Thursday 22 January 2015

Parliament Highlights - 20 Jan 2015

Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill

Tougher rules to raise the bar at large dormitories
Compulsory licensing scheme to improve workers' living conditions
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2015

OPERATORS of dormitories for foreign workers with at least 1,000 beds will be licensed from the second half of this year, under a new law passed by Parliament yesterday.

They will be governed by strict rules that require them to provide facilities such as ATMs, minimarts and even game rooms so that the workers can shop and play without leaving the premises.

Other must-haves include sick bays and quarantine areas for any outbreak of an infectious disease.

These measures have a specific purpose: to regulate the running of large-scale housing for foreign workers, said Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday when presenting the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill,

Those who flout each new rule face a fine of up to $50,000, a maximum jail term of one year, or both.

But those who run such large dorms without a licence can expect more severe penalties: a maximum fine of $500,000, jail of up to two years, or both. These will be doubled for repeat offenders.

A commissioner will be appointed with wide-ranging powers that include arresting errant operators.

This new law, which will help improve living conditions for the 200,000 or so foreign workers living in large dormitories, comes amid the construction of a growing number of such premises.

Mr Tan expects "the proportion of foreign workers staying in larger dormitories within the (licensing) threshold to increase".

The new legislation also adds to the existing rules on hygiene, safety and minimum living space that currently govern all foreign worker dorms in Singapore.

Operators of large dorms have six months to apply for a licence, after the law takes effect in the second half of this year. The licence is valid for up to three years.

Existing dorm operators will get financial help to renovate their premises to meet the minimum standards, said Mr Tan.

Most of the 11 MPs who spoke supported the Bill but several expressed concerns, like the emergence of double standards as the new law does not apply to smaller dorms. Mr Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC) fears employers could favour smaller, cheaper and less tightly regulated dorms.

But MPs like Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) felt the law provided a timely opportunity for Singapore to look at how foreign workers are treated. "Let us take this opportunity to examine the overall welfare of our foreign workers," she said.

Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) suggested the Government build and manage some dormitories that will set the standard for the industry.

In his wrap-up before the Bill was put to the vote, Mr Tan said that "as more of these purpose-built dorms come on stream, we will also begin to take a stricter view about how workers are housed elsewhere, and therefore you will begin to see a lot more of them shifting towards the purpose-built dorms".

He stressed that smaller dorms outside the law will continue to be regulated under existing regulations that come under several government bodies. But the minister did not rule out further changes to the law, saying it does not preclude the possibility of "an overarching Bill that brings in together everything".

New rules impose extra requirements on big dorms

WE THANK Mr Tham Tuck Meng for supporting the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill ("Tighten rules: Why stop at large dorms?"; last Friday).

As he has rightly pointed out, all dormitories, regardless of size, should be well regulated. For this reason, there already exists a comprehensive set of rules governing the living conditions of foreign workers.

The areas that are regulated include building and fire safety, minimum living space and hygiene standards. These requirements apply to all forms of foreign worker accommodation.

The various government agencies such as the Building and Construction Authority, the Singapore Civil Defence Force and the National Environment Agency are stepping up enforcement of these rules, and will review them with a view to raising them over time.

However, for larger dormitories, it is necessary to impose additional requirements. Given their larger size and higher density of workers living within close proximity to one another, they pose higher risks that need to be mitigated upstream during the design phase and in the operational phase.

This includes requirements that cover public health and safety, security and public order, and the provision and maintenance of social and commercial facilities and services.

It is for this reason that the Ministry of Manpower introduced the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill as a progressive measure to mitigate the risks of larger dormitories.

As more large dormitories are developed over the next few years, this Bill ensures that, upstream, better requirements are woven into their design and development.

The effect of the new legislation is not to allow us to take a more relaxed attitude with respect to smaller dorms, but rather to put additional regulatory requirements on the bigger dorms that have a much greater impact on their surrounding neighbourhoods.

