Wednesday 21 January 2015

Parliament Highlights - 19 Jan 2015

Bill seeks to curb public drinking late at night
It also proposes ban on selling liquor at shops after 10.30pm
By Lim Yi Han and Hoe Pei Shan, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

DRINKING in public places, including parks and common areas in Housing Board estates, will no longer be allowed after 10.30pm under a new Bill introduced in Parliament yesterday.

The proposed islandwide curbs will last through the night till 7am.

The Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill, introduced by Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran, will also stop retail shops from selling alcohol after 10.30pm.

There will be stricter rules for Little India and Geylang, which will be designated as Liquor Control Zones - places where there is higher risk of public disorder associated with excessive drinking.

The tougher measures will be similar to the temporary rules put in place in Little India following the Dec 8, 2013 riot there.

Drinking is currently banned in public places in Little India from 6am on Saturday to 6am on Monday, and from 6am on the eve of public holidays to 6am on the day after the holiday. The retail sale of alcohol is banned from 8pm till 6am on weekends, and on the eve of public holidays and public holidays.

* Govt moves to ban alcohol sale, public drinking after 10.30pm

In the Bill, those found guilty of drinking after 10.30pm in a public place will face a fine of up to $1,000. A repeat offender may be jailed for up to three months.

A shop which sells alcohol after permitted hours may get a fine not exceeding $10,000.

Flouting the rules in Liquor Control Zones will carry 11/2 times the penalty.

The Bill, however, has drawn a flurry of strong reactions. Liquor shops in Geylang and Little India expressed worry that their businesses would be badly hit.

Younger clubbers, meanwhile, said the rules could kill the nightlife scene at entertainment places such as Clarke Quay, where many gather on weekends to drink on pavements and open areas.

MP Hri Kumar Nair, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, said that the laws may appear strict but they represent the "best compromise".

He said: "If you look at it as a whole, the overall benefits far outweigh the disadvantages."

Exceptions will be allowed on a case-by-case basis.

Those holding events in public places, whether it is a barbecue for friends at East Coast Park or bigger functions such as ZoukOut, the annual outdoor dance music festival, can apply for a permit allowing drinking after 10.30pm.

Explaining why it decided on 10.30pm as the cut-off point, the MHA said it is the time that community events, such as getai and grassroots programmes, end, to minimise noise and disturbance. Most shops in residential areas will also be closed by then, it added.

In many cities, liquor rules are tougher than the ones proposed here.

New York, Oslo and Brisbane bar alcohol consumption in public at all times.

In Brisbane, Sydney and Britain, retail sale hours for takeaway alcohol generally end at 10pm.

National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan asked whether there had been enough incidents and complaints due to alcohol to warrant such laws.

She said: "If there is no problem, and something like this is slapped on us, of course, it will be interpreted as (being) very harsh."

Govt can check income, health status for MediShield Life
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

MEDISHIELD Life, which promises health insurance coverage for all later this year, gives the health minister wide-ranging powers to check the income and health status of all Singaporeans and permanent residents.

The legislation for implementing the scheme was introduced in Parliament yesterday by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, and the powers it confers were spelt out for the first time.

These include the power to check a person's income with the taxman and his health status via medical records at hospitals. All this is without needing to get permission from the person being checked. But there is a clause allowing those who find the checks too intrusive to forbid them.

But they will not be eligible for income-related subsidies for their premiums, nor will they be automatically given a clean bill of health to avoid the 30 per cent penalty imposed for 10 years on those with pre-existing diseases.

The MediShield Life Scheme Bill also gives the minister the same powers as the taxman for recovering unpaid premiums - such as getting employers to deduct the sum from a worker's salary or getting banks to do so from the person's account.

The powers are meant to help in dealing with those who can pay the premiums but do not do so, thus increasing the load on other policyholders.

In the new scheme, the coverage amount will be higher, co-payment will be lower, and there will be no cap on the sum that a person can claim in his lifetime. As a result, premiums will be higher than those of the current MediShield scheme.

But the Government has pledged $4 billion in aid over five years to ensure the new scheme stays affordable. Also, two in three people will get permanent subsidies of 15 per cent to 50 per cent on their premiums. Those who still cannot afford the premiums will get additional help from the Government. For most people, the higher premiums can be covered fully by Medisave.

To simplify the procedure for identifying people with an existing serious illness, the administrator will have access to hospital records.

