Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Parliament Highlights - 3 Mar 2014


Govt and opposition MPs back Budget's focus on pioneers
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

THE $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package drew praise from 25 Members of Parliament who joined the first day of debate on this year's Budget, including three from the opposition Workers' Party (WP).

But amid the chorus of approval, several People's Action Party MPs sounded a note of caution against departing from decades of fiscal prudence that had made the package possible.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) pointed out that every revenue dollar, whether from taxes or investment returns from the reserves, had to be painstakingly built up over the years.

He urged MPs not to allow this value of fiscal discipline to "weaken or slip in the years to come" even as he noted that total government expenditure was growing at a faster rate than operating revenue, and social spending was set to increase.

Similarly, Mr Alvin Yeo (Chua Chu Kang GRC) warned against Singapore going down the path of countries whose governments are mired in debt due to generous welfare systems, and whose people face high taxes and high unemployment.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) is concerned that few people know that the Government has spent more than it collects in taxes and fees for the past five years, avoiding a deficit only by drawing on the net income from investing the reserves.

At $8 billion, the fund to finance the pioneer package is without precedent. It is the largest single social transfer in a year, and aims to subsidise the health-care costs of some 450,000 pioneers for life.

It is to be paid for entirely from this year's Budget and, with accumulated interest over time, is expected to be enough to pay for the entire package of Medisave top-ups, and subsidies for MediShield Life premiums and outpatient treatments.

Mr Liang stressed that growing the economy remains the best way to ensure enough revenue for social spending.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said the party welcomed the Budget's "unique emphasis" on the pioneer generation, and focus on economic restructuring and strengthening social safety nets.

Labour MPs, though, sought more measures to protect workers, and Nominated MP Teo Siong Seng called for more help for "pioneer generation" small and medium-sized enterprises.

The debate continues today.

Jail time, higher fines proposed for new harassment law
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

STALKERS, cyber bullies and others who engage in antisocial and threatening behaviour will face jail under a proposed new law introduced in Parliament yesterday.

The Protection from Harassment Act 2014 aims to beef up existing penalties and break new ground by introducing new offences such as stalking.

It also gives examples of what constitutes harassment and stalking. A student who distresses a classmate by posting a vulgar tirade on a website, for example, could be charged with harassment. Someone who sends flowers daily to a person's house despite being told to stop, or who bombards a subordinate at work with sexually suggestive e-mails, could be hauled up for stalking.

Victims of this sort of harassment have few avenues under existing legislation and many offenders face only fines under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.

But the proposed law, which aims to protect adults and children in the real world and online, is a step up in terms of harsher penalties and new civil remedies to put a stop to the harassment.

The Bill has stiff penalties for repeat offenders, who can be fined up to $10,000 and jailed for up to two years. It also lays down factors courts can use to evaluate cases, including the frequency and duration of the incidents, as well as the effect the conduct has on the victim's safety, health, reputation and economic position.

It also protects public service workers, such as those in the transport and health-care industries, from threats, abuse and insults.

Victims can apply to a District Court for a Protection Order requiring harassers to desist from certain acts. The order could also be used to force the removal of offensive material from a website and victims will be able to sue perpetrators for damages.

Ministry of Law officials said last week that protection orders and take-down demands would be implemented with minimal cost to the victim.

The National Trades Union Congress welcomed the Bill, saying in a statement that it would offer workers, including those who deliver public services, greater protection. NTUC assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay said the labour movement would continue to educate employers and workers on harassment and ensure that companies put in place "proper grievance handling procedures" to deal with such issues.

Social workers such as Ms Seah Kheng Yeow welcomed the move to grant protection orders to harassment victims as well. Her agency, Pave, which fights family violence, has seen many cases of women being harassed and stalked by former boyfriends.

"There was not much they could do, since protection orders could previously be taken out only against spouses and family members," she said.

The proposed law will be debated in Parliament next week.