Alvin Lim
Divisional Director
Workplace Policy & Strategy Division
Ministry Of Manpower
ST Forum, 29 Jan 2015

MPs want law to cover all foreign worker dorms
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2015

A NEW law which aims to improve the living conditions of foreign workers left several MPs asking why it applied only to large dorms housing 1,000 or more workers.

They also pressed Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin to extend the scope of the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill to cover smaller dorms and other places where foreign workers live.

Wrapping up the debate in which 11 MPs spoke, Mr Tan said the Manpower Ministry (MOM) chose to impose stricter regulations on dorms with 1,000 or more workers as it is ramping up construction of more purpose- built dorms in the next few years.

"We will expect the proportion of foreign workers in larger dormitories within the (licensing) threshold to increase," he said.

Under the new law, operators of large dorms will need to get a licence which requires them to take steps to control the movement of workers, provide social and recreational facilities and have quarantine plans in place, in case of an infectious disease outbreak, among other requirements.

There are now some 40 dorms offering 200,000 beds for foreign workers. Another nine large dorm complexes will be built in the next two years, adding 100,000 beds.

While larger dorms will be held to higher standards, it does not mean the MOM is not looking out for workers living elsewhere.

Mr Tan said existing regulations require all types of foreign worker housing to meet standards in the areas of fire and structural safety, hygiene and subletting.

These include some 700 factories that have been converted into dorms with some 100,000 workers. Other workers live in shophouses, apartments and makeshift quarters on construction sites.

Mr Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC) cautioned MOM against applying "double standards" by imposing stringent rules on large dorms and allowing standards at other places to slide.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Mrs Lina Chiam, a Non-Constituency MP, said that living conditions in places with fewer workers tend to be poor.

They cited recent media reports on filthy and dangerous conditions in some shophouses, apartments and construction sites where workers were housed.

Mr Singh said the large number of continuing violations suggests that Singapore does not have a sufficiently robust framework governing foreign worker housing.

Mr Yeo, who chairs foreign worker group Migrant Workers' Centre, suggested that the authorities apply similar standards for all types of worker accommodation.

He was among several MPs concerned about costs, noting that rents in dorms have risen from around $170 per bed in 2009 to about $350 today.

Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) noted that land prices have risen, while Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) asked if the move would see large players dominating the market.

Mr Singh also asked whether MOM has considered bringing smaller foreign worker quarters under the licensing framework.

Mr Tan said MOM would bear in mind the possibility of having different classes of licence in future, if needed.

He also acknowledged the anecdotal examples of poor living conditions, but stressed that this does not mean the situation is dire across the board. "I think it is important for the House not to have the wrong impression that there is widespread mistreatment of foreign workers," he said.

Small dorms, big debate
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2015

A KEY issue in Parliament yesterday was the stricter regulations for dormitories that house large numbers of foreign workers.

Yet in the ensuing debate after Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin outlined the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill, MPs focused more attention on what the legislation did not cover than on what it did.

The Bill, which was passed yesterday, imposes tougher requirements on large dorms that can house at least 1,000 foreign workers.

Operators of such dorms will have to be licensed and provide recreational facilities and disease quarantine plans, among other things.

The move is in anticipation of more such dorms being built in the next few years, an expansion fuelled by the Govern-ment's desire to improve living standards for Singapore's 770,000-strong foreign worker population.

There are already 40 or so large dorms, some of which come with facilities such as cricket pitches and minimarts. They are much more comfortable than the makeshift quarters some workers have to endure.

But almost all the MPs who spoke on the Bill yesterday wanted to discuss those latter types of housing instead.

Specifically, they asked why smaller worker dorms with fewer than 1,000 beds were not covered by the new laws.

As they pointed out, recent headline-grabbing media exposes of deplorable living conditions that some workers have to endure all featured living quarters or premises with fewer than 1,000 beds.

Yesterday's Bill might seem to have nothing to do with smaller dorms with the worst reported living conditions.

But the Government is setting rules for new large dorms precisely with the goal of preventing, or at least limiting, such cases in the future.

It is an important piece of an overarching strategy to drive them out of existence. It wants more workers in larger dorms because these are of higher standards and better regulated than smaller quarters.

