Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Parliament Highlights - 4 Aug 2014

New Family Justice Courts to better resolve family conflicts
Judge-led approach aims to ease the pain and protect the vulnerable
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

A NEW court will be set up to deal with family disputes in less acrimonious ways under a law passed in Parliament yesterday. The aim is to ease the pain, better protect the vulnerable and cut costs and delays in cases of family conflict.

The Family Justice Courts will oversee divorce and other cases relating to painful and personal matters such as family violence, disputes over wills, adoption and guardianship, and custody and other family issues involving children.

The new system seeks to replace the old adversarial approach - dominated by duelling lawyers - with a judge-led one, where judges specialising in family matters will lead and control the pace and direction of cases.

Among measures being introduced: Parents who plan to divorce must attend a "pre-filing" consultation with state-appointed officials unless they are able to agree on all matters concerning the divorce. Newly appointed "court friends" will assist those not represented by lawyers. And the court will appoint a representative where necessary to protect the interests of the child in bitter divorce disputes.

The Family Justice Act also provides for a new Central Registry that receives, assigns and manages all cases for hearing. Urgent cases where a person's safety is at risk, for instance, will be fast-tracked. Complex cases requiring more rigorous and specialist attention will also be put on a separate track.

In any proceedings involving the welfare or custody of a child, the court may, where necessary, appoint a doctor, counsellor, social worker or mental health professional to examine and assess the child for the purpose of preparing expert evidence for use in court. Judges will also be empowered to order parties to undergo mediation or counselling.

Court processes are also being streamlined to reduce unnecessary legal costs and delays. Forms, for instance, are being simplified and affidavits must be filed according to standard templates.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Law Minister K. Shanmugam stressed that the changes are not aimed at making it easier for couples to divorce. "Families should be saved as far as possible, and disputes... brought before the court only as a last resort," he said. "But if the marriage has irretrievably broken down and the family ends up in the court system, the court process should not worsen the anguish of the family."

The 71-page law is based on comprehensive recommendations of a Committee for Family Justice comprising representatives from the Government, the courts, the social services and the legal fraternity. Chaired by Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah and then Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah, the committee was set up last year in the wake of rising divorce rates. There were 7,525 divorce and annulment cases last year, up 4 per cent from the year before.

Cutting across party lines, all eight MPs who spoke during the two-hour debate yesterday broadly supported the Bill. Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan lauded the Bill as one that championed a "major and much- needed revamp of our family justice system".

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) supported indications that the process would be "less adversarial, enabling the judge to probe beyond the symptoms to the root cause of the problems". And Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC), Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) and Dr Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC) lauded the judge-led approach to protect the best interests of the child.

Mr Shanmugam said the law represents the Government's and the court's commitment to transform the system to help troubled families resolve disputes with as little emotional trauma as possible. "What we can do is help families resolve their issues, either by mending the relationship or, if that is not possible, by helping them move on with their lives."

Cases to be heard in private to protect kids: Shanmugam
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

THERE is a difference between public interest and what the public is interested in, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday while explaining why cases heard by the new Family Justice Courts will largely remain private.

He was responding to Workers' Party chairman and Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim's questions on why the proceedings of this court will be private by default.

The interests of the children must also be protected, the minister added.

Ms Lim contended that the clause stipulating "in-camera" or private hearings unless otherwise stated would be "a significant departure from the open justice concept applicable to the other courts, maintaining the courts as open and public and to which the public shall generally have access".

Having a closed court was also a change from the current situation pertaining to family cases, where many family-related proceedings are heard in open court, such as divorces, contested maintenance applications and protection orders, and contested inheritance cases.

Even in the current Juvenile Court that handles cases of youth in trouble, the Children and Young Persons Act permits the presence of bona fide representatives of news agencies, she pointed out.

While acknowledging the need for private hearings in some cases - such as those involving children - she wondered whether it was clear that the media should not report on family cases at all.

While sensational, intrusive stories were justifiably disliked, she argued that an accurate media report could increase public awareness of family law, rights and obligations. "It is in the public interest that the layman has some understanding of family law principles and how the Family Court works, since it is an area of law touching all our lives directly," she said.

The former law lecturer added that one of the hallmarks of an open justice system was that the general public was able to observe and scrutinise how the courts function. "There is a risk that the secrecy surrounding the Family Justice Courts may undermine public confidence in it."

