Wednesday 28 May 2014

Parliament Highlights - 26 May 2014

Debate on President's Address to Parliament: Day 1

MPs debate President's address
The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

NINETEEN Members of Parliament yesterday joined the debate on President Tony Tan Keng Yam's address at the opening of the 12th Parliament's second session.

They highlighted a need to better help older Singaporeans save for retirement, and workers and students prepare for a future where competition for jobs will be more heated and unpredictable.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) who led off the debate, spoke of people's retirement worries and called for a government-led plan to improve returns on Central Provident Fund savings.

Several MPs spoke up for professionals, managers and executives, calling on employers to develop a Singaporean core of these workers and actively hire them if they are qualified for the jobs available.

Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah spoke on creating a nation of opportunity, and updated the House on plans to enhance education and career prospects for polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students.

Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang delivered a hard-hitting speech in response to President Tan's call for constructive politics, saying he objected if by that, the Government meant compliant politics.

Ms Indranee and Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) rebutted him, and said it was telling that Mr Low spoke only on this point and ignored the rest of the President's speech that dwelt on the policies with an impact on people's lives.

The debate continues today and is expected to last for up to five days.

Govt urged to do more to improve CPF returns
By Toh Yong ChuanThe Straits Times, 27 May 2014

TWO Members of Parliament want the Government to take the lead in helping Singaporeans to earn higher returns on their Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings.

The call was made by Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Nominated MP Tan Su Shan, who is a senior bank executive.

Mr Zaqy has proposed that the Government initiate and lead an investment plan that will offer higher interest rates and take into account inflation.

He made the call in a wide-ranging speech which kicked off the debate yesterday, thanking President Tony Tan Keng Yam for his address on the Government's directions in the second half of its term.

Mr Zaqy called for better communication of public policies and retirement adequacy, among other things. By improving returns on CPF savings, the Government can reduce unhappiness with the "changing goal posts" of the minimum sum, he said, referring to the increases in the minimum sum requirement to meet longer lifespans and rising costs.

The CPF system has recently come under fire online, as the minimum sum is set to increase from $148,000 to $155,000 from July 1. It is set to go up again in July next year but the amount has not been determined.

In her speech, NMP Tan suggested having regular savings plans that are tied to bonds or fixed-income unit trusts that pay regular dividends.

Such a "diversified pool of higher interest-bearing instruments" will ensure that inflation does not erode the value of CPF savings which are not invested, Ms Tan said.

"Some of these instruments are already available but due to the lack of knowledge, many Singaporeans have not availed themselves of these savings instruments," she added.

The interest rates are 2.5 per cent per annum for CPF Ordinary Account savings, and 4 per cent per annum for the Special, Medisave and Retirement accounts.

An extra 1 percentage point is paid on the first $60,000 of a CPF member's combined balances.

But Singapore's inflation rate has averaged 4.1 per cent over the last three years, Ms Tan noted.

She has previously urged the Government to issue inflation-linked bonds, but she noted: "We can't seem to do this."

Two other MPs also spoke about the CPF system.

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam suggested alternative investment options such as non-compulsory CPF and private annuity schemes.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said that the CPF was a "major pillar" in the Singapore system, and has ensured "retirement adequacy while making funds available in important areas such as home ownership, health care and education".

MPs want more protection, support for local PMEs
Suggestions include hiring S'poreans ahead of foreigners
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

MORE protection and support should be given to professionals, managers and executives (PME), urged several MPs.

In the face of foreign competition, this "sandwiched class" needs more attention from the authorities, they said yesterday on the first day of debate on the President's Address.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) made one of the strongest calls, saying firms should give qualified Singaporeans priority over foreigners for PME jobs. "It is time that we move our manpower policies for PMEs from a defensive, anti-discrimination position to one where we actively promote and champion the hiring and development of Singaporeans."

She noted that from August, firms will have to advertise on a jobs bank for 14 days before applying to hire foreign PMEs.

Yet the eventual decision is still up to them, she said. "The Manpower Minister further emphasised that (this) is not about 'Hire Singaporeans First' - but many are asking, 'Why not?'"

She wanted employers to have to prove that if a foreigner is hired, it is only because there are no suitable locals. Firms that hire foreigners should also be obliged to have a formal system for training and developing Singaporeans, and to ensure skills from foreign hires are transferred to locals.

"I believe that the current negative sentiment against foreign talent will ease when Singaporeans no longer feel that their livelihoods are threatened," she said.

If the issue of jobs for Singaporeans is not managed well, such resulting sentiments "can send the wrong signals to employers and foreign investors", noted Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

Labour MP Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) proposed several ways to help PMEs.

The Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications framework of training courses should have a greater focus on PMEs, not just rank-and-file or mid-level staff.

Government funding should be more accessible to individual PMEs, and not just for firms.

Companies should be given incentives to let employees pursue a "second skill" during work hours.

And industries which regularly lay off employees - such as finance - could provide better support for the retrenched, he said. This could take the form of subsidies and payments, to act as a form of "unemployment insurance" to tide them over. "If the PME is laid off with no fault of his or her own, employers have a moral responsibility to see through the career transition for them."

For Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam, the issue was that firms are being treated too well in comparison with workers. She called for "policies that favour Singaporeans, not an absolute growth model" for the economy.

Parties clash over what 'constructive politics' means
WP chief asks if it is a reference to 'compliant politics'; PAP MPs hit back
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

THE call in last week's Presidential Address for "constructive politics" elicited an attempt by Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang to define it yesterday, a move that prompted a swift rebuttal from the People's Action Party (PAP) MPs and leaders.

Both sides crossed swords over the meaning of the term, which President Tony Tan Keng Yam has described as politics that puts people and the nation first while eschewing populist politics that could lead to gridlock and weaken Singapore.

Mr Low, who devoted his entire speech to the subject during the debate on the Presidential Address, made the first move, suggesting it was a reference to "compliant politics". He also suggested the PAP was engaging in rhetoric.

It drew a strong rebuttal from Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah, who questioned if the WP was capable of "constructive politics" which she said is real, not rhetoric, and requires integrity and responsibility.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also weighed in with a Facebook post last night, stating that the purpose of politics was to make a difference in people's lives and to build a better Singapore.

"Constructive politics is key to realising our dreams... Politics purely for the sake of power, without any notion of what we want Singapore to become, will lead us to disaster," he said.

But in Mr Low's view, constructive politics is about the outcome of the political process.

"It does not happen by the order of the Government. Nor does it happen through a national conversation or public consultation."

It requires inculcating political values in youth, building a political culture that is free from bullying, abuse of power or fear, and establishing institutions that are impartial and hence, trusted by the people, he said.

To this end, the veteran MP called for a review of the National Education syllabus so that young people understood their rights, obligations and values as citizens in a democratic society.

"I believe Singapore will be a more stable and mature democracy if Singaporeans are in possession of democratic values."

He also urged Singaporeans to decide through the ballot box the political culture they want.

"If the people continue to support the government party that uses high-handed tactics against its political opponents, we are endorsing a bullying political culture."

The Government, as a dominant player, has an even more significant role, he noted.

Therefore, if it uses "differentiating measures" to punish those who voted for the opposition, it would breed a culture of divisive politics, said Mr Low.

A political incumbent that uses "all legal means to remain in power" will also build a self-serving political culture, he cautioned.

Turning to the Elected President, Mr Low said it was a "weakness" that could potentially cause the gridlock Dr Tan feared.

He warned the President could exercise his "blocking power" if he disagrees with the Government, affecting its efficiency.

This scenario could be avoided by building institutions of state trusted by the public, he said.

Noting that Dr Tan's exhortation was "unprecedented", Mr Low expressed cynicism over what the Government meant by "constructive politics".

The recent extension of media licensing rules to online news sites smacks of "compliant politics", he charged.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) noted Mr Low had opened the WP's slate by speaking "almost entirely on one topic".

"It's actually a little bit tragic if the focus is going to be on politics and not on the policies that will help the people," he said.

Ms Indranee, in dismissing that constructive politics was just rhetoric, said: "It is real because what we say and we do in this Parliament makes a difference to Singaporeans."

To achieve constructive politics, political parties would have to put Singaporeans first, and offer practical alternatives that "ultimately result in better lives".

They would also have to act responsibly, by admitting the "trade-offs" of their policies, instead of pandering to public opinion and saying what is popular.

"Something like that is politically opportunistic, not constructive," she said.

It was also not constructive for political parties to flip-flop when convenient, she charged, alluding to the WP.

Citing an example about the WP's stance on the foreign worker issue, she said: "You don't ask for more foreign workers to be allowed in Singapore in 2012, and then in 2013 - after the White Paper (on Population) - say that there should be a complete freeze. And then a few months later, ask for more foreign workers again."

Constructive politics, said Ms Indranee, also requires integrity.

Alluding to the WP again in her example, she implied that this was in short supply in a political party that would give out contracts worth millions of dollars a year to its own supporters, without going through a tender.

The WP had appointed a firm, which the PAP said belonged to WP supporters, to run the

Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council after the 2011 polls. It had said it did not have time to call an open tender as the PAP-owned Action Information Management, which was managing the town council before the party took over, had terminated its contract.

