Thursday 6 March 2014

Parliament Highlights - 4 Mar 2014


Economic changes painful for firms: MPs
They 'may not survive pressure from speed, cost of restructuring'
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

ECONOMIC restructuring and the increased costs that it brings could drive many firms to the wall, destroy jobs and erode Singapore's international competitiveness, warned MPs yesterday.

While many applauded the Budget's continued focus on helping companies lift their output, they also noted that the progress is bringing some pain.

Others said that the restructuring process - which began in earnest in 2010 - is occurring so fast that it is putting undue pressure on companies.

The issue is clearly resonating with MPs: Of the 27 who spoke on the second day of the Budget debate yesterday, 12 flagged business costs and competitiveness as a concern.

Labour chief Lim Swee Say urged companies to have "a greater and broader sense of urgency" when it comes to transforming their businesses and taking risks.

"The world is changing fast and waits for no one," he added.

But Nominated MP R. Dhinakaran cautioned that the business environment is tight and the outlook uncertain. If businesses are not given hope for survival, they will not attempt productivity improvements for the long run, he said.

All companies - not just small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - are facing a "triple whammy" of rising rental and utility costs, labour costs and a shortage of workers, said Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC).

On Singapore SMEs moving across the Causeway to Iskandar in search of lower costs, he warned that multinational companies might also choose to move there to be close to SME suppliers and sub-contractors.

He warned that the economy could be "hollowed out" if too many companies bail out. He also cautioned against a "simplistic" notion that it would free up workers for more productive sectors, saying many of these workers might struggle to fit in.

Mr Ong Teng Koon (Sembawang GRC) noted that corporate tax receipts have been falling despite higher gross domestic product.

"(This) suggests to me corporate profit margins are being squeezed. Companies are finding it less profitable to do business in Singapore," said the commodities trader at Morgan Stanley.

The Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme, a major element in the policy arsenal to lift output, came in for scrutiny. The PIC, which was enhanced in the Budget, helps firms meet costs associated with restructuring and raising productivity through tax deductions or cash payouts.

While it has proved popular, some MPs called for the scheme to be made more accessible to smaller firms and for cash disbursements to be made faster.

Mr Lim said it is encouraging that some companies have made efforts to transform, but "we are sad that some still resist change".

"They'd rather go out of business or get out of Singapore than change and upgrade their operations here.

"It's their choice, but workers are the ones who have to suffer the pain most," he added.

Mastering job key to helping Singapore thrive, say MPs
But some lament the lack of this mindset among young generation
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

THE ethos of the craftsman in striving for excellence and the high standards he upholds in his work should be embodied in workers across all occupations - be it bus drivers, doctors or chefs.

Individuals should take pride in developing expertise in their chosen vocations, as this will play a crucial part in improving and keeping Singapore's economy competitive, said MPs who spoke on the topic in Parliament yesterday.

"This craftsman attitudinal mindset is vital if our economy is to thrive. This means setting the highest standards... Every one of us has to have the craftsman ethos in our work," said Nominated MP Eugene Tan.

Professor Tan was among five MPs who commented yesterday on a point made by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in his Budget statement. He had said that transforming the economy goes beyond a focus on the dollars and cents. It also means "changing our social norms".

He highlighted that society should nurture a culture of job mastery in which workers seek "not just competence, but excellence".

Underlining the importance of this mindset, Prof Tan said that even in today's knowledge-based economy, "a commitment to get a job done well, of continuing involvement to learning and the honing of skills so that the craft that we have is so deeply ingrained... (that) it becomes almost automatic" should be instilled.

But this attitude has not necessarily been imbibed by younger Singaporeans, said Nominated MP Nicholas Fang, who feels that they lack passion in mastering their jobs.

Mr Fang's lament was based on his encounters with young Singaporeans in the course of his work.

Said the 38-year-old, who is an associate editor with Channel NewsAsia: "It is worrying to me that not all of them are passionate about becoming excellent at what they do, or mastering their professions.