MND seeking to make town councils more accountable
It wants to improve oversight of councils' management of public funds
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

THE difficulty residents have in holding town councils accountable over managing their money has prompted the National Development Ministry (MND) to look for a solution.

It is studying the town council framework to see what can be done to ensure better protection of public funds, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan told Parliament yesterday.

While residents can hold their councils to account in areas such as estate cleanliness and maintenance at election time, it is hard to exercise effective oversight in other areas such as financial management, he added.

When asked for more details of the review, MND would only say that the study, announced last May, will look at the laws governing councils. This includes the Town Councils Act and Town Councils Financial Rules.

Mr Khaw's remarks came in response to Mr Alvin Yeo (Chua Chu Kang GRC), who asked what measures MND had in place to protect residents' interests if a council failed to observe good corporate governance and responsible accounting.

The minister noted that in extreme situations, such as a council failing to maintain its estate, or if residents were in danger of some kind, then "the Minister for National Development can intervene... and appoint someone else to perform its duties".

Mr Khaw, with AHPETC chairman Sylvia Lim and WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang present in the House, also spoke of how the laws give MPs "much latitude to run town councils within broad and general rules of governance".

The Town Council Act lists only three offences: misusing council funds; contravening council lift upgrading programme rules; and wilfully withholding information required by an auditor without reasonable cause. All three attract fines, said Mr Khaw.

While the Act may have limited enforcement powers, individuals who run councils are subject to the same laws that apply elsewhere. "Criminal and civil liabilities apply when their actions amount to transgressions of such laws," Mr Khaw said, adding that councils are expected to manage their own affairs and be accountable to their resident-voters.

This responsibility includes keeping proper accounts, which must be audited annually and promptly submitted to the MND for tabling in Parliament.

The ministry then announces its concerns and observations so residents are informed and can hold their councils to account.

The MND also regularly publishes a town council report, said Mr Khaw, so residents know how their councils are performing.


Pioneer package good but could be better, say MPs
Don't outsource MediShield Life, offer more perks to pioneers among ideas
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

ALMOST all 25 MPs who spoke on the Budget yesterday praised the Pioneer Generation Package for tackling the chief worry of the elderly: Health-care costs.

They also welcomed the move to make the package available to all pioneers without means-testing.

Several, like Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and Nominated MP Laurence Lien, paid tribute to the spirit and values of those in the pioneer generation.

But in welcoming the package, many MPs had a long list of suggestions on how it could be improved. These ranged from having the Government fully administer MediShield Life without outsourcing it to private insurers, to giving pioneers perks like free entry to swimming pools.

The former was proposed by Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), who said premiums for MediShield integrated plans have "increased significantly", with inconsistent coverage and premiums among the private insurers.

He also suggested a central database integrated with hospitals to organise MediShield coverage for patients.

Ms Lim, meanwhile, noted that some pioneers currently not on MediShield would already have bought their own Medisave-approved private insurance. She asked if they would be able to use the MediShield Life subsidies under the Pioneer Generation Package for their private insurance premiums instead of being compelled to join the new scheme.

Dr Lam Pin Min (Sengkang West), chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, called for greater integration among the different sectors of care to prevent hospitals from becoming overloaded.

He and Ms Lim also highlighted the plight of many seniors with chronic illnesses who end up paying a lot for medication.

Other MPs like Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) and Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) cautioned that even as the Government gives more subsidies, it must ensure these are not cancelled out by medical inflation or overloaded infrastructure.

Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam said the package should be rolled out quickly, given the pioneers' old age. For instance, they could be placed on the Community Health Assist Scheme immediately rather than next year.

The MPs also spoke up for vulnerable groups of seniors who need special attention.

Dr Lam and Nominated MP Mary Liew noted that many women in the pioneer generation stayed home to look after the family and had little or no CPF savings. They might not benefit from the increase in CPF contributions or be able to afford even the subsidised MediShield Life premiums.

Still others said seniors could do with help in other areas as well. To encourage them to stay active, they could get free entry to public swimming pools and gyms, and discounted or free entry to national attractions, said Dr Lim.

