Friday 6 March 2015

Parliament Highlights - 5 Mar 2015

Budget Debate, Day 3

Budget for 'fair, progressive system that is sustainable'
Tharman says approach is about empowering people and aspirations
By Rachel Chang, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

THIS year's Budget seeks to put in place a fair and progressive system that can be sustained beyond the current generation and into the future, said Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.

He said that the Budget concludes the Government's major initiatives in recent years to forge a new social compact for Singapore.

Urging MPs, including the opposition, to support what he passionately called "the right path for Singapore", Mr Tharman emphasised that the new compact is not one that apes the "cradle- to-grave welfarism" of Western countries.

"Our approach is about empowering people and aspirations, and rewarding responsibility through life," he told a packed House at the end of a three-day debate.

That is, the major pieces of the Government's strategy are designed to reward personal responsibility and self-reliance, while actively intervening to temper life's inequalities.

In a 90-minute speech after 55 MPs had said their piece on the Budget, Mr Tharman told the House how the Government will unsparingly support local small and medium-sized enterprises, build a fair and inclusive society, and work to produce a fair and progressive Singapore system that is fiscally sustainable beyond the current generation.

Its fundamental goal is social mobility, where Singapore has done better than most.

Of those who start life in the bottom one-fifth of families, 14.3 per cent move up into the top one-fifth as working adults.

This shows a far more fluid situation than in the United States, the United Kingdom or the Nordic countries, where only 7 per cent to 12 per cent of those who start at the bottom can climb to the top.

But with each decade, sustaining social mobility gets more difficult as the natural workings of society accentuate inequalities, he said. Hence, the Government has committed significant resources to try and tilt the balance back.

It wants to boost educational achievement and home ownership among those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to counteract the forces that leave them behind.

So, the SkillsFuture initiative, which gives every Singaporean adult an initial grant of $500 for approved training courses, is not just an economic strategy, but "a major force for social mobility".

"At its heart, it is about helping every individual (fulfil) their potential through life. Everyone has a strength, although we may not figure it out during our school years... and it's never too late in life to identify your strengths, identify your interests and push your potential. It's never too late to learn," he said.

As he rallied MPs to back the new social compact, Mr Tharman also assured them he had his eyes fixed on sustainability, so that future generations do not end up paying for benefits they themselves will not enjoy.

Singapore's social spending ballooning into dangerous territory had been a dominant concern in the House.

Mr Tharman made clear the Government will not cross the "red line" of failing to balance its Budget in every five-year term of government - a requirement that is set out in the Constitution, he pointed out.

The $6.7 billion deficit in Budget 2015 is largely due to investments in infrastructure and is fully plugged by surpluses from the last few years - with a few billion more left over.

Noting the Workers' Party's support for "all the major thrusts of the Budget", he thanked the party and said: "I trust you have the courage to take the same position and extend the same support during the elections."

Despite making clear that this year's Budget puts in place the final pieces of Singapore's new social compact, Mr Tharman said the country is just at the beginning of a long road.

Harking back to the Singapore Pledge's promise of justice and equality, he said: "These values and aspirations are what we started with. But achieving them is continuous work in a changing environment and with a changing society."

Social mobility 'must be part of Singapore identity'
Society here is more fluid but keeping it that way will become tougher: Tharman
By Tham Yuen-c, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

SOMEONE who comes from a low-income background has a better chance of making it to the ranks of the richest in Singapore than in the United States, Britain or the Scandinavian countries.

But while society is more fluid here than in other advanced societies, sustaining this mobility will become more challenging as the country matures.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday said social mobility "has to be part of our Singapore identity", as he sketched out the Government's efforts to build a fair and inclusive society.

Wrapping up the Budget debate in Parliament, he said: "Social mobility is the defining challenge in every advanced country today. We're fortunate that Singapore has so far done relatively well. It is actually still a more fluid society than most."

Among young adults in their mid-20s to early 30s in Singapore, 14 per cent of those from families in the poorest one-fifth have moved into the top one-fifth of income earners, he said.

