Friday, 7 March 2014

Parliament Highlights - 6 Mar 2014

Committee of Supply Debate: MHA, MINDEF, MTI

New panel to review cases against Home Team officers
It will ensure investigations are done fairly and report directly to minister
By Joyce Lim, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

AN INDEPENDENT review panel will be set up by the year end to assess the findings of internal investigations carried out on Home Team officers accused of serious misconduct, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said yesterday.

It will review whether the allegations are substantiated and ensure the investigation is thorough and done fairly, said Mr Teo, who is also the Home Affairs Minister.

The panel, which will include prominent community leaders as well as senior lawyers and former veteran police officers, will report directly to the minister.

Mr Teo said the move will strengthen the existing systems of investigating alleged wrongdoing or misconduct by the officers.

Experts interviewed agree with him, saying it will ensure greater impartiality.

Said MP Edwin Tong, a lawyer who is also deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law: "It is a reflection of the Home Affairs Ministry, driven by the fact that they want to inject a greater sense of impartiality."

Retired detective Lionel De Souza believes that it will ensure "proper checks and balances and avoid any miscarriage of justice".

Added a former senior investigator with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID): "If you are investigating your own officers, there is a chance you may show leniency or favouritism.

"The panel, however, would form their views outside of police influence, and that's better."

Mr Tong, a Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP, agrees with the suggestion that the decision to form the panel could be prompted by the perceived erosion of public confidence in the Home Team, following the conviction of senior officers in recent years and the Little India riot.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it has got to do with that," he told The Straits Times.

Nominated MP Eugene Tan said as much during the debate on the ministry's budget.

He pointed to two recent events that had conspired to undermine the image and standing of the Home Team.

One is the seemingly inadequate response of the police to the Little India riot.

The other is the lack of coordination among Home Team agencies that led to a security breach at Woodlands Checkpoint.

Malaysian teacher Nurul Rohana Ishak, 27, slipped past the checkpoint in January by tailgating a car.

She is charged with criminal trespass, among others.

Mr Teo, in describing the scope of the panel's work, said the cases it would review include those that have resulted in death or serious injury as well as those that obstruct or pervert the course of justice.

It will also probe cases which are of public interest, he added.

"We will not tolerate wilful misconduct, abuse of power or a lack of integrity. This is not only fundamentally wrong at the individual level, but also tarnishes the Home Team's reputation," said Mr Teo.

In spite of recent lapses, Singapore has a strong record of safety and security, the minister noted.

Overall crime is at its lowest in 30 years, with 29,668 cases last year, down from 31,015 in 2012.

The ministry's own survey in 2012 found that more than 90 per cent of Singaporeans feel safe in their neighbourhood.

Also, Singapore was ranked second out of 99 countries in terms of order and security by US-based World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index 2014.

Japan topped the list.


NS may be cut by a few weeks: Ng Eng Hen
More career soldiers to be hired to take over training now done by NSFs
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

FULL-TIME national service may be shortened by a few weeks, under a planned move by the Singapore Army to hire more career soldiers to train the enlisted men in green.

They are to step in and take over the training that is now being conducted by second-year, full- time national servicemen (NSFs).

These seasoned soldiers, with more experience, will make NS training more effective and efficient, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday, adding that about 1,100 old hands will be employed for it.

But he said: "The time savings will be a few weeks at most, if any."

He was also quick to caution that he was "not making any promises" as the army had to study the details to ensure it could continue to produce soldiers who are operationally ready.

Dr Ng disclosed the plan in Parliament yesterday during the debate on his ministry's budget.

He also said that any time that is saved will be passed on to the NSFs, "but the army is under no pressure to deliver on that score".

His disclosure comes a decade after full-time NS was cut from 21/2 years to two years because the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) was relying more on technology and less on large numbers of soldiers.

In 2006, annual call-ups for operationally ready national servicemen to attend in-camp training were also reduced from 13 to 10 years.

But Dr Ng does not foresee any further reduction. "The number of ICTs (in-camp training) that NSmen have to perform will not be reduced... We need these 10 ICTs and those in the Mindef reserves to maintain the strength in our standing force. This will meet our defence needs, even with falling birth rates, until 2040."

