up from 10 per cent. The bonus for heavy commercial vehicles will increase to 100 per cent, up from 30 per cent. This is on top of being able to transfer the unused portion of a commercial vehicle’s COE to the new vehicle. The scheme will be effective until the end of April 2016.

Jurong GRC MP Ang Wei Neng suggested that under the COE system, Category C (for commercial vehicles) should be split into two. “In this way, SMEs (small and medium enterprise) that need to buy light commercial vehicles do not have to compete with the big boys who are buying the heavy commercial vehicles,” he said.

Mrs Teo replied that this could result in more volatile prices as the number of bids in the new categories becomes smaller.

She noted that the COE system had undergone several tweaks in the past year. “It is probably best to let things be for a while before introducing further changes.”

Enhanced Early Turnover Scheme
The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

THE Early Turnover Scheme, which reduces vehicle emissions by encouraging older vehicles to be replaced with cleaner models, will be enhanced as of today.

This means that under the enhanced scheme, if an old vehicle has five years left of life, all five years will be subtracted from the 10 years of COE renewal an owner has to pay for the new vehicle.

Heavy vehicle owners will therefore have to pay less to renew the COE for a cleaner model.

This could lead to the early turnover of the oldest and most pollutive diesel commercial vehicles, which form 20 per cent of all Category C vehicles, Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said.

The scheme will also be effective until end-April 2016, instead of 2015.

More HDB parking for shared cars
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

MORE carpark lots in Housing Board (HDB) estates will be set aside for shared cars, Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said yesterday.

"We will give more support to car-sharing schemes so that more households can have this as part of their mobility options," she said in Parliament.

This would mean more choices for car sharer John Sih, 53, as more cars can be stationed across the island.

The training consultant has two carparks near his home in Punggol where he can pick up a pre-booked shared car.

"It is very convenient. Everybody who needs a car can share, rather than pay HDB to park your car when it is unused 40 to 50 per cent of the time. The car utilisation is much better," he said.

But if he wants more options, or if others have already booked a nearby car the same time he wants it, Mr Sih may have to take a bus to carparks farther away.

Mr Sih is one of about 9,000 members of car clubs here, which have 300 cars. He used to own a car until last year, when its certificate of entitlement was up. "It was so expensive and not worth it to get another car. I was exploring options and gave car-sharing a try," he said.

Now, he spends around $200 a month to book a car 10 to 15 times. Typically, these are for grocery trips, work or to take his daughter to Nanyang Technological University, where she studies.

The concept's emphasis on car access over car ownership makes sense for Singapore, said Ms Teo.

This is especially so, given estimates that every car added to a well-organised car sharing scheme takes the place of 15 private vehicles, she said.

A bicycle-sharing scheme will also be piloted in the Jurong Lake District and Marina Bay by next year.

The authorities may also look at similar schemes in other towns with completed cycling path networks such as Tampines and Sembawang.


New PSI reporting system to see more days with "moderate" air quality
Channel NewsAsia, 11 Mar 2014

From May 1, Singapore will see more days with the air quality being classified as in the “moderate” range, as concentrations of smaller polluting particles of PM2.5 will be included in the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) readings.

"As a result of PM2.5 being incorporated into the PSI, more days will be classified as 'moderate' compared to before, even though the actual concentration of pollutants has not changed.

"This is purely due to the integration of the PM2.5 concentrations into the PSI scale," the National Environment Agency (NEA) said in a statement on Tuesday.

NEA added that people can carry on normal activity if air quality is in the “good” or “moderate” range and there will be no change to normal routines on the ground.

PM2.5 are tiny particles that can travel deep into the respiratory tract, and get embedded in lung tissue.

It is currently reported separately from the PSI. 

Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday told Parliament that Singapore will move to an integrated air quality reporting index, where PM2.5 will be incorporated into the current PSI as its sixth pollutant parameter.

In explaining the change, Dr Balakrishnan said as far as public health is concerned, PM2.5 concentrations are more often a cause for concern.

He said the move would also simplify the air quality reporting system.

Going forward, he said PM2.5 levels are expected to determine the PSI "almost all the time".

Dr Philip Koh, chairman of the medical board at Healthway Medical Group, said: "Previously, when we had both the PSI and PM2.5 indices, there was some confusion. Air quality is reflected in such a way that people are only concerned about how does the air quality affect their health.