The recommendation for private hearings was made by the Family Justice Committee, comprising expert representatives from the Government, law and social service fraternities.

Responding to her concerns, Mr Shanmugam, who has been a top legal eagle himself, said that after extensive consultations, the committee felt that the "full entrails of the family disputes should not be laid out in public to protect the children".

He added that judges were being given the discretion to order public hearings, or make public judgments when necessary.

"Precisely what details, what cases are published, whether it's published in the media, those are things that I would rather not do by diktat," he said. Judges were best placed to make those decisions. "And they must have the discretion to do what is right in the appropriate cases."

S'pore carriers told to review flight path risk assessments
By Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

A SINGAPORE Airlines plane was about 90km, or some 10 minutes away, when a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down last month over eastern Ukraine where rebels are fighting government forces.

While there were no flight restrictions over the airspace at the time, the July 17 crash of MH17 has prompted the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to ask Singapore carriers to review their risk assessment of flight operations over conflict zones, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew told Parliament yesterday.

The authority is also looking at how to enhance the sharing of safety and security information among national aviation authorities and airlines so that carriers can better assess risks.

Mr Lui said: "International civil aviation requires an aircraft to traverse multiple countries, but no single authority would be able to provide all the information on the situation outside its jurisdiction. Countries need to rely on one another, and need to work together in order to ensure the continued safety of civil aviation."

Leading the global drive for more information sharing is the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) - a United Nations arm that oversees commercial aviation - which has set up a high-level task force on this.

MPs had expressed concern over SIA flights that overfly conflict zones, but Mr Lui told them that while steps are being taken, there were no flight restrictions above 32,000 feet for the particular airspace before the MH17 crash.

"No national aviation authorities, no regional aviation bodies, nor ICAO, had provided any advisories to avoid that part of Ukrainian airspace," he said.

Cutting through Ukrainian skies is the most optimal route for flights between Europe and the Middle East, South Asia and South-east Asia, he said.

"It was therefore being regularly and heavily utilised by many airlines" including Qatar Airways, Emirates, Air India, Lufthansa, Thai Airways and SIA.

As for carriers plying between Europe and North Asia, there is usually no need to fly over Ukraine, he said. Following the MH17 crash, Australia's Qantas, British Airways, Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong and carriers from South Korea said they did not operate flights over Ukraine.

Responding to Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) who asked whether SIA could have tightened its risk assessment given that other carriers had decided to avoid flying over Ukraine even before the crash, Mr Lui said that with the exception of British Airways, there was really no need for the rest to use Ukrainian airspace.

Mr Lui said: "British Airways indeed avoided Ukrainian airspace on their flights to our part of the world but British Airways had also decided and very recently affirmed the decision that it will continue to fly over Iraq which is an airspace that many airlines have decided not to fly over.

"So I think there is no one example that we can follow and each airline will have to make its own best judgment taking all factors into consideration."

This includes advisories from governments, as well as regional and international bodies, he said.

Even as SIA had continued to fly over Ukraine pre-MH17, it had proactively avoided other conflict zones, he said. Syria was one example, industry insiders said.

Following MH17, SIA and other airlines have stopped flying over Ukraine.

NLB to keep review and buying teams separate
Move will boost public confidence in the review process, says Yaacob
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

THE National Library Board (NLB), embroiled in a recent controversy over books with homosexual content, has taken steps to improve the way it reviews its books.

One major move is that the team selecting books for its 25 public libraries and the team reviewing them will be different.

This is not clearly spelt out now, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said in Parliament yesterday. He believes segregating these responsibilities will "lead to greater public confidence in the review process".

He also highlighted two other changes the NLB is looking into.

One is the setting up of an external advisory panel to evaluate potentially controversial titles and the other is to consider options other than just destroying books deemed unsuitable.

The upcoming panel, he said, should represent a cross-section of society and include members from the literary community.

But the final decision of keeping or withdrawing a title should still lie with the NLB, he added.

As for books withdrawn owing to controversial content, he said NLB will consider other options such as placing them in another section, or putting them up for sale or donation. NLB's current practice is to pulp books withdrawn for being worn and torn.

Last month, its decision to remove three children's titles with homosexual content, after it received some public complaints, and pulp them caused a major uproar. It subsequently reinstated two titles - And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express - but in the adult collection.

The saga led to a string of questions in Parliament from MPs.