But the MPs cannot be blamed entirely for keeping the focus on small dorms. As MP Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC) put it at the end of the three-hour debate, why was the Bill named the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill? If it was focused on only one type of dorm, then it should have been called the "Purpose-Built Dormitories Bill".

This is an example of how clarity in presenting a policy is as important as its details.

The debate and the myriad concerns raised by MPs over the current living and working conditions for foreign workers also hinted at a gap between the aims of legislation and the immediate challenges of enforcement.

While long-term policy-making remains the Go-vernment's lodestar, as it should be, short-horizon factors - such as dismaying pictures of poor housing conditions - have the ability to distract from any national discussion.

Perhaps yesterday's discussion would have benefited from reassurances that resources for inspections and raids of workers' quarters to ensure minimal living standards would continue to be boosted.

After all, the transition towards making large dorms the norm will take years and foreign workers must be protected thoroughly in the meantime.

Maybe then these MPs would not have been distracted by a perceived lack in the legislation regarding small dorms and they could have focused more on pertinent challenges to do with the transition towards mostly large dorms.

Some MPs touched on these. Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) argued that employers must be stopped from deducting the higher cost of large dorm housing from workers' pay cheques.

Mr Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) raised concerns about transport congestion, as some workers from large dorms take the same buses as residents in his ward.

It is only fair to address such social costs arising from Singapore's need for foreign workers. That more time was not spent on these issues was a missed opportunity.

642 seniors win Pioneer Generation status on appeal
Panel looked only at cases relating to citizenship
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2015

MORE than 600 seniors who appealed for Pioneer Generation benefits have been given the nod, Senior Minister of State for Finance Josephine Teo said yesterday.

They were not eligible earlier because they did not become Singapore citizens on or by Dec 31, 1986 - the citizenship cut-off date to qualify for the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package.

But the panel that reviewed their appeals took into account whether they became Singapore citizens shortly after 1986, Mrs Teo told Parliament.

An example of a successful applicant was an elderly woman who lives in Nee Soon South, recounted Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC), who did not name the resident.

"She came very early to Singapore and started working as a seamstress in a textile factory. But she missed the (1986) deadline for applying for citizenship by a bit," said Ms Lee of the resident now in her 70s.

"Her whole family is Singaporean. She didn't just contribute to nation-building, but contributed a few children to the nation, too."

Factors - such as whether applicants had been in Singapore since the early years of independence, contributed to Singapore society and demonstrated clear efforts to sink roots in Singapore - were looked at by the appeals panel, said Mrs Teo.

But no senior who appealed successfully was born after 1949. The reason is that the panel considered only appeals relating to the criterion of citizenship, not age, said Mrs Teo.

To qualify for the Pioneer Generation Package, which offers help with health-care bills, seniors must have been born in 1949 or earlier, and have become Singapore citizens before 1987.

Said Mrs Teo: "Whatever the age set, there will always be those who marginally fall short of it. It would therefore not be feasible or fair to allow age-related appeals without extending the new age criterion to all Singaporeans."

She was replying to Mr Seng Han Thong (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who had asked how many appeals were received and approved, and on what grounds.

As of Dec 31 last year, the appeals panel had evaluated about 2,480 cases and approved 642 of them, she said.

In all, about 2,900 appeals were received.

Dr Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC) asked if the appeals panel would consider the financial situation of applicants.

Mrs Teo said those ineligible for the package may qualify for other schemes, including Medisave top-ups and subsidies for MediShield Life insurance. "If there is still a need, we'd very much like to know who these individuals are, and find other ways to help them."

Corporate pension plans 'less relevant' for S'pore
By Fiona Chan, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2015

SINGAPORE may have scored below the global average in a ranking of retirement adequacy, but that is partly due to the mechanics of how the index is calculated, Senior Minister of State for Finance Josephine Teo said in Parliament yesterday.

For instance, the index gives more points to countries offering tax advantages to companies that provide retirement plans for their workers.

But such plans are less relevant for Singaporeans, she added.