Mr Fang is also executive director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and founder of an athlete management agency.

Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) noted that it has become fashionable in some circles "to go around expressing pessimism for the future of our youth".

She urged younger Singaporeans to have an optimistic outlook, which is necessary to succeed.

Just as the previous generation "trusted a visionary government" to lead them through difficult changes to achieve progress, a similar trust "needs to be renewed" with the younger generation, she said.

"This is no time for negative talk.. Not here, not today, not when previous generations have worked so hard to get us this far, and not when there is so much at stake," she added.

Opposition MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said a change in workplace culture is important to transform the economy.

One way to achieve it is for bosses to value their workers' contributions and views. He suggested a "rigorous and sustained" public education effort could help workers be "more conscious" of and believe in their ability and power to effect change.

Nominated MP Janice Koh puts great store on creativity if Singaporeans are to remain adaptable.

"The ability to create, build and spread ideas is one of the most powerful tools for growth," she said, adding that "our ability to react, adapt and embrace challenges swiftly and with confidence requires creativity."

Lack of passion is never in the frame
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

CONCERNS raised by an MP that some young people lack the drive to excel do not get much traction with film artist Nor Azman Mohammed Rohman.

Mr Azman, 28, knows that he cannot afford to let his standards slip for a second in his work at Lucasfilm Singapore. He can spend from a few hours up to several days poring over every detail of a film frame - "down to a single hair strand".

Perfection, says the Nanyang Technological University graduate, is a "standard requirement", adding: "You have to have the patience to learn the basics properly and to get the fundamentals right even if it's boring, because that's the basis of what we do."

That is why he "will willingly slug it out" in his early years to gain expertise.

"Everything must be perfect. A regular moviegoer won't notice, but as a professional we have a standard to meet and it is imperative that we find perfection," said Mr Azman, who has worked on films such as Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim.

His dedication to mastering his craft is a "timeless" value espoused by MPs such as Professor Eugene Tan during yesterday's Parliament debate.

But Nominated MP Nicholas Fang raised concerns about the attitudes of some young people who were not passionate about excelling at work.

Mr Azman said: "I think I was lucky that I had the benefit of knowing what I wanted from a young age. If you really want it, you can suffer through the tough hours. But I can see why some may job-hop - not for a lack of trying but to find a work-life balance and financial stability to feed their families."

Don't forget to look outwards too, says NMP
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

SINGAPOREANS must remain engaged with the world even as the country tackles challenges at home, Nominated MP Nicholas Fang said yesterday.

Mr Fang told Parliament that there is a risk in allowing domestic issues such as policy decisions aimed at improving the quality of life and the usual day-to-day concerns to overwhelm the national agenda.

"It is important that all of us bear in mind the need to look outwards, even as we look more deeply inwards," he said during the Budget debate.

As the country enters a new period of growth and tries to build on global cooperation, it will also be open to challenges from unexpected places, he said, citing the "unprecedented levels of trans- boundary haze" and the recent spat with Indonesia over the naming of a warship after two men hanged for the MacDonald House bombing.

In the region, tensions between Asean nations and potential rifts between major powers in Asia, such as Japan and China, can also "embroil smaller states like Singapore" and even global superpowers like the United States, he said.

"We should not forget that we are part of an international community."

As a member of this community, Singapore cannot afford to ignore the outside world because changes here will be watched by others, he added.

The transformation of the country's economy will be of interest to foreign investors, for example.

How Singaporeans treat foreign workers and the kind of social policies put in place will also impact on the decisions of those considering whether to come here, Mr Fang said.

Even cultural shifts can signal to others what life is like in Singapore. "The world is watching to see how we conduct ourselves as a maturing nation," he added.

Wanted: Panel to examine cost competitiveness
MPs urge Govt to tackle high costs of business and living
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

THE high costs of living and doing business are of such concern to Members of Parliament that two of them yesterday called for an official committee to look into cost competitiveness.