"If the more hazardous element is incorporated into the PSI, then they will be able to see that 'oh the higher PSI, now actually gives a better reflection of the hazard it has on my health'."

Since August 24, 2012, NEA has been reporting 24-hour PM2.5 concentrations alongside the PSI, which was done as the first step in the transition to the new air quality reporting system.

NEA will now complete the transition by incorporating the 24-hour PM2.5 concentrations into the PSI.

From May 1, the PSI will reflect a total of six pollutants -- sulphur dioxide (SO2), particulate matter (PM10) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and ozone (O3).

The 3-hour PSI will also take into account PM2.5 concentrations.

NEA will also publish the 1-hour PM2.5 concentrations every hour.

Previously, health advisories issued by the government were based on 24-hour PSI and 24-hour PM2.5, whichever was worse.

Under the new air quality reporting system, the health advisory will be based on the new 24-hour PSI as it now directly takes into account PM2.5.

NEA said air quality information will be reported every hour from 7am to 11pm during non-haze periods, and around the clock during haze periods.

The information will be made available on the NEA website, the haze microsite, NEA Facebook, NEA Twitter and smart phone app, MyENV.

NEA will continue to regularly review Singapore's air quality reporting index to ensure that it remains a relevant and useful guide for the public to help plan their daily activities.

Dr Balakrishnan also announced the setting up of an International Advisory Panel on transboundary pollution, which will be co-chaired by Professor S Jayakumar and Professor Tommy Koh. 

The panel would advise the government on trends and developments in international law on transboundary pollution, as well as solutions and practical steps Singapore can adopt.

Dr Balakrishnan said that beyond a bilateral and multilateral approach, effective enforcement is also needed on the ground.

New panel on transboundary pollution
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

THE Government will appoint an international panel to advise it on issues related to transboundary pollution.

The body will be co-chaired by Professor S. Jayakumar and Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, and will include legal experts from Singapore and overseas.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament yesterday that it will provide insights on trends and developments in international law related to transboundary pollution, as well as legal issues arising from its impact.

The International Advisory Panel on Transboundary Pollution, as it will be known, will also advise the Government on solutions that Singapore can adopt.

Dr Balakrishnan urged Indonesia to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, adding that it was the "last member of Asean who has signed, but not ratified, the agreement".

The pact, which was signed by all 10 members in 2002, commits countries to prevent open burning, monitor prevention efforts, share information and help one another in tackling the haze.

But "ratifying an agreement on its own will also be insufficient if ground measures remain weak", Dr Balakrishnan acknowledged. He added: "Most importantly, we need effective investigation and enforcement on the ground at the source of these fires."

His remarks come at a time when air quality here - as measured by the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) - is gradually worsening as the haze returns.

Dr Balakrishnan also noted that the situation "is worse this year (compared with) last year", when Singapore experienced the worst bout of haze, with PSI readings hitting a record of 401 last June.

An unusual dry spell in Riau province in Sumatra, Indonesia, since late December has seen farmers taking the opportunity to clear land by starting fires, which are causing the haze.

But as the Indonesian authorities have yet to disclose the concession maps, the Asean Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System "will not be able to achieve its intended purpose" of pinpointing companies that practise illegal land clearing activities, Dr Balakrishnan said.

He said the Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill now up for public consultation sends a signal that "irresponsible commercial actions that put the health of Singaporeans at risk" would not be condoned. The proposed legislation would hold companies or other entities liable for causing haze affecting Singapore.

Responding to a supplementary question raised by Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) on whether Singapore might consider taking action, such as international arbitration, against Indonesia, Dr Balakrishnan said that was a reason the international panel was appointed.

"We will await their deliberations and their recommendations. We will keep our options open."

Big users must submit plans on water efficiency
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

AS SINGAPORE grapples with a prolonged dry spell, the Government is toughening measures to get large water users to save water.

Those who consume 5,000 cubic m of water a month or more - two Olympic swimming pools' worth - will have to submit water efficiency management plans to national water agency PUB by June next year. And they have to give updates yearly.

They also have to install private meters to measure water consumption in each part of their premises.

The measures were announced in Parliament yesterday by Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

They will affect about 600 users, such as semiconductor manufacturers, power generation companies and hotels.