He and Ms Foo called for a "Pioneer Generation card" to identify these seniors, urging the private sector to join the Government in honouring the pioneers by offering discounts and privileges.

Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Heng Chee How suggested that the authorities draw up a list of financial help targeted at seniors and group them into healthcare and non-healthcare measures.

The latter category tends to incur spending that is "more recurrent and related to the cost of living", he said, proposing measures such as the Government paying for their public transport and offering a different form of basic support for older workers on Workfare who cannot find work due to old age.

Three MPs, however, asked for the package's benefits to be extended to more Singaporeans. Currently, it covers those aged 65 and above this year, and who became citizens before 1987.

Mr Giam cited those who served in the first few batches of national service. He hoped the appeals panel to be set up would "err on the side of generosity as many of those who just missed out have made significant contributions on a par with pioneers".

WP backs Budget, focus on pioneers: Sylvia Lim
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

IN A rare move, the Workers' Party (WP) said from the outset yesterday that it supports this year's Budget, especially its "unique emphasis" on the pioneer generation, helping businesses restructure and the move towards strengthening social safety nets.

Its chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) stated the opposition party's position and, with two other WP parliamentarians, dwelt at length on the importance of recognising the pioneers.

One of them, Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, noted that the WP had, in a 2011 National Day statement, paid tribute to the "men and women of the pioneer generation" who gave their best years to the nation.

In that statement, the WP praised that generation for embodying the Singapore spirit - "the determination to work hard, overcome the odds and carve out a better life for their children".

Ms Lim, the first opposition MP to speak, zeroed in on the Pioneer Generation Package, saying that the Government's move to set aside $8 billion to fund it marked a "refreshing departure" from the past.

Instead of just urging respect for the elderly as a virtue, public monies are being set aside to help the pioneers, she said.

Also, instead of "attributing Singapore's success mainly to visionary leaders", the package recognises the contributions of everyone, from followers to labourers to mothers, on "equal footing".

Ms Lim cited her father, a member of the pioneer generation, to illustrate how younger Singaporeans are bound by their ties to the pioneers and their struggles in the nation's early years.

Singapore had to scramble to fill a "huge defence lacuna" after the British announced the withdrawal of their troops by 1971, she said. The Government had to call on people from other services.

Among them was her father, Mr Lim Choon Mong, who was seconded from the police to the army and formed part of the first group of Singapore Armed Forces officers in the 1960s.

Mr Lim, who turns 77 this year, and his colleagues had to quickly build up the armed forces from scratch, learning from Israeli consultants and managing the introduction of compulsory national service, she said.

Ms Lim also noted that the early political leaders were "very hands-on and kept abreast of many details". She recalled black- and-white photographs of her father, a major, briefing then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who visited the army camp with his family while dressed in shorts.

"These photographs told, perhaps, of a different working culture then, with little time for pomp and ceremony," she said.

Former foreign minister George Yeo had told her in 2006 that Mr Lim had taught him, and perhaps even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, military law.

Likewise, NCMP Yee Jenn Jong recounted the story of his parents who came to Singapore from Malaysia in the 1950s. They were Chinese language teachers who weathered the years when Singapore fought against pro-Communist influences, he said.

But the WP MPs had some suggestions for improving the Pioneer Generation Package. Ms Lim asked for bigger subsidies for drugs commonly needed by pioneers with chronic diseases.

Mr Giam called for the package to be rolled out quickly, "before it is too late". The measures kick in from September, at the earliest.

Self-reliance versus more social spending
MPs split on how far Government should go
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

THE $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package highlighted differences among MPs yesterday, with some cautioning more prudence, while others called for increased social spending.

While there was widespread agreement that the Pioneer Generation Package showed that the Government had handled the nation's finances well, it also seemed to signal a fork in the road for MPs about the way ahead.

Mr Alvin Yeo (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said Singapore risks becoming a Western-style welfare state and undermining what the pioneers built up if people expect an easy life without working for it.