Out of the 27 MPs who spoke yesterday, eight flagged as a worry high costs that plague smaller businesses.

Rentals were singled out as a big factor in pushing up business costs. That in turn leads to higher prices for consumers and lower wages for workers, MPs said.

Real estate investment trusts (Reits) launched by landlords, and their need to meet expectations of financial analysts and investors, have added to mounting cost pressures of small businesses, warned Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC).

Both Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Nominated MP R. Dhinakaran made the case that these high rentals are not productive income.

For example, the rising value of a shop space may be fuelled by speculative trading without any actual increase in customers, said Mr Dhinakaran.

Such rental rises are being seen in the heartland as well as in the city, said Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

"Many residents I speak to are concerned that city-prices are creeping into our heartland with the many malls, foodcourts and supermarkets replacing our familiar wet markets, mom-and-pop shops and small-time service providers," he said.

The traditional businesses that remain end up with prices similar to those in malls and foodcourts, he added.

These smaller businesses, "already pushed to the corner with rising business costs, cannot afford to push their employees' wages higher", said Mr Dhinakaran.

Furthermore, those that cannot cope with the high rental costs look for other means to cut costs. That "inevitably leads to the squeezing of salaries of workers", said Mr Singh.

He called for more permanent solutions to lower costs, rather than allocating billions of dollars year after year to help companies and Singaporeans cope with "chronic" high costs.

"I think this is not an efficient way to manage things and the right thing to do is to tackle the root cause of the problem and address the cost issues," he said.

Both he and Mr Zaqy urged the Government to set up a cost competitiveness committee to look into the problem.

Mr Zaqy hoped that the Housing Board and National Environment Agency, the respective authorities for HDB shops and hawker centres, would "play a more active role to provide a greater balance of more affordable rental spaces" in the heartland.

Lower rents in the heartland would enable ordinary citizens, including seniors, to have "low costs of living insulated from city prices", he said.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) had raised similar concerns, expressing disappointment that some retailers had "cashed in" on the recent 25 per cent liquor duty hike by charging as much as $1.30 extra for a bottle of beer.

The extra tax means a bottle of beer should cost about 40 cents more at most.

"And I was told that a cup of kopi-o went up by 20-30 cents per cup when the price of sugar went up by the same amount per kg," she said, and asked if this hike was profiteering.

Mr Zaqy said: "As long as our high costs of living are a concern, it will be near impossible to allay our citizens' fears that we can retire comfortably and with a reasonable quality of life."

Pointed queries on PIC, job-hopping expats, profiteers
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

MS LEE BEE WAH (Nee Soon GRC) earned smiles and enthusiastic thumping in the House yesterday for a wide-ranging speech criticising the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme and the execution of several policies.

Job-hopping expatriates and profiteering retailers did not escape her scrutiny too.

She took the latter to task for cashing in on the recent hike in liquor tax to inflate the price of a bottle of beer and on higher sugar prices to charge more for drinks.

But the plain-speaking civil engineer devoted most of her speech to policy gaps affecting SMEs, speaking in Malay, Mandarin and English with a dash of Hokkien, prompting Speaker Halimah Yacob to quip that the Johor-born MP might want to use Tamil too next year.

The former boss of an engineering firm took aim first at tardy disbursements to firms from the PIC.

"The PIC sounds great on paper, but my sense is that it is not achieving its full potential in giving the leg up to more SMEs."

She cited two instances told to her by SME bosses in which the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore took six to seven months to disburse less than $50,000.

"It can take even longer if there are some queries and ding dong (sic) in their applications. For smaller SMEs, this is very difficult on their cashflow. Worse, they may sometimes go belly up before they receive their funds.

"As a consequence, some SMEs may be afraid to take the plunge and instead opt for the conservative approach. They turn a deaf ear to the call for innovation and choose to march on the spot, until they get edged out by the competition."