The hiring of professional trainers had been mooted by the Committee to Strengthen National Service, set up last May to come up with ideas on how to strengthen support for the rite of passage of Singapore's young men.

Three MPs - Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC), Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) - yesterday asked for the committee's plans to motivate national servicemen.

Replying, Dr Ng said it is finalising its proposals. They will be made known later this year.

As for the plan to bring in more professional trainers, he noted that they will have "greater impact on training outcomes, inculcating discipline and, more importantly, transmitting values".

"There is a limit to what a 22-year-old NSF second-year can transmit to a 21-year-old."

Today, only one in six trainers in the Basic Military Training Centre is a career soldier. The recruitment drive will increase the proportion to one in three.

Another potential change is the waiting time for enlistment.

The SAF is looking at reducing it to four to five months. Currently, polytechnic students wait between three and six months to be called up for NS.

Defence analysts like Mr Ho Shu Huang said the move to increase the pool of professional trainers will be an uphill task with the tight labour market.

But their presence will free NSF trainers to do more when called up for in-camp training after completing their national service, said Mr Ho, an associate research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Instead of being "parachuted to existing NS units to plug gaps", they can be deployed to perform more meaningful duties as commanders, he added.

Prudent military spending 'helps S'pore face unforeseen threats'
Defence minister announces new systems and upgrades for SAF
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

Dr Ng noted that prudent outlays over the past two decades have allowed the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to meet today's security challenges, even unexpected ones.

He also warned that sharp spikes and falls in spending would undermine the country's defence capabilities, adding: "Our planning horizons are intentionally long term, and we spend prudently and steadily."

Dr Ng also announced yesterday that a range of equipment is being bought, upgraded or launched to ensure that the SAF can be "strongly positioned for the future".

New Multirole Tanker Transport aircraft are on order. These will replace the ageing KC-135 aerial refuelling tankers and support souped-up F-16s and new-generation fighter jets.

The navy will add two helicopters to beef up maritime defence and look into building more Landing Ship Tanks that can carry helicopters and cargo.

More armoured vehicles are on order for the infantry, and the Bionix armoured vehicle will be upgraded.

The army will also launch micro pilotless surveillance planes and driverless vehicles, dubbed robotic mules, that can help soldiers carry heavy loads.

His comments came as several MPs questioned the Ministry of Defence's $12.6 billion budget this year - up from $12.2 billion last year and $8.6 billion in 2004, and the biggest of any ministry.

Dr Ng said the budget has kept pace with inflation, and will continue to do so "over the long term".

He noted that Asian militaries have outspent those in Europe, and are expected to surpass the United States within the next decade, an illustration of the uncertainties ahead.

"A militarisation of many countries within Asia, of this magnitude, has no historical precedent," he said.

He also cited former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who commented that Asia today is more like 19th century Europe, where military conflicts among each other - Mr Kissinger mentioned China and Japan specifically - or other neighbours could not be excluded.

Besides arming itself, Singapore also has to build good ties with other countries in and outside the region, said Dr Ng.

Singaporeans' commitment to the country was the most important though, he added.

"But we must be resilient enough to withstand the unforeseen. But most importantly, whether we can deter would-be aggressors for another 50 years and achieve peace depends not on advanced systems or weaponry, no matter how sophisticated, but our people and their resolve to defend our island home."

The Minister of State for Defence, Dr Maliki Osman, told the House that construction of a new Safra clubhouse - the sixth - for national servicemen and their families will start in Punggol in June.

He added that Mindef is studying the feasibility of building a clubhouse in north-western Singapore.

No training-related fatalities in SAF last year
By Lee Jian Xuan, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

THERE were no training-related fatalities recorded by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) last year following new safety measures, but the number of reported close calls soared.

Mr Chan Chun Sing, the Second Minister for Defence, told Parliament that there were 60 per cent more reported near-misses in the first half of last year compared with the same period in 2012. He later clarified that this was due to "the increase in command emphasis to have more incidents reported", and not due to more cases of carelessness.

He welcomed the overall improvement in safety, but cautioned: "This is not a sign that we have arrived... This requires tremendous effort and for us to be constantly on our guard."

Mr Chan's comments came in response to a question from Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC), who asked if the number of near misses and serious injuries last year had fallen with the introduction of more safety measures.