Singapore cannot rest on its laurels, he added, and urged the country to keep working hard as there will be fewer working adults to support the growing number of elderly.

"Yet, there are some Singaporeans who feel we have already arrived. That the need to work is somehow less than before, perhaps because we can raid the reserves or resort to higher taxation of those better-off," said Mr Yeo.

He also warned that well-intentioned measures to give more benefits to the needy "have created disincentives to self-reliance and impoverished governments elsewhere".

Mr Yeo pointed to unemployment benefits in Britain that used to be so generous that people who could find work preferred to stay jobless, he said.

This sort of "dependence mindset where we expect some government agency to step in and take care of us - regardless of whether we can take care of ourselves - will lead ultimately to the breaking down of what has been built so far", said Mr Yeo.

"The state should look after those who cannot take care of themselves, but this can only work if all of us strive, in the first place, to look after ourselves."

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), took a different tack: "We cannot make welfare so comprehensive that no work is needed - but I want to make it just a little less hard."

He called on the Government to fund more diverse programmes to improve people's lives.

Nominated MP Laurence Lien also expressed a different view, calling for a new type of society where social considerations were not consistently trumped by economic ones.

Mr Lien said he favours adopting appropriate social safety nets and reducing social inequities.

He suggested, for example, that the Government could go further to help in healthcare, housing and education.

Mr Lien also wants free basic education for all aged between three and 18, such as in the form of vouchers for preschool fees.

He was confident that Singapore has enough funds for this if returns on reserves in operating revenue are included, for instance.

Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) disagreed, noting: "Free education is not free. It is very expensive to society as a whole... there is a very high taxation burden, and it drives individuals to seek private education.

"Economic growth is necessary in order for us to fund an increase in social spending."

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) also questioned whether annually drawing on up to half of the country's returns on reserves was sustainable.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said that while it was tempting to spend more and tax less, "there is no free lunch in the real world".

Singapore should not allow its pioneers' values of prudent fiscal management to weaken or slip in the years to come, he said.

Package strictly for pioneers
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

EVEN as MPs lauded the package for Singapore’s pioneers yesterday, not a small number also took the opportunity to remind the House they had long asked for more help for the elderly.

There is a difference between that and what the pioneer package provides. The $8 billion bundle of healthcare subsidies and top-ups is for those who are 65 and older this year and became citizens before 1987. By definition, all of them are seniors.

But as its name suggests, the package is meant only for one generation of about 450,000 people.

It is not an elderly benefit that automatically kicks in when one crosses a certain age threshold.

In deciding to honour them, the Government took into account their contributions to the country and the trying circumstances they had lived through.

So, it signals that the Government is not averse to showing appreciation, while not putting the elderly on welfare. Because it is one thing to present a gift, and another to offer a crutch in one’s old age.

It is easy to say we must help people as they age.

But what is difficult is working out a sustainable yet meaningful way to do so, which is what the Pioneer Generation Package seeks to do by helping a generation with special needs while spending within means.

Of course, generations of Singaporeans will continue to grow old and become senior citizens one day.

The way this package was designed signals that whatever help they may get will probably be targeted at what they really need. Because whatever happens, the package should not be the start of a feeling of entitlement for all.

Package welcome, but pioneers might frown on largesse
Many MPs call for more spending, but others warn of the 'negative jaw'
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

THE second nicest story I heard in Parliament yesterday was told by Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim.

Her father was a police officer seconded to the Ministry of Defence to help kick-start the Singapore Armed Forces as one of the first batch of SAF officers who implemented full-time national service.

Ms Lim said: "In 2006 when I was first sworn in as a Non-Constituency MP, I had a brief conversation at the ceremony reception with then Foreign Minister George Yeo. Mr Yeo told me that he had been taught military law by my father in the army."

Ms Lim's point: "As we approach our nation's 50th anniversary of independence, it is a useful time to reflect on how we are bound by ties to the pioneer generation."

