Friday 30 May 2014

Parliament Highlights - 29 May 2014

Debate on President's Address to Parliament: Day 4

Plan to enlist poly students for NS earlier
Change among NS recommendations set to cost $4.5 billion over a decade
By Lee Jian Xuan, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

POLYTECHNIC students are likely to start their national service in May or August next year, a month earlier than usual, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament yesterday.

The proposed change, which will affect an annual intake of some 11,000 polytechnic students, is one of 30 recommendations by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS), which released its report last week.

Their implementation, including enhanced benefits for NSmen, is expected to cost about $4.5 billion over the next decade, Dr Ng said. It is a move that will have a "huge administrative impact" and require "significant investment" from the Defence Ministry, he said. About 24,500 servicemen are enlisted annually.

"My SAF commanders are sweating over this... Each batch is about five, six, seven thousand, and they're wondering how do we do this."

But enlisting these students earlier means they get into the workforce earlier. For those who enlist in September and are bound for local universities at the end of their two years in August, they will no longer need to disrupt their NS, he said, speaking at the debate on the President's Address.

Junior college and Institute of Technical Education students will also benefit from a shorter waiting time, as the Singapore Armed Forces aims to enlist 90 per cent of its incoming recruits in a four-month window, up from 45 per cent now.

If these suggestions are accepted, they could take effect as early as the middle of next year, said Dr Ng, who chaired the CSNS. Such changes will bring "substantial" benefits to servicemen and Singapore, he noted.

Earlier in his speech, Dr Ng also highlighted the importance of NS to building a credible SAF, since national servicemen form the bulk of the fighting force.

He observed that Singapore is one of the few countries that has sustained its conscript system - for 47 years, as other states gradually phased them out, due to waning public support or to reap peace dividends. He attributed Singapore's success to the NSmen who had discharged their duties, and high levels of public support.

Despite that, the CSNS pressed on with its work, to ensure that NS remains "responsive and relevant to a new generation of millennial national servicemen".

"Better to hear them now and adjust policies, rather than wait and assume previous policies will work even when circumstances have changed," said Dr Ng.

For instance, family sizes have shrunk, work life is more hectic and more Singaporeans aspire to higher education. "Motivating national servicemen will have to change. Especially when this new generation has no direct experience of our early struggles."

He also welcomed positive feedback on the committee's work and explained the rejection of certain suggestions. "For example, priority places in primary schools... if we give priority to all NSmen then nobody gets priority."

On the additional benefits the committee recommended, he noted: "The benefits we give must reflect the right values of service... (they) must never dilute the spirit of service - that is for duty, honour and country."

Volunteer corps aims to foster inclusive society
By Lee Jian Xuan, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

FOR 20 years, Dr Luisa Lee wore two hats - one as a civilian medical doctor, the other as a volunteer medical officer in the Singapore Armed Forces before retiring with the rank of major in 1999.

Her double role was highlighted by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament yesterday when he read out her letter on the proposed SAF Volunteer Corps (SAFVC).

"As a mother, I could relate to what my three sons were going through when they enlisted. They were encouraged... that I had voluntarily undergone the training and sacrifice," wrote Dr Lee, who sits on the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS).

Dr Ng, pointing out how the 65-year-old Dr Lee can even share her experiences with her grandchildren who are now doing national service, said it is this type of inclusiveness which the SAFVC can promote.

The volunteer corps, one of 30 recommendations put before Parliament by the CSNS, hopes to take in women, first-generation permanent residents and new citizens to serve alongside national servicemen.

While Members of Parliament like Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) have voiced their support for the volunteer corps, others have said that the SAFVC cannot match the commitment and contributions of servicemen. "It may be so. But we ought to let this scheme evolve and not judge it prematurely," said Dr Ng, promising volunteers will be "trained and meaningfully deployed".

Pointing out how the police and civil defence have successfully run similar volunteer corps for a long time - since 1946 and 2006 respectively, he said: "Their volunteers work alongside regulars and national servicemen, and perform similar duties... I believe that the SAFVC can make a similar impact."

Committee to study concerns of Malays 'not necessary'
Community has progressed, negative views continually addressed: Yaacob
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

THOUSANDS of Malays have succeeded under Singapore's meritocratic system even though there are still perceptions to the contrary, said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday.

The community, he added, has moved forward and improved in all areas, and negative views on the ground have been continually addressed on several platforms.

