Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Parliament Highlights - 7 Jul 2014

Firms causing haze may be fined up to $2m
New haze Bill raises penalties and widens net to cover parties involved
By David Ee, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

IF A new Bill to fight transboundary haze here is passed, errant firms can be fined up to $2 million, nearly seven times what was originally suggested.

It has also widened its net to target not only companies or entities that cause haze in Singapore by having fires on their land, but also those engaged by the firms to start fires.

Introduced in Parliament yesterday, the Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill was toughened after public feedback.

Those who commented on the draft Bill earlier this year said that the criminal penalties - previously a fine of up to $300,000 - were too low. They also wanted the duration of the haze to be taken into account.

Other changes to the draft Bill include requiring firms to prove that fires on their land are beyond their control and knowledge; and having the authority to prevent individuals from leaving Singapore if they have been served notice.

Singapore has been periodically blanketed by unhealthy haze in past years, caused by illegal clearing of land by burning in Indonesia to grow crops.

After the country experienced its worst haze in history last year, the Government proposed the Bill as a way to deter errant firms both abroad and here more strongly.

The new fines would mean that the longer the haze affects Singapore, the higher the penalty on the guilty parties.

They can be fined up to $100,000 for each day of haze, up to a maximum of $2 million for each unbroken stretch.

This is as long as haze lingers here for 24 hours or more continuously, at a stipulated air-quality level yet to be decided by the authorities.

If a company ignores requests to prevent or control haze, it can be fined an additional $50,000 for each day it failed to take action.

But first, satellite images, meteorological data and maps must show that the fires are on land owned or occupied by this company, and that the wind is blowing smoke from them towards Singapore.

Those affected by haze can also bring civil suits against the culprits.

The Bill has raised some questions over how it would be enforced. If passed, it could take effect by October or November.

Last Friday, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said that the amended Bill is to send "an unequivocal signal" to deter firms from causing haze.

"I want to emphasise the need for cooperation, and for sharing of information. This is the way which I hope that we will be able to make progress. This is a regional problem. This is not only a Singapore problem," he said.

So far this year, smoke from fires in Sumatra, Indonesia, has been kept away from Singapore by favourable winds.

Key amendments made to draft Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill
- FINE of up to $100,000 for each day, or part thereof, that haze affects Singapore (for a continuous 24 hours or more), up to a cap of $2 million. An additional fine of up to $50,000 a day, or part thereof, for entities that ignore requests by Singapore to prevent, reduce or control haze pollution.
- Provides a more specific definition of such entities, which also includes those with agreements or arrangements with landowners or occupiers relating to farming or forestry operations to be carried out on that land.
- To avoid being fined when charged, entities have to prove that they had no control over or knowledge of fires on their land started by persons unconnected to them and that they have put in all reasonable measures to prevent such conduct by these persons.
- Courts given the authority to prevent individuals from leaving Singapore if they have been served notice.
They could be fined up to $5,000 or jailed for up to a month if they fail to comply with the notice.
- A clearer definition provided for the term "condone" in the Bill. Entities would be considered to have condoned the causing of haze if they failed to prevent, stop or reduce burning started by another person.

No haze yet? Thank favourable winds and recent rains
By David Ee, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

IF YOU have been holding your breath for the haze to hit Singapore and wonder why it has not, it is because of favourable wind conditions and recent rains.

Over the last two weeks, prevailing winds have blown largely from the south south-west or the south south-east, instead of south-west, which would have transported the haze from Sumatra to Singapore.

Satellite images on the National Environment Agency's (NEA) haze portal showed that winds last month carried a plume of haze caused by fires in Sumatra, Indonesia, north towards the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, giving Singapore a miss. This caused unhealthy levels of haze on June 24 in several areas, including Selangor and Putrajaya.

Recent rains also lowered the number of fire hot spots in Sumatra, the NEA haze portal showed.

Weather researcher Winston Chow of the National University of Singapore's geography department said recent rains were normal for the ongoing south-west monsoon, but these could end once the El Nino weather phenomenon - linked to drier weather - kicks in later this year as forecast.

"The prevailing winds are also rather variable for now. They should get more south-westerly as we progress into July, August, September," he said. If so, and if fires are present in Sumatra, the haze may hit Singapore, he added.