That was just one of the pioneer stories told yesterday, the first day of debate on Budget 2014.

Government spending is always welcome; and when it devotes $8 billion for medical subsidies to a group that built the country, ennobled with the title Pioneer Generation, and imbued with all the virtues of hard work and grit we all wish today's Singaporeans still retain, the chorus of approval from MPs was loud and cut across partisan lines.

Other MPs also shared pioneer stories. Nominated MP Laurence Lien, grandson of the late banker and philanthropist Lien Ying Chow, said he had read through transcripts of 13 hours of oral history interviews given by his grandfather. He marvelled that the pioneer generation was "creative, tenacious and self-sacrificing all at the same time".

Dr Janil Puthucheary thanked the pioneer generation for "your hard work, your grit and your sheer stubbornness you could forge a better future for yourself".

He did not tell any personal story even though he could have: His father Dominic was a founding member of the People's Action Party who later joined the leftist Barisan Sosialis.

Sitting in the press gallery, I mused: the daughter of the first batch of SAF officers grew up to become the first woman to chair a leading opposition party; the son of a man who founded and split with the PAP is now a doctor and vocal PAP backbencher; and the grandson of a very rich banker grew up to tap family wealth to start the Lien Foundation that is doing ground-breaking work in the social sphere.

The pioneering spirit remains strong even in this generation.

But the niggling question in my mind was this: Will future generations see a churn in the socioeconomic ladder, or will privilege become entrenched?

Despite the feel-good atmospherics around yesterday's debate, there was a glimpse of differences to come. This was on the issue of fiscal prudence.

Many MPs called for more spending: for free entry to swimming pools and attractions for pioneers; free education; an allowance for caregivers of the disabled; help for small and medium-sized enterprises.

But there was also MP Liang Eng Hwa who warned of the "negative jaw" of government budgets (when operating expenses exceed operating revenue) and urged prudence.

MP Alvin Yeo warned that well-intentioned calls to help deserving groups can snowball into unsustainable spending.

The problem, as Dr Lim Wee Kiak put it, is that questions are being asked: "If we can do it this year, why can't we do this earlier and why can't we provide more of such packages in future?"

Mr Seah Kian Peng called for less "hyperopia" - excessive focus on the long term. He wanted the Government to focus on people's needs today and "think about what else is needed, and take the additional funds from the reserves" to care for pioneers.

Which leads me to my favourite pioneers story, told by Dr Puthucheary.

A woman in her 80s leapt to her feet at a dialogue to take umbrage at a call for more government assistance from a younger woman who has one child. The older woman lived with her husband, their son and his family. The wife was nursing a baby and caring for an older child but intended to go back to work.

Said Dr Puthucheary: "The one salary was supporting six people... The son... made a modest salary in a modest middle-income job. But he took pride in providing for his family. They took pride in the fact that they could live through modest means and enjoy life."

What would pioneers themselves say to this push for immediate spending to take care of their needs?

To be sure, many are in dire straits and should receive help through various schemes. But many others are not wealthy but not needy either.

I can only imagine the reaction of my late parents, first-generation immigrants from Swatow who raised three children eking a living as hawkers, to whom thrift was second nature and a loan the devil incarnate.

What would they say if I told them I was going to use money they had salted away for the grandchildren, to spend on them?

They would rebuke me soundly. But since they have passed on, I think they might just turn in their graves.

Economic and social capital are interlinked
Excerpt from Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa's speech
The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

FROM this Budget, it became very apparent that economic capital and social capital are interlinked, and they do feed into one another.

Without economic progress, we would not be able to generate resources to execute and spend on our social programme, which is likely to increase steeply in the years to come.

Without social harmony and social mobility, communities and systems will fall apart, and there would be no economic progress to talk about.

Both are necessary and interdependent. This is clearly manifested in this year's Budget.

I am heartened that the Government and our fellow citizens see it necessary to assist those in need within our society. It shows that we are a compassionate nation.