Other features of the Bill include penalties for defaulting, giving false data, or wrongfully disclosing data obtained under the authority of the scheme, as well as the setting up of a MediShield Life Council. The council will review the scheme periodically and recommend changes to ensure it continues to give effective protection to citizens.

Dr Chia Shi-Lu, head of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, said he supports having the implied consent to verify personal details, as there is provision to refuse access.

"There has been quite a lot of feedback from Singaporeans, particularly the elderly, who are unhappy with government agencies repeatedly requesting personal and financial information from them in order (for them) to qualify for schemes."

People ask why government agencies do not share information, Dr Chia said.

Now, it will be done for MediShield Life.

Medishield life at a glance
By Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

What is MediShield Life?

A compulsory, basic health insurance scheme for large subsidised hospital bills. It will replace the existing MediShield.

Who will be covered?

All Singaporeans and permanent residents, including those with pre-existing conditions not covered by MediShield.

What are the differences between MediShield Life and MediShield?

Under MediShield Life, the claim limits for hospital bills and outpatient cancer treatments - like chemotherapy - are higher.

There is also no lifetime claim limit.

How much will MediShield Life premiums cost?

The Health Ministry's website has a calculator with which you can work out an estimate of your premium, after subsidies. It is at Those with serious pre-existing conditions will pay premiums that are 30 per cent higher, for 10 years.

What kind of subsidies will the Government provide?

1. Transitional subsidies for all citizens. These will be phased out after four years.

2. Permanent subsidies for lower- and middle-income households. The amount varies, depending on the household's monthly per capita income and the annual value of its residence.

3. Pioneer Generation subsidies and annual Medisave top-ups for Singaporeans aged 65 or older in 2014 and who became citizens before 1987.

These subsidies are for all Pioneer Generation members, regardless of income.

Errant retailers to be blocked from starting new companies
Govt working to boost consumer protection laws: Minister of State
By Cheryl Faith Wee, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

CONSUMER protection laws will be strengthened to prevent errant retailers from starting new companies, said Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck yesterday.

He was fielding questions in Parliament about recalcitrant shop owners and trading practices - issues that have come under scrutiny since last October after incidents involving questionable sales tactics, particularly in Sim Lim Square, made local and international headlines.

The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) and the Singapore Tourism Board currently have authority under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act (CPFTA) to take up court orders against errant retailers to get them to stop unfair business practices.

But such retailers tend to close down their businesses and reopen under a different name before they face any penalties.

MPs yesterday asked for tighter restrictions and questioned whether existing laws had enough teeth.

Mr Teo said the Government was moving to act against retailers who affect consumer confidence and dent Singapore's reputation. "The Government will review the legislation to strengthen the provisions, so that quicker action can be taken to deter unfair trading practices and prevent errant retailers from sidestepping restrictions under CPFTA by forming new companies."

The laws are being reviewed and the Ministry of Trade and Industry is looking into the possibility of appointing an agency to investigate cases and enforce these changes, said Mr Teo.

Several of the nine MPs who spoke on the issue also had suggestions on how to step up efforts against dishonest shops.

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam suggested that a blacklist of such retailers be put up at the airport and major commercial hubs to warn shoppers.

But Mr Teo felt this might give visitors the wrong impression that many shops here are dishonest when, in fact, the vast majority are bona fide operators. "It is more appropriate to tackle these issues at the local level."

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland- Bukit Timah GRC) suggested that enforcement officers act as shoppers to check on shops that have many complaints made against them. This is so they can gather evidence for further action to be taken if necessary.

Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) said that, as an interim measure before changes to the laws are made, there should be police officers in civilian attire at malls such as Sim Lim Square and Lucky Plaza so that shoppers can make reports more easily.

Responding, Mr Teo said it was important to first assess whether there is an element of criminality before escalating a matter to the police.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), president of Case, also asked whether the police will investigate complaints against errant retailers in Sim Lim Square and prosecute those who have cheated tourists and consumers.

Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade and Industry S. Iswaran said investigations into the Sim Lim Square cases are ongoing, adding that the police can investigate only if a report or complaint suggests that a criminal offence has been committed.

Govt, private sector involved in review of consumer law
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

THE review of the law to protect consumers in Singapore against errant retailers involves both government agencies and the private sector, Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck said yesterday.

They include officials from the Home Affairs and Law ministries as well as the Attorney-General's Chambers, plus shopping mall operators and the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case).

