Thursday 12 March 2015

Parliament Highlights - 10 Mar 2015

Committee of Supply Debate: Ministry of National Development

Hot market tamed, housing more affordable, says Khaw Boon Wan
S'poreans can get flat 'within budget'; plans afoot to help different segments
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

PUBLIC flats have become more affordable in recent years, with many Singaporeans able to buy a home within their budget, said Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan.

To ensure that this remains the case for future generations, Mr Khaw said that the Government remains committed to quality housing that is within the reach of most Singaporeans.

"Every generation will be able to afford their own HDB homes. This is our promise," he said in the parliamentary debate on his ministry's budget yesterday.

Stressing the importance of home ownership, Mr Khaw said his ministry has achieved results in taming the red hot housing market. This was a hot topic in the 2011 General Election.

Resale housing prices have risen by about 37 per cent since their low in 2009, while new flat prices rose by just 15 per cent without grants. With grants, new flat prices rose by just 6 per cent.

"Measured against the (median) household income increase of 38 per cent, we can see that public housing affordability has substantially improved since 2011," he said.

As for whether cooling measures will be lifted, Mr Khaw said that the property market is in transition and that the Government "should not overkill".

Mr Khaw also cited a recent Housing Board survey which showed that people were willing to pay up to $300,000 for a new three-room flat, and between $300,000 and $500,000 for a four- or five-roomer.

In comparison, 90 per cent of new three-roomers last year were sold at below $250,000.

For new four-roomers, 81 per cent were sold below $350,000, and 89 per cent of new five-roomers were sold below $450,000.

"These are actual transactions. They paint a comforting picture of young Singaporeans being able to get their first BTO (Build- To-Order) flat, well within their expected budget," said Mr Khaw.

Home ownership has also been possible for the lower-income group, added Mr Khaw.

From March 2012 to July last year, 1,491 families with household incomes below $1,000 had booked two-room or larger BTO flats.

Yesterday, 24 MPs rose to ask about issues such as the affordability of housing. Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) was one of three MPs calling for the $10,000 income cap to be raised, while Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) wanted flats with shorter leases for the needy.

Starting from May, half of all new two-room flats in non-mature estates will be set aside for singles, up from 30 per cent now.

The Government will look for ways to help non-first-timers who want resale flats near their parents, as well as public rental tenants who aim to own a home.

It is also prepared to raise the $10,000 income ceiling for public flats, as incomes rise, he said.

Khaw seeks 'soft landing' for housing market
MPs ask for ABSD adjustment for S'poreans to curb risky foreign property buys and excessive price corrections
By Lee Meixian, The Business Times, 11 Mar 2015

NATIONAL Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan is aiming for a "soft landing" for the housing market as "a market crash benefits no one", he said at Tuesday's Committee of Supply debate.

This was in reply to questions in parliament on the impact of government policies on the property market. The government was asked whether it would consider adjusting the Additional Buyer's Stamp Duty (ABSD) for Singaporean buyers when it is ready to unwind the cooling measures.

West Coast GRC Member of Parliament Foo Mee Har also asked at which point property cooling measures would be eased, in order to cushion any excessive price corrections.

While Mr Khaw did not directly answer the questions on the ABSD and the timing of policy changes, he agreed that the government "should not go into overdrive, and unwittingly undermine the retirement plan of our seniors who look to their housing assets for monetisation".

Earlier, Ms Foo had cautioned of the need to ensure that the "well intended" cooling measures are not overdone. "Given the huge new housing supply yet to hit the market and the impending rise of interest rates, we must be cautious that this downward price trend does not inadvertently get into a momentum and reach an unintended pace.

"Some industry players have told me that this is easier said than done. Their concern is that once a downward momentum begins, the downward pressure on prices may not be so easy to control, as we have seen in previous property cycles."

Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) said that while the ABSD started out as an initiative to discourage unnecessary ownership of multiple properties, it has led to Singaporeans "who have spare cash" investing in riskier foreign properties.

"Coupled with low initial downpayments, and fewer restrictions in foreign property, Singaporeans are enticed to look abroad. This not only does little benefit to our economy, but puts our people at risk.

"I feel we should keep the Total Debt Servicing Ratio (TDSR) to encourage prudence in finance spending, but remove the ABSD for Singaporeans so they can invest in properties in Singapore."

MPs also noted that the cooled property market has made it difficult for retirees looking to sell their flats to right-size in order to fund their retirement. Those attempting to sell off their existing flat or private property within the six-month grace period before buying a resale flat are also struggling.

Since January 2013, Singapore citizens who already own a home have to pay an ABSD of 7 per cent on the purchase of a second residential property; this percentage climbs to 10 per cent on the third and subsequent property. This is seen as a measure to slow property investment and speculation.

Under the TDSR framework, borrowers' total monthly debt repayments (including car loans and credit cards) cannot exceed 60 per cent of their gross monthly income. This is a permanent measure to encourage financial prudence.

In his speech, Mr Khaw said: "Indeed, we should not overkill. The property market is in transition and it is a time that calls for vigilance and nimbleness. We will be careful."

He went on to share data to show how his ministry's efforts in taming the housing market has yielded results. HDB resale prices have risen from their previous trough in 2005. From 2005 to 2014, resale flat prices have gone up 87 per cent, while household income has gone up by 72 per cent.

Although Singapore is not yet at the 2005 affordability level, at least the affordability gap has narrowed from the 2011-2013 property market boom.

He added too that "sobering news" about the "acute" housing situations in cities such as London and Hong Kong put Singapore's "more benign situation" into better perspective.

During Tuesday's Committee of Supply debate, Mr Khaw also thanked MPs for their ideas on how to adjust the Lease Buyback Scheme. The new Lease Buyback Scheme, which is extended to four-room flats, takes effect in April.

He also said that he would mull proposals to introduce shorter lease tenure in some build-to-order projects to cater to different groups with varying needs. He will also consider raising the S$10,000 HDB income ceiling, after noting that couples are marrying later and income levels are rising.

More new flats to be set aside for singles
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

SINGLES will soon have more chances at securing new homes.

Starting from May, half of the new two-room flats launched in non-mature estates will be set aside for them. This is up from the current 30 per cent.

This will provide greater assurance to singles and reduce their backlog of pent-up demand for flats, said Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.

"While marriage and parenthood will remain at the core of our housing policy, I recognise that we are more diverse today as a society, with many Singaporeans remaining single," he said.

"Although most live comfortably with their extended families, many desire the privacy and stability of home ownership."

During the debate on the National Development Ministry's budget, Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC) noted that as many as 9,300 singles have been unsuccessful in their flat applications.