Dr Balakrishnan said the measures will be extended progressively to include more users.

The move to rein in water usage among the big boys is because the non-domestic sector is expected to account for about 70 per cent of water consumption in Singapore in 2060, a rise from about 55 per cent now.

Already, some 35 per cent of them have voluntarily submitted water efficiency management plans. For example, power generation firm Senoko Energy, which uses about 700,000 cubic m of water a year, or 58,300 cubic m a month, has such plans.

"As water is a significant cost in our operations, we already monitor our water usage closely as a matter of course," a spokesman told The Straits Times.

She said that by installing more water-efficient power generation units, Senoko has cut water consumption by about 45 per cent since 2008.

It also has its own desalination facility to cut dependence on PUB-supplied water, she added.

At Hilton Singapore hotel on Orchard Road, about 7,500 cubic m of water is used a month, mostly in its 421 guest rooms. To help save water, it urges guests to leave towels on the floor if they want them washed.

The requirements of the new water plan mirror those of large energy users.

Under the Energy Conservation Act, which went into force last year, large energy users must monitor and report to the National Environment Agency their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, appoint energy managers and submit energy efficiency improvement plans.

For households, Dr Balakrishnan said the minimum water efficiency standards for washing machines would be tightened from April 1, when only those with one "tick" or more (a measure of efficiency) can be sold.

From next year, the minimum standard will be two "ticks" or more.

"As a doctor, I know Newater is safe to drink. But to dispense with the environmental buffer, to make it routine, is a big step," he said.

"My paramount consideration will always be safety and health."

Sparring over Big Brother, cabs and cycling
Robust, transparent rules needed on storage, access and use of CCTV info
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

THERE was a moment when yesterday's lively Parliament session would have pleased Big Brother.

Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu showed footage of a man caught on film tossing a cigarette butt at a roadside. As the licence plate of his motorbike was visible, he was duly identified and fined.

Taken with this idea, MP Lim Biow Chuan asked if the National Environment Agency "would be relying on CCTVs installed along lamp posts in the private estates to take enforcement action against litterbugs".

Ms Fu's reply: NEA already taps CCTV footage from government agencies for a range of purposes. It uses Land Transport Authority (LTA) footage to monitor flooding.

In fact, it wants to do more: "We are very keen to leverage on all existing resources within the government agencies. We are particularly interested in what MHA has announced about the CCTVs that it is going to install at our void decks. That is a lot of CCTVs for us to consider. And also all existing and future technology that will help us put in place a more effective enforcement regime."

On March 6, the Ministry of Home Affairs said it would put up CCTVs in all 10,000 Housing Board blocks and multi-storey carparks by 2016.

But since raw footage is not very helpful, Ms Fu said good analytics is needed to make use of it. Even if CCTVs caught someone littering in public, the person would be hard to identify, she noted.

MP Heng Chee How chimed in, suggesting that NEA tap in-car cameras that can capture littering from moving vehicles - complete with the cars' licence plates.

Listening to the exchange, I quailed at the thought of all that invasion of personal privacy. What if facial recognition technology is used, mapped against identity card records and photos?

Clearly, the time is ripe for a serious discussion on the protection of personal data - not just from merchants, which is the main subject of the recent Personal Data Protection Act, but also from the claws of an overzealous State.

Since an Act to protect citizens' data from the State will take a long while to be enacted, in the interim, there must be transparent and robust guidelines on storage of all that CCTV footage, and strict rules on access and use of that information.

Vague assurances of safeguards from the Government are not enough. When footage of citizens are being snapped as they go about their daily lives by State CCTVs, they have a right to be involved in creating the rules on what can and cannot be done with all that information by the State. Some exceptions might be made in matters of life and death or national security; but the threshold for release of personal information must be high.

To be fair to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, the use of surveillance technology to tackle, say, high-rise littering which can kill, may be justified. But using mass CCTV footage to catch a few folk who forget to bin their disposable cups sounds like overkill.

While MPs and ministers joined forces on this, there were other moments when they seemed to be talking at cross purposes.

MP Ang Hin Kee pressed LTA to review its taxi availability standards. The executive adviser of the National Taxi Association (NTA) said cabbies had complained about having to cruise empty just to chalk up daily minimum mileage requirements. He said: "I would urge that LTA officials may want to go down to the ground and understand the implementation on the ground, because it deviates fairly much from the intended objective of what the MOT (Ministry of Transport) has put in place."