Another gap in the PIC was that firms must have three local workers to qualify for the scheme and directors did not count as workers, she noted.

"In an era when we are encouraging productivity and entrepreneurship, it does not make sense that we are penalising firms for their size," she argued, noting that Apple and eBay started small.

"In most SMEs, three or four of the staff are all directors, but directors are not considered as part of the minimum (staff)... Three like-minded friends who are willing to take the plunge, isn't it better than employing three staff?"

She suggested opening PIC to all, regardless of the number of staff on the CPF payroll.

To control ballooning business costs, she suggested reining in S-Pass and Employment Pass (EP) holders who job-hop.

She cited a friend whose engineer left for a job that paid $1,000 more. "Two months later, this same engineer called up my friend, 'Boss, do you want me back or not? I'm willing to come back but give me another $1,000.'

"MOM can specify that work-permit holders are not allowed to marry Singaporeans. I fail to understand why MOM can't put a minimum duration, for example, two years, with the employer who applied (for) the S-Pass or EP."

On the issue of costs, she singled out unscrupulous firms inflating prices. As an example, she said: "A cup of kopi-o went up by 20 to 30 cents when the price of sugar went up by the same amount. The increase is out of proportion with the increase in raw material. Is this profiteering?"

In her final example of "good policy, poor implementation", Ms Lee recalled the anecdote of a resident keen to do business in Malaysia but could not find government funding to train the staff in Malay. "But my resident says they have funding for Japanese language. Isn't this very strange? We have funding for foreign language. We don't have funding for our own national language."

Make scheme easier to use
By Audrey Kang, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

THE Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) is proving popular among firms trying to lift output but the scheme has drawbacks, as Nominated MP and actress Janice Koh noted yesterday.

Ms Koh told Parliament how fashion label Hansel struggled to make use of the PIC.

Owner Jo Soh wanted to invest $15,000 in a new computer system to manage its inventory. The PIC, which offers firms a tax deduction or cash payout when they invest in automation, staff training or research and development to lift productivity, could help.

But Ms Soh had to first pay for the system upfront before being able to claim part of the cost back. That meant a year of frantic saving, during which her business was affected.

Ms Koh said: "They were so cash-strapped, however, that even raising the funds to pay for the system upfront, before being reimbursed from the PIC cash payout, was extremely difficult."

Other MPs want the PIC adjusted to make it easier for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to use it.

Two out of three SMEs with turnover of more than $1 million have claimed benefits under the scheme, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in his Budget speech on Feb 21.

Ms Soh, 38, told The Straits Times yesterday that it is very difficult for smaller firms to take advantage of the scheme.

"Most SMEs like mine do not have such a large sum of money on hand, and it takes a long time for us to save up a lump sum while doing business," she added.

She suggested that the PIC provide grants to help with the upfront payments instead of reimbursing business owners after they have bought equipment.

"We can afford to pay upfront for small items, but for big-ticket items, it'll take us a long time before we can afford to buy them."

SMEs need a pioneers-like package too
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

CAN the Government develop a Pioneer Generation Package for Singapore's SMEs?

After all, helping SMEs cope with rising business cost will help Singapore's pioneers as well, since many of the elders work in these small and medium-sized enterprises. And if SMEs - especially those in the Housing Board heartland - thrive, pioneers can find affordable goods and services on their doorstep, in a familiar environment.

In short, there are social, not just economic, reasons to help SMEs.

This was my recurring thought as MPs leapt to their feet one after another yesterday to lament that this year's Budget was generous on the social front, but ignored the issue of rising business cost.

The woes facing Singapore's 170,300 SMEs are well-known: soaring rentals, a tight labour market and higher wage costs.

They employ 70 per cent of workers, contribute over half of gross domestic product and make up 99 per cent of all firms.

