Wednesday 16 April 2014

Parliament Highlights - 14 Apr 2014

More checks on security barriers at checkpoint
Leaking hydraulic fluid to blame for barrier's failure to stop car: DPM Teo
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

SECURITY barriers at the Woodlands Checkpoint will get new hydraulic components, and will be checked daily, as more measures are put in place to prevent a repeat of the recent security breaches there.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean revealed this in Parliament yesterday as news emerged that yet another driver had been arrested for trying to evade clearance at the checkpoint on Sunday, following two security breaches there in recent months.

On March 8, a 64-year-old man drove through a barrier, barely two months after a former teacher from Malaysia sneaked into Singapore by tailgating another car at the checkpoint.

Yesterday, Mr Teo explained for the first time why the cat-claw barrier, which flips out and damages car tyres, had failed to stop Malaysian Tan Chu Seng on March 8, despite being activated.

It turned out that leaking hydraulic fluid was to blame.

Responding to questions from MPs, Mr Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister, said the hydraulic fluid in one of the barrier's cylinder seals had leaked out. The cylinder seals are the components that raise and keep the barrier in place.

Thus, the barrier could not maintain its position. That was why Tan managed to drive through the barrier, damaging it in the process, after he was stopped for a routine boot inspection that day. He has since been charged with committing a rash act and with vandalism.

Yesterday, Mr Teo also said the barrier had failed despite having been serviced on Feb 18, less than a month before the incident.

To prevent a repeat, security barriers at the checkpoint will now be checked daily, instead of once every three months, he said.

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) will also be deploying tracking vehicles, which will chase down those who manage to leave the checkpoint without clearing immigration and Customs checks, he added. He acknowledged yesterday that five hours - the time taken to find and nab Tan - was a "long time".

These are on top of measures already put in place to strengthen security at the checkpoint following the recent incidents. For example, the ICA had also tightened coordination with the police and deployed mobile crash barriers.

Mr Teo said a ministry-level review committee, chaired by Senior Deputy Secretary of the Home Affairs Ministry Khoo Boon Hui and comprising senior representatives from the ICA, police, Internal Security Department and other Home Team agencies, has been formed to review security measures and identify systemic issues.

But even as he sought to assure the House that security at the Woodlands Checkpoint was being taken seriously, he added that the recent security breaches "show the scale and complexity of the checkpoint operations".

Besides maintaining border security, Singapore's land checkpoints also have to facilitate the swift and secure clearance of people and goods, he noted, adding that it was not easy to strike the right balance.

Manpower at the checkpoints had been boosted since the mid- 2000s, but infrastructural constraints had resulted in some delay to clearance of vehicles, he said. That is why the ICA has also moved to increase the capacity of the checkpoints to alleviate congestion, he added.

For instance, it had opened up the old Woodlands Checkpoint and also put in more counters over the years to accommodate the traffic flowing through the checkpoint. Another 30 counters for cars will be added by 2016.

By the middle of this year, all work permit and S Pass holders will also be automatically enrolled on the ICA's automated clearance systems, making 95 per cent of all Malaysian motorcycle trips eligible for automated clearance. Some 72,000 motorcycles pass through the checkpoints daily, so this will free up some of the counters for other vehicles.

These measures will help to "strike a better balance between speed of clearance" and tight security, said Mr Teo.

He added that despite recent incidents, the ICA has been "reasonably effective" at deterring and containing such incidents.

"There will always be attempts by people to evade Customs or immigration checks at the borders and this is not unique to Singapore... but overall, I would say that our border security is very tight," he said.

Man charged with trying to evade immigration clearance
By Walter Sim And Elena Chong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

A MALAYSIAN motorist was charged yesterday with trying to evade immigration clearance at Woodlands Checkpoint on Sunday by tailgating a car.

The latest case is the third reported attempt at breaching the checkpoint this year.

The cases were raised in Parliament yesterday, as Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean sought to assure members of the House that the Government is committed to ensuring the security of Singapore's borders.

Among measures that have been introduced are daily inspections of the security barriers.

A "cat claw" barrier failed to stop Tan Chu Seng, 64, from driving through it last month, sparking a five-hour manhunt.