It was thus not necessary for a committee to be formed to deal with these concerns, he said on the sidelines of an endowment disbursement ceremony.

"We want to deal with it behind the scenes, do it on the quiet, work with various agencies, work with various individuals who may have been affected... so we can understand that better," he said.

The formation of a committee to look into perceived job discrimination and other concerns had been raised in Parliament by Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) of the Workers' Party (WP) on Monday. The topic was brought up again by both People's Action Party and WP legislators in the House on Wednesday and yesterday.

Much of the debate has centred on the findings of the Suara Musyawarah report released last year based on the feedback of the Malay-Muslim community.

The report highlighted misgivings from some in the community on perceived discrimination and over whether their loyalty to the nation was in doubt.

Yesterday, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen echoed Dr Yaacob's stance that the progress of the Malays has been based on merit.

He added that they had made "significant strides in skills and educational attainment".

There are now Malays in all areas - pilots in the Air Force, commandos, combat engineers and artillery men in the Army and the Navy, as well as in the ranks of senior commanders.

These deployments have been taking place "progressively, without fanfare", based simply on aptitude and merit, he stressed. "To take any actions based on race, even if it is an affirmative action, puts us onto the path of tokenism.

"None of us in this House want this, or have called for it, nor do all my Malay soldiers and commanders who have earned their positions on sheer merit alone."


We want to deal with it behind the scenes, do it on the quiet, work with various agencies, work with various individuals who may have been affected... so we can understand that better.

- Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim on negative perceptions of the community's progress.

To take any actions based on race, even if it is an affirmative action, puts us onto the path of tokenism. None of us in this House want this, or have called for it, nor do all my Malay soldiers and commanders who have earned their positions on sheer merit alone.

- Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen

2% exempted from NS annually over mental health
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

This forms more than 2 per cent of around 24,500 servicemen who enter the armed forces, police and civil defence every year.

Only those who are assessed by a board of professionals to be able to perform their NS duties are enlisted, he said.

He was responding to Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC), who had asked about Mindef's screening of mental health disorders in recruits.

Her question comes on the back of a coroner's findings on the death of Private Ganesh Pillay Magindren, who took his own life last July.

Pte Ganesh was found dead at the foot of his Sengkang condominium. The full-time national serviceman had been seeing a psychiatrist regularly for schizophrenia.

The coroner pointed out several lapses, such as how the medical officer at Pte Ganesh's unit had not been informed of his condition.

Yesterday, Dr Ng said, without referring to the incident: "The spectrum of mental health disorders... can vary considerably in severity.

"For the affected individual, if he has a mental health condition, that condition may not be static. It could worsen or improve over time."

As a result, Mindef takes into account different conditions in an individual over time.

For soldiers with mental health disorders and who have been enlisted, he said his ministry will ensure they pose no risk to themselves or those around them.

Only commanders and medical officers who monitor their progress are notified about their conditions, he said, to protect their confidentiality.

If there is any doubt about whether a serviceman can perform his duties, he will be assessed by psychiatrists again, he said.

He could then be redeployed to a more suitable vocation, or excused from his NS duties.

Besides this, trainees in the Officer Cadet School or Specialist Cadet School undergo basic counselling and mental health awareness programmes, he said.

"This is to help our commanders better identify fellow soldiers with mental health issues."

In addition, soldiers with mental health issues can be referred to a psychological care centre. There is also a 24-hour counselling hotline.

"Our approach towards NSmen with mental health disorders ensures that they are not discriminated against or stigmatised if they are able to perform NS safely," he said. "Under our present regime, there have been many NSmen with mental health disorders who have completed their NS duties well."

CPF interest rates 'better than market alternatives'
But Govt will still study how returns can be improved: Manpower Minister
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

THE interest rates on Central Provident Fund savings are better than what similar financial products in the market offer, said Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday.

Still, the Government will look at how the returns can be improved, Mr Tan assured Parliament.

He noted that Ordinary Account savings earn 2.5 per cent interest, while savings in the Special, Medisave and Retirement Accounts earn 4 per cent. An extra 1 per cent is paid on the first $60,000 of combined balances.

"But be that as it may... this is an area that we are looking at in terms of making sure that we enhance CPF Life." Details of improvements to this national annuity scheme will be ready in August, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gives his National Day Rally speech, he added.