He asked if the ministry would consider increasing the flat quota or chances for singles.

Since July 2013, first-timer singles aged 35 and above and earning up to $5,000 a month have been allowed to buy two-room Build-to-Order (BTO) flats in non-mature estates. More than 18,000 singles have applied for flats so far, and half the number have been able to book one.

Two-room flats have proven popular and are often heavily oversubscribed among singles during BTO exercises.

In last November's exercise, for instance, close to 33 singles vied for every two-room flat launched in Sengkang.

About 5,000 such units were launched last year in response to the high demand, up from 2,600 in 2013. About 4,000 two-room flats will also be launched this year.

Mr Lim Sio Poh, 46, is one bachelor who successfully applied for a two-room BTO flat in Bukit Panjang last year.

The general worker in a recycling company has always lived with his parents in their four-room Yishun flat, but decided that he wanted his own place.

"It's a good opportunity - the flat is cheaper than resale flats and it's new. It's also a kind of investment for me," said Mr Lim.

After receiving about $28,000 in housing grants, his new flat cost him about $120,000. He plans to move into the Senja Road unit in the next two months.

Other singles are eyeing the resale market instead.

"I'd rather go for a resale flat that's three-room or bigger. There's more space and I can get the flat immediately," said property agent Alvin Ten, 34.

MND looking into more flexible lease tenures for two-room flats
By Laura Elizabeth Philomin, TODAY, 10 Mar 2015

More flexible lease tenures and lease terms, which are currently only available under the Studio Apartment Scheme, could soon be offered for two-room flats.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said his ministry is looking into this idea, which several Members of Parliament have called for, to meet the needs of different groups.

Studio apartments have similar layouts and sizes to two-room flats but are cheaper because they come with shorter leases. This flat type was introduced in 1998 to provide options for seniors who wanted to right-size, as the Housing and Development Board (HDB) had stopped building two-room flats then.

Now that the HDB is building two-room flats again, Mr Khaw said they could consider the suggestion of shorter leases to “rationalise the studio apartment and two-room flat schemes”. “For example, if we have a new two-room flat scheme, offering varying lease tenure and lease terms, it may allow us to cater to different groups with varying needs, and in the process unify both schemes,” he added.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) had suggested such a move to give Singaporeans at different stages of life the option of owning a flat at lower prices.

Speaking during his ministry’s Committee of Supply debate today (March 10), Mr Khaw said: “MND and HDB are working on this, and will also gather inputs from the public.”

Property analysts TODAY spoke to suggested the Studio Apartment Scheme be scrapped, in exchange for greater lease flexibility for two-room flats.

The re-introduction of two-room Build-to-Order flats calls into question the necessity for studio apartments, said SLP International Property Consultants executive director of research and consultancy Nicholas Mak.

Elderly-friendly features in studio apartments, such as wider doorways and bathroom handrails, can be easily incorporated in new two–room flats, he added.

Mr Chris Koh, Director of Chris International, said some senior citizens are concerned about their fates if they outlive the current 30-year lease under the Studio Apartment Scheme, with others having the desire to leave the flat for their children.

“I would increase the lease to 60 years, giving these elderly people the assurance that they will still have their flat and allow the flat to also be passed down to the next generation,” suggested Mr Koh. “Because it is a 60-year lease, you can adjust the price (to) make it lower than that of a 99-year lease two-room flat.”

Century 21 chief executive Ku Swee Yong, however, pointed out that flexibility is provided under the Lease Buyback Scheme — elderly residents can choose lease tenures that best suit their needs and sell the rest back to HDB.

To cater to the group of seniors who are worried about the financial burden of buying a flat, he suggested: “Why not charge them a monthly lease for two-room units ... so it becomes a rental flat?”

Municipal Services Office ropes in more agencies
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

THE coordinating office for municipal issues will link up with three more government agencies, as well as two town councils, to improve management of problems on the ground.

From next month, the Municipal Services Office (MSO) will work with the Building Construction Authority (BCA), the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to handle issues associated with construction work and illegal parking.

This should accelerate the shift from an "agency-based approach to an issues-based one", said Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu, who heads the MSO, in Parliament yesterday.

"It's not an easy move. It means breaking down silos amongst agencies, working closely with one another, and arriving at a consensus on how to deal with feedback."

The MSO was set up last October to address what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described as a lack of inter-agency coordination in municipal matters. He cited the example of a walkway in Bukit Gombak - the site of a now infamous discarded fishball stick - that was not cleaned due to a lack of clarity on which agency was responsible.

It currently works with eight agencies, including the Housing Board and the police. Collectively, they handle around 42,000 municipal cases every month.

But Ms Fu noted that government agencies are not the only bodies which handle municipal services.

The MSO's challenges involve getting agencies and town councils to acknowledge ownership of the cases referred to them, provide progress updates, and follow MSO-issued guidelines on how to resolve cases that involve multiple entities, she said.

Responding to MPs' suggestions for the office to coordinate with town councils - which maintain and clean common areas in HDB estates - Ms Fu said that the MSO has just started trials with Jurong and Holland-Bukit Panjang town councils earlier this month.

"If successful, we will invite all town councils to participate in the working arrangements with MSO, without weakening (their) autonomy and authority in service delivery and in setting their service standards," she said.

Currently, different agencies handle greenery-related issues depending on who owns the land. As such, they end up engaging different contractors to maintain the greenery, even that in the same vicinity.

"This is not ideal. We can do better," said Ms Fu. As such, NParks will take over grass-cutting works from SLA, national water agency PUB and HDB.

$450m to boost construction productivity
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

A NEW three-year plan to boost the construction industry's productivity will focus on more prefabrication and further enhancing the skills of workers.

To support this Second Construction Productivity Roadmap, the Government is pumping in a fresh $450 million, said Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan yesterday.

The new road map builds on the first in 2010, which focused on manpower, machinery and new building methods. The results from the first five-year plan, which ends this May, have been encouraging, said Mr Lee.

Site productivity - the floor area completed per man-day - has risen by 1.4 per cent each year since 2010.

"This is encouraging but we can certainly do more," he said.

Hence, the second road map will focus on building as many parts as possible in off-site factories.

These prefabricated parts - from walls to entire housing units - are then assembled on site, saving time and manpower on the ground.

Another aim is to build a skilled workforce. This is not just at the level of construction site workers, but further upstream at the design stage.

More funding will be provided for these efforts. The 2010 road map was accompanied by the first tranche of the Construction Productivity and Capability Fund, initially $250 million but later raised to $335 million.