DPM Teo, who is also the Minister for Home Affairs, revealed yesterday that hydraulic fluid had leaked from one of the cylinder seals for raising and maintaining the cat claw's position.

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) is replacing hydraulic components in all its security barriers, he said, adding that Sunday's incident shows that tight checks are required on both sides of the border.

Koh Chin Had, a 42-year-old hawker from Johor Baru, allegedly tried to enter Singapore illegally on Sunday by tailgating the car in front of him. He was said to be alone and had no travel documents on him. Koh arrived at the checkpoint in his Perodua Kembara at 12.20pm. As he tried to bypass immigration, an ICA officer sounded an alarm. The arrival car zone was locked down, trapping the car.

Unrepresented in court yesterday, Koh said he intends to plead guilty to one charge of failing to stop his car at the point of entry. This carries a maximum penalty of a $2,000 fine and six months' jail. A second charge of failing to present a passport for clearance will be taken into consideration for sentencing. His guilty plea is scheduled to be taken today.

Unlike Koh, who was arrested immediately, teacher Nurul Rohana Ishak, 27, was arrested three days after entering Singapore on Jan 17.

Delivery driver Tan faces charges of committing a rash act for allegedly causing injury to an auxiliary police officer and vandalism for purportedly damaging the cat claw when he drove into it. His case was mentioned in court yesterday. A pre-trial conference was set for May 7.

About 7,000 passports stolen or lost a year
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

ABOUT 7,000 Singapore passports were reported lost or stolen each year over the past five years, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli told Parliament yesterday.

In the same period, an average of about 350 travellers each year were found holding forged or tampered travel documents across all the checkpoints in Singapore, or presented documents that did not belong to them.

Mr Masagos gave these figures in response to questions tabled by five MPs on passport infringements in the wake of reports that two passengers on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 had used stolen passports.

When a report is received that a passport is lost or has been stolen, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore (ICA) will immediately cancel the passport and update its database, said Mr Masagos.

It will also send relevant information to international criminal police organisation Interpol.

Since 2008, the authority has been using Interpol's database as part of its passport documentation process.

The database contains information on more than 40 million travel documents that have been reported stolen or lost by 167 countries.

"Singapore is one of several Interpol member states that cross-check travellers' passports against this database, accessing it about 29 million times a year, to determine if a passport presented had been reported lost or stolen," said Mr Masagos.

He added that ICA works with global partners to exchange information on lost and stolen travel documents to deter cases of passport infringements.

New Singapore passports with stronger security and protection features such as biometric technology have also been issued. Biometric passports have a computer chip that is typically embedded with the passport holder's thumbprint.

There are also several layers of checks at checkpoints to detect stolen or forged passports, said Mr Masagos.

Measures taken to maintain law & order in Geylang
By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia, 14 Apr 2014

Authorities remain committed to maintaining law and order in Geylang, and will take additional measures where necessary.

Second Home Affairs Minister S Iswaran gave this assurance on Monday, as he responded to a parliamentary question from the area's Member of Parliament Fatimah Lateef, who wanted an update on the management of disamenities caused by vice activities.

Measures undertaken by the police include increasing manpower.

The Geylang Neighbourhood Police Centre has about 160 officers - 60 per cent more than staffing in other centres.

Special Operations Command (SOC) troops are also deployed in the area on a regular basis.

CCTVs and street lights were added to the back alleys and side lanes to deter streetwalking and other illegal activities.

Mr Iswaran said police will add 160 more CCTV cameras around the area.

The various measures have resulted in some illegal activities being contained.

Mr Iswaran said the number of major offences in Geylang has fallen by 36 per cent since 2008.

Geylang was in the spotlight recently when Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee said Geylang poses "a clear and present danger to public order", more so than Little India. He was speaking at the Committee of Inquiry into the riot.

Mr Iswaran said the comment should be taken in context.

The commissioner was sharing police tactics and challenges they face across Singapore with the COI, and he had highlighted Geylang as an example.

He said the situation in Geylang does pose specific challenges to the police and authorities recognise this.

Mr Iswaran said that is why there have been specific additional measures in place.