Mr Tan's disclosure yesterday comes a day after Mr Lee said the Government wants to enhance CPF Life so payouts will keep pace with the rising cost of living.

As people live longer, the focus of CPF is to ensure "we can live well as well", said Mr Tan.

In his speech, he also laid out the different needs the CPF savings must continue to cater to, as there has been much discussion recently, both inside and outside the House, about the scheme.

One is housing.

Noting that some have questioned if the national pension scheme should address housing adequacy, Mr Tan said: "We believe that it's an important component."

Another is health care.

Along with the Pioneer Generation Package, the CPF system is one way the Government is addressing health-care needs.

Third is retirement adequacy.

Helping workers earn good wages and making sure jobs are available will help them build up their CPF savings. Workers should also have the chance to work longer.

"Raising the retirement age isn't about forcing people to work longer," he said. "If you don't want to work longer, you can actually stop working any time that you wish to." But many do find that work is part of active ageing, so letting them continue to work is important, he said.

Mr Tan acknowledged MPs' concerns about whether CPF returns are adequate, but said the question was where an increase should come from.

"Some have asked whether CPF interest rates should be higher in order to withstand inflation. That's a fair consideration."

But others have suggested seeking higher returns by taking on more risk, he said, adding: "Is that something we want to do?"

Mr Tan also addressed Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat's suggestion of an option for CPF Life payouts to start at an earlier drawdown age of 60. The drawdown age is 63 now but will rise to 64 in 2015 and 65 in 2018.

Mr Png, the Hougang MP, recalled his father's excitement at turning 55 and being able to withdraw his CPF savings, an episode that took place before the Minimum Sum scheme was introduced in 1987. This is the sum that cannot be withdrawn and must be set aside for retirement and medical needs when CPF members turn 55 now.

Such excitement could "turn into a look of horror" if the drawdown age is not adjusted as life expectancy increases, and CPF members see their money beginning to run out, said Mr Tan.

"The more you draw out earlier, what it means is that the payouts correspondingly will reduce," he added.

Housing an important part of CPF system: Chuan-Jin
By Siau Ming En, TODAY, 30 May 2014

Ensuring that the Central Provident Fund (CPF) system caters to Singaporeans’ housing needs is an “important component” of the scheme, said Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday, in response to parliamentarians’ suggestions to tweak the system such that less CPF monies are spent on housing, leaving more for healthcare and retirement needs.

Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the President’s Address, Mr Tan also noted that higher CPF interest rates — which Members of Parliament (MPs) also called for — could mean greater risk, and explained why the use of the CPF monies should not be made more flexible.

The concerns of the MPs about the adequacy of CPF to meet Singaporeans’ needs followed the annual announcement by the Government about the raising of the Minimum Sum earlier this month. President Tony Tan, in his address at the reopening of the 12th Parliament two weeks ago, had said the Government would improve CPF savings and annuity schemes, and develop more options for seniors to monetise their homes.

Yesterday, Mr Tan said the Government has to cater for people’s housing needs. “There are those who asked whether the CPF should also, apart from providing for retirement adequacy, be looking at housing adequacy,” he said. “We believe it is an important component and this forms part of that pillar.”

The Government will make sure housing remains an option for people, not just in terms of access but also in terms of options for monetising their homes at the later stage of their lives, such that it also enhances their retirement adequacy, he said.

Last week, Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh told TODAY that in tandem with more affordable housing, the CPF Board could further limit how much Singaporeans could use from their Ordinary Account to buy property, leaving more for retirement instead. Whampoa MP Heng Chee How also suggested that the allocation to the CPF sub-accounts could be tweaked.

Yesterday, Hougang MP Png Eng Huat also urged the Government to provide more flexibility in the system by offering an earlier draw-down age. Along with other MPs — including Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) — he also called for ways to provide higher returns on CPF monies to better withstand inflation.

While acknowledging that this is a fair consideration, Mr Tan pointed out that with higher returns come higher risks. “If you have funds and there is a downturn in the market, at that point of withdrawal, would it affect your returns?” he asked.

He noted that the current CPF interest rates were far higher than rates from similar products in the market, but assured that this was an area the Government is looking at in enhancing CPF Life.

Mr Tan also said there was good reason for not allowing full flexibility in the use of CPF monies. The CPF is aimed at allowing peace of mind by providing a constant stream of income in retirement.

“If you allow monies to be extracted early, prematurely, there will be concerns,” he said.