Mr Ang clearly knows the issue inside out, and could recite figures showing that the new standards have not caused an increase in taxi ridership. In other words, what is the point of insisting on taxis chalking up mileage - and cruising empty - when it does not result in more commuters managing to get cabs?

Without conceding the point, Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo nevertheless replied in good grace at the end of the exchange: "It is good that the NTA has continued to raise this issue with the taxi companies, and we certainly agree with Mr Ang that it is useful to find out what more is happening on the ground, and we will do so."

On cycling, too, there was no easy meeting of minds. Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Muhamad Faishal Ibrahim said Bishan, Bukit Panjang and Woodlands would become cycling towns, and that Marina Bay would pilot a bike-sharing scheme.

MP Irene Ng, an ardent cycling advocate, acknowledged progress in cycling infrastructure, but thought the approach was too "piecemeal". She pushed for a national plan, with a target to be set for cycling as a mode of transport.

But is that what people really want, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew asked. Most cyclists in Singapore are recreational ones. Some bike to get to nearby areas. Only a small group use it as their primary mode of transport.

Given this profile of cyclists, he said, "our priority is to have off-road segregated cycling paths" that let cyclists get to their destinations without over-exposure to speeding cars, and on paths where they will not endanger pedestrians.

The issue of cyclists on the roads is at risk of becoming polarised between motorists and cyclists, with some incidents of conflict caught on camera.

While some want a concerted effort to promote on-road cycling, Mr Lui is right to be cautious.

It is easy to say all road users must share the road - which of course they must - but it is a different thing altogether to get more cyclists using fast-flowing roads when other road users are not ready to give way.


Malay/Muslim organisations to improve outreach
Move to ensure needy do not fall through the cracks
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

MALAY/MUSLIM organisations are making a concerted push to improve their outreach and make services easier to tap, to ensure that the needy do not fall through the cracks.

For instance, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and self-help group Mendaki are partnering six mosques so that families on Muis' social assistance can also tap on Mendaki's educational and employment schemes.

Help can also be sought from more locations - including Mendaki satellite centres in Pasir Ris and Woodlands - with the change.

The programme, Nadi Khidmat, will be launched this year, Minister in Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.

He acknowledged that there were some who needed help but were not aware of assistance schemes, and where they could turn to.

Speaking during the debate on the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth's budget, Dr Yaacob listed another example of an effort to improve the delivery of services - a new framework to improve Malay/Muslim organisations' efficiency.

It will be led by the Community Leaders' Forum (CLF) - a platform that brings together organisations such as mosques and schools - and will help Malay/Muslim bodies tap on a $2.6 million development fund to meet training needs.

Together with the National Council of Social Service and the Social Services Institute, the CLF will also identify programmes for Malay/Muslim bodies to improve their organisational development.

"These measures will help ensure that the Malay/Muslim organisations, who are our key partners in providing welfare services, are efficient, well-organised and have good governance," said Dr Yaacob, who is also Minister for Communications and Information.

In his speech, he also urged the Malay/Muslim community to guard against extreme religious views and misinformation online.

"Some members of our community may be easily influenced by the extreme stances of the vocal few from other parts of the Muslim world," he said.

Earlier, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) voiced concern about the differing opinions that have surfaced.

Some see themselves as "true Muslims", while others call themselves "liberal Muslims", she said.

Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC) also warned of potential polarisation within the community due to social media.

Dr Yaacob said "enlightened guidance" and continuous learning must be the basis of the community's defence against such forces.

"The sheer accessibility and spread of misinformation on social media will continue to pose a threat to our harmonious religious life," he said. "It is therefore imperative that we strengthen our religious knowledge.

"We should work together to ensure that our children receive proper guidance, appreciate Islamic values like peace and harmony, and are receptive to diversity."

Muis has several initiatives planned, he added, including one where seven more mosques will offer religious classes to adults.

This brings the total number of centres offering such classes to 13 this year.

Where there is contention, said Dr Yaacob, the Office of the Mufti, Singapore's highest Islamic authority, should have the final say.