When the review is done, probably by the middle of this year, a public consultation will be held among merchants and mall operators for greater acceptance of any proposed changes, Mr Teo added, in his reply to Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC).

He acknowledged that stiffening the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act is "a matter of urgency" and pledged that it will be hastened. But care has to be taken in introducing penalties under the Act, to avoid causing distress to the majority of merchants, who are legitimate, he added.

"You don't want it to open up so much that, in every little case, it will affect the business operations as a whole," he told Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), who had asked about the types of breaches his ministry will consider making a criminal offence. Mr Teo added: "As you know, the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act covers all things, buy and sell, at the retail sector, so we are not just talking about selling electronics but every other thing, so we have to consider it carefully."

Meanwhile, his ministry will continue to work with Case to engage mall operators and retailers through education and training programmes.

They will also keep an eye on the nature and number of complaints to Case, said Mr Teo. Case gets about 4,000 consumer complaints a year. Of these, about 15 per cent are from tourists.

744 families have booked flats on incomes of $1,000 - $1,200
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2015

SINCE March 2012, more than 700 low-income families have booked new Housing Board flats.

At the same time, 655 families in the same income bracket were invited to select a flat but did not proceed to book one, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan on Monday, in a written parliamentary reply to Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam.

Mr Giam had asked for figures from March 2012 onwards. That month was when the idea of buying a flat on a monthly salary of $1,000 made headlines.

A comment by Mr Giam in February that year prompted Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam to point out that "a family with $1,000 income can now, through our housing subsidies, purchase a small flat".

Mr Giam had expressed the worry that many low-income earners would find it hard to afford an HDB flat of their own.

Mr Tharman's rebuttal sparked discussions both online and offline, with some wondering whether it was truly possible to afford a flat at that income level.

Johor reclamation: No word or reports from Malaysia yet
Impact studies not received, but S'pore committed to working with KL on issues
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

SINGAPORE has not yet received Malaysia's official response and environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports on the two land reclamation projects in the Strait of Johor, Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Grace Fu said yesterday.

The Republic also remains committed to working with Malaysia to address its concerns over the reclamation projects, she added.

Her comments, in reply to a question from Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) on the EIA studies, come as media reports from both sides of the Causeway said Malaysia had given the green light to restart work on the two projects.

According to the reports, a Malaysia-based consultant had completed a detailed EIA and found that the reclamation would "not be contributing too much negative impact to its environment".

Ms Fu told the House: "Singapore has yet to receive the Malaysian government's official response on this issue, including the finalised EIA reports.

"We are seeking clarification from Malaysia and have reiterated our request for Malaysia to provide the finalised EIA reports, and all relevant information, expeditiously, prior to the commencement of such works," she added.

Work on the two projects, Forest City near Tuas and Princess Cove near the Causeway, had been suspended last June.

Singapore had asked for work to be suspended until it received and studied relevant information from Malaysia, including EIAs, to assess if there would be any transboundary impact.

It also conveyed its concerns to Malaysia on several occasions, said Ms Fu, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

She said that at these consultations, Singapore reiterated to Malaysia that both countries are obliged under general international law to undertake and share EIA reports on all work that could have any transboundary impact, before the work begins.

"I think both countries are committed to work according to this protocol. The Malaysians have agreed to let us have the EIA report, so we are waiting for that report," she added.

Four MPs - Mr Ang, Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC), Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) - sought further comments on Singapore's next steps.

Ms Fu said: "We would just like to reiterate that we prefer to work closely with them - getting the report from them, getting the information from them, and sharing our studies with them."

New pawnbroking laws prompt concerns of low valuations
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

STRICTER laws on pawnshops were passed in Parliament yesterday, but some politicians worried they were insufficient to protect people from rogue pawnbrokers.

MPs also voiced concerns about the rise in pawnbroking activity in recent years, asking whether this signalled more financial difficulties among Singaporeans.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam feared that the new Pawnbrokers Bill, which replaces the Pawnbrokers Act, fails to guard against pawnshops giving unfairly low valuations for pawned items.

Under the old laws, unredeemed pawned items would be put up for auction. If the auction sale price exceeded the item's valuation, the surplus would go to the person who had pawned it.

With auctions now scrapped, pawnbrokers can sell unredeemed items and pocket the surplus gains. This may incentivise them to depress valuations so as to maximise the potential surpluses they can keep, Mr Nair suggested.

But Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said the competition among pawnshops would be an effective check against them offering overly low valuations.

Pawnbrokers who consistently offer low valuations are also likely to suffer reputational damage and go out of business, she said.

She added that only 5 per cent of pawnbroking loans go unredeemed. Of those, only 10 per cent may yield an auction surplus.

Thus very few people received surpluses under the auction system, whereas the cost savings from removing auctions would benefit the whole industry and its customers, Ms Indranee added.

Responding to questions from Mr Nair and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong about why pawnbroking loans have risen - from $856 million in 1993 to $5.47 billion in 2013 - Ms Indranee said this trend depends on the demand for credit and the price of gold.

Most pledges are gold items, she said, and the price of gold has shot up in the past five years.

She added that people pawn items for a variety of reasons. For those in genuine financial distress, government aid is at hand.

The new laws passed yesterday aim to ensure pawnshops keep up with evolving trends. Pawnbrokers must now maintain a minimum paid-up capital of $2 million for the first branch and $1 million for each subsequent branch, and put up a higher security deposit for each branch. They must also take steps to prevent money laundering, among other things.

Singapore economy to benefit from lower oil prices: Lim Hng Kiang
Channel NewsAsia, 19 Jan 2015

As a net importer of oil, the Singapore economy will benefit from the fall in global oil prices, Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang said in Parliament on Monday (Jan 19).

Responding to questions from several MPs on the impact of lower oil prices on Singapore, Mr Lim said a drop in oil prices will translate to lower electricity tariffs and fuel costs – directly benefitting businesses and consumers.

“For businesses, lower electricity tariffs and fuel costs will help to lower their input costs. This will help improve their margins, and could also dampen the pass-through of business costs to consumer prices,” he said.

For consumers, besides lower electricity and petrol costs, a decline in oil prices will translate to lower inflation. This could increase consumers’ purchasing power, stimulating consumption and further boosting the economy, Mr Lim said.

However, he noted that the offshore and marine sector could face longer term risks if oil prices continued to plummet. Currently, their businesses are buffeted by strong order books.

On whether prices of public utilities and petrol fairly reflect the fall in oil prices, Mr Lim said electricity tariffs have been reduced as natural gas prices have fallen. Between July 2014 and January 2015, average gas prices fell by 19 per cent. As fuel costs make up around half the tariff, the electricity tariff between July 2014 and March 2015 has been accordingly reduced by 9.3 per cent, he said.

As for petrol costs, pump prices have fallen by 15 per cent between July and December 2014, compared with a 41 per cent fall in crude oil prices over the same period. This is because the fuel component of pump prices is not determined by the price of crude oil, but the price of refined products like petrol and diesel, Mr Lim said.

“Petrol companies also have to take into account non-fuel costs such as land and labour costs when setting their prices. These are some reasons why pump prices fell by a smaller percentage compared to the drop in crude oil prices,” he added.

No cuts in transport fares despite cheaper oil
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

THE fall in oil prices is not likely to lead to a reduction in public transport fares this year, said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew in Parliament yesterday.

The reason is that part of a fare increase due to take effect last year was delayed until this year, explained Mr Lui.

But fares next year may come down by around 1 per cent as a result of cheaper energy.

In deciding on transport fare adjustments, the formula takes into account three factors: energy costs, core inflation and wages.

The energy component accounts for 20 per cent of the fare adjustment quantum, while core inflation and wages make up the rest.

Going by the formula, the lower energy prices should result in a fare adjustment of -0.6 per cent this year, said Mr Lui.

While this suggests that fares should come down, it does not take into account the fare increase that was proposed in the previous review but not implemented.

Last January, the Public Transport Council (PTC) recommended fares to be raised by 6.6 per cent.

But only 3.2 per cent of the increase was implemented, as raising fares by 6.6 per cent in one go would be too much, said Mr Lui.

The outstanding 3.4 per cent from last year would thus have to be factored into this year's fare adjustment.

In doing so, the fare adjustment quantum for this year would be 2.8 per cent, said Mr Lui.

He was replying to Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who had asked if the PTC would reduce fares since oil prices had fallen.

As for next year, Mr Lui said the available data so far indicates the fare adjustment quantum "could be in the region of negative 1 per cent". This means fares could come down.

MP Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) wanted to know if the $35 fee would be adjusted since Malaysia plans to impose a RM20 (S$7.50) VEP fee on foreign cars from the middle of the year.