He added Commissioner Ng’s comment was also about police having to continually evaluate different operational needs on the ground to allocate resources.

Dr Fatimah had asked: "Would it not be better if we can actually solve the root cause of the problem? Then the manpower can be diverted to other more important issues in Singapore, at the national level?"

Mr Iswaran replied: "I'm not sure what (Dr Fatimah) means by the root cause of the problem and indeed whether it can be eradicated.

“But if she means by that, removing it from the Geylang area, whilst it may solve her problem, it would become somebody else's problem and certainly for the police and for the Ministry of Home Affairs, it would remain a pressing problem."

One-third of newer maids get weekly rest day: MOM
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

JUST over a third of maids who started working in Singapore last year received a weekly rest day.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) said yesterday that of some 2,000 who were surveyed, 37 per cent had one rest day a week.

The rule mandating one rest day per week or compensation in lieu kicked in on Jan 1 last year.

Three years ago, only 13 per cent of some 900 maids surveyed received a weekly rest day, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower and Education Hawazi Daipi in Parliament, calling the change "encouraging".

The ministry also found that 61 per cent of the maids interviewed received at least one rest day a month, up from 53 per cent in the 2010 survey.

Mr Hawazi said that from Jan 1 next year, all maids will be on new employment contracts that will have to abide by the weekly rest day requirement. Contracts last for two years.

"A rest day provides (maids) with a reprieve from their duties, much like how all of us Singaporeans need a break from our work," he said, adding that MOM would continue to work with partners to provide avenues for maids to spend their rest days productively.

Although the improvement was heartening, Nominated MP Eugene Tan said that "at 37 per cent for what is supposed to be a mandatory rest day... the figure is actually quite low".

He and MP Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) asked how the "unequal" bargaining positions of maids and employers could be managed.

Replying, Mr Hawazi said: "There are avenues for them to resolve their differences."

For example, employers and maids can seek assistance from the employment agency that oversaw the rest day agreement, or from MOM.

Earlier, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin revealed that the number of maids whom the ministry helped last year was almost a third lower than the average in the previous two years, while the number of foreign workers assisted had halved. This is despite both populations growing.

The number of maids whom MOM helped fell to fewer than 500 last year, down from around 700 each in the previous two years. Salary disputes and illegal deployment were prevalent issues.

MOM also assisted around 7,000 foreign workers last year, down from 14,000 each in the previous two years. Employment-related issues formed the top cause for complaint, and included claims for salary or overtime payments. These made up about half of the cases.

A spokesman for the ministry said that the bulk of the decrease for this group was due to far fewer instances of unacceptable housing, such as unapproved factories housing large numbers of foreign workers.

More local workers, however, approached MOM for help in resolving issues related to employment and work injury compensation.

The ministry saw around 3,800 such cases last year, up from an average of 3,400 each in the previous two years.

Mr Tan said this could be due to increased awareness among workers. "We have stepped up our efforts to ensure workers understand their rights considerably and I think this is the impact of that," he said.

Govt used close to maximum allowed returns on reserves
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

THE Government has used close to the maximum allowed investment returns on Singapore's reserves in its last five Budgets.

It spent on average just above 47 per cent of these returns for the 2009 to 2013 financial years.

This financial year, it will tap the maximum amount of 50 per cent of these returns, following the projected Budget deficit.

Keeping within these limits reflects a prudent approach to fiscal spending, said Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in a written parliamentary reply yesterday.

He was responding to Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam's question on what percentage of the returns had gone into the Budgets of the last five years.

For its Budgets, the Government is allowed to use up to half of the long-term expected returns from investing past reserves.

These are net assets managed by the sovereign wealth fund GIC, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Temasek Holdings.

Mr Tharman, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, said the Government generally budgets to take in 50 per cent of these net returns at the start of each financial year, though the actual amount used may vary. This can be due to differences between the estimated net investment returns and the returns actually produced.

These investment returns will "remain an important source of revenue over the long term" because government spending will increase over time, he added.

"It is therefore vital that we spend in a disciplined way, and ensure sustained benefits from the returns on our reserves," he said.

"We should spend to achieve desired outcomes, rather than spend to the last dollar available."