Mr Chan noted that the number of non-fatal training incidents had been "about the same" in the past two years, inching up from 67 in 2012 to 68 last year.

He also updated the House on the SAF's training safety system.

One initiative involved setting up a review panel comprising outside experts, which has assessed practices at facilities like the Basic Military Training Centre and Officer Cadet School.

The panel was convened by the Safety and Systems Review Directorate, which was established last year in the wake of accidents in which two national servicemen died in 2012.

It found the SAF safety system to be "robust", and its recommendations have helped the SAF "to check (its) blind spots", said Mr Chan. For example, the panel recommended paying attention to recruits' psychological well-being, as well as their physical safety.

The SAF has also deployed experienced ex-regulars as unit safety officers as an "external pair of eyes" to teach new and junior commanders.

Mr Chan noted: "All military operations will have inherent risks. Our job is to make sure we minimise risks... even though we cannot eliminate them altogether."

Poly student may have shorter wait for NS
By Lee Jian Xuan, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

STUDENT Brenan Koh, 19, can expect his waiting time before national service enlistment to be reduced by up to two months once he graduates in March next year.

He may also have his two-year stint shortened by a few weeks under possible changes flagged by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday.

The shorter NS stint will "give me more time to pursue other activities outside", said the second-year student in drama and applied psychology at Singapore Polytechnic.

Dr Ng told Parliament he had asked the Singapore Armed Forces to study how to cut waiting time for its yearly batch of nearly 20,000 enlistees to four to five months, from what can be a six-month wait now.

NS enlistment occurs every quarter - in March, June, September and December. Most junior college students enlist in March and December, while those at polytechnics enlist in June and September. ITE certificate holders and those with other qualifications are enlisted throughout the year.

But a longer waiting period also gives pre-enlistees a chance to get some work experience or take up lessons, said Mr Koh, who intends to take up driving and language courses while waiting for NS.

He may also spend fewer weeks on NS training as the SAF may hire more army regulars as trainers. Most incoming recruits such as Mr Koh and his elder brother, Boaz, who is enlisting later this year, are trained by second-year full-time national servicemen. More experienced full-time trainers will make the process more effective and efficient, and possibly shorten the duration, Dr Ng said.

'No formal request from KL' to review water price
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

MALAYSIA has no right to review the price of water unilaterally, and the Malaysian government understands this, Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

He added that Singapore had not received any formal request from the Malaysian government to review the price, despite media reports from Johor of a possible proposal by the Johor authorities to raise the price of the raw water it sells to Singapore.

He was responding to Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC), who had asked if Malaysia could raise the price of raw water sold to Singapore before the Water Agreement expires in 2061.

Her question was prompted by Malaysian media reports of a possible proposal by the Johor government for a water price review.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Law Minister, noted that neither country could unilaterally change the water price, just as neither could alter the terms of the 1962 agreement. He said: "This is no ordinary agreement. It was guaranteed by both governments in the Separation Agreement in 1965, which was registered with the United Nations.

"Both countries have to honour the Water Agreement and the guarantee in the Separation Agreement. Any breach of the Water Agreement would also be a breach of the Separation Agreement and of international law."

The Water Agreement provided for a review after 25 years. Specifically, there was a right to review the price of water jointly in 1987. But Mr Shanmugam said Malaysia "consciously chose not to review the price" in 1987 as it benefited greatly from the pricing then in place.

Johor buys 16 million gallons a day of treated water back from Singapore at 50 Malaysian sen per 1,000 gallons, a fraction of the true cost to Singapore for treating the water and building and maintaining purification plants.

Malaysian leaders have acknowledged this benefit and "explained that indeed that was why Malaysia made a carefully considered decision not to review the water price in 1987", he said.

He referred to then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who said in 2002 that Malaysia had not reviewed the water price in 1987 as it thought Singapore would in turn review the price of treated water it sells back to Johor Baru.

In the same year, then Johor State Assembly Speaker Zainal Abidin Mohamed Zin said the Johor government was right to not press for a review. He noted then that "Johor was dependent on Singapore for its treated water supply, and Singapore would have also increased its price of treated water sold to Johor".

Mr Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday that when Malaysia did not opt to review the price in 1987, "Singapore then took several actions, which also benefited Malaysia".