Mrs Teo was responding to a question from Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, who noted that Singapore scored 56.4 for retirement adequacy in the Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index released last October, below the global average score of 63.

Part of the reason was that relatively few companies here have instituted retirement plans for their employees, Mr Yee said.

Citing reports that only about 20 companies in Singapore implement corporate retirement plans, he asked if more firms should be encouraged to do so, perhaps with greater tax benefits.

This could help supplement current pension schemes such as the Central Provident Fund and Supplementary Retirement Scheme, given current worries here about retirement adequacy, he added.

But Mrs Teo said corporate retirement plans are relevant mainly to foreigners here.

Employers in Singapore already contribute "quite a lot" to their workers' retirement savings through the Central Provident Fund system, which foreigners do not benefit from. She also noted that in the overall score given by the Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index - which ranked countries on the adequacy, sustainability and integrity of their retirement plans - Singapore beat other Asian countries as well as developed nations such as Germany and the United States.

More than 200 flats seized by HDB in last three years
Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2015

A total of 202 flats were seized by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) between January 2012 and December 2014, Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee said on Tuesday (Jan 20).

“The action is also taken, as a last resort, against mortgagors who persistently refuse to resolve their arrears, or work towards a sustainable solution, despite the assistance given,” he added.

HDB will assist such households to find alternative accommodation, Mr Lee said. “For those who can afford smaller flats, HDB will help them buy one and may offer them another loan for the purchase, if necessary. Those who are unable to afford another flat, and have no family support or other housing option, are allocated rental flats.”

Mr Lee added there are many measures - both short- and long-term - that can be taken to help HDB homeowners resolve their arrears issues. These include helping the home owner reschedule a mortgage loan up to the maximum repayment period, or allowing owners to pay lower monthly instalments under the reduced repayment scheme. 

Mr Lee said HDB has assisted 9,752 families with one or more of these measures, from January 2012 to December 2014.

"It is not in the interest of lessees to accumulate mortgage arrears. It's not just a heavy financial burden on them, but also a tremendous emotional strain. HDB therefore intervenes early, proactively and sympathetically, to help flat owners resolve their arrears issues," he said.

"For instance, loan instalments are usually paid on the first of each month. But HDB gives lessees up to the end of the month if they face temporary cash flow difficulties for instance. But if they still face problems doing so, HDB will make a call, arrange a meet up or even do a home visit, to better understand the situation and better offer help," Mr Lee added. 

HDB's net deficit to remain high in the next few years: Khaw
National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan says the spike in FY2013 was due to HDB's ramp-up in its flat-building and upgrading programmes.
By Olivia Siong, Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2015

The Ministry of National Development (MND) said the Housing and Development Board's (HDB) net deficit will continue to be high in the next few financial years.

Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 20), National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the spike in FY2013 was due to HDB's ramp-up in its flat-building and upgrading programmes. He was responding to a question by MP Foo Mee Har regarding the implications of HDB's net deficit of S$1.97 billion in FY13/14 and the deficit trend in future years.

The HDB had launched over 77,000 flats, or more than 25,000 flats per year, between 2011 and 2013.

Mr Khaw noted that HDB's deficit is largely due to the subsidy extended to new flat buyers and the disbursement of CPF Housing Grants to eligible resale flat buyers.

"Was the almost S$2 billion deficit expected? Yes it was, because as we ramped up the numbers to 25,000 homes, you should expect that the deficit should grow of that quantum," the minister said.

"But I really don't see our 25,000 units per year construction programme continuing for a long time. In fact, this is already year four, and we've started the process of ramping down for the simple reason that the number of family formations is not of that level," he added.

The deficit in future years will depend on factors such as housing demand, HDB's building and upgrading programmes, and developments costs and policy changes, he said.

Appeal to all: Help get rid of rats and mozzies
NEA taking action but stakeholders must do their part, says Grace Fu
By Feng Zengkun, Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2015

THE ratty problem outside the Bukit Batok MRT station is indicative of a nuisance that plagues many parts of Singapore.

The agency has also put more officers on the ground in recent years to make sure food shops abide by good hygiene practices and do not feed the problem.