The second tranche of $450 million, for June this year to May 2018, is expected to benefit about 7,000 firms.

The Building and Construction Authority said yesterday that about 70 per cent of the new sum will support technology adoption. From June, the funding limit for the Productivity Innovation Projects scheme will double to $10 million, for projects that improve productivity by at least 20 per cent.

The Workforce Training and Upgrading scheme will give subsidies of up to 90 per cent for locals in the industry. There will also be a new programme for Institute of Technical Education graduates and new diploma and postgraduate sponsorships.

Committee of Supply Debate: Prime Minister's Office

Better prospects for non-grads in civil service
Some will be hired under the same scheme as degree holders from Aug 1
By Charissa Yong and Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

FROM Aug 1, non-degree holders joining the civil service to perform management support roles will be hired under the same scheme as most university graduates.

The move will close the gap in career prospects between university graduates and non-graduates, who currently come under different schemes and have different starting salaries.

With the extension of the Management Executive Scheme to include them, non-degree holders will start at a lower grade, with lower pay, than graduates.

But they will have greater opportunities to advance, and when they reach a specified grade, they will be assessed for performance and potential in the same way as their graduate colleagues at the same level.

The change is the result of a Public Service Division (PSD) study, announced last August, on ways to merge its main graduate and non-graduate schemes, and give officers a chance to progress on the same career track.

In announcing the change yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said: "Both degree holders and non-degree holders will be recruited on, and progress along, the extended Management Executive Scheme."

He added: "All officers in the same grade will be assessed for performance and potential in the same way."

Mr Teo, the minister-in-charge of the civil service, was speaking during the debate on the budget of the Prime Minister's Office.

Last night, PSD said in a statement that 5,700 officers on the existing Management Support Scheme can apply to transfer to the new scheme.

Currently, degree holders are mostly employed under the Management Executive Scheme at a starting pay of up to $3,260 a month, according to the Careers@Gov website. Diploma holders and those with A-level, higher Nitec or Nitec qualifications join the Management Support Scheme. Their salary starts from between $1,230 and $1,850 a month.

The new extended scheme was prompted by the Government's aim to do more to support the aspirations of non-graduates, following a call from a committee reviewing the career prospects of polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education graduates.

Mr Teo said yesterday the civil service is committed to helping its officers acquire deeper skills for their jobs, in line with the upcoming SkillsFuture initiative.

He also said, in his reply to Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC), that the civil service looks beyond academic qualifications when recruiting officers. It also considers such factors as character, commitment to public service and interpersonal skills.

PSD social media officer Kaye Zhao, 32, welcomed the new scheme that gives management support officers a chance to contribute more at work.

Mr Yeo Chun Fing, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees, said the change "gives hope to non-graduates, who in the past were perceived to be stuck on a different scheme".

"Now, if you're good, you'll have a fair chance to progress," he added.

Human resource analyst Martin Gabriel, of local firm HRmatters21, said the civil service is "actually playing catch-up" to the private sector, where academic qualifications are less important than work performance.

But the Government's move is important as it sets the tone for all bosses to do the same, he said.

Pay rise for lower wage civil servants
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

FROM next month, the monthly pay of about 2,200 lower-wage civil servants, such as operations support officers in schools, will go up by $60 to $80.

It will keep their wages competitive, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said, adding that the move is in line with similar increases they received recently.

These Division IV officers - who were typically earning between $1,270 and $1,535 a month last June - had their basic pay raised by $60 to $70 each year in the past three years.

This follows the recommendations of the National Wages Council, noted Mr Teo, who is the minister-in-charge of the civil service.

Taken together with the regular salary adjustments made by the civil service, these lower- wage earners had received pay rises of about $300 to $330 from 2012 to last year.

This amounts to a 25 per cent increase in their monthly wages, over and above their annual increments, he added during yesterday's debate on the new budget for the Prime Minister's Office.

Mr Teo was replying to Mr Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who had asked for an update on what was being done to improve the lot of lower-wage civil servants.

These officers are also offered more training opportunities.

For example, they are given cash under a Training Incentive Scheme to encourage them to upgrade their skills.

And starting from next month, their salary scales will be extended.

This means officers who have hit the ceiling in the existing salary scales can receive further pay increments when they upgrade themselves.

"We remain committed to improving the jobs and skills of our lower-wage civil servants," Mr Teo said, adding that the public service will continue to work closely with unions and make salary adjustments where necessary.

The Amalgamated Union of Public Employees yesterday cheered Mr Teo's announcements on the pay rise for lower-wage officers.

Said its general secretary Yeo Chun Fing: "The salaries of these civil servants are very low, so the built-in wage increases are quite significant for them.

"Every year, it enlarges their pay packet. They can then meet the rising cost of living."

Officer hopes to gain promotion by upgrading
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

MR LIM Teck Seng, 44, is a man with a mission.

The operations support officer at Beatty Secondary School is applying for a spot in a course on office skills at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

This would mean night classes after a long day of work for nine months. But the Division IV civil servant, whose highest qualification is from secondary school, thinks the effort will be worth it.

"If I can get this certification, plus a recommendation from my boss, I can eventually be promoted to Grade 1," he said. This is two grades higher than his current grade.

"So I'll do my best. But I must practise my typing as I type very slowly," said Mr Lim, who has worked at the school since 2005.

Yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service Teo Chee Hean said more training opportunities would be given to lower-wage civil servants to encourage them to upgrade their skills and progress in their careers.

Mr Lim, who has attended workshops on topics such as workplace skills, said his boss has been very supportive of him.

But improving his lot is up to him. "You must always be keen to learn and to help yourself. If not, whatever courses you go for will be in vain," he said.

Lower-wage officers will also get pay rises of $60 to $80 from next month, similar to the increments they have been receiving in the last three years.

Mr Lim, who makes about $1,500 a month, said he would spend the extra money on textbooks for his four children. "Every little bit more helps. The rest I'll save for rainy days."

Benchmark up but no change in ministers' pay
By Rachel Chang, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

THE salaries of ministers have not gone up in the last three years even though the benchmark they are linked to has risen by around 3 per cent each year, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told Parliament yesterday.

The House had, in 2012, endorsed recommendations from an independent committee to link ministerial salaries to the median income - or the income at the midpoint - of the top 1,000 Singaporean earners, with a 40 per cent discount to reflect the ethos of political service.

Since then, this benchmark has risen in two out of three years, and dropped slightly in one year. Overall, it rose 3 per cent a year, said Mr Teo. "Because the changes in the benchmark have been moderate, we have not adjusted political salaries in these past three years," he added.