In his 15-page reply, Dr Yaacob explained, among other things, how NLB selects and reviews books. Special care is taken for the children's section as many browse the shelves unsupervised, he added. He also said And Tango Makes Three, which features two male penguins raising a chick, was acquired in 2005. It went through an internal review in 2009 and was retained in the children's section. NLB was then under the leadership of Dr N. Varaprasad.

In making the 2009 decision, Dr Yaacob said "(NLB) was looking at perhaps the discussion at that point in time. Things have changed, a fresh pair of eyes took a look at the book again, there was feedback from the public, and (NLB) decided maybe it was not appropriate for us to have the book in the children's section".

Making such assessments is "not an exact science" and those doing so may have their own opinions, he added. In reviewing books, NLB takes into account community norms, he said. "It is not NLB's mandate to challenge or seek to change these norms."

Nominated MP Janice Koh asked if there was only one standard set of community norms NLB bases its policies on.

Dr Yaacob replied: "The norms will change over time and therefore we rely on government polls and feedback channels... and 'Meet the Customer' sessions NLB has held from time to time."

He also cited a 2013 Our Singapore Conversation study which shows 55 per cent of 4,000 people surveyed rejected same-sex marriage; 24 per cent were neutral and 21 per cent accepted it. Also, a government survey shows 52 per cent of 843 people polled feel books not in line with traditional family values should not be in public libraries' children's sections.

Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) noted that an Archie comic issue, banned from bookstores by the Media Development Authority (MDA) for depicting same-sex marriage, is available in Singapore's public libraries.

Dr Yaacob said the MDA's decision should not automatically determine NLB's position. The reason, he added, is that bookshops here "are open to all patrons and there are no age restrictions at the point of sale".

Public libraries, however, have different collections, and this gives it some flexibility to place some materials deemed unsuitable for one age group in another section, he said.

Three lessons to navigate minefield of clashing values
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

WE CANNOT get it right all the time. That was the frank admission from Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, repeated several times over, during the debate on the removal of three books by the National Library Board (NLB) that touched on homosexuality.

Over a half hour, Dr Yaacob sought to assure the seven MPs who had asked questions on this issue that NLB would be strengthening its processes of reviewing books and building in more mechanisms to take in wider public feedback such as having an advisory panel.

But Dr Yaacob also made it clear that when dealing with such issues, it is often an art more than a science.

"Will (NLB) get it right all the time? I will not give you that assurance, but I think we will try our very best to draw as much input as possible for us to make a decision," he said.

The debate highlighted three issues in the area of evolving norms and values.

First, decision-makers need to be much more aware of the changing social norms and potential clashes of values. This raises the question if they are being adequately prepared to do so.

Having the proposed advisory panel to give more input on where the community is, will help in this regard and hopefully improve the decision-making process.

In this particular case, And Tango Makes Three - one of the books under scrutiny - was acquired in 2005 and reviewed internally in 2009, and at the time NLB had decided to retain it.

But five years later, with feedback calling for the book to be removed, it was reviewed "with a fresh pair of eyes" and then the decision to withdraw it was made.

While Dr Yaacob said that the process was "adhered to (in) letter and spirit", what was lacking appears to have been adequate red flags to ask why a book that was approved earlier was now being removed, and whether this feedback was reflective of the wider community.

It is hoped that the advisory panel would have stepped in to say, let us think more deeply about this decision and the consequences it may have, before proceeding to pulp the books.

As clashes over values between liberals and conservatives are expected to become more common, it is worth asking how other government agencies and decision-makers can be better prepared to have an astute understanding of where things could go awry, what issues are flammable and which need to be handled deftly.

The second lesson is the need for government agencies to be savvier in an environment where different groups are better organised and able to mobilise to lobby for their interests.

This particular incident has raised the prospect of astro-turfing, or orchestrated feedback from an interest group, a point raised by Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC).

While Dr Yaacob said it was not clear that this was indeed the case, he added that government agencies would have to take it into account.

But, as Mr Singh pointed out, perhaps there is a need for clearer guidelines on how to respond to such concerted feedback in the future.

A third lesson is with regard to how the public should engage government agencies. As the Government takes on board more public feedback, it also behooves the public to provide their views constructively and not resort to personal and vicious attacks should disagreements arise, as they sometimes will. This in turn can build trust and credibility between both sides which will help the debate move forward.