This portion of the Budget has been about $7 billion to $8 billion annually, he said.

The 2014 Budget is expected to have a deficit of $1.2 billion.

That is after accounting for the $8 billion set aside for the Pioneer Generation Fund, which provides help for the health-care costs of 450,000 senior citizens aged 65 and over this year.

An estimated $8.1 billion will be taken from the net investment returns for this Budget, up from $7.9 billion the year before.

Vouchers offset over 90% of GST paid by needy
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

MORE than 90 per cent of the goods and services tax (GST) paid by lower-income households was offset by the GST vouchers they received last year.

These households also receive benefits in other areas such as education, housing and health care which are "far more than the taxes they pay".

He had asked what percentage of GST paid by the lowest 20 per cent of households by income had been offset by all forms of GST vouchers on average last year.

For these households, regular GST vouchers offset about half the GST they pay, said Mrs Teo.

If the one-off GST voucher special payment announced in Budget 2013 is included, the benefits from the GST voucher scheme cover more than 90 per cent of the GST paid, she added.

The GST voucher scheme is a permanent feature of the social safety net which began in 2012.

Its benefits are given out in cash, Medisave top-ups and utility rebates.

But the scheme is not the only form of rebate on the GST paid by lower-income households, said Mrs Teo.

"The GST voucher is part of a progressive system of taxes and benefits that ensures that lower-income households get back far more benefits than the taxes they pay, including GST," said Mrs Teo.

"These include childcare subsidies, financial assistance from school till tertiary education, Workfare, special and additional housing grants, and health-care subsidies. The GST that they pay is hence far more than offset by the benefits they receive."

Mr Giam, in a follow-up question, asked about the Government's philosophy behind the scheme. Mrs Teo replied that it was to ensure some form of permanent support for lower-income households who pay GST.

"It exists as part of a broader set of benefits that are provided to different households.

"It is within this context that the GST scheme is designed, so we look at the benefits that are provided to households holistically," she said.

RSAF has robust air defence system to protect airspace: Ng Eng Hen
By Chitra Kumar, Channel NewsAsia, 14 Apr 2014

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has a robust air defence system to monitor the skies and protect the sovereignty of the country's airspace.

Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said this in a written Parliamentary reply to Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Gerald Giam.

Dr Ng said RSAF works closely with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore to detect and identify aircraft through its suite of radars before they enter Singapore's airspace.

If an aircraft veers off its flight path, a series of preventive measures will be triggered.

First, air traffic controllers will communicate with the aircraft to verify its reason for veering off its flight path.

If there are doubts regarding the intent of the aircraft or the aircraft does not adhere to air traffic control directions, RSAF fighter aircraft will be activated to intercept the aircraft.

Ground-based air defence systems will also be activated.

Good news for SMEs: Rents likely to drop
More factory and shop space available in next few years
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

RETAILERS and industrialists can expect rents to decline in the coming years, said Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck yesterday.

In the next three years, about 500,000 sq m of multiple- user factory space will become available each year.

In the same period, 145,000 sq m of new shop space will be completed yearly as well. This is double the average annual demand for such spaces in the last three years, he said.

Mr Teo was replying to Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) who had asked if the Government was taking steps to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) cope with rising costs, especially rents.

Median retail rents have gone up in line with inflation based on data from January 2012 to May last year, Mr Teo said.

The median is the midpoint of a range.

While one in 10 tenants experienced rent increases of more than 50 per cent during this 15-month period, they tend to be tenants renewing their leases after more than four years, or who had units in more attractive locations, he added.

For about one in four tenants, rents either remained unchanged or declined.

While the Government has provided property tax rebates in the past to help reduce business costs during severe economic downturns, such measures are “not necessary” as “current economic conditions are sound and rentals are expected to moderate”, he added.

Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) said instances of landlords demanding rent increases of “as high as 100 per cent” continue to contribute to public perception that rents are escalating.

“The perception seems to be persistent... and that perception has to be addressed,” she added, calling for more transparent rental data to be made available “as soon as possible”.

Replying Mr Teo said the Government will continue to keep an eye on the rental market to make sure that SMEs do not face “tremendous” rent hikes.