Mr Lui said a decision will be made after the details of the fee are known.

He pointed out that Singapore's VEP fee is to bring in line the cost of owning and using a foreign-registered vehicle here, with that of a Singapore-registered vehicle.

On the other hand, Malaysia's VEP "appears to be more akin to a toll on foreign-registered vehicles for revenue purposes", Mr Lui said.

"If so, we will consider matching (it) in some form after the details of their levy are confirmed, including whether it is imposed only at Malaysia's border with Singapore or at all of its borders," he said.

SAF to send planners to support coalition against ISIS: Minister
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

THE Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will deploy planners in the next few months to support the multinational coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament yesterday.

These planners will be sent to the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Centre. The CJTF is based in Kuwait and the air operations centre in Qatar.

Singapore will also send a pre-deployment site survey team to prepare for its subsequent deployment of a KC-135R tanker aircraft, as coordinated with CJTF.

Said Dr Ng: "At this early stage of our involvement, it is premature to determine if there will be further requests for greater support from Singapore to the coalition."

He told Parliament last November that Singapore would contribute a tanker aircraft for air-to-air refuelling and an imagery analysis team that will operate from surrounding countries alongside other coalition forces. He also said Singapore would not deploy combat troops.

Last month, he said the SAF would send 50 to 60 personnel in all to support the coalition.

In his update yesterday, Dr Ng said the SAF had sent a needs assessment and survey team to the United States Central Command headquarters in Florida.

A liaison officer has been attached to the centre since last month to facilitate planning and coordination for the SAF.

Dr Ng said the coalition's combined efforts were having an impact in the fight against ISIS.

Asked by Mr Yam if the SAF's deployment had led to heightened risk for Singapore, Dr Ng said it was impossible to guarantee there would be no attacks on Singapore.

He noted that the number of terrorist incidents had increased elsewhere, and it was "well nigh impossible for any security force in any country to be able to monitor each and every citizen".

If an attack occurred here, Singaporeans must focus on strengthening the country's unity, he said.

Meanwhile, Singapore must not only be more vigilant, "but also ask the community to come together" to withstand the false ideology spread by militants.

PMEs can be represented as group by unions
Professionals, managers, execs to get aid too in individual rehiring disputes
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

PROFESSIONALS, managers and executives (PMEs) will get more help and protection from unions when they run into disputes with their employers.

The amendment in the Industrial Relations Act (IRA), which was passed in Parliament yesterday, will allow rank-and-file unions to also represent executives as a group.

This means that the unions can bargain for collective salary agreements and represent PMEs individually in employment disputes.

Before the amendments were passed, the unions could represent PMEs only as individuals without collective bargaining rights.

Besides collective representation, older PMEs who face individual re-employment disputes after they turn 62 can also get help from their unions.

Currently, unions can take up disputes individually for PMEs only when they involve salaries, retrenchment payouts, breaches of employment contracts and workplace victimisation.

Apart from boosting protection for PMEs, the changes will make Singapore's three-way partnership between unions, employers and the Government "even more inclusive", said Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin in Parliament yesterday.

"This will, in turn, strengthen Singapore's model of tripartism and benefit employees, unions and employers."

The changes in the IRA are meant to keep up with the evolving workforce. PMEs now make up over 30 per cent of the workforce and their numbers are expected to grow in the years ahead.

The amendments to the law drew support from most of the nine MPs who rose to spoke yesterday. Leading the charge were six MPs affiliated with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), who praised the move as being relevant and timely.

The changes will make Singapore more attractive to investments, which will, in turn, create good jobs for workers, said NTUC deputy secretary-general Heng Chee How.

Drawing more executives into unions can also beef up union leadership ranks, said NTUC assistant secretary-general Zainal Sapari, adding that having stronger union leaders who work with employers can add to workplace harmony.

But Workers' Party's Ms Lee Li Lian noted that there were some PMEs who were still excluded from the law and asked where they could seek help.

Those holding senior posts and performing human resource jobs are among those still excluded from union representation to avoid conflicts of interest.

Responding, Mr Tan said: "The upcoming employment claims tribunal... will cover all employees, including executives earning above $4,500 and regardless of job responsibilities."

The only employer who spoke at the debate was Ms Jessica Tan, who is the managing director of Microsoft's Singapore office. She said that employers are concerned about the impact on business operations and managerial effectiveness, points which Mr Tan acknowledged.