In this case, Dr Yaacob pointed out that while many did not agree with what was a professional decision by the NLB, the personal attacks were not warranted.

In the end, this episode will hopefully strengthen not just NLB's book review process, but also Singapore's capacity and preparedness in handling such future clashes, as our evolving society gives rise to more diversity and differences of views, and "getting it right" becomes much harder to do.

Too soon to ease property curbs, says Khaw
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

NATIONAL Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday turned down an MP's call to relax some of the property cooling measures, saying such a move could raise demand and, in turn, housing prices.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) wanted the Government to consider easing some rules like the Additional Buyer's Stamp Duty (ABSD) so that Singaporeans can upgrade their properties while staying financially prudent.

But Mr Khaw believes it is too early to loosen the rules.

"Such a move could lead to an upswing in demand, which would increase the number of transactions and raise housing prices," he told Parliament as he restated the Government's position.

"This would not be welcome to Singaporean home buyers, particularly those with aspirations to upgrade."

Singaporeans who buy a second property, without selling their first home, have to pay 7 per cent ABSD on their new purchase and 10 per cent on subsequent ones.

Foreigners pay 15 per cent ABSD on any residential purchase, while permanent residents pay 5 per cent on the first property and 10 per cent on subsequent ones.

But home prices have yet to budge significantly.

As a result, the Government stated twice in the last two months that the cooling measures will stay: the National Development Ministry at the end of June, and the Monetary Authority of Singapore's managing director Ravi Menon last month.

Mr Menon said prices remain high, having risen 60 per cent in the last four years and fallen by just 3.3 per cent in the last three quarters.

Latest figures show that in the second quarter of this year, private property prices fell 1 per cent while public housing resale prices fell 1.4 per cent.

In his reply, Mr Khaw also said the cooling measures are to keep the housing market stable and sustainable. "They aim to encourage financial prudence among home buyers and to moderate property prices."

The measures include lowering the proportion of income that can be used to pay a home loan.

He also said there are concessions to benefit upgraders. For example, Singaporean married couples can get an ABSD refund if they sell their existing home within a stipulated period after buying their second home.

Similarly, an upgrader, who provides documents to his bank to show he will be selling his existing home, will be treated as a borrower with no outstanding home loans. This lets him qualify for the maximum loan-to-value ratio of 80 per cent. In other words, his new loan can cover 80 per cent of the value of the purchase.

"The existing concessions are reasonable and sufficient," concluded Mr Khaw.

"Any move to relax the cooling measures, including by broadening these concessions, is premature under current market conditions."

Govt 'did not draw down past reserves to pay CPF interest'
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

THE Government has relied on the country's reserves as a buffer so it could meet its obligations to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board in years when investment returns were lower than the guaranteed CPF interest rates.

But that is not the same as drawing down Singapore's past reserves.

Mr Giam wanted to know if the Government had tapped its past reserves to pay the CPF Board the interest due on its investment in the Special Singapore Government Securities (SSGS), in the years when the Government's investment returns had fallen short of the amount due. Use of past reserves is governed by the Constitution, and requires approval from the President.

Yesterday, Mr Tharman said the Government's net assets - which it relies on to guarantee CPF interest rates - is made up of Singapore's reserves. And the bulk of this, he said, consists of past reserves accumulated during previous terms of government.

In eight of the past 20 years, the Government has had to rely on this buffer of net assets to meet its CPF interest obligations. In those eight years, GIC's investment returns had fallen below the interest rates guaranteed by the SSGS. These in turn match those on CPF savings, of a minimum of 4-5 per cent interest on Special, Medisave and Retirement Account balances, and 2.5-3.5 per cent interest on Ordinary Account balances.

Said Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister: "That by definition would have meant that net assets would have been reduced, because the Government has got fixed obligations on its liabilities and because of the fluctuation in returns on its assets."

But what goes into determining whether there is a likely draw on past reserves, said Mr Tharman, is whether the Government has entered into liabilities that are sustainable, and which will not result in a systematic erosion of the reserves. Giving an example of a scenario of erosion, he said that would have happened if the Government set interest rates on the SSGS at "artificially high levels". If these levels were "above what can reasonably be expected to be earned in investment returns on the Government's funds over the long term", it would result in the reserves being run down "systematically and deliberately".