It is still in the process of collecting rental data from various market stakeholders, with the aim of making comprehensive shop rental data available by this year, he added.

More protection against false F&B claims
By Kenny Chee, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

A NEW law will beef up protection for consumers from businesses that falsely advertise their food and drink as being from brand-name locations, such as wine from Bordeaux or beef from Kobe, when they are not.

But it will not protect local businesses such as the famous Katong Laksa against false claims. That is because the ingredients of the laksa dish are likely not from Katong.

That emerged from an exchange between Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah and Mr Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), who is also a lawyer, during the debate on a Bill to improve protection offered for the labels known as "geographical indications" (GIs).

GIs are used by businesses to identify a product with the town or region it comes from, such as Darjeeling for the well-known tea leaves grown in the Indian hills.

GIs are protected here under the GI Act.

Ms Indranee said yesterday that for a product to qualify as a GI, its components would have to be grown or originate from the region the GI represents.

So for "Katong" to qualify, Ms Indranee said, "the laksa leaf would have to be a Katong laksa leaf, the rice flour (used) would have to come from rice grown in Katong and the taupok (soya bean puff) would have to come from the soya bean that was grown in Katong.

"The clams would have to be harvested there as well."

She was replying to a call by Mr De Souza to not leave out popular dishes in Singapore from being similarly protected.

The Bill passed yesterday allows businesses to register for GIs with a registry under the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.

Previously, GIs did not need to be registered here.

Ms Indranee said registration would help improve the certainty of protection for GIs.

This is because, without it, the label can only be "conclusively determined that it is a GI through a court ruling in a civil suit", she said.

Under the Bill, owners of a GI product can also request the Singapore Customs to seize goods - to be imported into or exported out of Singapore - which are suspected of violating a protected GI.

The date the Bill changes will be implemented depends on the progress of the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement.

Subsidise all World Cup telecasts? Not an option
It would not meet requirement for use of public funds: Lawrence Wong
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

SPONSORING the broadcast of all 64 World Cup matches may be the popular thing to do, but the Government will not do so.

This is because to use public funds in that way would not achieve the "delicate balance" required to protect consumers' interest, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

He gave the Government's stand on the use of Public Service Broadcast (PSB) funds, in response to four Members of Parliament who asked what more could be done to make popular sports content such as the World Cup more affordable.

Singapore viewers have to pay SingTel $112 or an early-bird price of $94 - possibly the highest globally - to watch the matches that kick off in June.

But four key World Cup matches - the opening game, semi-finals and final - will be broadcast on free-to-air channels, as they are in the "anti-siphoning list" of content that pay-TV providers cannot acquire exclusively.

But if the list goes any longer, pay-TV operators would have little incentive to acquire the rights to broadcast the full set of World Cup matches.

That would then push the cost of bidding for these matches to national free-to-air broadcaster MediaCorp, Mr Wong said.

"Doing so would then divert a significant portion of PSB monies," he added.

But PSB funds, administered by the Media Development Authority (MDA), were set up to support a "diverse range" of programming, including those that promote Singapore's culture and heritage and support minority interest.

Mr Wong noted that the MDA had to be wary of populist measures that may backfire and leave consumers "even worse-off".

Responding to Mr Baey Yam Keng's (Tampines GRC) question on how prices would be affected if all the World Cup matches were included in the anti-siphoning list, Mr Wong said: "This is not a matter of (SingTel) profiting or getting a handsome dividend from acquiring this package.

"For all the revenues that (SingTel) is getting from the World Cup content, it probably will not be able to cover the cost."

Moreover, placing an event on the anti-siphoning list does not mean the programmes will be free, he said, reminding the House that Singapore does not set the price for premium sports content that is rising globally.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Workers' Party's Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) asked if a review of policies that govern the broadcast of popular sporting events would be considered.

They also questioned the effectiveness of the cross-carriage regime, which requires pay-TV operators to share exclusive content.

Defending the rules, Mr Wong said that the intent of cross-carriage is not to regulate content prices.

"We should not judge its effectiveness in terms of whether content prices have dropped."

But he said that the anti-siphoning list and cross-carriage rules would be reviewed in due course.