In Parliament yesterday, Nominated MP Nicholas Fang asked Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan if the recent weather would prompt a change in the ministry's haze assessment. But Dr Balakrishnan said Singaporeans are well aware that the haze can arrive "unpredictably and very quickly".

"It takes about six hours from the onset of the plume in Riau to be brought across... the narrow straits to us," he said.

The Government has warned that the haze could be imminent for several reasons. The dry season from June to September in Sumatra generally leads to burning as farmers clear land to grow crops. This season's low rainfall could be worsened by El Nino.And the period coincides with the onset of the south-west monsoon, which is likely to carry smoke plumes from Sumatra.

Yesterday, six hot spots were detected in Sumatra. Thundery showers are expected this morning, as well as tomorrow and Thursday. Air quality is expected to be in the moderate range.

SingPass breach was 'not due to system flaw'
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

A SYSTEM vulnerability was not to blame for the breach of 1,560 SingPass accounts discovered last month, Parliament was told yesterday.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said experts had scanned different layers of protection at the network and found that hackers did not break into government systems to steal data. That means that no other accounts were compromised.

One such way suggested previously by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) was through "brute force" attacks - a common way of cracking passwords by systematically trying every possible combination of letters, numbers and symbols until it works.

Dr Yaacob noted that the use of simple passwords that are easy to crack is widespread.

He was responding to questions from Mr Zaqy Mohamad, a People's Action Party MP in Chua Chu Kang GRC, and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong of the Workers' Party on the outcome of the investigation.

Police are still investigating how the majority of the accounts were breached.

Last Friday, the Ministry of Manpower and the IDA said that three tampered accounts were fraudulently used to make six work pass applications.

The work passes have since been cancelled, although it is not known who applied for them and when the applications were made.

SingPass also secures residents' filing of income tax returns and access to Central Provident Fund accounts.

The security scare was discovered when SingPass operator CrimsonLogic, a local e-government solutions provider, received calls from 11 users to say that their SingPass passwords had been reset - even though they had not requested it.

Subsequent investigations revealed that, in total, 1,560 accounts were involved, and 419 users eventually had their passwords reset.

In an effort to improve security, Dr Yaacob said the IDA is exploring mandating more frequent password changes for SingPass accounts through a new SingPass system to be launched by the third quarter of next year.

Users may be allowed to set their own usernames instead of using their NRIC numbers.

Government agencies will also require two-factor authentication (2FA) for e-transactions involving sensitive data.

This involves entering a one-time password, which is sent as a text message to a user's mobile phone, to access e-government services.

Asked why 2FA was not introduced earlier, Dr Yaacob said: "Bear in mind that there are three million users of SingPass accounts (with) varying capability and expertise (on) the use of the Internet... but we recognise that Singaporeans now are in favour of further authentication."

Anti-piracy law set to kick in soon
Content owners can then seek court orders for ISPs to block piracy sites
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

A PROPOSED copyright law aimed at piracy websites like The Pirate Bay is expected to come into force by the end of next month.

The Bill was put before Parliament yesterday and was on the verge of being passed when the sitting was adjourned. It is expected to be passed today.

First mooted in April, it will let content owners seek High Court orders to get Internet service providers (ISPs) like SingTel or StarHub to block websites that "clearly and flagrantly infringe" copyright.

Currently, content owners can request only that ISPs block pirated content. They can sue the ISPs for copyright infringement if they do not comply. But this could mean months of litigation, so no content rights holders have tried it.

The proposed amendments to the Copyright Act could shorten the process to just two months.

Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah said: "The prevalence of online piracy in Singapore turns customers away from legitimate content and adversely affects Singapore's creative sector.

"It can also undermine our reputation as a society that respects the protection of intellectual property."

She cited a 2012 ranking by locally based digital content management systems provider Vobile that placed Singapore in fourth position among 18 Asian countries, and 12th out of 38 countries globally, based on the number of illegal downloads per Internet user.

The amendment to Singapore's Copyright Act follows similar jurisdictions in Britain, Norway, Denmark and Belgium.

It was proposed amid opposition from some quarters. The Internet Society's Singapore chapter president Harish Pillay said that consumers may suffer. "It should be amended to prevent unintended consequences such as allowing big businesses to target new competitors to stifle innovation," he said.