The Constitution, said Mr Tharman, allows the President to state and gazette his opinion if he considers that the Government has entered into liabilities that will likely draw down past reserves.

"The President has not been put in a position where he has had to state such an opinion," said Mr Tharman, adding that "CPF interest rates are set with reference to returns on similar market instruments, and are both fair and sustainable".

He also made clear that the President and the Council of Presidential Advisers have full information on the size of the reserves and all of the Government's financial assets and liabilities. And he explained that a fall in the value of Singapore's reserves in the course of investing it for long-term returns is not considered a draw on past reserves that the Constitution seeks to safeguard against.

He noted that any strategy of long-term investing will mean taking investment risks, and involve ups and downs in the market value of the portfolio. "The scenario of entering into liabilities that will lead to a systematic and deliberate drawdown of reserves should not be confused with the fluctuation in the value of the reserves due to market volatility and cycles that happen all the time," he said.

"The only way to avoid fluctuations in the value of our reserves is to avoid taking investment risk," he said, but that would mean "accepting low returns over the long term" that would likely fall below the interest rates on the SSGS and even Singapore Government Securities.

Financial lapses dealt with at highest level: Tharman
Permanent secretaries, CEOs responsible for ensuring slip-ups are rectified, he says
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

FINANCIAL lapses highlighted by the Auditor-General are dealt with at the highest level, with the ministry's permanent secretary or agency's chief executive held responsible for ensuring the slip-ups are rectified.

Every year, the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) presents a report that shows how government bodies have been less than prudent in their spending. The latest report released last month named the Defence Ministry as one of them.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, also in a written parliamentary reply yesterday, gave details on what has been done to correct its undercharging of rent to one of its contractors.

Mindef had sublet land to a contractor in 1995 at a nominal rate of $45 a year, to provide services solely to it. The rented plot was part of a bigger plot leased from the PUB in 1971, at $68 a year.

But even after the contractor was privatised in 2000 and started using the land for commercial activities, Mindef did not raise the rent, the AGO found.

Dr Ng said that even after privatisation, most of the contractor's business was still with Mindef. So, the land it leased was not solely for commercial use.

This made it difficult to compute the amount the company had saved over the years from paying nominal rent, he said.

Even so, Mindef had intended to bring the rent in line with the market value and had asked the PUB in 2001 to update its lease, Dr Ng said.

The PUB had finalised the main lease agreement only in June this year, he added.

Mindef now charges the contractor $830,000 a year in rent. It is also paying the PUB a revised annual rent of $5.43 million for 127ha.

Other lapses in the report include the administration of grants, government schemes and programmes, as well as government procurement.

Mr Tharman said the AGO's findings are "carefully reviewed and acted upon".

Disciplinary action is also taken, where appropriate, against those responsible and their supervisors, he added.

Any suggestion of corruption or fraud is also investigated promptly and thoroughly, Mr Tharman said, adding that those found guilty will "face the full measure of the law".

"As is the case in any large organisation with a high number of transactions, it is not possible to achieve zero lapses.

"The Government relies on audits that are regularly and properly carried out to identify shortcomings and areas for improvements, while heads of agencies have clear responsibilities to see through follow-up actions," he said.

Local companies not losing competitive edge: Lim Hng Kiang
By Azhar Khalid, Channel NewsAsia, 4 Aug 2014

Local companies are not losing their competitiveness despite recent weakness seen in key economic data such as non-oil domestic exports (NODX).

In a written response to a parliamentary question by Nominated Member of Parliament Teo Siong Seng, Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang says there are other sectors that show positive growth in the first half of this year. These include sectors like precision engineering and general manufacturing activities such as furniture manufacturing.

Mr Teo had asked if local enterprises are challenged by a loss of competitiveness after key data such as NODX had shown a decline in June. Mr Lim said the declines in NODX in June as well as tourist spending on shopping and food service in the first quarter this year, are due to "external factors."

He said Indonesian visitors, who are one of Singapore's top spenders, had contributed to the bulk of the decline in shopping expenditure.

"This was likely due to their weaker purchasing power as a result of the depreciation of the rupiah against major currencies, including the Singapore dollar," adds Mr Lim

Still, Mr Lim said the Government recognises that tighter labour constraints and rising business costs may have adversely affected some local companies.

"The key to companies coping with higher costs, without affecting their competitiveness, is to raise their productivity," said Mr Lim.