Nominated MP Randolph Tan, a labour economist, suggested that unions be also allowed to represent PMEs during the hiring process to ensure that they get a fair shot at PME jobs.

But Mr Tan dismissed the idea, saying that union representation is "not quite the right mechanism to deal with the issue of fair competition for jobs". There are already measures such as the national job bank that have been put in place.

The changes to the law passed by the House will take effect from April.

Casino exclusion: Group applications may be allowed
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

THE National Council on Problem Gambling will consider allowing Singaporeans to apply for casino self-exclusion orders in groups, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said yesterday in Parliament.

He was responding to a question from Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), who had asked if the current self-exclusion forms for locals could be modified to let them opt out of casinos as a group at their workplaces or through religious institutions such as churches and mosques. Currently, employers can submit a consolidated form for foreign workers - who do not have SingPass accounts - bearing applicants' signatures.

"We are prepared to work with employers and other relevant organisations to assess and design a form that can allow group applications," Mr Chan said. "But it must still be premised on the basis of individual ownership, responsibility and individual decision."

Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) asked Mr Chan to consider an "opt-in" scheme, on top of the $100 entrance fee for residents. This would mean that individuals are automatically excluded unless they choose to opt in.

She argued that since the Government was spending so much money educating locals about the demerits of gambling, "why not just have a scheme whereby everybody is excluded?"

Ms Phua's suggestion led to a lively exchange between her and Mr Chan, who sought to clarify that she was not suggesting a "membership scheme" allowing individuals who opt in to visit the casinos any time they want.

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob intervened at one point, saying: "In other words, you (Ms Phua) are suggesting all Singaporeans are prohibited unless they sign something to opt in, plus they pay $100."

Mr Chan said he would "think through the mechanics" of Ms Phua's suggestion. But he also said it would be better to have the community come together to help individuals with problems.

"Then I think we will have another layer of defence rather than just depending on a policing system to do that," he said.

Back-and-forth on the mechanics of opt-in and opt-out
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

IN ONE of the few lively moments of the first Parliament sitting of 2015 yesterday, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing and Ms Denise Phua crossed swords - or, more accurately, wires - over the concepts of "opting in" and "opting out".

After Mr Chan fielded a question from Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) about making it easier for Singaporeans to apply for self-exclusion from the casinos here, Ms Phua rose to speak.

With her trademark unwavering opposition to the casinos, she asked the minister to consider a national "opt-in" system of entry instead.

Rather than have individuals or groups volunteer to be barred from casinos, as is the case now, all Singaporeans should be prohibited from entry by default, she suggested.

Those who want to go to the casinos can then apply to "opt in".

After some back-and-forth, Mr Chan eventually said he would think about it.

But he expressed confusion at the concept, given that Singapore citizens and permanent residents (PRs) must already pay $100 to enter the casinos - which could be considered an act of "opting in".

Gambling aside, the mechanics of "opt-in" and "opt-out" systems - key aspects of public-policy design premised on the quirks of human nature - surfaced in two important pieces of legislation that came before the House yesterday.

One was the MediShield Life Scheme Bill, which will enshrine in law the proposed universal health insurance programme.

Tabled yesterday, it assumes that all citizens and PRs will implicitly consent to having their health and income records accessed by the authorities.

This is to ensure the accurate calculation of premiums and subsidies and the honest disclosure of medical conditions.

While people can opt out of this data deep-dive, inertia will almost certainly ensure that most will not.

Take organ donation as an example. Behavioural economist Richard Thaler has noted that in Germany, which uses an opt-in system, only 12 per cent of people agree to donate their organs after death, whereas in Austria's opt-out system, 99 per cent give their consent.

Thus while deciding to make a programme "opt-in" or "opt-out" sounds like a small policy detail, the way people react to default choices means it can add up to a huge difference in participation rates for a scheme.

For MediShield Life, near-universal participation is key so that the healthy and young can help subsidise the old and sick. This could explain the wide-ranging powers sought by the Government, and the decision to design parts of the scheme as "opt-out".

MPs seem largely supportive, although the House will debate the Bill in substance only at a later date.

The second Bill to probe the dichotomy of opting in and opting out was the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill, which the House spent time debating yesterday.