Football, security and striking a delicate balance
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

ONE has to do with Singaporeans' love for football, and another pertains to just how watertight Singapore's border security is.

The World Cup broadcasting rights and breaches at the Woodlands Checkpoint may seem like disparate matters, but the discussion of both topics in the House eventually centred around just how far the Government should go in protecting Singaporeans and their interests.

As two ministers took pains to explain yesterday, the authorities must consider the implications of policies that seem attractive initially, but which can lead to adverse knock-on effects.

First, several MPs were not short on ideas on what could be done so that a wider segment of the population, especially the less well-off, could enjoy the World Cup games after news that the cost of signing up with SingTel was $112.

Despite a cross-carriage rule that will mean StarHub subscribers get to enjoy the matches for the same price, Singapore is still among the most expensive places in the world to catch the tournament beyond the opening match, semi-finals and final.

These are being screened for free on state-funded MediaCorp.

Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng asked what would happen if all 64 matches were placed on a special Media Development Authority (MDA) list.

That would mean the matches could all be shown on free-to-air television, as a pay-TV retailer would not be able to acquire the content on an exclusive basis.

This may sound good on paper, but taxpayers are eventually saddled with the bill, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong pointed out, as placing programmes on this so-called anti-siphoning list does not mean they will be free.

Mr Wong, who is also Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, added: "Pay-TV operators will then have little incentive to acquire the matches. Instead, the cost burden will have to be borne largely by the free-to-air broadcaster."

This is because a fee must still be paid to Fifa, the rights-holder for the World Cup, no matter who wins the right to screen the matches.

An "overly long" list of World Cup matches on the list can lead to unintended consequences, and having all the matches on it would also mean diverting a "significant portion" of funds set aside for public broadcasting. These go to supporting a variety of programmes, including support for minority channels, as well as shows that promote local heritage.

The bottom line? A delicate balance has to be struck, and the interests of all Singaporeans, not just the soccer-loving ones, must be served.

The MDA "should not be hasty to adopt populist measures that ultimately backfire, leaving consumers even worse-off", said Mr Wong.

In the area of security, there has been much discussion on whether the checks at Singapore's checkpoints are sufficient, given the two immigration breaches at Woodlands this year, and continuing concerns over Singapore being a target for terrorists.

Among the measures that have been taken, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, are expediting the installaton of more closed-circuit television cameras and enhanced security barriers at the Woodlands checkpoint.

Mobile crash barriers will also be deployed, along with tracking vehicles to apprehend those who manage to sneak through one of the world's busiest checkpoints, which sees over 300,000 people and 130,000 vehicles passing through daily.

Still, dialling up homeland security has to be weighed against the accompanying traffic hold-ups and longer waiting times it would entail, Mr Teo said.

Chua Chu Kang MP Zaqy Mohamed later wondered if manpower was an issue, prompting the minister to detail the extent to which the Government had gone to open up more lanes for immigration clearance.

"We are putting in 30 additional car counters in 2016 and today ICA is already opening up 20 of these car counters during peak periods, Sundays and public holidays," Mr Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister, said.

More than 70,000 motorcycles pass through the checkpoint daily, and 30 per cent use a biometric self-clearance system.

Some 95 per cent of Malaysian motorcycle trips will be eligible for this by the middle of the year, after all work permit and S-Pass holders are automatically enrolled.

Various steps are being taken to keep Singapore safe and secure. But it is not easy to strike a balance between facilitating the swift clearance of people and goods, and having security checks robust enough to ensure breaches do not recur, as Mr Teo said.

MPs' follow-up questions indicated they better understood the trade-offs following yesterday's exchange.

Still, the Government has its work cut out to convince the public of the need to look beyond their individual worries and at the bigger picture.

But its job is also to make a judgment call and ensure that it puts in place structures, such as the cross-carriage rule and security infrastructure at checkpoints, which are sufficiently robust, effective and fair in addressing Singaporeans' concerns.

That is arguably the tougher task, but necessary if it is to retain people's confidence.

Two couples can jointly rent larger flats soon
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

TWO couples could soon rent larger flats together, under a temporary housing scheme.