Women need more help to prepare for retirement
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

OLDER women are an especially vulnerable group in Singapore’s ageing society, said Parliamentary Secretary (Social and Family Development) Low Yen Ling.

As women have longer lifespans than men, they need more support preparing for retirement, she said during the debate on the President's address.

Coupled with shrinking family sizes, the incidence of elderly women living alone is expected to rise.

Retirement adequacy is also likely to be an issue for stay-at-home mothers with limited savings, she added.

"We will need to create more opportunities for older women to live well in their golden years, and age with dignity and confidence," she said.

The average lifespan of a woman has risen to 84.5 years, from 77.6 years in 1990. The number of centenarians in Singapore also jumped more than sixfold between 2000 and last year - from 150 to 980. More than half of these centenarians are women.

The Government's efforts to support Singaporeans in ageing are heartening, she added.

But women continue to be under-represented in the workforce and in top management positions.

Only 4.6 per cent of chief executives in listed companies are women. The proportion of women on the boards of these companies have hovered around 8 per cent - below the 12 per cent average in industrialised markets.

This is despite the female labour participation rate rising to 77.1 per cent last year for those between 25 and 54 years old, up from 66.6 per cent in 2003.

"The expectation for a woman to be the family's primary caregiver means many working women face the lifetime challenge of balancing work and family as domestic duties still fall primarily on them," said Ms Low.

Schemes to help mothers return to work, retraining grants, and flexi-work arrangements are some ways to help women juggle family commitments and receive income at the same time, she added.

Govt should take lead to boost CPF returns: WP
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

IT IS prudent to adjust the Central Provident Fund Minimum Sum every year to beat inflation and help Singaporeans prepare for retirement, but the burden to meet the sum should not fall solely on individuals, said Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang) yesterday.

Rather, the Government should help maximise CPF returns, he urged.

Joining the chorus of calls by MPs to find new ways to improve returns on CPF savings, Mr Png said the only way for people to do so now was to "work longer and harder and nothing else".

But they can also grow their CPF savings by "investing wisely", and the Government should take the lead in this as many may not have the requisite financial know-how to do so, he said.

It should also review the interest rates for the CPF Ordinary Account and Special, Medisave and Retirement Accounts, he said, noting they "had not changed for the past 15 years".

"While we want Singaporeans to work longer and harder for their retirement, it is also prudent to make our CPF savings work harder for us," he said.

He also called for the scheme to be made more flexible.

For some older workers, the CPF savings are also their "only safety nets", and not being able to use the money until they have reached the draw-down age could cause them "undue anxiety and stress", he said.

The age, at which people can withdraw all their CPF savings, has been raised over the years.

Mr Png asked for it to be lowered, and said it should not be linked to the retirement age of 62 or re-employment age of 65.

He also suggested a new CPF Life plan that will offer more flexibility, by giving a monthly payout with no bequest and having an early draw-down age of 60.

"When we are young, we need a disciplined instrument like CPF to help us save for the future.

"But when we are old, we need a more flexible instrument to help us plan for the uncertainties of ageing." he said.

Able leaders reduce risk of revolving door politics
And working with committed public officers is best outcome: DPM Teo
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

TO AVOID the scenario of public servants running rings around their ministers, Singapore needs politicians of the highest quality, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday.

Politicians coming and going while senior civil servants run the show is what British political comedy Yes, Prime Minister depicts, he said.

"The reality, however... will not give rise to much mirth," said Mr Teo, who is the Minister-in- charge of the Civil Service.

On Tuesday, Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) warned that such a scenario is not improbable as Singapore's political system becomes more vibrant.

Said Mr Teo: "I agree with her that revolving door politics raises the risk of that happening, where civil servants are more able, stay longer and therefore know more than their ministers, and may well run rings around them."

That is indeed what happens in other countries, he added.

"The best way to avoid this is to ensure that we have MPs and ministers of the highest quality - people with ability and the interest of Singaporeans at heart.

"That will give us the best outcome: able, elected political leaders with a good feel of the ground working hand-in-hand with able and committed public officers to develop sound policies with the long-term future of Singapore in mind, to implement practical programmes that serve the needs of Singaporeans."

He also gave an overview of what is being done to develop the public service.

There are opportunities at all levels for leaders to train, upskill and upgrade, he said.

The Government has also widened its outreach and recruits people with different backgrounds, skills and experience.