The changes, which Parliament approved after the debate, are designed to bring more professionals, executives and managers (PMEs) into the fold of labour unions. Previously, such PMEs could form their own unions or ask rank-and-file unions to represent them, as individuals, in certain areas.

With the changes to the Industrial Relations Act, they can be represented, en masse, by existing rank-and-file unions in their industries. The only executives who remain excluded will be senior management who make pay and hiring decisions.

The nine MPs who rose to speak lauded the changes, saying unions cannot continue to exclude PMEs, who will make up two-thirds of the workforce here by 2030.

But with PMEs having previously been largely in the shadows of industrial relations, the question is whether they will now, given the opportunity, opt in.

Their decision may be crucial to the continuing role that labour unions have. While union membership has been rising, NTUC still represents a minority of Singapore's overall workforce.

And recent moves, such as a proposal by the Manpower Ministry to set up a tribunal that can resolve pay disputes for all workers, unionised or not, raise the question of what relevance it can garner with a new generation of Singaporean professionals.

As Nominated MP and unionist K. Karthikeyan said during the debate yesterday, the challenge is to change the mindset on the ground - from a default opt-out posture, long the status quo, into opt-in.

MOE review on use of vendors for sex education
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

THE Ministry of Education (MOE) is reviewing its system of engaging external vendors for sexuality education programmes in schools, Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah told Parliament yesterday.

This is part of the ministry's regular review process, she said.

She revealed that seven schools engaged four approved external providers last year at a cost of $20,000 to conduct sexuality education programmes for students.

Since 2009, schools spent about $460,000 on such supplementary programmes, or an average of $8 per student, she added.

The issue had surfaced in the House last November after a controversy in October over a programme offered by an external vendor. Hwa Chong Institution student Agatha Tan, 17, had criticised the programme by Focus on the Family Singapore, a pro-family Christian charity, for being sexist and reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Ms Indranee said yesterday that sexuality education is mainly taught by MOE-trained teachers.

External vendors are used, she said, when they have expertise in certain areas such as pornography, cyber safety and sexually transmitted infections. She added that MOE has a "stringent" vetting process to select external vendors for sexuality education.

She said that teachers and students give feedback, and MOE "audits schools to ensure that the programmes are delivered according to what has been approved".

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) also asked if current cyber wellness programmes are effective in raising awareness of sexual grooming among students.

Last week, a male engineer pleaded guilty to sexually grooming 31 boys aged between 11 and 15 over three years, after befriending them on Facebook.

Ms Indranee said there was room to strengthen education in this area to protect children.

"Safety in the sexual context is something that MOE takes very seriously," she added.

More than 1,000 healthcare scholarships awarded in past 5 years: Gan Kim Yong
Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2015

A range of healthcare scholarships and educational sponsorships funded by the Health Ministry are available to develop healthcare professionals and leaders, said Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong on Monday (Jan 19).

Over the past five years, more than 1,000 healthcare sponsorships have been awarded by the Ministry of Health to nurses, medical social workers and occupational therapists, with 200 of them awarded in FY2014 alone, said Mr Gan, in reply to Parliamentary questions from Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Lina Chiam.

The minister said the scholarships and sponsorships available include ”formal training programmes leading to diplomas, degrees, masters and doctorates, as well as skills attachment programmes in renowned overseas centres”.

“The scholarships and sponsorships cover tuition fees, maintenance expenses, miscellaneous training-related costs and salaries,” he added.

Mr Gan said that MOH regularly reviews the scholarships and programmes to ensure that the terms and benefits remain adequate.

Sports facilities in every school to be opened to the public: Lawrence Wong
By Ian De Cotta, TODAY, 20 Jan 2015

Sports facilities in every school in the Republic will be opened to the public to give people from all walks of life the opportunity to take up sports, Minister of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Lawrence Wong told Parliament yesterday.

Working together with the Ministry of Education (MOE), the minister said this year alone, 15 more indoor sports halls and 10 more school fields will be made available, adding that his ministry’s aim is to eventually make all schools’ sports facilities available for dual use. The school facilities will complement MCCY’s sports facilities master plan that was unveiled last year and includes the setting up of five regional sports centres.

“To make the most of our limited land space, we are also working with MOE to open up the sporting facilities in schools for the public’s use even during after-school hours.

“We have received a very good response to these Dual-Use Scheme (DUS) facilities, so we’re working with MOE to open more of such facilities. For new schools, we are making sure that the facilities are built and designed with dual use in mind,” said Mr Wong in response to concerns raised by Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Ben Tan that Singaporeans are not exercising enough.

