Friday 7 November 2014

Parliament Highlights - 5 Nov 2014

More teeth for law to protect animals
Pet-related businesses must train staff, owners can't neglect their pets
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 6 Nov 2014

PET-RELATED businesses must ensure their staff are trained to handle animals, while pet owners have been put on notice that they cannot neglect their animals.

Owners must ensure their pets are provided with enough suitable food and water, and are not treated or confined in a way that would cause them pain.

These are among the requirements spelt out in changes to the existing animal welfare law that Parliament approved yesterday.

The changes to the Animals and Birds Act, which won support from all six MPs who spoke on it, include enhanced penalties.

For instance, business owners who do not provide training for staff who handle animals can be fined up to $5,000, face a maximum jail term of six months, or both. They can also be banned from doing business for up to a year.

Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), who lent his support to the changes, said: "The amendments are timely and I am sure the updated legislation, backed by rigorous enforcement, will enable us to be better stewards and custodians of our fellow creatures."

Overall, the amendments make those in charge of animals - such as pet owners, shelters, fosterers and stores - more accountable for the welfare of animals.

As Mr Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC) put it, a key idea has been to eventually move from a reactive regime reliant on penalties and punishment to a proactive system which focuses on getting people to do the right thing.

Mr Yeo, who chaired the Animal Welfare Legislative Review Committee that pushed for changes to the law, pointed to elements that have now been put in place:
- The National Development Minister will be empowered to make training mandatory for anyone in a business who handles animals for a living;
- The authorities can issue codes and set standards for the proper care of animals;
- The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) can direct a person to take corrective action if he is found to have taken inadequate care of animals under his charge;
- Courts can disqualify a person from owning an animal or from working with animals.
Just as Mr Yeo acknowledged that the law was not a "magic bullet", MPs who lauded the changes also suggested ways that it can continue to be strengthened.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) said animal abusers should be given counselling and education to reduce the likelihood of their being repeat offenders.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) had recommendations for improving the pet licensing process, to reduce cases of abandonment.

Speaking during the debate, Minister of State (National Development) Desmond Lee said the AVA will review rules on dog licensing to see if owners should inform the AVA when there is a change of ownership and provide details of the new owners.

He said a society's standards of animal welfare reflected its maturity and compassion, and also made the point that there were emotive and varied views on animal welfare which the Government has to balance in its management of animals, as well as when safeguarding public safety and health.

Mr Yeo indicated as much, saying when wrapping up the debate that animal welfare was a shared and collective responsibility among all parties.

Key changes

ANIMAL handlers, those who foster and care for pets temporarily, as well as owners are legally responsible for providing proper care for animals.
- New codes of animal welfare spell out what constitutes proper care. Failure to abide by them can be used as evidence to prosecute offenders.
- Both individuals and businesses that commit acts of cruelty or fail to provide duty of care will face tiered and higher penalties. Repeat offenders will face harsher punishments.
- Staff working with animals in relevant businesses must be trained in animal care and handling. A fine, jail term, or both will be meted out if this is not complied with. There will also be a temporary ban on the business.
- The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority will have more enforcement powers like issuing written directives to owners. Its officers can take pictures, audio and video recordings for evidence.

Language lessons 'help foreign officers gain from courses here'
Similar treatment for some SAF officers on overseas training stints
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 6 Nov 2014

THE Defence Ministry pays for the language lessons of some foreign military officers who attend staff college courses in Singapore, if they need a better command of the English language.

This is to ensure they benefit fully from the military courses, and is "part and parcel of our relationship building", said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament yesterday.

The money was for a personalised, 360-hour, one-on-one course conducted by a qualified English-language instructor.

Dr Ng also said Singapore's officers likewise benefit from such native language courses - some of which are paid for by the host country - when they attend staff college courses at other militaries.

He was replying to Singapore People's Party Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam, who had asked for details about his ministry's recent tender for the English-language course for the Chinese officer.

The matter appeared on social media last month, with netizens questioning the amount of money being spent on a foreign officer.

Yesterday, Dr Ng said armed forces regularly hold exchange programmes, in which officers attend courses of other militaries, to bolster ties.

But he noted that a problem that officers from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) face when attending courses abroad is the language of instruction, citing Bahasa Indonesia, Thai and Japanese as examples.

"Language proficiency is important for them to be able to benefit from the course," he said. SAF officers can spend months learning the native language when they go to other countries.

"Vice versa, for some foreign officers who attend SAF's military courses, we've to help them gain language proficiency so that they can benefit from their time here."

While there is a level of reciprocity that other countries provide for SAF officers, not all countries are able to do so, depending on their resources, Dr Ng said.

About five companies replied to the tender on government procurement website GeBIZ, said Dr Ng.

It was awarded to the lowest bid that met the requirements, in accordance with government procedures, he added.

Hawker centres upgraded only when necessary
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 6 Nov 2014

A PROGRAMME to upgrade hawker centres that began in 2001 has ended, having covered 106 such centres and undertaken at a cost of $420 million, Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu said yesterday.

"The newest hawker centre that (underwent) an upgrading programme was actually one that was upgraded 24 years after it was built," she said.