Ordinary citizens can also play a role. Since 2009, awards have been given to members of the public who have helped the public service do better.

"It takes two hands to clap and the public service is sincere in wanting to work together with Singaporeans in partnership," said Mr Teo.

He also hoped MPs would support and encourage public officers who do a good job.

"It will help give them a boost - motivate them to do their best, and re-affirm their belief that the work they do makes a difference to Singapore and our fellow Singaporeans."

Public officers recruited from diverse backgrounds: DPM Teo
By Laura Elizabeth Philomin, TODAY, 30 May 2014

The Government has made a greater effort to widen its outreach and recruit people with different backgrounds, skills and experiences to develop them into leaders for the public sector, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

While the Public Service Commission awards scholarships to students from a range of schools, these are only one route into the public service and other opportunities are available to those keen to serve Singapore, said Mr Teo, who is also Minister in Charge of the Civil Service.

Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency (GRC) MP Inderjit Singh had noted in a Facebook post that in dealing with issues such as corruption in government agencies, the shortage of hospital beds or the Little India Riot, some amount of complacency had crept into the Civil Service. Compounding the problem was the increasing number of complaints from average Singaporeans about a growing disconnect between them and the elite policymakers, he said.

Worried that the Republic would face problems in nation building if Singaporeans were to lose confidence in key institutions, he suggested a more bottom-up approach, where a diverse group of people, and not only the academically talented, could be brought into the Civil Service.

Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua echoed his point, asking: “Is there a space for a Civil Service HR (human resource) system that is less exclusive and more porous so those without the traditional pedigree might stand a chance of being in the leadership team?”

Mr Teo yesterday pointed out that scholarships have been offered to candidates from a range of schools, including the polytechnics, NUS High School of Mathematics and Science, the School of the Arts and the Singapore Sports School. Internship opportunities for students to experience and understand the work of public officers are also available, either through direct internships with public agencies or the Public Service Division-run Internship@Gov programme, which takes in 150 undergraduate interns each year.

Individuals can also join the service immediately after graduation or as a mid-career entrant, he added.

Mr Teo also stressed the importance of developing capable officers, pointing out that the Public Service Leadership Programme was launched last year to train specialist leaders to have deep knowledge and expertise in their respective sectors. At the same time, others are also trained to be able to work across all ministries and agencies as generalists.

Together, they will be able to form strong partnerships and teams with a deeper and wider range of capabilities, perspectives and experiences, and both can rise to the highest positions in the Public Service, Mr Teo said.

PAP MP rebuts WP member's 'crony capitalism' charge
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

A WORKERS' Party (WP) member's charge of crony capitalism in Singapore was rebutted by PAP MP for Jurong GRC David Ong yesterday. He cited international indices that have consistently ranked Singapore as among the least corrupt countries in the world to make the point that "there is no room for crony practices in Singapore".

On Tuesday, WP Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam had said that Singapore came in fifth among 23 countries on an index measuring crony capitalism by The Economist magazine.

Singapore should be on guard against "rent-seeking" behaviour here, meaning businesses or individuals "trying to make more money without producing more for customers", Mr Giam had warned. Some examples of rent-seeking include forming cartels, or lobbying for changes in regulations that benefit a company at the expense of customers.

Yesterday, Mr Ong said he fully agreed with Mr Giam that the Government should be on guard against rent-seeking, especially in major industries. "That is why the Government introduced the Competition Act in 2004 and established the Competition Commission of Singapore to protect consumers and businesses from anti-competitive practices of private entities," he said.

But Mr Giam was wrong to allude to the existence of crony capitalism in Singapore based on The Economist index which is "too simplistic", Mr Ong said.

"It looks at the wealth of billionaires in sectors such as finance, oil and real estate, which The Economist claims to be prone to cronyism in many countries. It does not examine or identify actual cronyism or rent-seeking behaviour in each country.

"Just because there are billionaires in these sectors does not mean that they must make their money through cronyism. Nor can we charge a sector in Singapore as being prone to graft and rent-seeking just because it is so in other countries," Mr Ong added.

He also noted that The Economist article had also pointed out that some countries have competitive markets in the sectors it labelled as crony sectors.

Observing that Singapore's intolerance of graft is well known internationally, he cited Transparency International's ranking of Singapore as the fifth least corrupt country in world.

He also noted that Mr Giam had neglected to say that the same Economist article placed Singapore first in terms of institutional quality.