Pioneer Malay/Muslim leaders to be honoured
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

A COMMEMORATIVE publication, an appreciation ceremony and a series of fireside chats are among the initiatives being lined up to pay tribute to Malay/Muslim members of the pioneer generation.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and self-help group Mendaki will set up a joint committee to launch these initiatives.

They will also think of additional ways to honour the work done by pioneers, Minister in Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said in Parliament yesterday.

Speaker of the House Halimah Yacob will lead the committee.

In announcing these plans, Dr Yaacob said the community's pioneer leaders had "stood together with national leaders to build a cohesive and progressive multiracial nation".

He listed Singapore's first president, the late Yusof Ishak, and the late attorney-general Ahmad Ibrahim as notable pioneers.

Dr Yaacob also held up the work done by the late former Jamiyah president Haji Abu Bakar Maidin and former deputy librarian of the National University of Singapore Manijeh Namazie.

"These and many other Malay/Muslim personalities are role models for our young," he said. "They are passionate, driven individuals whose successes have helped Singapore grow as one nation. We must honour and celebrate them."

Muis and Mendaki will use platforms like mosques to reach out to pioneers in the community so that they are aware of and understand the details of the Pioneer Generation Package.

The package offers health-care assistance for life to about 450,000 Singaporeans who are aged 65 and older this year and who became Singapore citizens before 1987.

$1.5b to be pumped into sports facilities for all
By Wang Meng Meng, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

TO GIVE Singaporeans a venue for play and exercise within 10 minutes of their homes, the Government is committing $1.5 billion to build new sports facilities or spruce up existing ones.

The changes to the sporting landscape will come into effect by 2030 and are part of Phase One of the Sports Facilities Master Plan (SFMP), Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

Speaking during the debate on his ministry's budget, Mr Wong said: "We are building sporting facilities all over Singapore, for all Singaporeans to enjoy." The minister added that the community in Singapore is diverse, and so are its sporting needs.

Punggol will be among the first neighbourhoods to benefit.

A regional sports centre (RSC), complete with football field and swimming pool, will be integrated with Punggol's waterways and sharing the same location with a Safra clubhouse.

It will be the second of five RSCs planned. These facilities are larger than existing sports and recreation centres, with larger seating capacities and LED screens to bring the community together for a better spectator experience.

The first is being built in Tampines. The locations of the other three have not been announced.

Sembawang residents can also look forward to a new town sports and recreation centre, which could feature facilities for rock climbing and BMX cycling.

While there are no plans yet for new facilities to be introduced in Ang Mo Kio under Phase One, the existing Ang Mo Kio Swimming Complex will be redeveloped into the Ang Mo Kio Wet Play Field.

Plans are in place to introduce an adventure sports pool with a floating playground in the facility.

Such community initiatives will complement the crown jewel of the Singapore sports scene, the new Singapore Sports Hub.

It will be fully opened in June, and host the SEA Games and Asean Para Games next year.

"We want to meet sporting needs at all levels - national, regional, town and community," said Mr Wong.

$65m plan to beef up cultural institutions
More room for precious artefacts at museums, plus more facilities
By Corrie Tan, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

TWO top museums will get more room for precious artefacts and new exhibits as part of a $65 million effort to rejuvenate Singapore's cultural institutions.

Some $10 million has been set aside for the National Museum of Singapore and $25 million for the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

The ACM at Empress Place will get a redesigned lobby, new shops and dining options.

Its permanent galleries will be expanded, adding a total of about 1,500 sq m to the building. This will give the museum more space to house artefacts such as the Tang Cargo, a selection of more than 50,000 objects salvaged from the Java Sea.

Mr Wong said his ministry is also exploring a new entrance for the museum - one which opens onto the Singapore River. He added: "We may combine this with a new gallery space that will breathe more light into the museum.

"This needs a bit more study, but it is a potential game-changer."

The revamp comes on the heels of a record year for museum visitorship, with more than three million visitors to national museums after free entry for Singapore citizens and permanent residents was implemented.

Meanwhile, a new 344 sq m wing dedicated to children and young families will be introduced at the National Museum.

Called Play@NMS, it will open in May and will emphasise interactivity and hands-on learning.

Teacher Ong Xin Yi, 29, is hoping the new venue will mean that her 21/2-year-old daughter Hannah has an opportunity to go to more museum exhibitions.

Many shows are currently not accessible to youngsters, and the family ends up not going.