Ms Indranee, who also spoke on education and other issues, questioned Mr Low's intentions in focusing on one topic when the President had laid out a string of plans, programmes and policies for the second half of the Government's term.

"Perhaps Mr Low feels that our politics is not working or Mr Low has no constructive alternatives into the challenges that we face, or with the recent woes of his town council, he wishes to create an impression that nothing is wrong and that the Government is out to fix them," she said.

Singaporeans will benefit from good education and economic policies: MP Vikram Nair
Channel NewsAsia, 26 May 2014

The right macroeconomic policies and an education system which allows Singaporeans to benefit are two things Singapore should have if it is to remain a nation of opportunity, said Member of Parliament Vikram Nair on Monday (May 26).

Speaking at the debate on the President's address, Mr Nair said Singapore has benefited from being an open economy with a proactive government that seeks out high-value sectors that give Singaporeans opportunities.

However, he warned that macroeconomic policies will only work if there is a skilled workforce with the appropriate mindset and attitude.

He said the school system in Singapore is special because it creates opportunities at all levels, and cited the example of the Sports School which allows students flexibility in the curriculum.

Mr Nair is also one of many MPs who touched on the issue of constructive politics. He said it would be tragic if the focus was on politics and not the policies that help people.

Constructive politics was about working together and not bringing down people who were trying to solve the problem.

He recounted his conversations with politicians from other countries, noting that they lived from election to election without a long term perspective.

Mr Nair said constructive politics was not about "playing games" against party members or other political parties, and hoped that Singapore's collegiate system of government can continue for some time to come.

Committee looking into how poly, ITE grads can progress upwards without degree
By Sharon See, Channel NewsAsia, 26 May 2014

A committee tasked to review the education model at polytechnics and ITEs is looking at how these students can progress upwards even without a degree, or before they get one.

This is one takeaway of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) committee, chaired by Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday (May 26), she said if all polytechnic and ITE students chase a degree route immediately, it would not result in the best outcomes for them.

Ms Indranee said both real skills and intangible qualities matter, and they must meet industry needs.

Intangible qualities, she said, include diligence, analytical skills, teamwork, communication skills, EQ, leadership qualities, problem solving skills and resilience.

She said the ASPIRE committee is looking at work-study programmes and how to structure internships to better align what is taught with what is required at the workplace.

She said upward progression for polytechnic and ITE graduates is important, and the desire for a degree is driven by the outcomes people expect a degree will give.

However, the supply of degree holders should not exceed the demand otherwise degree holders would be vulnerable to losing their jobs.

"What we should aim for, therefore, is a multiplicity of pathways that are viable options in and of themselves,” said Ms Indranee.

“So, they should be able to either pursue further studies immediately. Some do this, or work first and pursue further studies later, preferably in a related sector, or work and progress upwards through professional certifications and training, even without the need for a degree.

“Ideally, what we want is for each of these pathways to be able to still give our students the outcomes they hope for in terms of career prospects and progression. We are looking at how we can facilitate progression pathways to enable our polytechnic and ITE graduates to progress upwards even without a degree, or before they get one."

Weighing in on the issue of constructive politics, which was raised during the Parliament debate, Ms Indranee said the political process should result in better lives.

This means offering practical alternatives, acknowledging trade-offs and being responsible, Ms Indranee added.

She also said constructive politics means not "flip-flopping" in positions taken when convenient and upholding the highest standards of integrity.

Govt has to communicate messages more effectively
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

THE communication challenge that lies before the Government was set out by several MPs yesterday as they spoke of a need for quicker and more effective messaging.

Otherwise, people will not be able to understand how certain policies could affect them.

And it is in these gaps in information that conspiracy theories spread, said Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

Citing the Pioneer Generation Package - "a popular and meaningful policy" meant to benefit seniors - Mr Zaqy said he was surprised to find out that as many as 40 per cent of Singaporeans were not aware of its benefits. "What this means is that we need to put in a lot more effort to explain policy benefits and issues on the ground," he said on the first day of debate since Parliament reconvened.

"We need to put in even more for policies (in) which citizens will see benefits only in the long term, and those that require more convincing." Without such investment in communication, destructive politics - "especially the politics of envy, and the politics of self-interest" - will arise, he cautioned. "Misinformation and conspiracy theories travel much faster through social media and coffee shop talk because these make for more sensational headlines and tell people what they want to hear," he said.

The authorities need to invest more resources "to reach hearts and minds," he said. "Otherwise, it will always find itself on the back foot and these divisive messages become like a festering wound that refuses to heal."

Nominated MP R. Dhinakaran also urged for better messaging from the Government.