The intensified effort to choke off any infestation was disclosed in Parliament yesterday by Ms Grace Fu, Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources.

In recent months, several places in Singapore had suffered rat colonies. The most notorious one was outside the Bukit Batok MRT station. Videos posted online show a slope the size of a football field infested with rats.

Ratbusters were called in and they killed more than 300 rodents in a two-week campaign last month.

But killing the horrid creatures will not wipe out the problem unless people practise good housekeeping, including managing their food waste properly, said Ms Fu, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

"The key to rodent control is to eliminate food sources...We need all stakeholders, from food-stall and restaurant operators to companies that are in charge of cleaning, to really step up and ensure we have a hygienic and clean environment," she said.

Dengue is another scourge Ms Fu urged people to help get rid of.

Although the number of breeding sites found has declined, the problem persists.

Between January and November last year, more than 16,000 breeding sites were uncovered, a 19 per cent annual drop.

A new gravitrap surveillance programme that the NEA introduced in dengue clusters and high-risk areas has caught about 32,000 mosquitoes since it was put on trial last year.

"This is the first year we have such statistics, so we will probably use this as a basis for studies going forward," Ms Fu said.

The NEA is also exploring the possibility of reducing the local dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito population through biological means, she said, citing the Wolbachia bacteria-carrying male mosquitoes.

When they mate with female mosquitoes, the latter produce eggs that do not hatch.

Meanwhile, Ms Fu urged all home and premises owners, town councils and managers of public areas to take responsibility for ensuring there is no room for the mosquitoes to breed.

She said: "NEA's officers cannot be everywhere, any time, all the time."

Regulations of use of Speakers’ Corner have ‘worked well’: Khaw
There were no “untoward cases” at the Speakers’ Corner until an incident on Sep 27, 2014, when a group of protesters allegedly disrupted a charity event, says National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan.
Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2015

The regulations governing the use of the Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park have worked well over the years, with no “untoward cases” until an incident on Sep 27, 2014, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 20).

On Sep 27 last year, bloggers Roy Ngerng and Han Hui Hui allegedly disrupted a YMCA charity event taking place at Hong Lim Park and reportedly frightened special needs children who were performing. The pair, along with four other protesters, have been charged with making a public nuisance of themselves.

Replying to a question from MP Seah Kian Peng, Mr Khaw said there were 136 registrations of events at the Speakers’ Corner in 2014, down from 169 the previous year.

The National Parks Board (NParks) took over the administration of the park from September 2008. For the whole of 2009, there were 129 registrations of events, he said.

“As legal proceedings against certain persons related to the Sep 27 incident are still ongoing, it is not appropriate to comment on whether there is a need to review the regulations over the use of Hong Lim Park,” Mr Khaw said.

150 firms censured last year - some ‘named and shamed’ - for discrimination in hiring
Channel NewsAsia, 21 Jan 2015

In 2014, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) investigated and took action against 150 firms for having discriminatory employment practices, said Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin on Tuesday (Jan 20).

One example that the Manpower Minister “named and shamed”, was Prime Gold International, which was found to have “discriminated against Singaporean employees by unfairly replacing them with foreigners”.

Mr Tan said that MOM takes a firm stance against discriminatory employment practices and looks into the “high profile cases highlighted in the media”. The necessary action will be taken when investigations are completed, he added.

MOM also proactively identifies and engages with firms with disproportionately low share of Singaporeans compared to other firms in their industry, he said. The identified firms with “shortcomings in their HR practices” are then required to implement an action plan to address the shortcoming.

Said Mr Tan: “Companies that were approached by MOM and TAFEP (Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices) have generally responded positively and are supportive of upholding fair employment practices. For unresponsive and recalcitrant employers, we are prepared to take further action where necessary.”

Parenting benefits for working mums apply 'within the context of marriage': Tharman
Channel NewsAsia, 21 Jan 2015

Single mothers are not eligible for two parenting benefit schemes - the Working Mother’s Child Relief and the Foreign Maid Levy Relief - as they are intended "to support married women who remain in the workforce and raise their children within the context of marriage", said Mr Tharman Shanmugartnam. 