Importantly, we are in a good position to offer an adequate social safety net that is sustainable.

But make no mistake about it, our social spending and other development expenditure are just going to keep growing bigger in the years to come.

Budget 2014 projected total expenditure to grow at 8.3 per cent, following an increase of 6.8 per cent in FY 2013.

On the other hand, operating revenue in 2014 is projected to grow at a lower 4.1 per cent, compare to also a lower 2.4 per cent in FY 2013.

Though we still have a primary surplus, it is not difficult to see that total expenditures are clearly growing at a faster rate than operating revenue.

In business budgeting, this phenomenon is known as a negative jaw (that is, growth in expenditure exceeding growth in revenue). If left unchecked, where expenditure continues to grow at a faster rate than revenues, we could end up with a ballooning budget deficit situation in the years to come.

To balance budgets, governments have to either cut spending or raises taxes, or do both.

We have seen many of such austerity budgets happening in Europe in the last few years to deal with their huge deficit and debt crisis. In Singapore, our approach has been to first grow the economy so that we have additional revenue pools to help pay for the increased social spending without the need to raise taxes.

Currently, the largest contributor to our tax coffers is the corporate income tax. In FY 2013, it accounted for 22 per cent, or $12.55 billion of total operating revenue. The other major taxes are personal income tax and GST (goods and services tax).

If the economy shrinks or throttle at a flattish trajectory rate, we may not have enough additional revenue to fund higher spending.

Hence, growing the economy, the quality way, is still the best course of action for now.

But we can never rule out having to raise taxes to balance the Budget one day, for example, in situations where the economy is not growing enough or the expenditures have run way ahead.

In that situation, and if that is necessary, I hope we can apply the fair and equitable principle that is being espoused in this Budget, which is let those in the society who have done well shoulder more of the tax increases.

If we have to raise taxes, we should minimise the broad-base tax impact on the low- and middle-income groups.

Nevertheless, our premise must be to continue growing the economy, spend prudently and raise incomes.

'Give more space for citizens' ideas'
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

THE Government should give space for citizens' ideas to be part of its decision-making, give out more money to spur ground-up initiatives and consider the short-term more when it draws up policies.

Those were Mr Seah Kian Peng's (Marine Parade GRC) radical suggestions yesterday, as he called for a new model of government.

A globalised world requires a strong government to face issues such as climate change and terrorism, he noted. But government also needs to be smaller, and let more be done by a community that is "rich in ideas, in expertise, in heart".

"We move from a model of a paternalistic, lean government, where many of the decisions and ideas came from the Government, to one where the Government has a bigger role in funding, but a smaller one in deciding where the money should go," he added.

"This new model is a model for our time, it matches the profile of our people, and our country's Budget position today."

One proposal he made is to give 5 per cent of the Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth's budget to the "people sector", or citizens, for them to make a difference.

He cited the example of Dr Tan Lai Yong, a university don who treats migrant workers for free, as a possible recipient.

There are many like him, and they should be given "more policy space and more financial resources" to take Singapore forward.

Mr Seah also urged the Government to go beyond the old virtue of long-term thinking.

This made for good policy in the past, but can be a weakness today, he said.

"But in Singapore today, with most basic policy goals in housing, education and health fulfilled, it can be a weakness. It robs our policymaking of the heat and emotion that informs the everyday lives of Singaporeans," he said.

Citing how any use of the reserves illicits a knee-jerk reaction that the money must be used only for a rainy day, he called for a change in thinking, and more to be done for the pioneer generation today by tapping the reserves.

He added: "Let us not sacrifice too much for the long-term, and regret 50 years later, that we did not do the right thing at the right time."

The need to be in touch with the ground was the core of Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin's speech.

Since the 2011 General Election, the Government has done many things and made many changes to keep in touch with the ground, he noted.

He urged his fellow MPs and the Government to continue to "avoid the pitfalls of being labelled 'out of touch', and to strive to be seen by the people as 'one of us'".