Nominated MP R. Dhinakaran lamented that SMEs bore "unbearable costs of doing business". He cited a Ministry of Trade and Industry survey which found that labour, rental and utilities costs alone account for 78 per cent of business costs for SMEs in manufacturing.

"The case is no better in other sectors, including retail," he added grimly.

One key driver of higher rental is that a lot of commercial and industrial space is now owned by commercial real estate investment trusts run by companies like Mapletree and CapitaLand, not a state landowner like JTC.

Singapore is going through a fourth year of intense restructuring of the economy, as the flow of cheap foreign labour eases.

And as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and labour chief Lim Swee Say explained, sectors with lower productivity need to restructure and change, so that they can do more with fewer workers.

The trouble is that restructuring may make sense on a macro level but is painful at the human level. MP Inderjit Singh told of a business owner who asked that his specialist machinist's work permit be renewed.

"Otherwise his six Singaporean workers and his three children and wife will have no means to support themselves. What do you tell this SME owner about rapid restructuring?" he said.

As for the view that it is good to have less efficient companies fold up, as this releases workers for other high-productivity sectors, Mr Inderjit warned that this was simplistic: "Many of our SMEs hire the older workers which large MNCs don't want to hire. A good number of these workers will face difficulties fitting into the sectors the Government desires."

I agree with Mr Inderjit, when I think of the elderly cashiers and shop assistants in HDB estates; the van drivers and deliverymen; the kopi kia or coffee shop assistants.

Sure, many will point to the billions the Government is committing to help businesses restructure, or to the expansion possibilities in the region. Many SMEs will benefit, and thrive.

But others, like a boss of a signage company MP Denise Phua spoke to, will struggle. When she tried to rally him to aim for bigger things, he replied in Chinese: "Not everyone of us can hold this pen."

He meant that not all are called to business greatness. Indeed, not every business needs to become a listed company. Just as not every HDB plaza needs a mega mall.

As MP Zaqy Mohamad said: "It is important that our heartland, where most Singaporeans and seniors live, must continue to remain affordable and vibrant.

"Many residents I speak to are concerned that city prices are creeping into our heartland with the many malls, foodcourts and supermarkets replacing our familiar wet markets, mom-and-pop shops and small-time service providers."

He suggested that the Housing Board and the National Environment Agency, which manages hawker centres, be more active

in providing a balance of affordable rental spaces in HDB estates: "Create more opportunities for traditional businesses - whether it is your friendly neighbourhood barber, the hardware shop, shoe repair, the locksmith, plumbers or tailors in the neighbourhood.

"They do not just play a part in providing low-cost services, but also enable the ordinary citizens, including seniors, to participate in the localised, heartland economy as business owners or a consumer seeking low costs of living, insulated from city prices."

Restructuring will push workers out of jobs, some of whom may not find another. High rentals raise consumer prices, hitting retirees hardest.

That's why I think there should be a special package to cushion the impact of restructuring on SMEs and their workers.

Of course, no one is suggesting a price tag of $8 billion like for the Pioneer Generation Package, but we need to look seriously at some gaps.

What could these be and what might go into the package?

MPs suggested ways to help SMEs survive: lower business costs through co-location, pooled services, sector-wide solutions to raise productivity. For SMEs that close shop, there should be a social assistance package for their workers consisting of government grants and job assistance.

What kind of jobs? If none is available in the "pure" private sector, the Government should take up Ms Phua's suggestion: Get government agencies to identify and package tasks into bite-sized jobs that can be performed by the elderly and those with special needs.

There's no point spending billions subsidising medical bills of our pioneers (including rich retirees) only to have the poorer among them out of jobs, struggling with high living costs, and living in places they feel alienated from.

Call for greater urgency to lift productivity
Labour chief: Decline caused by weak sectors can be arrested if all work at it
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

SINGAPORE needs "a greater and broader sense of urgency" in its drive to lift productivity, said labour chief Lim Swee Say yesterday.