If it had been adjusted, a minister at the entry point of "MR4" grade, inclusive of bonuses, should get $1.2 million a year, but the Government has kept it at $1.1 million - the 2012 level, he noted.

The Prime Minister earns $2.2 million and the President earns $1.54 million.

The pay freeze applies as well to every office-holder, including ministers of state and parliamentary secretaries. MPs' allowances, too, have remained unchanged.

Mr Teo reminded the House that in the 2012 debate, the Workers' Party (WP) had agreed with the three key principles the committee used to derive political salaries.

They were that salaries must be competitive so that people of the right calibre are not deterred from entering politics; that the ethos of political service entails sacrifice and, hence, there should be a discount in the pay formula; and that there should be a "clean wage" with no hidden perks.

In particular, the WP's agreement that political salaries should be competitive "was a fundamental change from its past proposals", said Mr Teo. "This significant change helped the debate to arrive at areas of convergence."

He added yesterday that the WP's alternative formula of benchmarking ministerial salaries gave rise to a monthly starting salary of about $55,000, which is the same amount as the committee's recommendations.

The WP had proposed benchmarking the MPs' allowance to the starting pay of the "Superscale" grade in the civil service, and to make ministers' salaries a multiple of the MPs' allowance.

In 2012, Parliament also endorsed linking politicians' bonuses to the socio-economic progress of average and lower-income Singaporeans - rather than just the gross domestic product - and doing away with their pensions.

Mr Teo, who was replying to Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC), said that since 2011, "the formula has remained stable and has worked well". "The Committee (to Review Ministerial Salaries) recommended that the salary framework be reviewed every five years. Given that things have been stable, we believe the framework remains valid, and we can continue to adjust salaries within this framework should there be a change in overall salary levels in the coming years."

Population on track for slower growth
There were 33,000 citizen births last year, up from 31,000 in 2013
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

SINGAPORE has maintained a calibrated approach to immigration, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu said yesterday.

Last year, 20,348 people were granted Singapore citizenship, and 29,854 became Permanent Residents (PRs), with the PR population remaining stable at 0.53 million, she added, giving an update on the latest population figures during the debate on the Prime Minister's Office budget.

There were also 33,000 citizen births, up from 31,000 in 2013; the birth rate rose to 1.25 from 1.19 the year before; and there were 24,000 marriages involving at least one citizen, the highest since 1997.

"Overall, our immigrants help to prevent our citizen population from shrinking," Ms Fu said.

The country's overall population growth rate of 1.3 per cent last year was the slowest in a decade, in line with proposals in the 2013 Population White Paper.

"We remain on track for slower and more sustainable population growth," said Ms Fu.

MPs Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) and Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) spoke about the need for a sustainable population with a strong Singaporean core.

Ms Fu said last year's low population growth rate was the result of measures taken to moderate foreign workforce growth.

Supporting marriage and parenthood remains a priority. But the country also had to stay open to foreigners, as they plug gaps, offer ideas to kickstart new sectors, and bring skills that enrich the workforce, she added.

"The result is a more flexible and competitive workforce which is responsive to the shifting global business environment," she said.

Several MPs, including Mr Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC), wanted to know how Singapore could remain cohesive as the population becomes more diverse.

Ms Fu said newcomers had to "adapt to and respect our way of life". But Singaporeans had to play a role in reaching out to them too. "There are signs that we are making progress," she added.

Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) asked how the Government plans to attract Malay talents to maintain the balance between the main races. Ms Fu said Singapore will continue to welcome immigrants of all ethnicities, including Malays, willing to contribute.

She added that integration efforts between citizens and newcomers will also be strengthened.

"We will continue to grow and strengthen the Singaporean core in the workforce," she said, adding that overseas Singaporeans are also part of this core. "We keep in touch with them, so that they maintain ties back home, and remain committed to Singapore's shared future."

More than 700 apply for scheme to help transnational couples plan for future
Channel NewsAsia, 11 Mar 2015

More than 700 transnational couples made use of a new scheme allowing them to assess if the non-Singaporean spouse-to-be would qualify for long-term stay in the Republic before marriage, within a month of the scheme’s launch.

The Pre-Marriage Long-Term Visit Pass Assessment (PMLA), implemented in January, was announced last year as one of several measures aimed at helping transnational couples here better plan for their future. Those found eligible will be issued a letter of eligibility, which can be used to apply for a Long Term Visit Pass (LTVP) after marriage.

The assessment allows the non-Singaporean intended spouse to speed up the process of obtaining a LTVP, and the full disclosure by both parties in the joint application will provide them with more information about each other before marriage.

In an update on the scheme during the Committee of Supply debate for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on Tuesday (March 10), Minister in the PMO Grace Fu said 726 applications were received in the first month of the PMLA’s implementation. Also, 93 couples have attended either the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s Marriage Preparation Programme or Marriage Support Programme.

Ms Fu said the number of foreign spouses who have taken up permanent residency in Singapore, and later citizenship, under the Family Ties scheme has grown over the past 11 years from about 39,200 to 78,900 by the end of last year.

She added that the Government will continue to closely monitor the impact of the new measures.

Political exiles must meet terms to return
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

THOSE who are in self-imposed exile overseas and wish to return to Singapore can do so, but have to meet certain conditions, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu told Parliament.

"These conditions are not new or unreasonably onerous," Ms Fu added, noting that many former CPM members had accepted them and gone on to resettle in Singapore with their families.

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam said barriers should be lifted "to allow Singaporeans who have been away for more than 30 years, including political exiles and their families, to return home despite their different ideological positions".

"Their feelings for Singapore are intense and heartfelt, albeit ambivalent", even after a long time away, she said.

"This is also a way of bringing back talents to serve the country."

Replying, Ms Fu said some of those abroad had outstanding offences that they have to resolve: "They cannot be expected to be placed above the law."

Scaling up technology to take S'pore global
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

SINGAPORE'S smart nation vision will use technologies pioneered in other cities - but on an unprecedented, national scale.

This will make the country an "ideal test site" to push forward those technologies and become a global player, just as it did with water purification, said Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-charge of the smart nation programme.

He told Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), who sought an update on the smart nation initiative, that technologies like driverless cars were already in place in cities like San Francisco.

"But we can be the first nation where, because we are a single level of Government, because we can digitise literally every square metre of Singapore, because we can make every lamp-post an active, smart geo-tag pillar - we can do things on a scale... which is not so easily duplicated elsewhere."

Singapore will not become Silicon Valley, where ideas for new technologies spring up continually, "but we will be the ideal test site, a site to test your prototypes (and get) proof of concept".