Battle to raise productivity 'far from over'
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

THE productivity message seems to be getting through to bosses, but MPs warned yesterday that the battle to raise output is far from over.

They want more help for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and called on companies to look beyond automation as they restructure.

Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) opened the debate by noting that Singapore will remain an expensive place to do business given its tight labour market, land constraints and the Government's focus on increasing real income.

"There is a real need to deliver value to justify the cost," said Ms Tan - hence the need to raise productivity, drive innovation and develop talent to stay globally competitive. Ms Tan chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance and Trade and Industry.

The country needs to prepare students for jobs that might not exist now but will be key pillars of the economy in the future, Ms Tan said, noting that the top 10 jobs last year did not exist 10 years ago, according to a Forbes article.

"While we focus on innovation in our businesses, we must give equal attention to ensuring that we develop our talent to be able to participate in this change," she said.

The Budget's continued focus on restructuring and encouraging companies to invest in moving up the value chain is a signal to firms that they need to take advantage of the opportunities available, Ms Tan said.

She expressed concern that a DP Singapore survey last November showed that only 46 per cent of companies derived part of their revenue from overseas sources, compared with 54 per cent in the previous year.

This showed that companies "are not taking advantage of growth opportunities", said Ms Tan.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) told Parliament that there are signs the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme - a popular programme aimed at helping firms restructure - is gaining traction.

"These days, when I engage business people on the ground, acronyms such PIC, ICV, WCS, have become their natural vocabulary," said Mr Liang, the deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance and Trade and Industry.

"When I spoke to one, he even used PIC in verb form: 'I just PICed this year.' It may be a possible indication that the businesses are in action mode to improve productivity."

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) said that beyond adopting new technology, automating processes and reducing manpower, an engaged and empowered workforce will also help a company's productivity.

"The culture at the workplace needs to be one where employees feel that their views are taken seriously, their input helps to improve their companies and they have a stake in helping their employers succeed," she said.

The struggle that firms are having with high business costs is also sparking concern among MPs, with some calling for more help for small companies that might not be able to take advantage of various schemes.

Nominated MP Teo Siong Seng said many SMEs are established household names that were set up in Singapore's early years.

Mr Teo, who is the immediate past president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said these "pioneer generation" enterprises need more help with upgrading.

"Although these enterprises are neither high-tech nor high-value-added, they are in fact the foundation and way of life of many in Singapore," he said.


MPs seek more protection for workers
They call for scheme to fund unpaid wages, tripartite tribunal for disputes
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

WHEN companies go bust, their workers tend to go unpaid and, yesterday, MPs from the labour movement wanted the Government to set up funds that will pay them the wages owed.

This aid scheme topped their wishlist on ways to better protect workers.

For low-wage workers, Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC), a National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary-general, suggested a Hardship Assistance Relief Fund.

For professionals, executives and managers (PMEs), Mr Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC), who is also an NTUC assistant secretary-general, proposed that their outstanding salaries and benefits come out of a Consolidated Fund.

Mr Zainal also felt workers can be better protected when it is mandatory for companies to implement the National Wages Council's recommendations for low-wage workers.

This will give the recommendations more bite, "especially as a tool to reduce the income gap", he said.

The council, made up of unionists, employers and officials, had recommended that the monthly wages of these workers be raised by at least $50 in 2012, and a minimum of $60 last year.

But it has been criticised for not having the power to make it compulsory for companies to implement its wage guidelines, which are made annually.

The council is expected to meet next month and in May.

Mr Tay, on the other hand, called for a tripartite tribunal to be set up to handle PMEs' work-related disputes when mediation fails.

Workplace health is another area of concern for the labour MPs.

NTUC deputy secretary-general Heng Chee How wanted a stronger push to ramp up such practices to protect workers "against premature loss of employability and employment".

Without citing specific occupations, he said jobs that need workers to sit, stand or repeatedly use their joints, or sectors that hire a lot of older workers, should be targeted to ensure that workers can stay healthy and keep working.