Singapore applies its laws against corruption consistently, and makes no exceptions for anyone. It upholds meritocratic principles, where rewards are tied to one's efforts and performance. And it has created a conducive business environment that enables companies to compete on equal terms, Mr Ong said.

"I would like to assure Mr Giam that there is no room for crony practices in Singapore. If he has evidence of such practices, he should share it, instead of relying on indices which present an incomplete picture of the situation in Singapore," Mr Ong said.

In an e-mail response to The Straits Times, Mr Giam said his remarks were intended to underscore a message of "incentivising hard work and productive contributions to our economy and society".

The Economist's index should not be "casually dismissed", Mr Giam said, adding "there may be valuable learning points from all these indices, especially when we are ranked poorly".

MPs call for more communication, trust between Govt, people
Confusion over pioneer package highlights need to improve on how policies are structured: Baey
By Alfred Chua, TODAY, 30 May 2014

The need to communicate government policies better as well as involve citizens more in the policy-making process to build trust and understanding was raised by several Members of Parliament (MPs) yesterday, on the fourth day of the debate on the President’s Address.

With policies and issues having generated both confusion and intense debate in recent years, building trust between the Government and the people, and within society, is necessary to mend any social fault lines that emerge, they said.

“Even the volunteers that we trained to help explain told me it was difficult to understand,” Mr Baey told the house in Mandarin.

Jurong GRC MP David Ong cited several issues that had generated robust debate in recent years, such as the MRT train breakdowns, the Population White Paper and the recent increase of the Central Provident Fund Minimum Sum.

“This suggests a lot more work needs to be done for the Government to build greater trust with the people,” said Mr Ong, who called for a “less paternalistic” government that trusts its citizens more and empowers them to shape Singapore.

“We need to strengthen social and political capital by increasing the level and quality of citizen participation in governmental decisions and be more transparent in the way we arrive at our policies,” said Mr Ong.

“In one stroke, we foster greater citizen ‘buy in’, provide explanations and encourage more people with good ideas or improvements to speak up and add their contribution to the nation.”

He added that building mutual trust between the Government and ciizens, and between citizens, would go a long way towards mending social fault lines.

Nominated MP Janice Koh, meanwhile, called for more space for public discourse and for the Government to rethink its role in facilitating debate and move away from the instinct to discourage the discussion of sensitive issues and to draw more “OB markers”.

As more people want to be heard on a range of increasingly complex issues, the Government must also take care not to frame debates with the aim of “settling an issue”.

Such debates are not about the pursuit of policy results only; they are also about “civic results” such as engagement, empowered communities and active citizenship, she said.

“This trend of speaking up, participating, challenging and debate carries risks and opportunities for Singapore,” Ms Koh said.

“If we get it right, we will be a diverse, plural society where mutual respect is built around a Singaporean identity that is strongly felt, but at ease with itself.

“If we get it wrong, we may become a brittle nation of close-minded individuals divided along real or imaginary social fault lines.”

When perception is not reality
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

THE words "realities" and "perceptions" were heard frequently in Parliament yesterday as ministers and MPs sought to separate fact from fiction.

On national service (NS), Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen clarified that Malays are today deployed in all services within the Singapore Armed Forces, whether as pilots, combat engineers or artillery men.

He was addressing a concern of Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC).

Similarly, PAP MP David Ong (Jurong GRC), refuted Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam's claim that Singapore had "crony capitalism" simply because The Economist magazine index ranked it high in that respect.

"The index is too simplistic," he said, to nods from Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

"It does not examine or identify actual cronyism or rent-seeking behaviour in each country."

Of course, some misperceptions such as these can be corrected with data and explanations.

Other forms of misperception can be quashed simply by people bothering to find out more information first.

Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), for example, recounted a story of a resident who wanted the Government to buy a motorised wheelchair for an elderly news vendor, as he seemed to be struggling with his manual one.

But when the MP went to visit his resident, he found that the man already had two motorised wheelchairs. He used the manual wheelchair instead to strengthen his arms through exercise.

"Sometimes we jump to conclusions without knowing the full facts and point the finger at the Government. Let us be fair and make the effort to find out more first," Mr Baey said.

One reason for this tendency could be that the trust in the government of the people could be fraying and so more people readily believe untruths or misperceptions to be reality.