"It's like what we did with water. We didn't invent reverse osmosis, but we upscaled it, we nationalised it and today Singaporean water companies have opportunities all over the world."

He urged Singaporeans to not just be consumers of technology, but creators: "We don't want our students to be addicted to games, we want our students to create those games that other people become addicted to."

The smart nation programme's priority is to create more opportunities and prepare Singaporeans for changes, he said. Singaporeans "cannot be Luddites rejecting technology advances". "We have to embrace it, we have to be at the forefront of this change," he said.

Credit cap: More time to fix debts
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

HEAVILY indebted individuals will get more time and help to get their debts under control before their credit is cut off under a new borrowing cap, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday. From June, borrowers cannot take on unsecured debt more than 12 months their income. But individuals over this limit will have more time to "manage their debt downwards" before their credit is cut off, said Mr Wong, a Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) board member.

MAS has granted banks flexibility not to suspend credit for such individuals - who have until June 2019 to fix their situations. It is also reviewing the timeline for banks to implement the new borrowing cap. The results of this review will be announced in April, after MAS gets full data on the number of borrowers who will be affected by the new cap. It estimates that 4 to 5 per cent of borrowers are in this group. But the Credit Bureau will provide it with full data by the end of this month.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) had expressed concern that the June deadline would hit some indebted individuals too hard.

Mr Wong said borrowing limits did not apply to loans for medical, education or business purposes and that the "vast majority" of borrowers were unaffected by the new cap. He also reminded borrowers to update their income records with their banks to avoid any disruption to their credit limits.

Creating a more welcoming home for all Singaporeans
By Fiona Chan, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

HOW to persuade overseas Singaporeans to return was an issue raised yesterday by a number of MPs, such as Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC), Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam.

During the debate on the budget of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), which oversees the National Population and Talent Division, they talked about strengthening the Singapore core, including getting Singaporeans who ventured abroad to eventually come home.

This is not a new goal. But in the light of Singapore's ageing - and eventually shrinking - citizen population and workforce, it has become more pressing than ever.

In Parliament on Monday, Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin projected a sharp slowdown in local workforce growth, from 95,000 new workers last year to just 20,000 a year in 2019.

Bringing back even some of the 212,000 Singaporeans overseas, as of June last year - up from 207,000 in 2013 - is likely to make a tangible difference.

How, then, to accomplish this?

This is also not a new question. But this year, the Government's response is stronger than ever, going by what it detailed during the Committee of Supply (COS) debates in Parliament yesterday and last week.

For those who see Singapore as too expensive to live in, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said during the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday that falling home prices - engineered by government policies - have brought housing affordability back to 2009 levels.

At their peak in 2013, HDB resale flat prices were 49 per cent higher than 2009 levels.

But they are now just 37 per cent higher than in 2009, while median household incomes have risen a comparable 38 per cent in that time.

While homes are still less affordable than in 2005, at least prices and incomes are going in the right direction, for now.

There is also comfort for those who worry there are not enough jobs and opportunities for them in Singapore, or who are turned off by the infamous paper chase here.

The tight labour market is likely to result in continued strong hiring across most sectors. This is a far cry from many developed countries, where wages are stagnating and unemployment is high, Mr Tan said on Monday.

Minister in the PMO Grace Fu also assured overseas Singaporeans yesterday that they will be in demand here because of their "skill sets and global outlook".

And more is being done to level the playing field between the academically inclined and the less so, to make Singapore more inclusive and less obsessed with grades.

Yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the civil service will hire non-graduates on the same scheme that most graduates come under.

All officers in the same grade, regardless of whether they have degrees, will also be assessed in the same way.

These moves are likely to go some way towards making Singapore a more attractive home to live and work in - but only if they result in real, permanent changes.

Housing cycles need to be actively smoothened not just for a few years but over a longer period to ensure better price stability and affordability in the long term.

Equal opportunities also mean more than placing everyone on a single pay scale and leaving them to fight out it against colleagues who may have had a stronger head start.

Appraisal criteria must be reassessed to ensure they are transparent and fair, and focus on measurable job performance indicators.

Finally, to signal that Singapore is truly becoming more inclusive and compassionate, perhaps what is needed is a sea change in one symbolic area, such as putting single mothers on the same level as married ones.

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao Yin yesterday said that the Baby Bonus and Child Development Account, which unmarried mothers do not qualify for, can add up to $12,000 worth of benefits.

A move to give all mothers the same treatment may persuade Singaporeans living in countries they see as more tolerant and sympathetic to return home.

Committee of Supply Debate: Parliament

Two views on scrutiny of new laws in the House
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

MORE Bills should be sent before a Select Committee, to raise awareness and support for legislation, Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said.

He said it is Parliament's responsibility to scrutinise Bills through such committees, made up of MPs who can solicit public feedback, call witnesses, hold hearings and suggest changes.

But the Leader of the House, Dr Ng Eng Hen, said various Bills had been sent before such committees over the years, when further scrutiny was deemed "necessary and beneficial".

He added that there were other Parliamentary processes through which Bills can be scrutinised.

After Bills are debated, Parliament will move to become a Committee of the Whole Parliament for MPs to go through the Bills line by line and propose changes.

But Bills may also be referred to specially convened Select Committees for extra scrutiny. The last time this was done was in 2004, with the Building Maintenance and Management Bill.

Mr Singh said referring Bills to such committees adds "much-needed civility to public discourse" and allows the Government to "deepen discussions and generate greater public support for laws".

His party's MPs and Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam had called for two Bills to be committed to a Select Committee last year, he said.

But both times they were rejected, he added, as feedback garnered through the Government's feedback channel, Reach, was "deemed to have been sufficient".

But Dr Ng said the Government refers Bills to such committees to "further examine the details of implementation for complex issues or seek views from experts and other focus groups on matters related to the Bill".

He cited nine of the instances it has done so, such as with the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Bill in 1988 and the Advance Medical Directive Bill in 1996.

But he added that there are other ways to scrutinise Bills and improve on legislation, such as through public consultation exercises before Bills are introduced.

He pointed out that many Bills have gone through such "extensive public consultation", most recently this year's Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill.

Committee of Supply Debate: Ministry of Law

Why 8 British law schools were dropped
Aim is to ensure talent pipeline, not control number of lawyers: Indranee
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

THE recent cut to the number of British law schools where Singaporeans can study for admission to the Bar here is not meant to control the number of lawyers and "beat market forces".