The Ministry of National Development (MND) is considering letting these couples co-rent four- and five-room Housing Board flats under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme (PPHS).

This was disclosed by National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday, after Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) had asked about the scheme's rental formula and take-up rate.

When launched in January last year, the scheme was open only to married couples with children applying for first-time buyers of HDB flats who needed temporary housing while waiting for their new homes to be completed.

By September, only 327 couples had applied for the 1,150 flats on offer.

The scheme was extended in the same month to divorced and widowed parents, as well as couples where one spouse is a first-time applicant and the other, a second-timer.

As a result, the number of monthly applications hit a record 409 applicants in September, but has since dropped to 81.

Today, more than 900 flats have been taken up, and the remaining 250 are all four- and five-room units.

"Currently, three-room PPHS flats are most in demand because PPHS applicants tend to be small families and a smaller flat is sufficient to meet their needs," an MND spokesman told The Straits Times yesterday.

Mr Png also asked if rents could be lowered to encourage people to go for the bigger flats. The rent of a four-room flat in Bedok is $1,200 while that of a five-roomer in Ang Mo Kio is $1,700.

Replying, Mr Khaw said the cost of providing PPHS flats includes the cost of retrofitting the flats before they are let out, as well as their management and maintenance fees.

The rents are 40 per cent to 60 per cent lower than market rents in the vicinity, he added.

Short wait for half of emergency patients
If situation is life-threatening, the patient is attended to immediately
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

HALF of the patients at the emergency departments at public hospitals wait less than half an hour for a consultation, if theirs is a less life-threatening emergency such as a bleeding cut.

On the other extreme, 5 per cent wait as long as one hour and 20 minutes, on average.

If the emergency is life-threatening, the patient is attended to immediately.

The waiting time to be admitted also varies.

About half of the patients take less than three hours to be admitted, while 5 per cent wait more than nine hours.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong gave these average monthly figures yesterday in a written answer to Workers' Party's Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC).

He had asked if the ministry tracked the 5 per cent with the longest waiting time at the emergency departments - or the 95th percentile - and for the waiting time it considered acceptable.

Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) had also pressed the minister last month for an acceptable waiting time for admission.

He said people had to wait from eight hours to as long as 23 hours, given the shortage of hospital beds.

Mr Gan had replied then that patients should not wait for "more than a few hours".

In his written reply, he again stressed that all life-threatening cases are attended to immediately. Medical teams will also monitor, care for and medically assess patients during the wait.

"Our hospitals have put in place protocols to ensure care is not compromised despite high demand for emergency department services," he said.

These include at least one senior doctor being present with a team of other doctors and nurses trained for emergencies.

The ministry has also stepped up efforts to encourage patients to visit general practitioners (GPs) for non-emergencies, so that the emergency departments can focus on those who need their services.

Mr Gan cited such a scheme launched in January this year in which the Eastern Health Alliance works with GPs in the east.

Changi General Hospital, a member of the alliance, was reported to offer a 50 per cent discount off the $100 A&E bill to patients who see a GP first, with the aim of diverting as many as 100 patients a day.

MPs seek solutions to ensure all floors have lift facility
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

AS THE end of the Lift Upgrading Programme (LUP) draws near, some MPs have again called for new ways to tackle the issue of those blocks left without a lift facility on every floor.

The $5.5 billion programme, which ends in December, has provided lift facility on every floor in 5,000, or 98 per cent, of Housing Board flats in the past 13 years.

But doing the same for the remaining 200 blocks would be very costly, given their configuration and technical constraints, Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan said in Parliament yesterday.

"We are piloting some possible (new technological) solutions," he said.

"However, we require some time to assess their suitability."

It prompted four MPs to come up with suggestions in a flash.

Workers' Party's Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) asked if the LUP could be amended to allow for "marginally more expensive" installations.

Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) suggested raising the ceiling of the cost.

The Government sets a cost limit of $30,000 for each flat, and subsidises up to 90 per cent of it.

But, Mr Lee said, "the costs aren't just marginal - they're as good as building new flats".

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) then proposed that the Government give the $30,000 to elderly and disabled residents in these blocks to help them move to blocks with lifts on every floor.