He encourages more companies to step forward to tap on the various productivity schemes that the Government has in place.

Why household wealth not measured: Minister
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

INFORMATION on household wealth in Singapore is not readily available and for this reason, the Government is not able to measure it, said Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang yesterday.

Household wealth is made of several parts. These include the value of residential properties after subtracting their outstanding mortgage, shares and securities, Central Provident Fund savings, life insurance and bank deposits.

"Many of these data are not readily available for statistical compilation," he said in a written parliamentary reply to Non-constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong.

Mr Yee had asked if household wealth is measured and, if not, whether the Government plans to do so.

His question comes amid a growing debate over widening inequality in Singapore and other countries not just in terms of income but in wealth.

Mr Lim, in elaborating, cited how information on bank deposits and mortgage loans are sensitive personal data protected by the Banking Act.

It is also challenging to collect such data through surveys as personal wealth is a sensitive topic, he added.

The experience of wealth data collection in other countries, through surveys, shows individuals tend to under-report their wealth.

But Singapore's Department of Statistics will continue to monitor international developments in the compilation of wealth statistics, Mr Lim said.

It will review the feasibility of doing so in Singapore if it is found to be necessary, he added.

New dengue vaccine 'not effective enough for S'pore'
Treatment derived from plant seeds also no better than placebo: Vivian
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

A NEW dengue vaccine to be marketed by French pharmaceutical company Sanofi next year is "not good enough" for Singapore, said Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament yesterday.

He was responding to queries from Members of Parliament on when the vaccine and other new drugs would hit the shelves here.

Dr Balakrishnan, a medical doctor, said the vaccine was not effective enough against the two most common types of the dengue virus here, types 1 and 2. The vaccinated group's risk of developing dengue is reduced by 50 per cent and 35 per cent respectively for types 1 and 2, compared with an unvaccinated group.

"Until further clinical data is available for us to be sure that the benefits outweigh the risks, I don't think the Ministry of Health or Health Sciences Authority will rush into approving the vaccine," he said.

Meanwhile, celgosivir, an anti-viral treatment derived from plant seeds, has not been proven to be more effective than a placebo though it has been found to be safe, Dr Balakrishnan added.

MPs also asked if the fines for mosquito breeding could be scaled based on the risks that the breeding posed to the public. For instance, Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) wanted heftier fines for construction companies found to have mosquitoes breeding on their worksites. Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) suggested that pest control firms that fail to control mosquito breeding at worksites be blacklisted.

Dr Balakrishnan said the ministry would study the suggestions on raising penalties but warned that pinning a case of dengue on a specific incidence of mosquito breeding would be hard.

To date, 62 stop-work orders have been issued and 14 contractors prosecuted this year for allowing mosquito breeding on their premises. The number of weekly dengue cases for July 20-26 was 640, down from a record high of 891 cases at the end of June and start of July.

Haze Bill penalties not large enough, say MPs
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2014

PENALTIES in the proposed Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill may not be large enough to deter big firms, and should be made more severe for repeat offenders, said the first two MPs who debated the new Bill before Parliament was adjourned yesterday.

The Bill - an earlier version of which was up for public consultation earlier this year - was introduced in Parliament in July and holds entities liable for activities inside or outside Singapore that cause unhealthy haze here.

Its aim is to help combat the haze that blankets Singapore from time to time, especially during the dry season, due to illegal land clearing by burning in Indonesia.

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) pointed out that the financial penalties, which are up to $100,000 a day and go up to a maximum of $2 million, may represent only a small sum to large agroforestry firms.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) said the fines should be doubled or even tripled.

"The fines in the Bill may not be sufficient deterrent against offenders who will weigh the cost of the fine if they are caught, against the profits they will gain."

Monitoring and locating hot spots takes up government resources, while haze also incurs economic and personal health losses here, she added.

In addition, the new law should contain a provision for whistleblowers, she said.

Mr de Souza said errant companies' use of illegal slash-and-burn land clearing methods should be exposed, and urged consumers to pressure them economically.

"Until and unless consumers are made aware that certain products they purchase are the product of these actions... companies will continue undeterred," he said.

At least seven more MPs are scheduled to debate the Bill, and it is expected to be passed today.

Separately, the Government said it had offered the Indonesian government the use of a helicopter with a specialised heli-bucket to help fight fires there.