One was to build Linggiu dam in 1990 at a cost of more than $300 million. This has raised the yield of the Johor River and has enabled both Johor and Singapore to draw water from it during the current dry season, he said.

The Malaysian government understands Singapore's position, he added, welcoming its Foreign Minister's comments last month.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said then: "An agreement is an agreement. When there is an agreement, we will honour the agreement. If there is any need for review, we will forward it and if their response is positive, we will start talking."

Mr Shanmugam told the House: "It reaffirms the position Malaysia has taken previously on honouring the agreement - and indeed that cannot be in any doubt - and acknowledges that a review of the water price is possible only if Singapore agrees to such a review."

He also told Ms Lee it was premature to speculate on the impact of the possible proposal by the Johor government to review the water price, given that there have been no official approaches from Malaysia.


Enough reserves to react to situations *
Home Team will adapt deployment posture to meet needs: DPM Teo
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

THE Home Team has enough reserve forces to handle emergencies, and will adapt its deployment posture accordingly for operational needs, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said yesterday.

This way of structuring the force has also allowed for a "tiered response", he added after MPs raised questions about the Home Team's ability to handle such situations in the light of the Little India riot.

Mr Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister, noted that it was not possible to predict "to the last detail" what could happen, nor was it viable to keep separate, dedicated squads from the Home Team on high alert all the time.

But the unit had organised its forces so that sufficient back-up was on hand to help it adapt and respond to whatever situation arose, he added.

Different situations - whether a street parade, an international sporting event or a civil disaster - required different deployments, depending on the level of the security threat, said Mr Teo.

All Home Team officers are trained to handle all kinds of situations, such as riot control and other public order and security threats, on top of their core work.

The minister noted that the ongoing Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riot was examining "how the response forces managed" the Dec 8 incident.

Mr Teo said officers' testimonies at the inquiry showed they had to take into consideration many factors during the "fluid and fast-moving incident", adding that this is what should be done before arriving at any decisions.

The Home Affairs Ministry and the police and civil defence forces will study the committee's recommendations as part of a review of public order management and response capabilities, he added.

Several MPs, including Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), also asked about the use and training of auxiliary police officers. These officers featured in recent high-profile incidents involving the Home Team, such as the riot and a security breach at the Woodlands Checkpoint in January.

Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran said auxiliary officers received basic training and specialised training in their specific tasks. All of them are required to pass a basic course.

As the Home Team's operational needs had grown over the years, the auxiliary officers were needed to complement and support the force, said Mr Iswaran.

Although more Home Team officers have been hired - manpower has risen from about 19,000 to 24,000 over the past decade - there were limits to how much it can grow without compromising standards, he added.

Mr Iswaran explained that auxiliary officers are used only in very specific areas such as facilities protection, inmate escort and provision of emergency ambulance services.

"This allows Home Team officers to focus on duties and situations requiring more specialised skills or a higher level of judgment and decision," he said.

This echoed a point made by Mr Teo earlier, that the authorities had to be realistic.

He said: "Can we continue to recruit good men and women of high quality to train them to do all the general purpose work that is required... and then we deploy them to do very simple mundane duties?"

* What DPM said about reserve forces

THE Straits Times yesterday reported what Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament with the headline "Enough reserves to react to situations". DPM Teo did not say this.

He described the approach for responding to situations that are difficult to anticipate, and which may happen only once in a very long while, but can have very serious consequences, or which might not have even been anticipated at all.

As it is not possible to set aside dedicated resources at high alert for every single eventuality all of the time, the approach is to structure our forces to provide a tiered response, building in some redundancies and reserves, so that forces can be placed at the required level of alert, deployment and response, according to the threat or risk assessment for each eventuality.

However, the question of whether the overall size and design of the response and reserve are "enough" is always subject to review, and is also one of the subjects the Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riot is currently looking into.

Yap Neng Jye
Press Secretary to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs
ST Forum, 8 Mar 2014

Police to wear body cameras
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

POLICE officers here will wear body cameras from the middle of the year, as part of a pilot project to boost front-line policing.

Announcing the move in Parliament yesterday, Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran cited how police forces in countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada have benefited from the use of this technology.

“Such cameras and their recordings have been useful in deterring crime, calming rowdy members of the public and providing valuable investigative leads,” he said.