Mr Heng, who is also Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, said unions, employers and the Government have agreed to work on extending the re-employment age of workers from 65 to 67.

The move will help seniors earn income for two more years, boosting their retirement savings, he said.

Two other union-linked MPs also called for more help, with Mr Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC) appealing for small and medium-sized enterprises, and Nominated MP Mary Liew for women in the workforce.

Ms Liew asked that paid maternity leave for women be extended from four to six months.

She also wanted the lower maid levy of $120 per month for families with children up to age 12 to be extended to those with children up to age 14.

All the five MPs, who supported the Budget, peppered their speeches with NTUC's refrain of giving workers protection, job placement, career progression and union membership privileges, what it calls the "four Ps".

Govt plans minimum quota for higher-skilled workers
The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

THE Government may impose a minimum quota for higher-skilled workers at construction companies in a bid to reduce dependence on low-skilled staff and lift productivity in the sector.

The move was flagged in Parliament yesterday by Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, who added that the industry will be consulted before any steps are taken.

The Manpower Ministry and Building Control Authority classify foreign building workers as either basic or higher-skilled.

From July 2016, companies will have to pay higher levies for basic-skilled staff.

Mr Tan, whose remarks were in response to a question from Nominated MP R. Dhinakaran, also told Parliament there were no moves to reduce the inflow of construction workers from countries such as China, India, Thailand and Bangladesh, even as it assesses whether workers can be brought in from new sources, including the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Separately, the Budget had announced that some companies with higher-skilled workers, excluding those from Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea and Taiwan, will be able to extend their maximum employment period from 18 years now to 22. This comes into force in May.

These new regulations apply to the construction, marine and process sectors, and are aimed at boosting productivity.

Migrant Workers' Centre chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said in a statement that the new rules will allow employers to retain more experienced and proven workers who are better integrated here.

He added that more could be done to boost productivity, such as insisting on skills and training certification as a prerequisite for companies to extend the employment period.

The Migrant Workers' Centre also wants more sectors of the economy to be allowed to extend the maximum employment period for higher-skilled workers.

It has been calling for a greater focus on skills and training for workers already here, which could reduce the influx of foreign workers.

CGH's tent 'part of contingency plan to handle patient surge'
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2014

THE Ministry of Health (MOH) had a contingency plan in place to cope with a surge in patients, and a tent erected at Changi General Hospital (CGH) last June was part of it, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

He was responding in Parliament to a question by Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC), who asked whether MOH could have taken action earlier to "avoid the need for tentages to be used to tackle the situation".

Mr Gan said the air-conditioned, wooden-floored tent was "purpose-built" next to CGH's emergency department last June "to respond to unexpected surges in demand".

Calling it part of the hospital's "buffer capacity", he added: "This facility is closed in times when there is no surge in demand."

A spokesman for CGH said the tent, which can take up to 15 beds, was used a total of only three days in January.

A massive rise in the number of patients in January resulted in some hospitals placing patients head-to-toe along corridors, squeezing three beds into a cubicle meant for one and using the decontamination area with its tarred road surface to hold patients.

Mr Gan did not say whether these were part of MOH's contingency plans.

The situation is not expected to ease significantly until the end of this year, when a new general hospital opens in Jurong and a 280-bed building will open for CGH and St Andrew's Community Hospital patients.

"While the new facilities are being developed, the demand for acute health-care services remains high and the current capacity is tight," said Mr Gan, adding that an outbreak, such as last year's dengue epidemic, could make matters worse.

He said his ministry had highlighted "the trend of rising demand for healthcare services as our population grows and ages".

Last week, all hospitals apart from Singapore General Hospital and Alexandra Hospital were experiencing more than 90 per cent occupancy on some days, with Tan Tock Seng Hospital topping 95 per cent on two days.

Private hospitals aim for an occupancy rate of 75 per cent.

Mr Gan said more bed capacity would be added to the public sector in the coming months and years.

No comments:

Post a Comment