"A lot of cynicism is due to misinformation. If that can be addressed, then we can fix this problem," he said. "There is nothing wrong with a more informed and more involved society." He raised last year's Our Singapore Conversation as an example of the Government "listening to the people and their concerns".

"Policymaking in Singapore has evolved into a two-way process, and I encourage the Government to create as many platforms as possible, to include more Singaporeans in this process," he said.

Fellow NMP Tan Su Shan cited the CPF as an area where the Government could improve its communications. "Just by looking at the huge amount of online media (news) surrounding CPF now - and some are very negative - it is clear we need to do more to educate CPF members."

Set up committee to address Malay-Muslim concerns: WP MP
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

MR MUHAMAD Faisal Abdul Manap of the Workers' Party yesterday called for the formation of a committee to address concerns of Malay-Muslims over how their loyalty to the nation is viewed.

But in a swift rebuttal, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Manpower Hawazi Daipi deemed his suggestion unnecessary as this was an issue that could be overcome by strengthening inter-racial ties.

The exchange began with Mr Faisal saying that more needed to be done to "address and find solutions" to community concerns highlighted in a recent report. He quoted the findings of the Suara Musyawarah committee, which said Malay-Muslim participants felt left out in certain policies and practices which "question the loyalty of Malays to the country".

The committee was formed in 2012 to gather feedback on the thoughts, concerns and aspirations of Malay-Muslims. Its report highlighted personal accounts of employers expressing a preference for non-Malay workers and surfaced concerns over exclusion from certain parts of the Singapore Armed Forces.

Mr Faisal acknowledged that progress has been made in terms of opportunities afforded to Malay-Muslims in education and national service, but said the committee's formation could offer a "quick solution" to achieving a "more inclusive and open Singapore society".

Responding to his speech, Mr Hawazi and Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) later asked Mr Faisal if the latter had ever felt that his loyalty to the country was questioned, and what his own views on the issue were.

"I'm concerned (that) if we highlight the differences, we will be widening (them) not only among one community but all communities," said Mr Hawazi, adding that schools and community activities are means to forge greater social cohesion.

In response, Mr Faisal stressed that the issue of loyalty among Malays was surfaced by the Suara Musyawarah report, and not him.

Mr Hawazi then suggested that Mr Faisal had cherry-picked portions of the report, failing to highlight, for example, that Malay-Muslim participants also said they were "very committed" to Singapore on issues that include defence and security.

Maintaining that he was reflecting concerns on the ground, Mr Faisal said: "I have said in my view that I am aware and agree there is progress made, but because there are still many people who say that this issue is present, I, as a voice of the people, would like to voice it out."

Review property cooling measures: Foo Mee Har
By Melissa Tan, The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

SOME property market cooling measures should be reviewed to make it easier for more Singaporeans to upgrade their homes, Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) said in Parliament yesterday.

For instance, additional buyer's stamp duty (ABSD) could be collected upon the completion of a new property rather than upfront, she said.

And if a genuine upgrader sells his first flat within a certain period, he should not need to pay ABSD at all.

Singaporeans pay no ABSD on their first home purchase, but incur a 7 per cent levy when buying a second home.

Upgraders can already get an ABSD refund if they sell their HDB flat within six months of getting a private home, subject to certain conditions.

Ms Foo noted yesterday that property upgrading has become "much more difficult for the middle income group", due to recent property market curbs such as ABSD, loan-to-value (LTV) limits and a total debt servicing ratio (TDSR) framework which caps home buyers' total debt repayments at 60 per cent of gross monthly income.

"This aspiration to upgrade is important to the middle class; many had worked hard towards this goal, only to be frustrated just when they thought it was within reach." She added that although TDSR was important to keep home buyers from taking on too much debt, it has "already raised the bar for many".

The "combined burden" of lower LTV ratios and having to pay ABSD upfront would usually put an upgrade out of reach, she said.

She suggested that the Government allow a higher LTV ratio of 80 per cent for those upgrading to a private home who ultimately end up owning only one property.

The LTV ratio indicates how much cash a buyer has to put down when buying a home. A lower LTV ratio means buyers have to use more of their own cash rather than borrowed money to finance home purchases.

Govt vows to help SMEs with difficult transition
Ministry pursuing several initiatives to help firms grow: Teo Ser Luck
By Melissa Tan, The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

SMALL and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) face a difficult transition and the Government is committed to supporting them, Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck said yesterday.

He told Parliament that the authorities would help SMEs ramp up productivity, boost their capabilities, groom talent and grow overseas. It will also provide more data on retail and industrial property rents by the end of this year to help businesses make informed decisions.