The cameras will be worn on the front of an officer’s shirt. Private security firms told The Straits Times they do not use such cameras, but lauded the move as effective in combating crime.

Former police officer and chief executive of security company Soverus Group, Mr Paul Lim, said: “A picture is worth a thousand words. Like the cameras installed in taxis, these will be a good source of evidence for investigative purposes.”

Freelance security consultant Julian Tan added that this will introduce more accountability.

“It documents the police and their behaviour, and ensures they follow the proper protocol,” said Mr Tan, who has seen similar cameras, like the GoPro, being used by military and private security forces in countries such as Thailand, the United States, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The use of such cameras has recently cast the spotlight on weapon abuse by police officers.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, video footage from a police officer’s lapel camera showed that in October last year, he had fired eight shots at a suspected carjacker who was running away, even though an earlier police account claimed the suspect had threatened the officer with a handgun.

Mr Iswaran, however, said that leveraging on technology is an “important element” in the fight against crime. Between May 2012 and January this year, footage from police cameras installed in HDB blocks and multi-storey carparks have helped to solve 48 crimes, and generated investigative leads for 195 other cases.

Cameras are installed in more than 2,000 HDB blocks and multi-storey carparks, and another 1,000 HDB blocks and carparks are expected to be similarly equipped this year.

All 10,000 HDB blocks and multi-storey carparks are set to have cameras by 2016.


Boost for electricity retail market and solar power use
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

SINGAPORE'S energy market will get a boost, after several measures unveiled yesterday by the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

To promote more competition in the electricity retail market, the threshold for allowing consumers to choose their electricity retailer will be lowered from next month.

The Government will also aim to boost the adoption of solar power, starting with government buildings and spaces, Second Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran said during the Committee of Supply debate.

Under existing rules, about 8,000 large consumers who use more than 10 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity per month can choose their retailer.

This threshold will be lowered to 8 MWh from April 1, and then to 4 MWh from Oct 1.

The change will allow 15,000 more consumers to choose their electricity retailer and sign on to packages that best suit their needs, said Mr Iswaran.

He added that 15 town councils have already signed up and will collectively enjoy a discount of at least 10 per cent off the regulated tariff.

This works out to an estimated $640,000 in monthly savings.

The minister said companies will also benefit from the change, as they will be able to aggregate demand across various locations to meet the lower threshold and choose a retailer which offers the most competitive price.

The Energy Market Authority is studying the further expansion of the contestable segment of the market over the next few years to include all consumers, including households, said Mr Iswaran.

More will also be done to encourage the use of renewable energy, especially solar power.

"Among the various renewable energy options, solar has the greatest potential for wider deployment in Singapore," said the minister.

The Government aims to boost the adoption of solar power in Singapore's system to 350 megawatt-peak (MWp) by 2020.

This is about 5 per cent of peak electricity demand in 2020, a significant increase from Singapore's existing 15 MWp of solar power capacity.

The Economic Development Board will work with government agencies to deploy solar power across government buildings and spaces, said Mr Iswaran.

"This 'SolarNova' programme will also catalyse the growth of the clean-energy sector, and create opportunities for Singapore businesses," he added.

SMEs to get Headstart help from A*Star
Scheme will offer royalty-free, exclusive IP licences
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

SMALLER companies keen to invest in technology and research and development now have more resources to tap on.

A new scheme will give small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that work with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) 18 months of royalty-free and exclusive licences for intellectual property that stems from the collaboration.

It is aimed at SMEs that need time to translate technology and intellectual property into commercial products and services.

More than 700 such companies have undertaken about 2,200 projects with A*star over the past five years.

A*Star will also expand its Technology Adoption Programme (TAP) to cover more sectors, Second Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran said.

TAP was introduced last July, and aims to help companies adopt technology by connecting them to appropriate vendors in both the public and private sectors.

It began covering the construction, food manufacturing, precision engineering, marine, aerospace and retail sectors, but will be extended

to the food services, health care, logistics and infocommunication media sectors.

Almost 200 companies from these initial industries have adopted new technologies as part of the programme.

The number of A*star technology licences going to SMEs has tripled in the past five years, Mr Philip Lim, chief executive of A*Star's technology transfer arm Exploit Technologies, said in a statement yesterday.