Teacher Kuang Jingkai, 32, said content rights holders should instead focus on making more content available to consumers at reasonable prices. "Content providers cannot push for more anti-piracy controls, and yet still continue to overcharge people here," he said.

For instance, the 2013 American war film Lone Survivor cost US$9.99 for the high definition version in the United States iTunes store, but the local iTunes store sells it for $24.98.

During the Law Ministry's two-week-long consultation exercise in April, there were also concerns that the measure would significantly restrict the public's access to digital content.

Included in the 47 written anonymous responses received were suggestions that the Government should instead tackle the problem of a lack of legitimate digital content to deter consumers from turning to alternative sources.

But the Law Ministry maintained that there is already a range of legitimate digital music and video services here including iTunes, Spotify, Deezer, StarHub's TV Anywhere and MediaCorp's Toggle.

"Nonetheless, the Government will continue to encourage (the) industry to make available more legitimate digital content to Singapore quickly and at reasonable cost," the Law Ministry said.

Fall in number of moneylenders since licensing moratorium
By Alvin Foo, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

STRIKING the right balance between protecting borrowers and preserving their access to credit remains a key priority for the Government, said Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah yesterday.

She revealed that since a moratorium on the issuance of new licences was imposed in 2012, the number of moneylenders has dropped to 185 as of last month.

The number of moneylenders had grown from 172 in 2008 to 249 in 2011, she noted.

"Our aim is to maintain a balance in protecting borrowers, especially those of lower income, yet ensuring that there is reasonable access to credit from licensed sources," said Ms Indranee.

She was responding to a question tabled by Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC), who asked whether the measures by the Registry of Moneylenders in recent years have affected the amount of loans taken from moneylenders and whether these measures have restricted access to credit.

Ms Indranee reiterated to the House that the moneylending policies are currently being reviewed, with an advisory committee on moneylending assisting with this effort.

This committee comprises economists, financial sector representatives, the Moneylenders Association of Singapore and three voluntary welfare organisations which counsel distressed borrowers.

The value of loans granted grew from $189 million in 2008 to $480 million in 2011. It declined to $346 million in 2012 but rose again to $478 million last year, she added.

Yesterday, Ms Indranee also addressed the issue of pawnshops and loans disbursed, which was raised by Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam.

Ms Indranee said the above industry has grown from 163 pawnshops in 2010 to 204 last year.

She added that the total amount of pawnbroking loans granted per year rose from $4.9 billion in 2011 to $7.1 billion in 2012 before dropping to $5.5 billion last year.

These pawnbroking loans included those which were refinanced using the same collateral, she noted.

Ms Indranee also said that around 95 per cent of pledges were redeemed by pawners over the same period.

She added that pawners may choose not to redeem their pledges for a variety of reasons.

"For instance, the pawner may simply wish to monetise an item that he owns," she noted.

Agencies get more teeth to fight money laundering
Law amendments passed to make crime easier to detect and prosecute
By Ian Poh, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

SINGAPORE has beefed up its laws against money laundering by amending existing legislation to make the crime easier to detect and prosecute.

Among other things, the maximum jail term for the offence has been raised from seven to 10 years and the courts can now order an offender's property of an equivalent value to be seized if he has disposed of the money.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Second Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran said criminal laws and anti-money-laundering measures must be regularly reviewed so as to deal swiftly with criminal operations.

The number of money-laundering convictions here had risen from 18 in 2010 to 39 last year, he said, before the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) (Amendment) Bill was passed yesterday.

The law, which criminalises money laundering and gives the authorities the power to seize its proceeds, was last amended in 2010.

The amendments will allow agencies here to "better prevent illicit monies from flowing through Singapore, deter associated criminal activities and facilitate cooperation with the international community", said Mr Iswaran.

The amended law makes it clear that money laundering cases involving foreign tax evasion can be prosecuted as long as they are considered crimes there and the person involved intended to evade tax.

And for money laundering involving an underlying offence committed overseas, law enforcement agencies here no longer need to get certification of that offence from foreign authorities before prosecuting the corresponding offence here.

During the debate on the Bill yesterday, Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said the Bill's importance to Singapore's continued growth as a major offshore financial centre could not be overstated.