Instead, the aim is to ensure "a sufficient pipeline of quality legal talent" to support Singapore's legal needs, Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law, told Parliament yesterday.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan- Toa Payoh GRC) and Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC), both lawyers, expressed contrasting views on the issue.

Mr Vikram Nair argued for more regulation for those going overseas to study law, to save them the heartache of returning only to find that they cannot practise as a lawyer.

He believes the spurt began in 2011, when data on top earners in each profession was published. Lawyers being near the top of the list "might have sent a signal to prospective students that this might be a path to quick riches".

Official figures show the number of Singapore students reading law in Britain climbed from 350 in 2008 to 1,142 in 2013. This has led to more competition for a six-month practice training contract at a local law firm - a must to qualify as a lawyer.

Last year, nearly 650 graduates competed for about 490 contracts. While 94 per cent of local graduates landed one, the figure was just 70 per cent among graduates who studied abroad.

But Mr Hri Kumar Nair believes having a list of approved universities abroad is "inflexible, subjective and can be arbitrary".

The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) two weeks ago dropped eight British law schools, leaving 11 on the approved list. The changes, which affect next year's intake, came after a Singapore Institute of Legal Education (Sile) review. The next review is in five years' time.

"I believe everyone who wants to practise law or any other discipline should be entitled to try, provided they meet the minimum standards to practise in Singapore and are prepared to compete in the market for work," said Mr Hri Kumar Nair, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law. He urged MinLaw not to change admission rules "so regularly", and suggested that quality can be maintained through the way the Bar exam is set.

Ms Indranee said MinLaw will discuss this with Sile and the Law Society, noting: "The number of available training contracts and retention of trainees are determined by the law firms, not the Government. It depends on their manpower needs, which in turn are determined by market forces."

She also said there are insufficient criminal and family law lawyers, a shortage "unlikely to be addressed by the current supply of law graduates, as many of them aspire to practise commercial... law". Community law-focused UniSim Law School (ULS), which will first take in 50 to 75 students a year, is a "targeted measure" to address this problem. She said the ULS steering committee is finalising its report and more details will be revealed later.

FOR AND AGAINST: Two MPs give their views on restricting the number of overseas universities where Singapore students, who want to practise law here, can study

I have long been against such rules, and their constant changes. They mess with people's plans and they mess with their minds. Picking the right universities in the way we do, I think, is inflexible, subjective and can be arbitrary. I believe everyone who wants to practise law or any other discipline should be entitled to try, provided they meet the minimum standards to practise in Singapore and are prepared to compete in the market for work. That principle currently applies to any graduate of any trade or profession, and law should not be any different.

- Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), a lawyer with Drew & Napier

Personally, I am in favour of more regulation. The process to qualify as a lawyer is relatively long, requiring study, practical training and, finally, traineeship. If a person starts embarking on this journey at the age of 18 to 21, in the expectation that they would one day become lawyers, they may feel they have wasted their time if, at the very end, they are unable to get training contracts and jobs. It might be kinder to restrict the numbers earlier so that prospective students do not unnecessarily embark on a journey they cannot complete. This is especially so if the families have incurred significant costs and debts to send their children abroad in the hope they would be able to pay it back once qualifying.

- Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC), a lawyer with Rajah & Tann

More people to qualify for free legal aid
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

MORE accused persons will very soon be able to apply for free legal representation - part of a raft of measures to ensure that the common man continues to have access to justice.

The enhanced Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), which will be rolled out on March 23, will include a revised means test which will allow more deserving persons to qualify for help. This was revealed by Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday in Parliament.

To raise awareness of the scheme, the Law Society will produce a "pamphlet of rights" which will be available at police posts and community clubs, he said.

The pamphlet, which will be ready by next month, will provide "guidance to any member of the public asked to assist in an investigation... and includes information on arrest, search and prosecution as well as legal aid", a Law Society spokesman told The Straits Times.

The enhanced CLAS scheme will benefit up to 6,000 people every year, an increase from the current 400. Besides full legal representation, CLAS will render basic legal advice and help in writing legal letters, including for mitigation pleas, Mr Shanmugam said.

Part of the funding will come from the Government, signifying a "significant" shift, he said.

Previously, the Government's stance had been that funding criminal legal aid would result in the state using public funds to both prosecute and defend the same accused individuals. Mr Shanmugam had said in 2013 that the shift is geared at becoming a more inclusive and compassionate society.

Yesterday, Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said the right balance was needed when configuring the pro-bono ecosystem, so it would not affect the market for small law firms.

Mr Shanmugam replied that the changes should not affect these firms, but added that the Government would monitor the situation. MinLaw will also continue to refine the family justice system, he said.

Last year, the Family Justice Act was passed and the Family Justice Courts set up with the key aims of making the system more streamlined, cheaper, better able to look out for the interests of children, and of ensuring that the court process does not end up tearing families further apart.

As part of the current review, which will be completed by next year, the Government is studying family law-related legislation such as the claim an illegitimate child has to a share of the deceased parent's estate.

It will also look at strengthening the enforcement of maintenance orders. "This will help those who depend on maintenance payments to raise their children after divorce," said Mr Shanmugam.

Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) said that for many family lawyers, the changes of the family law system were of a "seismic proportion". She said family lawyers, who were used to "being adversarial on behalf of their clients", now have to take on the role of conflict managers and problem solvers.

Mr Shanmugam said courses, talks and training sessions will be organised to get family lawyers up to speed.

He also spoke about the push to develop Singapore into an international hub for dispute resolution. He said the setting up of the Singapore International Commercial Court and Singapore International Mediation Centre, for instance, will provide local lawyers and firms more work. He added that his ministry would continue to help local practices tap regional opportunities.

Some licensed moneylenders as bad as loan sharks
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

THE tactics licensed moneylenders use to harass debtors are sometimes no different from that employed by loan sharks, said Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) yesterday in Parliament.

Quoting the example of a resident whose son had borrowed heavily from a licensed moneylender, he said: "After his son ran away from home, my resident was left to face the wrath of the debt collector engaged by the licensed moneylender."

He pointed out how debt collectors would humiliate residents into paying, harassing them at odd hours of the night.

"We can do more to protect our consumers from illegal harassing tactics of debt collectors," said Mr Lim, who argued for more regulation of the industry.

Responding to Mr Lim's queries, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said debt collectors cannot contravene the law.

She noted that for harassing tactics, the new Protection from Harassment Act provided civil and criminal remedies for harassed individuals.

At least four anti-harassment orders have been issued against debt collectors since the Act came into force last November, said Ms Indranee.

Ms Indranee said that the Government is considering imposing caps on interest rates, late fees and other charges, and is also looking to set up a moneylenders credit bureau so those in the industry can run credit checks on potential borrowers.