"In the drive for productivity improvements and quality growth, research and development and innovation are key differentiators for our SMEs," he said.

S'pore working to develop its own 'mini-Silicon Valley'
By Yasmine Yahya, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

SINGAPORE is taking steps to develop its own version of Silicon Valley, with government landlord JTC setting aside more space in the one-north precinct in Ayer Rajah to nurture and develop start-ups.

"This compact, seven-storey block provides a collaborative environment for like-minded entrepreneurs," he told the House.

"By the end of this year, JTC will open two more blocks as part of an incubation cluster called JTC LaunchPad@one-north."

The three blocks are Block 71 and next to it, Blocks 73 and 79. They will nurture start-ups and incubators in promising industries such as biomedical sciences, electronics and engineering, Mr Teo said.

The expansion will double the community at one-north to 500 start-ups and 2,000 entrepreneurs and provide more common spaces for start-ups to interact, share ideas and make deals.

Block 73 is a three-storey building that can house up to 80 start-ups, while Block 79 is a five-storey building to be converted into a multi-tenanted facility for at least 150 start-ups.

The conversion of both blocks is expected to be completed by the end of the year, the Ministry of Trade and Industry said in a statement, adding that the nurturing environment will provide start-ups with networking and collaboration opportunities with like-minded young companies.

"Hopefully we can create our own mini-Silicon Valley. If there is sufficient demand, the Government will consider creating more start-up clusters around Singapore," Mr Teo said.

The start-ups at Block 71 are engaged in a broad range of activities, from digital marketing services to making jackets for autistic children.

Mr Rishi Kumar, co-founder of chappati maker Zimplistic, which has its office in Block 71, welcomed the Government's move, saying that nurturing a strong community of start-ups in Singapore would promote innovation.

"Being at Block 71 is fantastic, the ecosystem here is good," he added. "We have the support of other start-ups in the area and everything is very accessible."

Mr Leslie Loh, managing director of venture capital firm Red Dot Ventures, said the move to start LaunchPad was a sign of the maturing of the start-up ecosystem. "It is in the right location, next to research institutes, and that will foster a strong community among start-ups. The Government has always been there to support the start-up community and this move is one more building block."

Rental data to be more transparent
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

This is in response to feedback from a national Small and Medium-sized Enterprise (SME) work group that looks into how the Government can better help such firms, said Mr Teo Ser Luck, Minister of State for Trade and Industry, in Parliament yesterday.

His ministry and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) are looking into publishing the data, he added.

Responding to MPs' questions about helping businesses with rising land and space costs, Mr Teo said rents for space are likely to moderate in the medium term as the Government has released "a significant amount of land".

About 145,000 sq m of new shop space will be completed each year over the next three years.

Over the same period, 500,000 sq m of multiple-user factory space will also be made available each year.

The new supply is more than double the average annual demand for such spaces over the last three years.

On MPs' concerns about the impact of real estate investment trusts on rents, Mr Teo said Reits are not the leading players in the market.

Reits own about 13 per cent and 16 per cent of retail and industrial rental spaces respectively.

"Like any other landlord, they have to compete in the rental market to attract tenants and cannot charge excessive rents," he said.

The Government will continue to monitor the rental market and will intervene if there is evidence of collusion or abuse of market dominance by any player, including Reits, Mr Teo added.

In drive for tech, don't forget it's really all about people
No matter how many machines or grants, if people fail, the system fails
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

THE soldier on the ground will be "networked", able to communicate with the pilot in the air and the navy officer at sea. They can plan and coordinate military action. So says Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

The Home Team is using technology to fight and deter crime, including putting up closed-circuit television cameras in all 10,000 Housing Board blocks and multi-storey carparks by 2016, up from 2,000 now. That is according to Second Home Affairs Minister S. Iswaran.

SMRT train depots and other installations have "smart fences" that detect intrusions faster than patrols can. And wanton mee al dente comes courtesy of a machine. These examples come from Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan.

Yesterday's debate on the budgets of the Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs, and Trade and Industry was remarkable for technology's starring role.