Indeed, a recurring topic of the parliamentary debate on the President's Address this week has been the need to strengthen trust between the Government and the people.

Ms Penny Low (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) pointed to the Public Service Division's recent edition of its in-house publication that had several articles discussing the topic of trust as evidence that it is something the Government is working on improving.

Certainly, trust is important. But at the same time, trust in the Government remains high compared to other countries, as shown in an Edelman Trust Barometer.

More than just a simple issue of trust, why misperceptions may be rising is a result of several factors. One is that the needs of people are becoming increasingly variegated, and policymaking and policies themselves have become more complex.

Mr Baey compared the example of the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system here to London's Congestion Charge. It required 16 spreadsheets to explain all the different ERP charges, he said, waving a few pages of printouts in front of the Cabinet ministers.

This was compared to a flat daily charge of £10 (S$21) in London. "That's it," he said. "Simple and easy to remember."

He concluded that the ERP system led to drivers either just driving wherever they wanted, and therefore the deterrent effect of the ERP was lost, or drivers just getting irritated whenever they get hit by an ERP charge.

"People will not remember that the Government had reduced road tax as it implemented ERP... But the perception that they have to pay more persists," he added.

Similarly, perhaps, could complexity be one aspect of the rise in angst over various Central Provident Fund (CPF) schemes?

They have evolved to meet more needs of Singaporeans in housing and health care for retirement, a point Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin sought to explain.

But because of its intricacies over when and what the money can be used for, there is difficulty in convincing people of the need to raise the Minimum Sum, or to raise the re-employment age and therefore the age at which one can draw down the funds.

Another reason for misperceptions could be the ease of communication online where information can spread without being fact-checked.

Ms Low noted: "The untruths that sometimes exist about public schemes just undermine the trust between citizens and the Government and dishearten citizens about the shared responsibility they have in governance."

If left unaddressed, the situation can in turn lead to the erosion of trust between the Government and the people, and still more confusion and misperception. There is no magic bullet.

But as some MPs sought to share, several steps can be taken.

One is, as Ms Low suggested, to have a better distribution or "push out" of facts from the Government to set the record straight and to make the public aware of such avenues to get these facts.

Another, as Mr Baey said, is to invest more in behaviourial insights when designing and implementing policies so that they are easier to understand and more effective.

Third, as some MPs noted, is to allow more citizens to be empowered. The Government should place more faith in the citizenry's ability to participate in debate, and empower them to find their own solutions.

One good example is in the recommendations of the Committee to Strengthen National Service, one of which is to let NS men choose their own vocations to better match interest and aptitude with need. This act of choice will enhance motivation and hopefully participation and support.

Bringing together civil society and the Government is crucial to Singapore's long-term success.

This was a point emphasised eloquently by Nominated MP Janice Koh. Quoting an African proverb, she said: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

Psychiatric conditions to be covered under MediShield Life: Amy Khor
By Chitra Kumar, Channel NewsAsia, 29 May 2014

When life-long and universal coverage under MediShield Life is introduced, all Singaporeans with pre-existing conditions including psychiatric conditions diagnosed before March 1, 2013 will also be covered by insurance for the treatment of these conditions, said Senior Minister of State for Health Dr Amy Khor.

Dr Khor, speaking in Parliament on Thursday (May 29), added that more details on MediShield Life will be announced after the Health Ministry has studied the final recommendations from the MediShield Life Review Committee.

The committee is expected to complete its review and submit the recommendations to the Government in the middle of the year.

Added Dr Khor: "In the meantime, subsidies continue to be available for psychiatric care at public hospitals. Medisave can also be used up to S$150 per day and S$5,000 per year. Financial assistance including help from Medifund will be available for those who face difficulty with their medical bills at our public healthcare institutions."

CPF members leaving S'pore withdrew more than $400m each year from 2003 to 2013
By John Leong, Channel NewsAsia, 29 May 2014

From 2003 to 2013, Central Provident Fund members leaving Singapore withdrew $426 million, or 0.3 per cent of the average total members' balances each year. This includes the amounts withdrawn by former citizens, former Permanent Residents (PRs) and foreigners who contributed to CPF before 2003.

Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin gave this update in Parliament on Thursday (May 29). He said the CPF Board does not track the amount separately for PRs who have given up residency.

On whether they can return to Singapore to work, Mr Tan said evaluations will be done to determine their suitability. The Government will look into their track record and history before making a decision.

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