The schemes "reflect the prevailing societal norm where marriage is the first step towards family formation", added the Deputy Prime Minister, in response to a question from MP Seah Kian Peng on Tuesday (Jan 20). 

Mr Tharman, who is also Minister of Finance, noted that the Government provides support and a range of benefits in areas such as childcare, healthcare and education to children "regardless of their parents’ marital status", including being extended to single mothers.

These include centre-based infant and child care subsidies, Medisave grants for newborns and Medishield coverage for congenital and neonatal conditions, he said.

"The tax savings arising from both reliefs would depend on the individual circumstances of the taxpayer. As single parents currently do not claim for these tax reliefs, we do not have sufficient data such as on whether they have children who are studying full-time and their incomes if the children are working, to accurately estimate the tax savings arising from the reliefs," he said.

Govt workforce 'to grow 2.5% a year'
94% of public servants turning 62 were rehired in 2013
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2015

THE number of workers in Singapore's public sector is expected to grow by 2.5 per cent annually in the next few years.

At the same time, latest official figures show 94 per cent of the 1,067 eligible public servants who wished to continue working past the retirement age of 62 were re-employed in 2013.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam gave these statistics separately in written parliamentary answers on Monday to Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC).

The public service is Singapore's largest employer, with 143,000 people on its payroll at the end of last year.

Its projected manpower growth rate is roughly similar to that of the past 10 years, but is lower than the national labour force growth of 4.1 per cent a year in the past decade.

The annual expansion, said Mr Tharman, is to meet the demand of agencies for "additional capacity to implement new strategic programmes" in areas such as health-care services and security.

It will also help provide better service to citizens, he added.

Mr Tharman said the Government has "consistently strived to maintain a lean and efficient public service", which includes the ministries and statutory boards.

The 143,000 public-sector employees make up about 4 per cent of Singapore's labour force, or 6.5 per cent of its resident labour force, he said.

The proportion is higher in other countries, he added.

For instance, the corresponding figures are 16 per cent in Australia; 11 per cent in Germany; and 7 per cent in South Korea.

Mr Teo, in addressing the issue of re-employment, said 64 officers - or 6 per cent - were not re-employed when they turned 62 in 2013.

Also, about 1,400 officers were aged 65 and older, out of the 139,400 employees on the payroll in 2013.

Mr Teo said that of the officers who were not re-employed, about nine in 10 did not meet the qualifying criteria of having satisfactory work performance, good conduct and being medically fit.

He also said the public service has no target re-employment rate.

"If a job is available and the officer is not a poor performer or does not have medical problems, the public service agency will offer re-employment."

Introducing more family care leave may impact businesses: Amy Khor
Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2015

The Manpower Ministry is aware that with the ageing population and decreasing family size, it is important to support working Singaporeans to care for family members. At the same time, it is mindful that mandating more family care leave would impact on business operations, Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor said in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 20).

A series of family-related leave schemes were introduced on May 1, 2013, as part of the Marriage and Parenthood Package, she noted, in response to MP David Ong's Parliamentary question on whether the ministry will consider statutory paid caregiver leave.

That said, the ministry is encouraging more employers to adopt work-life practices such as family care leave beyond statutory requirements and flexible work arrangements. By adopting such practices, employers can attract good workers in a tight labour market and motivate them, Dr Khor said.

A MOM survey found that the proportion of employers providing parental care or parental sick leave almost tripled from 6 per cent in 2008 to 17 per cent in 2014. The proportion of employers providing flexible work arrangements also went up from 28 per cent in 2008 to 47 per cent in 2014, she noted.

Such strategies will lead to a "win-win outcome" - with employees better able to attend to their personal and family needs, while employers will have a more motivated workforce with lower absenteeism, higher employee retention and better productivity, Dr Khor stated.

Hospitals provide care based on patients’ conditions, not subsidy status: Amy Khor
Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2015

Public hospitals in Singapore provide care based on patients’ clinical conditions and not their subsidy status, Senior Minister of State for Health Dr Amy Khor said in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 20).