Dr Tan, who is also the chief of Sports Medicine at Changi General Hospital, said this was evident from the 2011 National Health Survey, which revealed that the obesity levels in the Republic had increased to 10.8 per cent in 2010 from 6.9 per cent six years earlier.

In a speech highlighting 10 areas of concern, the NMP said it is worrying that young people do not enjoy sports and wondered if they participated in sports activities only to accumulate Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) points.

Dr Tan told Parliament that two polytechnic lecturers estimated that 60 to 70 per cent of poly students would fail their National Physical Fitness Award test. He cited the examples of National Service pre-enlistees who find it difficult to get fit and the NSmen who struggle to pass the Individual Physical Proficiency Test.

He also cited figures from the last National Sports Participation Survey in 2011, which revealed that only 42 per cent of Singaporeans exercised once a week — down from 50 per cent in 2005.

In his reply, Mr Wong pointed to the updates that his ministry conducts annually which showed that overall participation levels have risen above 60 per cent in 2013 and last year.

He added that more sports programmes for the public had been rolled out after Sport Singapore launched ActiveSG last year. Significant shifts have also been made to encourage more people to adopt sports as a lifestyle.

In schools, Mr Wong said students are exposed to sports through a quality and rigorous Physical Education (PE) curriculum.

The minister said: “Lesson time set aside for PE has been increased to at least two hours per week. The MOE has revised its PE and Sports Development Framework in the past year … so the idea is to give students opportunities to acquire fundamental motor skills, gain exposure to a variety of sporting experiences and to participate recreationally in physical activities.”

He added that MOE has also replaced the CCA points system with a revised co-curricular recognition system that places more emphasis on participation. This system “recognises participation in sports activities outside school, such as those organised by Community Clubs and National Sports Associations”.

To get all Singaporeans on board, more is being done to encourage senior citizens to get active, such as participating in the Masters category at the Singapore National Games last year. Disabled athletes are also given equal support as able-bodied athletes.

Mr Wong cited the example of Paralympian Laurentia Tan, who receives about S$90,000 of funding support a year in the form of stipends and grants for coaching, competitions and equipment. “We are providing more support, not just financial support, but support in many areas.”

No change to paid maternity leave for single mums
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2015

SINGLE mothers will continue to get half of the 16-week paid maternity leave that married mothers are entitled to.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing listed the eight extra weeks of paid maternity leave and tax incentives that married mothers receive as some of the benefits single mothers are not entitled to.

Married mothers who work can also claim child relief that ranges from 15 per cent of their incomes for the first child to as much as 25 per cent for their third and other subsequent children.

This relief is not offered to single mothers.

"These additional benefits are given to encourage and support parenthood within the context of marriage," Mr Chan said.

"This is the prevailing societal norm in Singapore, and one which we seek to reflect and preserve."

He was replying to Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin, who asked about the support single mothers receive and whether they can be entitled to the same duration of maternity leave that married mothers enjoy.

Mr Chan said all mothers, regardless of whether they are married, are eligible for various means of support, including infant-care and childcare subsidies.

The foreign domestic worker levy concession is also given to all parents of children below 12 years old, including single mothers.

Tribunal with more teeth to settle feuds
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2015

WARRING neighbours could be hauled before a planned tribunal that will have more teeth to settle their disputes.

It would be presided over by a judge with powers to compel the neighbours to go for mediation and issue orders that must be obeyed, according to the Community Disputes Resolution Bill introduced in Parliament on Monday.

Now, neighbours embroiled in disputes can speak to grassroots leaders or seek help at the Community Mediation Centre (CMC), which cannot issue legal orders.

The new Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals is intended as a final resort to resolve longstanding arguments, after community mediation efforts have been exhausted.

This feature was stressed by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong last March when he announced plans to set up the tribunal.

The move for a tribunal is partly prompted by the lack of success in resolving some of the rows, which is in part due to the high rate of one or more parties not turning up. The current no-show rate is 60 per cent as attendance is not compulsory.

But cases of neighbourly strife have remained constant: In 2013, the CMC handled 525 cases, down from 610 in 2012. In 2011, there were 593 cases.

Common disputes include dripping laundry, rowdy pets and the use of common areas. Noise complaints top the list, with over 70,000 complaints received annually by the authorities, including the Housing Board and police.

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