It is a stirring story in many ways. As Dr Ng reminded the House, Singapore's air force began by borrowing a lone Cessna from the Singapore Flying Club. Its navy began with two wooden hull boats that could not go too far. The communications system began with six high frequency radio sets inherited from the 4th Malaysian Signals Squadron.

Today, the Singapore Armed Forces is a professional, modern military force capable of carrying out missions in the "unfamiliar seas off Somalia, the air space over Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan".

For the Home Team, Mr Iswaran could report: "Over a period of 21 months, footage from police cameras have been used to solve 48 crime cases and generate investigative leads for a further 195 cases."

What is next? Body cameras worn by police officers, which help deter crime, calm rowdy crowd members and aid investigations.

The ability to harness technology is a key driver in another national effort: The push for higher productivity as the economy restructures.

MP Inderjit Singh once again spoke up for struggling businesses, urging a re-look at the pace of restructuring: "There is no doubt that we need to make productivity improvements, and future growth needs to be productivity-driven - but the rate at which we are doing is going to hurt many companies that could have made it in a bit of longer term, but they could have been hurt so badly that they can't even cross the hurdle, and end up folding...

"We could end up in a situation where companies fold, and then jobs will be lost, and I think the situation actually could be very serious."

Mr Lim replied that the ministries involved had regular dialogues with business groups, at the sectoral level and with individual companies, promising: "We will monitor this very closely."

To be sure, technology is a great enabler. And a small country like Singapore, with too many demands on its tiny resident population of 3.84 million, has to be smart about its use of technology.

But it is good to remember that the best use of technology may not be to replace people, but to use it to connect people for a good purpose.

Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean mentioned one good example.

Volunteers are being trained to use AEDs, a device that can give a jolt to the heart for heart attack victims. A national registry will locate where these AEDs are sited.

Tying these all together, the Singapore Civil Defence Force is developing a mobile app that can alert volunteers trained in life-saving techniques to medical emergencies in their vicinity, so these volunteers can get to the person in need to provide a first response, even before the emergency ambulance arrives.

Those trained in the use of AEDs can help save heart attack victims. If someone is choking, the CPR-trained volunteer can give the kiss of life. That is a great use of location-based technology.

But I wonder sometimes if we in Singapore get a little bit too caught up in the pursuit of targets and the gee-whiz aspect of technology, that we forget that in the end, it is all about people.

No matter how many machines you put in place, or how much money you pour into grants, if the people fail, the system fails.

In this respect, I hope the Government pays heed to the words of Mr Singh, and Nominated MPs R. Dhinakaran and Teo Siong Seng, who have all in their various ways urged close attention to the pace of restructuring.

In their replies, the ministers and their deputies unrolled a slew of programmes to aid companies: productivity grants, talent programmes, financing grants.

Maybe it wasn't the right ministry, but there wasn't much about what will be done to help the people affected.

Company bosses may go bankrupt. Workers will lose jobs. Can technology help them then?

In the end, it is always good to remember that people matter. They matter first, and they matter most.

And if change proceeds at a pace faster than people can cope with, sometimes, all they need is a breather so they can continue the race.

Help schemes galore for small firms
By Yasmine Yahya, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

WHEN the Government first launched Singapore's economic restructuring drive four years ago, tightening the supply of cheap foreign labour and encouraging companies to embrace productivity, many businesses asked for a U-turn.

The answer then was a firm "no".

Now that the message has been received, several MPs yesterday requested on behalf of business owners that the pace of restructuring be slowed down just a little, so that no company would be left behind.

But once again, the business fraternity will have to accept "no" for an answer.

Even as several MPs yesterday raised their concerns that the pace of change in economic policies, coupled with high costs, are crippling small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the Government made plain that it will not slow down the restructuring drive.

Going by the experience of previous years, it would seem that SME bosses who face up to the new reality sooner rather than later will be better able to adjust and get their companies back on the growth track quicker.

Of course, this journey will not be an easy one, but the Government has provided a plethora of assistance schemes that cater to firms of all sizes and across all industries.

Virtually any home-grown company in Singapore would be able to benefit from at least one of the schemes offered by the different agencies, from the Inland Revenue Authority to the Intellectual Property Office.

And these schemes are becoming ever more generous in the support they provide to companies - at least those that are willing to help themselves first.

A business owner who wants to embark on the productivity journey just has to find out what schemes are out there and which ones could be used to help his firm.