Mr Lim, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, told Parliament: "There are healthy signs that the economy is shifting to a new track. However, we are not full steam ahead yet."

The first minister to speak in the Budget debate, he focused on his pet topic: the productivity push.

Productivity fell 2 per cent in 2012 and was flat last year, despite reports of companies that had lifted output through innovation, he noted.

"So my union leaders asked me, what happened? Are those innovations, are those productivity gains for real?

"If so, how is it that our productivity gain last year was zero?" Mr Lim recounted.

As he explained to them - and to the House yesterday - this was because less productive sectors are hiring more workers, dragging down average labour productivity.

"There are many sectors in Singapore today that are growing and they are below our national average," he added, citing cleaning, construction, security and retail, among others.

The decline in average productivity caused by these laggard sectors can be arrested if all industries work on improving employee skills and output, Mr Lim noted.

And sectors with high productivity should also be encouraged to grow and hire more workers.

"We have to attract good jobs of the future and at the same time we must be prepared to transform low-wage, low-skilled sectors to become less labour intensive," said Mr Lim. He added that if that was achieved, an annual rise of 2 per cent to 3 per cent in labour productivity was within reach.

He called for more action by government agencies, businesses, industry bodies, unions, workers and consumers.

The labour movement is already doing its part, and so are some companies, he added.

Mr Lim reeled off a list of productivity measures, from remote-controlled machines that cut grass to one that cooks soft-boiled eggs unfailingly at 64 deg C.

All this may seem obvious, but years of easy access to labour may have made companies too complacent to take labour-saving measures, said Mr Lim. "If Members feel these illustrations are just 'common sense', actually I agree with you.

"Unfortunately, after years of high growth in manpower and unskilled labour, common sense is not so common on the ground any more."

Though some firms are changing, others still resist change, he noted, choosing to go out of business or leave Singapore rather than upgrade operations here.

"It is their choice. But workers are the ones who have to suffer the pain most," he said.

In a fast-changing world, employers need a greater sense of urgency and a willingness to take the risk and responsibility of changing, he added.

Two MPs seek further increase in CPF rates for older workers
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

ALTHOUGH the labour movement's call for a rise in the Central Provident Fund (CPF) rates for older workers has been answered, two MPs yesterday argued that it is not enough.

They called for the rates to be on par with those of younger workers, even as other MPs warned that the higher cost of hiring them risks making them less employable.

Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC) wants the higher rates to come from raising the employers' contribution.

"Our senior workers need all the help they can get from the Government," said Mr Ong. "The employer can do the one honourable thing to show appreciation and gratitude in paying these older workers equitably."

From next January, workers aged above 50 to 55 will have their total CPF contribution rates raised from 32.5 per cent to 35 per cent each month.

But the new rate is still 2 percentage points lower than that of workers aged 50 and younger. Their total rate is 37 per cent.

Besides closing the gap between younger and older workers, Nominated MP Eugene Tan wants the Government to go one step further and stop differentiating CPF rates according to age altogether.

"I find it ironic that on the one hand, we honour our elders but on the other, discriminate against them," said the Singapore Management University law professor, adding: "The lower CPF contribution rates, purely on the basis of age, do not help the cause of older workers in an employment landscape where pay is increasingly based on performance, not seniority."

Two MPs, however, noted that higher CPF rates for older workers could reduce their chances of staying employed.

Said Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir- Ris Punggol GRC): "I am worried that the additional employer contribution rates may be a disincentive for employers to retain the older workers."

The Workers Party's Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said higher CPF rates will put a "tighter squeeze on profits", not least those of local small and medium- sized enterprises that "proportionally hire more older workers".
"I hope employers do not resort to selectively shedding older workers" because of the higher contribution rates, he said.

Jurong GRC's Mr Ong said the move could raise costs and "eventually drive up prices for consumers". He urged companies not to focus on just revenue and profits, but also measure success by "how they value and treat their staff".