Singapore businesses are up against stronger international competition as well as "fundamental" land and manpower constraints, Mr Teo said. His ministry is pursuing several initiatives to help firms grow while "working hard to keep business costs manageable, building new industrial spaces and ensuring that energy is competitively priced".

One of these initiatives is to help SMEs grow by tapping technology. Another is to facilitate tie-ups between SMEs and larger firms.

On productivity, he noted that half of the $2 billion National Productivity Fund has been committed to date. More than $300 million has also been set aside for the next three years to support SMEs in restructuring.

Citing Singapore's manpower shortage, Mr Teo said the Government will help SMEs "revamp their approach to talent management" to help them groom and retain employees. He urged SMEs to look beyond the local market, saying the Government would continue to improve international trade networks to help firms become globally competitive.

Mr Teo also weighed in on businesses' complaints of rising retail rents, acknowledging that rent increases have some impact on the market. "There is a signalling effect, but it may not be a dominating effect," he said.

Rents for spaces are likely to ease in the medium term with "substantial" supply coming onto the market, but he also pointed out that "simply adding more space" to keep rents lower was "not a sustainable solution".

The Government's understanding of the businesses' concerns is important, added Nominated MP Teo Siong Seng. Singapore has undergone economic restructuring before, and the conflicts and obstacles in this round would be smoothed out eventually.

Tackling the cost of progress: MP Inderjit Singh
Channel NewsAsia, 27 May 2014

The rapid progress of Singapore, from third to first-world nation within one generation, has not come without a cost – but this can still be addressed by cultivating a sense of national ownership in all individuals, addressing low wages in some sectors, and strengthening and diversifying the Civil Service, Member of Parliament Inderjit Singh wrote on his Facebook page late on Monday (May 26).

Mr Singh, in response to President Tony Tan Keng Yam's address in Parliament on May 16, wrote: "Yes, Singapore as a country and as an economy has improved. Yes Singapore has become richer, but not all Singaporeans have seen an improvement in their daily lives."

A "significant section" of Singapore society did not benefit from the country's economic growth of the past few years, said Mr Singh, highlighting how the cost of living had outpaced the wages earned by middle- and low-income Singaporeans. This has forced them to "adjust their lifestyles downwards to live comfortably in their own country", he said.

"What worries me most is how our young see their future in Singapore. Are they seeing a good life becoming more difficult to achieve or do they see a sense of hope and opportunity in Singapore?" he added.


Mr Singh, who was posting on Facebook as he is overseas and unable to attend the ongoing Parliament session, recommended expanding the progressive wage model to more industries.

"I am glad that this Government has thankfully, heeded the call of Singaporeans and shifted its focus away from simply the outcome, of high GDP growth rates, towards the effort and process by which this is achieved aiming to ensure that the growth is equitable and fair," he said.

"(But) while social assistance schemes and safety nets are necessary I feel that they are not addressing the root cause of the problem – low wages.

"The progressive wage model is a good start in legislating a sectorial minimum wage, I urge this Government to further develop the model and include more sectors. Ensuring that all Singaporeans earn a decent living wage would promote self-sufficiency and reduce their dependence on the Government for assistance even to achieve a basic standard of comfortable life." 


Mr Singh, who served as Deputy Government Whip from 2002 to 2011, also said he felt "some amount of complacency" had crept into the Civil Service.

"Whether it is the MCE fiasco, or that of the lack of hospital beds or dealing with the Little India riot, the corruption cases in the many government agencies like the Singapore Civil Defence Force, I detect a certain amount of complacency in our Government agencies in dealing with these problems and the trend is not healthy and needs to be eradicated fast," he wrote.

"If Singaporean loses confidence in these key institutions, we will face greater problems in nation building in the future."

Part of the solution, he wrote, would be to relook the policy-making process and encourage more input from all segments of society – letting it be "driven by the man in the street". The Government would benefit from bringing in "a good diverse group of people" and not just taking in the academically talented, he said.


The influx of immigrants has "diluted" or even "eradicated" the sense of common identity, Mr Singh wrote, with many treating Singapore "as a hotel". Such groups threaten to destabilise foundations upon which the country has built its success, he said.

"We have seen one too many cases of foreigners who have behaved in a manner that makes Singaporeans uncomfortable. We also see the effect of some of the new citizens who bring their cultures and behavioural norms that make Singaporeans uncomfortable," he wrote.

"We need to be big-hearted. For those who are committed to Singapore and treat Singapore as their own home, we should make it work; but for those who treat Singapore as a hotel to stay for a while and who use Singapore as a stepping stone for their future life somewhere else, we don’t have to bend backwards to give them citizen privileges."

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