And there are 11 SME centres, including satellite centres in each of the five Community Development Councils, where he could go to get free advice on which schemes he could potentially benefit from.

As Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck noted, these business advisers could even visit the company's office or shop to observe its business operations and offer customised advice.

There are schemes to help SMEs with the cost of hiring a productivity consultant who could study the firm and suggest ways to improve processes. There are schemes to then help the SME with the cost of implementing these improvements.

A scheme to help firms with the cost of travelling to a trade fair overseas so that it can network with potential customers in a new market? Check. A scheme to help companies find part-timers who can meet its staffing needs? Check.

A common complaint among SMEs and their advocates is that most of these schemes benefit larger firms, but an anecdote that Mr Teo shared in Parliament yesterday clearly shows this is not true.

Aftershock PC, which builds customised gaming laptops, was a small firm with just three employees when it sought assistance from an SME Centre. A business adviser visited the company, noted that it needed more manpower and introduced it to the SME Talent Programme, through which it found future employee Kwan Suan Qing.

Aftershock also tapped on the Productivity and Innovation Credit to invest in building an online shop, which has made its orders more accurate and less labour intensive.

Neither is it true that traditional firms cannot embrace technology. Spring Singapore shared at a recent briefing the story of Eng Soon Dry Beancurd Manufacturing. The firm received funding support from the Capability Development Grant to buy a machine that automated its packaging process. Now, it needs just three workers at a time to oversee this process, down from six previously.

Change is never easy, but now is the time for SME bosses to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit that got them into business in the first place and find the gumption to adapt, with some help from the Government. After all, the vibrancy of Singapore's economy will depend on their ability to do so.

ICA to consider 2nd update of ICs
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

THE Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) will consider allowing citizens and permanent residents to update and replace their identity card for a second time when they are older.

This is especially relevant as life expectancy rises, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said yesterday.

Now, citizens and PRs must register for an NRIC (National Registration Identity Card) at 15 and re-register with an updated photograph when they turn 30.

Mr Baey said replacing NRICs at 50 and 70 would help capture the "visible changes" to facial features as people age.

"It is not possible that a person looks the same at ages 30 and 80," he added.

Mr Baey, who said the change would improve security, noted that passports remain valid for just five years.

"Who am I to challenge someone who insists that he is the person in the IC photo, just that he has put on weight, lost weight or the photo was taken on a bad hair day?" he asked.

With plastic surgery becoming more common, it is important for people to keep ICA updated on facial feature changes so facial identification stays effective, he said.

The card should also be replaced regularly as it can be subject to wear and tear, particularly if card holders work in jobs that require them to present it frequently, said Mr Baey.

He added that some people could find it hard to foot the $60 fee for replacing a damaged card.

Mr Masagos said the vast majority of cards, since the current type was introduced in 1991, are still in good condition.

However, the ICA will consider waiving replacement fees for people with financial difficulties or whose cards were damaged due to situations beyond their control, such as in accidents or fires.

Banking curbs to combat loan sharks
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

Second Home Affairs Minister S. Iswaran said yesterday that the police and banks here will work together on a new three-year trial, aimed at preventing loan sharks from making use of fund transfer facilities of their debtors.

Those caught assisting loan sharks will be denied the banking services for at least 12 months.

Study on remote gambling restrictions
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

MOST respondents in a public consultation on proposals to restrict remote gambling were in favour of the Government implementing measures to block it.

There were, however, mixed views on whether a limited form of remote gambling - which includes mobile and Internet gambling - should be permitted, said Second Home Affairs Minister S. Iswaran.

He said the Ministry of Home Affairs will now study the feedback received, as well as the experience of other jurisdictions, over the next few months, before deciding on a course of action.

Cannabis, Ice abuse a 'serious concern'
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2014

DRUGS such as cannabis and methamphetamines, better known as Ice, have been gaining popularity among Singapore's youth.

Those caught using these drugs accounted for 73 per cent of new abusers arrested last year.

In addition, nearly 64 per cent of these suspects were younger than 30, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said yesterday, calling it a "serious concern".

And while the overall drug situation in Singapore is "contained", the regional drug situation, which is expected to worsen, will continue to pose challenges for the authorities.

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