This adds to its earlier offer in June, of satellite pictures, Singapore Civil Defence Force assistance, and other aircraft for cloud-seeding.

More households to benefit from programme to enhance seniors' safety
By Sara Grosse, Channel NewsAsia, 4 Aug 2014

An additional 100,000 households will benefit from the changes in age criterion for the Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) programme. The programme was launched in 2012 to enhance the safety and comfort of seniors living in HDB flats.

As of Aug 1, the age criterion for EASE has been lowered from 70 years old to 65 years old. For those who require assistance in daily living, the age criterion has been further lowered to 60 to 64 years old.

In addition, the scope of works has been extended to cover a second toilet within the flat. So if seniors opt for it, HDB will carry out slip-resistant treatment to the floor tiles and install grab bars for their second toilet.

Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan shared this in a written reply to Dr Lee Bee Wah, who asked about the status of the review of the EASE programme. Mr Khaw said the review has been completed. He added that for families with special needs members who do not meet the age criterion, HDB will consider their requests and approve them if the needs are justified.

"Steady progress" in helping students better learn Mother Tongue: Heng
Channel NewsAsia, 4 Aug 2014

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat says there has been "steady progress" in implementing measures to strengthen students' motivation and proficiency in learning their Mother Tongue, after the Mother Tongue Language (MTL) Review Committee gave its recommendations in 2010.

Mr Heng was responding on Monday (Aug 4) in a written reply to Nominated Member of Parliament Teo Siong Seng, who had asked if the Ministry of Education planned to further improve on the teaching of the Chinese language in schools and work with partners to motivate students' interest.

Mr Heng said the ministry has re-designed instructional materials and improved teaching approaches to focus more strongly on interactive skills. Beyond the school premises, MOE has also been been working with parents and community partners to provide an environment that is conducive to the learning of Mother Tongue.

Three MTL Promotion Committees, which reached out to more than 100,000 people each year, have since been established. "MOE will continue to review and improve approaches to the teaching and learning of Mother Tongue to ensure that our students remain motivated and proficient in learning the language," said Mr Heng.

Nationality-related discrimination is top complaint received by TAFEP: Manpower Minister
By Eileen Poh, Channel NewsAsia, 04 Aug 2014

Complaints about workplace discrimination received by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) typically relates to Singaporeans' concerns for nationality-related discrimination, and these usually account for about half of total complaints received.

Meanwhile, complaints related to age, and language or race discrimination are tied at second place, with one fifth of complaints each. Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin shared these numbers in a written reply to a question by Member of Parliament Zainal Sapari on Monday (Aug 4).

Mr Tan also shared that the number of nationality-related complaints in the first half of this year dropped back to the 2011/2012 levels, after a "sharp spike" in 2013. "We will continue to monitor the number closely," he said.

Employers found to have been discriminatory in their hiring practices get their work pass privileges curtailed. In the first six months of this year, MOM has curtailed the work pass privileges of 41 errant employers and issued warnings to 34 other employers.

"Being fair is the right thing to do. Employers who practise fair employment will also benefit two-fold - firstly, through having access to a wider talent pool, and secondly, through a boost in the morale and productivity of their employees," Mr Tan added.

MHA proposes tighter laws on mobile phone use while driving
By Tan Shi Wei, TODAY, 5 Aug 2014

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) wants to widen the dragnet on the worsening problem of motorists using their mobile phones while behind the wheel.

In proposed changes to the Road Traffic Act tabled yesterday, motorists who hold and operate any function of mobile communication devices, including tablet computers, will be committing an offence. This means checking of e-mails or flicking through one’s Facebook account will be disallowed, if the legislative changes are passed.

Existing laws only prohibit motorists from holding their mobile phones and communicating with another person, such as sending text messages or taking a phone call, while they are driving.

The proposed amendments, however, do not extend to the use of mobile communication devices that are mounted on a holder. In response to queries, an MHA spokesperson said: “Under the proposed amendments, the offence would apply if the person is holding a mobile communication device, which would include mobile telephones and tablet devices, in at least one hand and operates any function of the device while driving.”

Traffic Police figures showed that the number of summonses issued to motorists using their mobile phones while driving has increased over the years, from 2,817 in 2011 to 2,938 in 2012 and 3,572 last year.

In the first six months of this year, 1,761 summonses were issued, slightly higher than the 1,700 issued in the same period last year.