Mr Gan, meanwhile, urged older workers to upgrade their skills so that they "match the values generated by the younger workers". This will make them more employable, he added.

He also called on the Government "to set a good example" as an employer by retaining older workers, and ensure that larger corporations act likewise.

The self-employed also need help, said two MPs, as they do not benefit from the higher CPF rates.

Nominated MP Tan Su Shan highlighted hawkers and cabbies as two groups that would need such help.

Labour MP Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio GRC) came up with an unusual idea on how to help them. Those who contribute to their CPF voluntarily should be treated as employers, he said.

"I would like to urge the Government to consider giving the same quantum under the Temporary Employment Credit to the group of freelancers and self-employed," he said.

The one-year credit scheme helps employers defray 50 per cent of the CPF cost increase.

Mr Ang said topping up the self-employed's contribution would help them save for "personal contingencies" like housing, health-care and retirement needs.

Another generation 'may also be honoured'
This could happen if Govt remains clean, responsible, caring: Swee Say
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

SINGAPOREANS who are younger than the pioneer generation might enjoy similar packages in future if the Government remains clean, responsible and caring, and its finances are healthy, labour chief Lim Swee Say said yesterday.

He made this point on the second day of the Budget debate, after recounting one union leader's disappointment on hearing that Mr Lim would not qualify for the Pioneer Generation Package.

The package is for those who are 65 and older this year, and became citizens before 1987. Mr Lim turns 60 in July.

"He said: 'Oh no, no hope then.' I said: 'Yes, of course there is hope.'"

"Today, we honour the generation before us. Years from now, if we continue to do well, if the Government is still clean, responsible and caring, if (the) Budget is still healthy, maybe the generation after us may decide to honour our generation as well. Therefore, yes, there's always hope."

Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang) asked the Government to be generous in approving appeals from those who ask to be counted as pioneers. They joined three MPs who had made the same call a day earlier.

Mr Png argued that to set the bar for the package at 16 years old in 1965, the year Singapore became independent, was "a little too precise and will exclude Singaporeans who had to quit school to work during those times".

He added that people under the age of 16 in 1965 could also have been working then. But he acknowledged the difficulty in proving that, and in explaining why two citizens born in the same year are treated differently.

Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC) later challenged Mr Png to state his preferred cut-off age.

Some MPs also felt that it was not accurate to describe the package as a tribute to the pioneers.

Mr Yam said these pioneers should be honoured through preserving and showcasing their stories. Workers' Party MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap (Aljunied GRC) said the package should be seen as one of the many means to tackle the larger problem of cost of living.

He said: "It is one thing to celebrate and honour the achievements of our seniors.

"It is another thing altogether to romanticise the benefits of the Pioneer Generation Package, and any government should in fact recognise that it is merely fulfilling a core function of its duties to the very people who had elected (it) in the first place."

Seniors can't be treated as a single entity
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

ELDERLY Singaporeans have been at the centre of the Budget debate over the past two days, but what is striking is the contrasting snapshots MPs have of this group.

Some painted a picture of older workers who are still hale and hearty, well able to work past retirement age.

Others spoke of seniors who do not speak English, have failing eyesight, no access to technology and in need of extra help to make sense of assistance schemes.

These images, while not mutually exclusive, served as a sharp reminder that the elderly cannot be treated as a single entity or stereotype.

So, credit should go to the many MPs on both sides of the House who identified those groups of seniors who may need an extra hand or who risk missing out on Budget measures, particularly those in the Pioneer Generation Package.

The questions they raised point also to some of the assumptions that were made when the measures were being drawn up.

Some MPs asked if seniors who are still healthy could get cash payouts or other means to help with costs of living instead of Medisave top-ups that they may not use.

Others asked about those, especially older women, who did not work and have no CPF or Medisave. This group may benefit less from the Pioneer Generation Package's emphasis on MediShield Life premium subsidies and Medisave top-ups, they said.

Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) and Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) noted that honouring the pioneers should also be about making it meaningful to grow old, rather than just addressing their health-care worries. Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC) spoke of the need for policies to "take into consideration our seniors' profile" in order to remain relevant and avoid causing the elderly unnecessary difficulties. He said CPF contribution rates should take into account that some older workers now marry later and may still be paying off mortgages or paying for their children's education into their 50s and 60s.

It is impossible, of course, to expect one policy to cater to every single person.

But just the awareness that the elderly are a diverse group of individuals with different stories and needs will go a long way when it comes to crafting and implementing such policies with sensitivity and compassion.

Govt not profiteering with higher granite prices: Khaw
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

THE Government is not profiteering by selling its stockpiled granite to the construction industry at a higher price, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday.

The aim is to encourage the industry to actively source granite from other countries in the wake of a supply disruption in Indonesia, Mr Khaw wrote in a blog posting.

His comments came a few hours after Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) commented in Parliament that some people had asked if the Government was profiteering from the price hike.

No, was Mr Khaw's brief reply.

The stockpile was not set up by the Government as a business, he said, and cannot be "a convenient permanent alternative source of supply for the industry".

Instead, releasing the stockpiled granite is a "contingency measure" to help the industry cope while it seeks alternative suppliers.

Last month, The Straits Times reported that the Government would raise the granite stockpile price from $30 to $50 a tonne this month after a sudden disruption in supply from Indonesia.

As it was unclear how long the disruption would last, the authorities had urged the industry to increase its supply from sources further afield.

Setting the price at $30 a tonne for a month initially ensured stable prices while the industry made "arrangements to ramp up supply from other sources", said Mr Khaw. The move was to ensure that Singapore's construction industry continued seamlessly despite the Indonesian disruption.

"If the stockpile price is set too low, there will be no reason for importers to go for other (costlier) sources. And if they do not do so, we will rapidly deplete our stockpile and there will be no buffer to help the industry should a similar disruption of another supply source occur," said Mr Khaw.

Earlier, his swift denial of profiteering was welcomed by Ms Lee, who added, however, that the Government could use other ways to discourage construction companies from buying too much from its stockpile.

These included limiting the quantity the companies could purchase or requiring them to replenish the stock from their own sources, she said.

S'pore has 16m N95 masks in stock
Plans to distribute masks in event of haze to needy, workers if necessary
By Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2014

SINGAPORE has 16 million N95 face masks stockpiled, the Government said in Parliament yesterday - just as the country experienced slight haze in the late morning.

These stocks are in addition to 280,000 masks already in major retailers' inventories, Parliamentary Secretary for Health Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said.

Giving the assurance that there were sufficient masks, he added that the Government has worked with various groups, such as the People's Association, on plans to distribute masks to the needy and to workers if necessary - especially those in essential services.

"We have learnt from past lessons and experiences... (and) I am very confident that we are more prepared this time," he said.

Singapore last year experienced its worst haze, with the three-hour PSI hitting a "hazardous" 401.

The 24-hour PSI - which averages readings from the past 24 hours and is a better indicator of the haze's health impact - also rose to an unprecedented "very unhealthy" 246, far exceeding the previous "unhealthy" levels of 128 in 2006 and 138 in 1997.

N95 masks flew off the shelves during last year's crisis and there were complaints of shortages.

The Health Ministry released about three million masks to retailers from its nine million stockpile and distributed another one million to low-income families.

Despite the large stockpile prepared this year, Dr Faishal stressed that the masks were generally not needed for short exposure to the haze, such as during the commute from home to work or school.

Singapore's air quality briefly crept into the "moderate" range yesterday, with the three-hour PSI at 51 at 11am and noon, and also slightly above 50 in the evening.

The National Environment Agency said in an advisory on Sunday that although prevailing north-easterly winds would keep haze from Sumatra, Indonesia, away from Singapore for several days, occasional slight haze could occur.

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