She made this point in response to a question from Nominated Member of Parliament K Karthikeyan on whether different drugs and treatment are given to patients in private and subsidised wards. Mr Karthikeyan, a unionist, recounted a case of one of his members who went to a hospital for a stomach operation.

Said Mr Karthikeyan: “He actually has to take painkillers; the nurse gave him Panadol. He said, ‘I just did a stomach operation, is there any way he can get an injection?’ The doctor and the nurse were talking, and he overheard, ‘C Class, is there a need? Panadol (is) enough.’ So this gave him a feeling that you get subsidised treatment when you are warded in C Class.”

“So is there any way we can actually talk to the hospital, how do they communicate? How do they make things straight? That's my only concern,” he added.

Dr Khor said it is “unfortunate” that there is this perception, and noted the need to obtain more details to better understand the case.

“There are clinical guidelines for pain management in different clinical conditions, which provide clinical guidance on the choice of pain drugs and of course these are in line with international practice," she said.

"So typically for pain management, as the member has also raised, clinical guidelines may give guidance to provide baseline pain management. And then further pain drugs may be added if required, as well as to start with the least invasive drugs first. This is quite typical across different clinical conditions. so the patient may be first prescribed oral Panadol and this could progress to stronger, more potent drugs through injections for instance, and they are not without side effects”.

“But basically, most of them, in fact throughout the spectrum of pain drugs that are required for pain management, you can find subsidised drugs, so the patient does not really have to pay more for these subsidised drugs. There is no Panadol injection, but as you have mentioned, there are morphine, Pethidine, Diclofenac injections which are in the standard drugs list, and as I have said, there are stronger painkillers, they may not be without their side effects, so we need to ascertain if the patient's condition will warrant this, if it's suitable for them, and we'll need further details to understand the case,” she said.

Where non-subsidised drugs or treatments are assessed to be clinically required and cannot be replaced by subsidised alternatives, patients from lower-income households are provided with financial assistance, she added.

“Public hospitals have various governance frameworks in place to ensure that patients receive care appropriate to their clinical needs. This includes accreditation committees to ensure appropriate use of new technologies and procedures, and that procedures are performed by properly trained doctors,” Dr Khor said.

“But I think what I would like to reiterate really is that the drug and treatment prescribed is what the doctor and the healthcare team deem as clinically appropriate based on the patient's conditions and not based on the subsidy status of the patient,” she added.

Health programmes tailored for various ethnic groups: MOH
Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2015

Various health programmes have been introduced as part of its efforts to encourage healthy living among Singaporeans, and the Health Promotion Board (HPB) has tailored programmes specific to the cultural context of the various ethnic groups over the years.

Some examples of these tailored programmes include the Ramadan I Quit smoking cessation programmes, where the HPB partnered with Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) and mosques. In 2014, one in five of the 1,507 participants quit smoking and another one in four reduced the number of cigarettes smoked, he said.

In 2013, the HPB also partnered with the Muslim Women's Association to launch the 2014 Health calendar for Malay women. The calendar - which incorporates healthy recipes, health tips and screening messages - has been positively received, with distribution of the 2015 calendar increasing 10-fold to 30,000 households.

The calendar initiative has proven popular, and a Chinese version of it has been launched too, he added.

Dr Faishal added that the ministry will continue to review research methodology to ensure that they have the latest data on the health status of the population. The ministry will also continue to incorporate best practices and research findings from other countries, and update their health programmes and strategies to the local context.

More people applying for MUIS financial assistance: Yaacob Ibrahim
Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2015

The number of people applying for financial assistance through the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) has risen slightly over recent years, said Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, who is the Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs.

The number of applicants for zakat financial assistance has risen from 5,210 applicants in 2012, to 5,306 applicants in 2013 and 5,454 applicants in 2014. Dr Yaacob added that over this time period, MUIS approved an average of 99 per cent of applications each year.

Unsuccessful applicants might have sought help on matters for which MUIS does not have an assistance scheme. In such instances, MUIS would refer the applicants to the appropriate public agency, he added.