As an international financial and investment centre, Singapore is vulnerable to cross-border money laundering and terrorist financing risks, he added.

He also called for an increase in prescribed fines, noting that money laundering may involve millions or billions of dollars.

The maximum fine stipulated in various parts of the Act remains at $500,000 for individuals and $1 million for corporations.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) supported the Bill, but expressed concerns about compliance costs for businesses and safeguards for the confiscation of substitute assets.

Nominated MP Tan Su Shan, a senior bank executive, said clarity is an issue over what constitutes "tax evasion".

7,200 PRs served NS in last 5 years: Defence Minister
By Faris Mokhtar, Channel NewsAsia, 7 Jul 2014

Some 7,200 Permanent Residents (PRs) have served National Service (NS) in the last five years, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament on Monday (July 7).

Those who served are second-generation, NS-liable, male PRs, the minister stated. He added that in the same period, 2,600 others renounced their PR status before serving NS.

The Defence Minister was replying to a question posed by Member of Parliament Arthur Fong.

Early 1990s HDB blocks may get upgrade
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

HOUSING Board precincts built in the early 1990s could be eligible for a major makeover under the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP).

Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan said in Parliament yesterday that his ministry is looking into expanding the eligibility criteria.

"We understand that residents in blocks built just after 1989 may feel their blocks are also ageing, but they have just missed out on NRP," he said in reply to a call from Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) for a review.

Currently, only precincts built before December 1989 and have not undergone other major upgrading programmes are eligible.

Under the programme, introduced in 2007, residents in selected HDB precincts can choose what improvements they want.

Some have asked for sheltered walkways while others preferred a "residents' lounge" at the void deck to promote interaction among neighbours or a porch for residents to alight from vehicles, shielded from inclement weather.

The programme has improved the surroundings of about 140,000 flats - or 75 per cent of the 187,000 flats eligible for NRP.

The residents have responded positively to NRP, Mr Khaw said, and a review is timely.

"We will see how the NRP can be extended to blocks built in the early 1990s.

"If and when we do make such an extension, we will give priority to towns which have not benefitted from the Main Upgrading Programme or Interim Upgrading Programme, like those in (Mr Zainal's) constituency," he said.

Mr Khaw also described as sensible a suggestion by Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) that the cost cap for each precinct be reviewed given the rising cost of construction.

The cost is capped at $3,400 per flat.

When asked for a deadline for the review by Mr Zainal, Mr Khaw said: "We are reviewing. You know I'm a fast worker."

Processes tightened to ensure used ballot boxes accounted for
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

THE Elections Department (ELD) has reviewed and tightened its work processes to ensure all used and empty ballot boxes are accounted for and disposed of after every election.

The change was announced by Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing yesterday, after two students found empty ballot boxes used in the 2011 Presidential Election in a school storeroom last August.

Mr Chan, replying on behalf of the Prime Minister, said the discovery has "no implications on the secrecy of the vote or the integrity of the election process".

The boxes, while not disposed of properly, were used and emptied ballot boxes, said Mr Chan.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) had asked if ELD had studied whether all ballot boxes, used or unused, can be treated as controlled items until they are destroyed.

Mr Chan reiterated the explanation he gave Mr Singh in Parliament last September.

When such boxes are used to contain ballots, with proper seals, "they should and are indeed accounted as controlled items".

"When such boxes are not in use, with no proper seal, they are not controlled items and we do not need to classify them as such," he added.

Police said last month the two students who found and removed the ballot boxes have been counselled and issued advisories. The incident sparked an exchange of letters in The Straits Times Forum last month between former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock and ELD.

It was over the practice of placing all counted ballots into new boxes at the counting centre for transport to the Supreme Court, where they are kept until they are destroyed.

Dr Tan wanted the process to be more explicit and transparent.

New measures to boost nuclear security
By David Ee, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

SINGAPORE has moved a step closer towards boosting its nuclear security, with the second reading of amendments to the Radiation Protection Bill in Parliament yesterday.

Chief among the proposed changes: toughening the penalties for stealing or harming the public with nuclear materials.

For instance, a person found guilty of committing an act against a nuclear facility with intent to cause death could face the death penalty. Those suspected of nuclear-related offences may also be extradited to or from Singapore to face charges.