Ms Ong said: "We are always looking out for things we can do together as a family, and we are firm believers of how children can learn through art and experiential learning."

In his speech, Mr Wong also said the National Museum will capture more "everyday heritage" by gathering stories and artefacts from Singaporeans from all walks of life to incorporate into the museum experience.

Some $21 million will go to sprucing up the Esplanade and developing a children's theatre within the performing arts centre, and about $9 million to the Heritage Conservation Centre.

VWOs can tap $1.5m fund for art programmes
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

VOLUNTARY welfare organisations (VWOs) that use the arts in their programmes can soon tap on a new fund.

Some $1.5 million will be set aside over three years for this fund under ArtReach, a National Arts Council (NAC) initiative to take the arts to the less privileged.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Sam Tan said in Parliament yesterday: "We believe that the arts and sports have the potential to uplift our society - including the underserved and vulnerable."

NAC will administer the fund and match interested VWOs to artists to develop the programmes.

These could include those where the arts are used to improve the well-being of the elderly, or as a rehabilitative tool to help people cope with grief, for instance.

NAC will work with community development councils to ensure that the projects are "coordinated and have maximum impact in the community", said Mr Tan.

He cited Hua Mei's Elder-centred Programme of Integrated Comprehensive Care as a good example. Run by the Tsao Foundation's Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing, it offers a range of quality art activities, from painting and sewing to drumming.

A regular participant, Madam Maligah Arumugan Ramasamy, 79, shows "great talent" and forgets her chronic pains when she is engaged in pottery, said Mr Tan.

Centre director Peh Kim Choo welcomed the new funding support and agreed that the arts benefit the elderly.

"Old people are usually reminded of their weaknesses, how frail they are," she said.

"But when they create something beautiful and people enjoy their work, they discover their strengths."

Some of their works were exhibited at venues such as a Tiong Bahru cafe and Tan Tock Seng Hospital last year.

Madam Loke Swee Heong, 84, who paints or sews at the centre thrice a week, said: "It relieves me of boredom. I am happy to be able to paint and sew with my friends here."

More details of the fund will be given next month.

$20m to promote S'pore art abroad
By Corrie Tan, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

ARTISTS hoping to make the leap to the global stage will get some help from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), which is setting aside $20 million over the next five years to raise the profile of Singaporeans abroad.

To build on successes such as home-grown film-maker Anthony Chen's award-winning movie Ilo Ilo, MCCY will work with the Foreign Affairs Ministry to identify new opportunities for artists and arts groups to participate in programmes such as overseas festivals and arts residencies.

Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said: "When our artists perform overseas, they are also flying the Singapore flag. They represent an important part of our efforts in cultural diplomacy."

Multidisciplinary artist Sarah Choo, 23, who is currently completing a master's in Fine Arts in London, feels that showing her work at international events can be enriching, as she is exposed to different reactions and gets to meet renowned artists.

Ms Choo, who has exhibited her work in countries such as Germany and the United States, said it pushes her to think beyond just a direct representation of Singapore.

"It is a challenge to apply my experiences and draw relationships and parallels to situations overseas, and bring that out through my artwork."

New $10m fund for public artwork
It will give local artists opportunities to integrate art into the environment
By Corrie Tan, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

FROM housing estates to Changi Airport, more public art will transform Singapore's cityscape as a result of the setting up of the Public Art Trust.

It will commission, display, promote and maintain new public artworks, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said yesterday when he announced the initiative at the debate on his ministry's budget.

To start the ball rolling, his ministry will give it $10 million in seed funding.

Private donations given to the trust will be matched by the Government dollar-for-dollar under the $200 million Cultural Matching Fund.

The trust will not fund the maintenance of existing artwork. But it will pay for the maintenance of the artwork it commissions.

Detailed plans and budgets for maintenance must be submitted when applying to the trust.

Singaporean sculptor Yeo Chee Kiong, 44, who has created several pieces of public artwork, feels the trust is a step in the right direction.

"For sculptures, especially if you want something that is more long-lasting, the choice of material and method of production is very important," he said. "If you choose the right material to deliver an idea, there might be fewer problems with maintenance.

"But you might be limited by the materials that you can use outdoors. It is something we need to think about, especially for artists who never deal with public art."

The National Arts Council will consult the public on the features of the trust before finalising the scheme by year's end.

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