Other changes proposed in the Bill include making motorists more responsible road users. For instance, drivers who knock into parked vehicles or structures will be expected to provide their particulars to the owners even if no one had witnessed the accident. The vehicle owner who fails to provide the Traffic Police with the particulars of the driver who committed certain traffic offences will also be presumed to be responsible.

Alongside these enhancements to enforcement powers, the Traffic Police is also asking to be allowed to direct poor drivers to go for a new safe driving course — a move that will be especially significant for new drivers.

Motorists who have accumulated half or more of their maximum allowable demerit points will be eligible for the corrective training course, should they choose to sign up for it. Those who pass will have three demerit points removed from their records.

This means that rookie drivers on probation who incur six or more demerit points in their first year of driving — the maximum they can incur is 12 points — will receive a lifeline if they pass the course.

Another proposed amendment involves requiring work pass holders who need to drive as part of their job to obtain a local driving licence within six months from the date their work passes were issued.

These are part of efforts to ensure both local and foreign motorists are familiar with Singapore’s traffic rules and conditions, and are sufficiently competent to drive on our roads, said the MHA.

More taxis available during peak periods: Transport Minister
By Faris Mokhtar, Channel NewsAsia, 4 Aug 2014

More than 1,300 additional taxis were available during peak hours this year, said Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew.

Since the introduction of the Taxi Availability standards in January 2013, the percentage of taxis on the roads during peak periods has increased from 82 per cent in 2012 to 87 per cent in the first five months of this year.

In a written response to Parliament on Monday (Aug 4), Mr Lui said the percentage of taxis plying at least 250km daily has risen from 75 to 78 per cent over the same period.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) will also conduct a taxi information trial at five selected taxi stands later this year. It allows LTA to monitor real-time commuter demand and provide this information to taxi companies, alerting their drivers to locations with high demand.

Faisal apologises after making allegation against HDB
By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 5 Aug 2014

There was a sharp exchange yesterday between Minister of State (National Development) Maliki Osman and Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, which even saw Parliament Speaker Halimah Yacob stepping in to remind MPs of the importance of providing details when they cite incidents involving government agencies and public servants.

During the debate on the Family Justice Bill, Mr Faisal had alleged that when he was a counsellor, he came across a couple who were having housing issues and advised to file for a divorce by the Housing and Development Board — so that the wife would be eligible to buy a house under the Singles Scheme and she could subsequently remarry her husband. Mr Faisal, however, could not provide the details.

Here are excerpts of the exchange:

Dr Maliki: It is very important for Members of the House to understand that if we highlight cases in this House, we have to be prepared to disclose all information ... Because I don’t think allegations of such a nature can be allowed to go past without verification. I hope Mr Faisal will be able to get back to the (client) and ask ... for permission for us to clarify this situation. If not, I hope the case that was highlighted here should not be considered seriously in this Chamber.

Mr Faisal: I don’t have (the) contacts since I am no longer a counsellor. But again, I used that as one example of many cases I have encountered of such difficulties ... I don’t have the details of my client.

Mdm Halimah: It is quite different to say that HDB rejected the appeal (compared) to saying that it is because of the advice of the HDB officer that the couple should divorce ... So since you cited the person and you said you got her approval to raise the issue, the question asked by the Minister of State is whether you can provide particulars so he can verify and prevent (the situation) from repeating if (it) is indeed ... as you have said.

Dr Maliki: These are very serious statements that are being made against our civil servants ... If such allegations are made, we must give them a chance to clarify ...

Mr Faisal: I have no intention of disregarding the good work that has been done by civil servants in our public services. I just wanted to feedback the experiences that I had encountered …

Dr Maliki: It is very important for us to uphold the integrity of this Chamber and ... that of our Civil Service. The Member highlighted a case and made very serious allegations that a HDB officer actually asked the couple to divorce ... For such allegations to be made in this Chamber, it is very serious.

Mdm Halimah: Although Members are covered by parliamentary privilege, it is important when incidents are cited, particularly involving government agencies and public servants, the particulars can be provided … to verify ... the facts. That will really help to improve the debate in the House, it adds credibility to the whole process ... as well.

(After Law and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam had wrapped up the debate)

Mr Faisal: It is not my intention to give a negative impression of any of the public services or government offices. I will be more careful in future and I apologise.

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