The report from an advisory committee on moneylending, which was set up last June, had examined these issues and would make its recommendations soon, she said.

"Licensed moneylending removes the need to borrow from loan sharks, but we also need to regulate the industry strictly and carefully, to protect the vulnerable borrowers," she said.

Committee of Supply Debate: Ministry of Communications and Information

Govt stake in telco network 'for security'
Yaacob says it also ensures resilient bandwidth in smart nation push
By Irene Tham, Technology Correspondent, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

THE Government's ownership of key parts of a telco network is crucial to ensuring greater resilience and security, especially in Singapore's push to be a smart nation, said Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, he said it is common for some components of a public-sector system to be partly owned by the Government and partly provided by the private sector.

He was addressing concerns raised during the debate over his ministry's spending plans for the coming financial year.

Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam had asked if the Government really needed to incur the cost of owning key parts of such a network, and if smart nation applications can be built on existing telco infrastructure.

Said Dr Yaacob: "I am sure that members will agree that they will prefer the data in the Smart Nation Platform to be stored in servers owned by the Government, rather than stored in private company servers." Also, if Singapore's smart nation drive involves executing a host of public functions from security to health care, it is important, especially in a crisis, that the bandwidth to support such data transfers is resilient, he said. "These factors mean that it is not prudent for the underlying infrastructure to be completely outsourced," he said.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) had also raised concerns about poor 3G mobile coverage indoors even though more advanced 4G services have already been rolled out extensively.

Responding to this, Dr Yaacob said the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) tests the indoor coverage of a sample of buildings every month, and had in April 2013 significantly enhanced the in-building standard.

The regulator requires at least 85 per cent 3G mobile coverage on all floors in buildings, including carparks on basement one. Previously, the requirement applied only to ground-floor public spaces.

"To date, all three mobile operators have met the in-building standard," he said, adding that the ministry would continue to review the framework.

Responding to a request from Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang) for more to be done to make telcos more accountable for wrongful billing, Dr Yaacob said telcos have already been made to account for this under existing regulations. Telcos are required to take steps to authenticate a user and seek explicit purchase confirmation before activating premium services, such as those from third-party mobile content providers that peddle ringtones and games, he noted. These premium services are often responsible for wrongful billing complaints.

Dr Yaacob said IDA requires unsolicited charges to be refunded to consumers, or it may take offending service providers to task. On cyber security, he said the new Cyber Security Agency (CSA), to be set up next month, is the answer to safeguarding Singapore from large-scale breaches. He was responding to queries from Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) on Singapore's readiness in tackling increasingly sophisticated cyber threats. WP chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) had also asked for CSA implementation details.

CSA will coordinate public and private-sector efforts to protect national systems, such as those in the energy and banking sectors. It will work closely with agencies, including the National Security Coordination Secretariat, to mitigate growing cyber threats, Dr Yaacob said.

CSA will also work with the National Research Foundation (NRF) on cyber security research. Seven projects have received total funding of $42 million so far from NRF's $130 million research grant, announced in 2013, to focus on cyber forensic techniques and resilient systems, among other things.

MDA sets up Creators' Space for makers of online videos
By Lester Hio, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

LOCAL creative types looking to make and distribute innovative videos online via channels such as YouTube are to get a helping hand from a government agency.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) is setting up a Creators' Space where online video content creators can come together in a shared facility to collaborate with leading industry players, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim in Parliament yesterday.

Disney's Maker Studios - a multi-channel network on YouTube for online videos - has come on board as the initiative's first partner to aid in the development of local talent.

Maker works with an extensive network of third-party content creators who post videos on their own channels online. It manages more than 55,000 YouTube channels.

The initiative is part of the Government's plans to strengthen the media industry's capabilities in the light of changing media consumption trends from the television screen to Internet videos on handheld devices.

"MDA will work with industry partners to organise masterclasses and workshops to hone creators' skills to produce content and better engage audiences on digital platforms," said Dr Yaacob.

He said MDA is also looking at ways to boost the local film industry. It will work together with the Singapore Film Commission to further develop and promote local talent through the setting up of the Singapore Film Lab.

The lab will be an annual mentorship programme where industry veterans and practitioners from the region guide local film- makers in areas such as scriptwriting, character development and directing.

Television is another area of focus, said Dr Yaacob. He noted that more local television companies are working together with international broadcasters to produce content.

MDA plans to foster such future partnerships and make Singapore media companies the partners of choice for such international collaborations.

Bigger libraries in heartland
By Lester Hio, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

BOOK lovers can look forward to bigger and brighter public libraries in the heartland.

A new library will be built in Punggol, as the authorities continue their push to bring books closer to the housing estates.

"Some libraries that are exceptionally popular will be expanded. This is necessary as library visitors are expected to grow and more space is needed," said Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann yesterday in Parliament.

"Many libraries are also due for refurbishment after being opened for a decade or more."

For example, the Pasir Ris library at White Sands mall will be expanded and refurbished by November.

As teenagers are frequent visitors there, a dedicated space will be set up for them to study and relax.

Similarly, the Bukit Panjang library will be expanded. Works are expected to start next year.

In Tampines, the library will be relocated to the upcoming Tampines Town Hub, integrating it with a culinary studio to help combine learning through reading and culinary practice.

The Bedok library will also be moved to the town centre's integrated complex.

A third Infocomm Development Authority Lab will be opened at the Jurong library later this year. These labs allow users to play and tinker with gadgets such as 3D printers.

"Innovation or technology talks would be organised for the general public, and hands-on workshops will cater to students and families," said Ms Sim, adding that 24 million visits were made to libraries last year, with over 34 million loans made.

Funding boost for public service broadcasts
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

MORE government funding is being earmarked for public service broadcasts (PSBs), including new allocations for content on online and mobile platforms.

Total annual funding will increase by 28 per cent to $250 million over the next five years (2015-2019), Second Minister for Communications and Information Lawrence Wong announced in Parliament yesterday.

The objective is to strengthen the quality of PSB programmes, which aim to promote national values and celebrate Singapore's identity, culture and heritage. These programmes are primarily aired on national broadcaster MediaCorp's free-to-air TV and radio channels.

Singapore's current budget for local productions "pales in comparison with international production", said Mr Wong.

From 2012 to last year, the Media Development Authority dished out $195 million per year to fund PSB production, with the bulk going to MediaCorp.

In comparison, South Korean dramas typically cost three times as much to produce, and American TV programmes, six times more.