"So I don't think that's an unreasonable length of time to have a major upgrading. We don't upgrade a centre unnecessarily. We determine only what is required to basically improve the experience of the patrons."

Ms Lee said there had been feedback from residents about price increases after hawker centres were refurbished or upgraded, and some even asked if improvement works were necessary.

Ms Fu said hawker centres are not upgraded more than once.

Subsidised hawkers of cooked food pay a monthly rent of $192 after standard upgrading, while those at centres that underwent major works pay $320 a month.

While she did not state the pre-upgrading rent for subsidised hawkers yesterday, this has been reported as being $160 a month.

For other non-subsidised stallholders, rents are adjusted based on professional valuation, Ms Fu said, adding that the Government does not recover the full cost of upgrading.

As for Ms Lee's query on subletting of stalls, Ms Fu said the National Environment Agency has disallowed subletting by new stallholders since April 2012.

Existing stallholders had a three-year grace period, ending March next year, to comply. After that, all stallholders need to operate their stalls themselves.

Higher postage rates 'due to rising costs'
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 6 Nov 2014

SENDING snail mail in Singapore has become costlier and it is due to workers becoming more expensive and operating costs going up.

Also, SingPost, unlike mail operators in some countries, has not resorted to cost-cutting measures such as reducing its workforce or scaling back on daily deliveries, said Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann.

Instead, SingPost has raised its workers' salaries and hired older workers. It is also investing $100 million to improve its postal and delivery infrastructure and operations, among other things.

Ms Sim cited these key reasons for the rise in local and international postage rates last month - the first increase in eight years.

She was replying to Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam, who had asked why the Infocomm Development Authority had approved the increase.

The local rates have risen by between four and 20 cents, and the international rates by between five and 25 cents, depending on weight.

The new rates will help SingPost face the growing challenges in the mail industry, said Ms Sim. Around the world, people are sending fewer letters while operating costs are soaring.

SingPost now pays overseas operators 40 per cent more than it did in 2010 for mail sent to these countries - a rise that is relentless.

These payments, determined by an international body that coordinates postal systems worldwide, are set to rise again, by more than 30 per cent by 2017.

Ms Sim also told Mrs Chiam that the number of complaints against SingPost is fairly low.

Out of an estimated 1 billion mail items a year, an average of 100 complaints are received.

Support measures in place for mental health patients
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 6 Nov 2014

AT LEAST half of those who recover from their first case of depression will suffer one or more additional episodes, studies have shown.

As for general anxiety disorders, the relapse rate was about 27 per cent over a three-year period.

But the number of relapse episodes cannot be easily determined for dementia, a condition which progressively worsens over time.

She was responding to Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC), who had asked about the relapse rates and monitoring mechanisms in place for early detection of mental health problems.

Dr Khor said mental health clinics routinely monitor no-show cases at outpatient clinics, particularly those deemed to be high- risk cases, so that any signs of an early relapse can be managed in a timely manner. This is done through phone calls or, if they remain uncontactable, through house visits.

Meanwhile, the IMH and the Agency of Integrated Care (AIC) have been working with grassroots organisations and volunteers to raise awareness about mental health issues, and to link residents displaying symptoms - such as a change in behaviour, disordered thinking or missing appointments - to appropriate services.

As of last year, the AIC had covered 12 constituencies, trained more than 300 grassroots volunteers and assisted 190 residents, Dr Khor said.

The agency also worked with volunteer groups to set up support teams at seven senior activity centres to identify elderly people who may be suffering from dementia or depression. They had reached out to over 21,000 elderly people as of last year, she said.

Music in malls: Take a common-sense approach
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 6 Nov 2014

MUSIC in malls will play on without the Media Development Authority (MDA) coming into the mix.

Stepping in to regulate background music in public places such as retail outlets would be impractical, said Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann.

It would place a heavy burden on MDA relative to the risk of songs with offensive lyrics being played at these places.

Last month, fashion chain Forever21 apologised to 17-year-old Gabrielle Singh, who had criticised one of its outlets for playing "horribly misogynistic" music.

Highlighting the case without naming either party, Ms Sim said: "This incident shows that the common sense and civic-mindedness of the public are important...

"We can all play a part in catching and preventing prejudice in our society. Public education and awareness have a larger role to play in such instances, than does regulation."

Even if rules to keep songs with offensive lyrics out of public places were introduced, businesses must work with the authorities, said Ms Sim. Retailers will still need to decide what songs to play while sticking to MDA guidelines.

Dr Chia suggested the authorities start a feedback mechanism for offensive songs, but Ms Sim said there were no such plans at the moment.

A more practical solution, she added, would be for customers to speak to the management of businesses playing such music first.

In the event that both sides cannot resolve the issue, the authorities can then step in, she said.

MDA already regulates songs played over the radio, music sold at retail outlets, and songs performed at concerts.

Broadcasters and retailers must follow MDA codes and guidelines. Meanwhile, concerts are classified under arts entertainment licences issued by MDA, which will not allow songs that disparage race or religion, or promote drug-taking or violence, among other things, said Ms Sim.

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