But, Mr Lee pointed out, "some people prefer to stay in the same place rather than move away".

He, however, welcomed Ms Phua's idea of working on temporary solutions like installing "wheelchair slides" onto staircases, which would help those who need lifts to get from floor to floor easily.

Ms Phua also asked if there was a programme in which more Singaporeans could be roped in to propose "temporary or permanent solutions for this important issue".

Mr Lee pointed to the $500,000 Cool Ideas Fund as an avenue for ideas, like Ms Phua's, to take off. The HDB will match, dollar for dollar, the money would-be inventors pump into their project, up to $10,000.

Meanwhile, Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) asked if the Government would consider extending the LUP beyond December, "should there be advancements in engineering... in which we can install (lifts) and reduce the amount payable to below the cost cap."

Yes, replied Mr Lee, as long as "the solutions make sense".

More getting bursaries
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

MORE students are getting a helping hand with their studies, following tweaks to financial aid schemes in recent years.

Last year, about 50 per cent more students - 1.5 times the number five years ago - were on the Ministry of Education's (MOE) Financial Assistance Scheme compared to five years ago, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday. This is around 65,000 students.

Similarly, more students were also awarded bursaries for post-secondary education last year, with 47,000 receiving MOE bursaries and Community Development Council and Citizens Consultative Committee bursaries - almost thrice (2.5 times) the number five years back.

Numbers have gone up largely owing to changes in the schemes' criteria, said Mr Heng. The income ceiling for MOE's Financial Assistance Scheme was raised in 2012 from $1,500 to $2,500 a month, and a new per capita income criterion of $625 or below a month introduced, widening the scheme's coverage.

School fees, uniforms and textbooks for students from primary to pre-university levels are fully subsidised under the scheme, while primary school pupils are also given free breakfast.

Meanwhile, bursaries for post-secondary students - such as those in publicly funded universities and arts schools like the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts - were extended in 2011 to the bottom two-thirds of households.

During this year's Budget debate in March, Mr Heng had announced that bursary amounts will go up and the income cut-off raised to benefit even more students from this academic year.

He gave the various figures in Parliament yesterday to assure Mr Yam that education will remain accessible to all Singaporeans.

"No Singaporean student will be left behind as a result of his or her family's financial circumstances," said Mr Heng.

Fewer dropouts
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

FEWER students do not complete their secondary school education. In the last five years, the proportion of dropouts has hovered below 1 per cent compared to 4 per cent in 2000.

Similarly, fewer are dropping out of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Hawazi Daipi said in his reply to Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

Of the 25 per cent of a Primary 1 cohort that goes to ITE, 80 per cent graduate with a full certificate.

Most dropouts quit because of a "complex interplay of several factors", including difficult personal and family circumstances and negative peer influence, Mr Hawazi said.

To minimise the dropout rate, schools provide pastoral care and career guidance, as well as track students who are at risk of dropping out. One preventive measure he cited is the time-out programme, which takes students out of regular classes and provides them with customised projects to rekindle their desire to learn.

ITE too has several preventive programmes, including counselling support and a more flexible curriculum.

"This prepares students for a cluster of related careers to keep them interested, even if they are not able to enrol in their first-choice course," he added.

No stress over Pisa
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2014

SCHOOLS and students need not prepare for the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test.

And since the test is meant to be reported at a national level - not at an individual or school level - it is unlikely to create additional pressure, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said in response to a question.

Singapore's 15-year-olds beat students from 43 other economies in problem-solving, according to the Pisa 2012 study released last December. They also came in second in mathematics, and third in science and reading.

The aim of taking part in Pisa is to find out how well students here are equipped with important life skills they need for their future. It is not to get a good global ranking, Mr Heng added.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) had asked if the Pisa test would put pressure on students to maintain such good performance.

Mr Heng stressed that "no preparation was required of schools and students". Later, responding to a follow-up question by Mr Lim, Mr Heng assured the MP that his ministry had no part in selecting the students.

"The sample is selected by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, who have statistical agencies that advise them on the students who are representative of the cohort," he said. "This is not just for Singapore but for all over the world, and that's why the results are meaningful."

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