Dr Yaacob said the per capita income cap of the assistance scheme is decided based on the long-term sustainability of the scheme and how it supplements existing national assistance schemes such as ComCare. 

With regards to enhancing services for needy families, Dr Yaacob said that MUIS regularly reviews the adequacy of its current financial assistance schemes and studies social trends and challenged faced by needy households. MUIS has also trained over 520 Mosque Befrienders to conduct regular home visits to long-term zakat recipients.

Relocation of Paya Lebar Airbase to only take place from 2030
Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2015

The relocation of Paya Lebar Airbase will only take place in at least another 15 years' time, at about 2030 and beyond.

This is because, current airbases - Changi Airbase East and Tengah Airbase - will have to be first expanded to replace the Paya Lebar Airbase, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said this in a written parliamentary reply to MP Christopher de Souza on Tuesday (Jan 20).

Mr de Souza had asked for an update on the Airbase's relocation plans, which were first announced during the National Day Rally 2013 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The focus now is expanding the Changi Airbase East and building a new runway at Changi, Dr Ng said. Construction of facilities at Changi will commence after the completion of detailed site surveys and land preparation works. 

As for the Tengah Airbase, Dr Ng said efforts are focused on developing a design for the airbase facility. 

To ensure the Singapore Air Force's operational readiness is maintained, the RSAF has put in place plans to build up capabilities such as the recently-announced Island Air Defence System, Dr Ng added.

The RSAF will also be upgrading and renewing some of its older systems to meet the country's long-term security needs.

Licence will be needed for deep seabed mining
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2015

SINGAPORE is taking legal steps to protect the marine environment from any harm caused by mining for minerals on the ocean floor. On Monday, Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang introduced a Bill in Parliament to regulate such mining.

The Deep Seabed Mining Bill will cover parts of the seabed, ocean floor and subsoil that lie outside territorial waters. If it is passed, Singaporeans and companies based here will be forbidden from mining in the open sea unless licensed to do so.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry said in a statement later that the Bill will introduce a licensing regime for deep seabed mining activities. Individuals found guilty of unauthorised mining can be fined up to $300,000, or jailed for up to three months, or given both punishments. Companies convicted of the same offence may be fined up to $300,000.

The proposed law is in accordance with Singapore's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the ministry said.

Government to review vehicle ownership and usage policies
Channel NewsAsia, 20 Jan 2015

The Government will be reviewing its vehicle ownership and usage policies in the next few years to see if they could be improved before the next generation Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system is introduced, said Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 20), in response to a question on Certificates of Entitlement (COE) from Member of Parliament Lee Bee Wah.

The next generation ERP system is expected to be implemented before the end of this decade.

Ms Lee also asked if the Government would consider creating a new COE category for small vans. Currently, all commercial vehicles, including big lorries and small vans, are in the same category.

She said this would help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) which need small vans for their businesses, as they would not have to compete for COEs within the same category with larger companies.

Mrs Teo said the COEs of 31,000 small delivery vans will expire between now and 2017. However, she said having too many categories can lead to excessive volatility in quota numbers and prices in each category.

Mrs Teo noted that the Government is aware of the cost pressures SME face and has introduced several measures to help them manage the cost of their vehicles.

She added there was a similar argument supporting the removal of taxis from Category A - the small cars category - but the results from doing so showed the fear was unfounded.

Said Mrs Teo: ”It is something that we have to be quite careful in thinking through. The more categories we split them into, it means that within each category, the numbers that can be made available for bidding, and each cycle, would likely be much more volatile. And we have to ask ourselves whether that is in fact helpful to small businesses.”

“So we understand completely where Er Dr Lee Bee Wah is coming from, but we also have to ask whether the alternative, the alternative which is what the member has suggested is in fact going to be helpful to SMEs. And please let me assure you, we don't let all the ghosts haunt us. If it's something that indeed is likely to be beneficial, no reason why we cannot think of it. I was merely saying that some things we think will work - similar things haven't quite worked,” she added.

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