The amended Bill also requires government agencies that use irradiating equipment - for example, X-ray machines used by the Health Ministry - to be licensed.

"The consequences of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands are disastrous and it is important that there is a global concerted effort to protect all nuclear material," said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan.

The original Bill enacted in 1973 placed curbs on the import, export, sales, transport, possession and use of nuclear materials.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in March that Singapore would strengthen its nuclear laws in preparation for signing the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, a legally binding international pact established in 1987. Some 149 nations have ratified it, including Indonesia and Vietnam. Both countries and Malaysia have shown interest in nuclear energy.

PM Lee also said then that nuclear safety is especially critical as Asian states begin to build nuclear power plants. Being small and densely populated, any nuclear incident affecting Singapore would be a major disaster, he said.

The Republic is building up its expertise in nuclear safety, science and engineering, with a $63 million research and education programme over five years announced in April.

A government pre-feasibility study in 2012 concluded that current nuclear energy technologies are not suitable for Singapore yet. The amended Bill is expected to be passed by the year end.

Eugene Tan keeps an eagle eye on quorum numbers
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2014

TWICE yesterday, the Parliament sitting was interrupted because too few Members were present in the House to pass two Bills.

A quorum of one-quarter of the total number of 87 MPs, excluding the Speaker, is needed for a Bill to be passed, as specified under the Constitution.

But Nominated MP Eugene Tan, a constitutional and administrative law professor, noticed, both times, that the House did not have the quorum.

He said: "I think in order for this Bill not to be challenged on the basis that it's not constitutionally passed, can I just clarify that we do have a quorum?"

He first made the point at about 5.30pm, shortly after a 20-minute break and during the debate on an amendment to the Radiation Protection Act.

Deputy Speaker Charles Chong then noted that the House was one Member short of a quorum.

The division bell was rung to summon other MPs who, after a few minutes, streamed into the Chamber to take their seats.

The Bill was passed by a voice vote, with a quorum.

The second delay came at around 7.10pm, when Professor Tan raised the same point of order - right before an amendment to the Copyright Act was to be passed.

The House was again one Member short of a quorum.

But instead of having MPs summoned again, Parliament was adjourned 20 minutes early. This was at the request of Dr Ng Eng Hen, who is the Leader of the House.

This means the Copyright (Amendment) Bill will be put to the vote at today's sitting.

Yesterday was not the first time that Prof Tan had pointed out the lack of a quorum. He had similarly interrupted proceedings on two other occasions in 2012 - in July and October.

Questions over lack of quorum

I WAS disappointed to read that there were too few members in a recent Parliament sitting to pass two Bills ("Eugene Tan keeps an eagle eye on quorum numbers"; last Tuesday).

A few questions came to my mind.

First, MPs voted in by the people are the voice of the people in the House. But how are they going to be the people's voice if they do not attend the debate on certain Bills to be passed?

Does the House keep a record of how often a member is absent from such proceedings?

Second, why did the sessions proceed in the first place if the House did not already have the required number of elected MPs present as specified under the Constitution?

Third, what are the common reasons for MPs' absence from such proceedings? Are these members holding too many appointments outside the House?

Lastly, if there are so many members absent from such proceedings, how good and effective is the debate in the House?

It may be better to delay a vote on a Bill until there is a quorum. If not, it may give the impression that the proceeding does not carry weight as a decision might have been made before a vote.

Leong Kok Seng
ST Forum, 14 Jul 2014

Lack of quorum: Clerk of Parliament replies

I REFER to Mr Leong Kok Seng's letter ("Questions over lack of quorum"; Monday).

If Parliament sits without a quorum, it may be adjourned if an MP objects. It will also not be able to pass a Bill.

Subject to these, Parliament can continue to transact other businesses that do not require a decision, such as Question Time.

The sitting on July 7 was attended by 91 MPs and attendances are recorded in the Official Reports and Votes and Proceedings available on the Parliament website.

When the votes on the Bills that were passed on July 7 were taken at the sitting, the quorum was met.

MPs have to seek the Speaker's permission in writing to be absent from a sitting.

They also have to inform the party Whip if they are unable to attend Parliament on time or have to leave early.

Ng Sheau Jiuan (Ms)
Clerk of Parliament
ST Forum, 17 Jul 2014

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