"Good, compelling programmes need heavy investments in writing, editing, casting, came-rawork, as well as innovative concepts and treatments," Mr Wong noted.

There is also a need to reach out to new audiences, especially the younger ones, via new media outlets as they are not tuning in to the TV as much.

He said the reach of free-to-air TV in Singapore has fallen sharply from 92 per cent in 2005 to 66 per cent last year, while the Internet's penetration has increased from 43 per cent to 73 per cent over the same period.

This is why part of the increased funding will go towards extending the reach of PSB programmes to online and mobile devices, including enhancing existing platforms such as MediaCorp's video- on-demand and live TV service Toggle.

The increased spending is part of continuous efforts to raise the quality of PSB programmes. For instance, in 2013, pay-TV operator StarHub became the second commissioning platform, and the only other alternative to MediaCorp, for PSB content.

Last year, StarHub commissioned 150 hours of local PSB programmes for its E-City and SuperSports Arena channels.

Its first programme Body Reboot - an inspirational makeover TV show - made its debut on its SuperSports Arena channel in February.

Mr Wong said the scheme will open up production opportunities to more media companies, including smaller production houses and freelancers.

Multi-platform communication for PGP
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

FROM dialect operas on television to advertisements at hawker centres, the Government has taken a multi-platform approach to help Singaporeans understand the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP).

And its efforts paid off, Second Minister for Communications and Information Lawrence Wong said yesterday as he noted that nine in 10 Singaporeans are aware of the PGP and could cite some of its benefits.

"The process of communicating the PGP has given us several new insights," he said. "We learnt the importance of customising content to different audiences, especially in today's increasingly fragmented media landscape."

For the PGP of lifelong subsidies and Medisave top-ups for 450,000 Singaporeans born in 1949 or earlier, the Government allowed limited broadcasting using dialect on television to reach out to pioneers in languages they are familiar with.

Beyond mainstream channels, it also held four roadshows in heartland estates, with 12 more to be conducted in the coming months.

It also commissioned short films on YouTube to raise awareness of PGP among younger family members caring for the elderly.

Such a tailored approach will be extended to other policies, said Mr Wong. These include the Central Provident Fund, MediShield Life and SkillsFuture initiatives which, as Mr David Ong (Jurong GRC) pointed out when he spoke yesterday, "can be more complex and emotive" and so "will need a public communication boost".

Another key facet of government communications is translation, for which a new framework to procure services will be rolled out next month, Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann said.

She was responding to MPs, including Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), who cited "glaring and humiliating mistranslations" in recent years. He added that "translation is not a job for amateurs, foreign service providers or translation software".

Replying, Ms Sim said with the framework, government agencies can better identify vendors who can produce quality translations that are clear and effective, and which also take into account local contexts and cultural nuances.

"(This) enables our fellow Singaporeans, especially those who are more used to communicating in languages other than English, to better understand policies."

National Archives releases documents as much as possible
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

NO COUNTRY will open its national archives completely for researchers and the public because of national security, defence and diplomatic concerns, Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim told Parliament yesterday.

These concerns are also taken into account every time the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) evaluates a request for archival material, he said. But he added that it is the Government's goal to release documents as much as possible, and for those that are non-sensitive, "we will release them online".

He was replying to Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC), who had asked whether documents in the archives can be made more accessible. Dr Yaacob noted that many non-sensitive documents, from maps to oral history recordings, are easily available, with archival material tapped for more than 80 public service broadcast programmes, and more than 100 exhibitions and 120 books last year. NAS received about 60 requests last year to view old government files. In most cases, it agreed, he said.

Government records are deemed part of the public archives after 25 years. NAS is the custodian of such public records. Requests for archival material are usually made by researchers for projects like writing books, Dr Yaacob said, citing historian Loh Kah Seng's 2013 book on the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961, and last year's biography of Tan Siak Kew, who founded the then-Nanyang University in 1956.

Mr Low suggested the Government introduce an information declassification system that would automatically declassify documents marked "restricted" or "confidential" after 25 years, with material marked "secret" still having to be requested for and needing the approval of the relevant minister.

Dr Yaacob said archives across the world, including the United States, are governed by national security and defence concerns. Even if there was a freedom of information Act, "let us not pretend... everything can be released, because there are concerns which every nation has to preserve", he said.

Help to 'tag' a piece of Singapore's history
Treasure trove of photos, documents waiting to be archived for online portal
By Irene Tham, Technology Correspondent, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

WANTED: History enthusiasts to caption old photographs and transcribe handwritten manuscripts with a piece of Singapore history.

They are invited to contribute to an upcoming portal with about 3,000 unidentified photographs dating back to the late 1800s, and 3,000 pages of Straits Settlement records, including letters from the time of Sir Stamford Raffles' administration.

These historical treasures, from the collections of the Government and individuals, are waiting to be "tagged" on the portal The Citizen Archivist Project at

The portal will be launched this weekend, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, told Parliament yesterday during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Without tagging - such as by photo captioning and digital transcription - they will not appear during an online search.

What is on the portal is just part of more than 140,000 photos and about one million pages of Straits Settlements records that cannot be searched today.

"The key challenge is that they were written in elaborate cursive penmanship which is not machine-readable," said Dr Yaacob, noting that tapping the public's knowledge could make these documents more accessible.

Also, it is an initiative young people would enjoy, he said, in replying to Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC) who had asked how the Government could get youth interested in Singapore's history.

When contacted, Mr Eric Chin, director of the National Archives of Singapore, said the aim of the project is to get as many people interested in history as possible, and to "provide meaningful contributions to uncover a piece of Singapore's history".

Mr Chin hopes to find, for instance, the actual written regulations for five-foot-ways. These are the footpaths linking rows of shophouses, much like the common corridors in HDB blocks.

To contribute, people have to log into the portal by using their Facebook, Google or National Library Board accounts. Their contributions will be saved in their own user profiles, which will be created automatically when they log in.

Transcript contributions work in the same way they do on Wikipedia; the text is uploaded immediately on the portal.

The National Archives, however, will take up to three days to review photo caption contributions. Approved captions will be uploaded on its website,

In his speech, Dr Yaacob also said the National Archives building on Canning Rise will be renovated from this year.

It will include a gallery to showcase - for the first time - original constitutional documents. An example he gave was the envelope on which Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman penned the terms of Singapore's merger with Malaysia, as well as the proclamations of merger and separation.

Also, the building housing Memories at the Old Ford Factory - where the British surrendered to the Japanese in 1942 during World War II - will be closed from early next year for a major revamp that will include more interactive content.

The building in Upper Bukit Timah will re-open in early 2017 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore.

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