This compares with 7.5 per cent in the US and 9 per cent in Britain. Even in the Scandinavian countries, reputed for their comprehensive social welfare programmes, only about 10 per cent to 12 per cent of those in the lowest income quintile end up among the richest one-fifth.

Citing these figures yesterday, Mr Tharman said that sustaining social mobility will be more difficult as society gets more settled.

"But we want to give the best chance for someone who starts off with a low-income background or middle-income background to move up," he said.

To do so, the Government has been deliberately putting in place six initiatives in the past eight years that aim to help Singaporeans at every stage of their life.

First, it has made a good education available to all, he said.

Enhancing social mobility "means starting earlier, finding every way to help every kid who has a weak start to gain confidence and to get a strong start".

To this end, the Government has increased spending on education, made school fees more affordable, and is creating more different paths to success, Mr Tharman said.

A second initiative has been to promote home ownership.

Stressing that it is especially critical to help young people own a home, he noted that the Government has built more HDB flats and given out more housing grants, among other things.

These measures are "unmatched" in nearby cities such as Shanghai, Seoul and Sydney, he said. "Homes are more within the reach of our young than they are in any other leading Asian city."

A third move to preserve social mobility is by helping Singaporeans upgrade their skills and fulfil their potential at every stage of their lives, said Mr Tharman.

He said initiatives such as SkillsFuture, which he described as a "major force for social mobility", are precisely for that purpose. The programme pays for Singaporeans to learn new skills.

Fourth, the Government has "taken significant moves to temper inequality", said Mr Tharman.

Over the years, it has introduced various measures to redistribute income and shrink the rich-poor gap. These include Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model to help raise the income of low-wage workers, and GST Vouchers to help poorer families cope with living costs.

The fifth move is to provide older Singaporeans with "greater assurance in old age" so they "can make the most of life".

The Government has offered companies incentives to hire and retain older workers, and is giving more help to low-income retirees.

One of this year's Budget measures, Silver Support, will help in "tempering inequalities through life" by giving the poorest elderly folk cash payouts for life.

Lastly, the Government has also made it easier for people to pitch in to help one another, by encouraging donations through tax breaks and matching grants.

"If you take it all together, it has been a set of major moves at every stage of life, strengthening our policies, providing greater assurance and opportunities in education, in work, in health care, in retirement," said Mr Tharman.

Silver Support 'aims to mitigate inequality'
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

THE main aim of the Silver Support Scheme that gives low-income seniors cash payouts for life is to temper inequality in Singapore, said Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.

The permanent scheme will benefit about 150,000 and be rolled out early next year.

In his wrap-up of the three- day Budget debate, Mr Tharman laid out the six policy initiatives underpinning a new social compact the Government has been putting in place in the past seven to eight years.

One of them is the introduction of redistributive schemes that reduce inequality. These include the Silver Support Scheme and Workfare programme, which boosts the income of low-wage workers.

Together, they are a key pillar of Singapore's social security system, said Mr Tharman.

"I have to emphasise again that (Silver Support) is not about tackling absolute poverty. It is about mitigating inequality," he added.

Many among the bottom 30 per cent of the elderly have other income sources, such as personal savings and money from relatives.

Also, there are other dedicated ways to help the most needy Singaporeans, he said, citing the network of Social Service Offices and the Public Assistance scheme. What sets the Silver Support and Workfare schemes apart is that they aim to supplement incomes to mitigate inequalities. Hence, they will stay permanent even as living standards rise, he said.

Addressing concerns from MPs such as Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) and Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) on their sustainability, Mr Tharman said Silver Support and its future funding needs have been built into Singapore's fiscal planning.

It will be funded out of the annual Budgets. This is unlike the Pioneer Generation Package, which is fully paid for from the revenues collected during this term of government, he added.

CPF sustainable as it adopts the best from other systems: DPM
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

SINGAPORE'S Central Provident Fund system is sustainable and progressive as it takes the best ideas from both collective pension schemes and individual retirement accounts, while avoiding the disadvantages inherent in either scheme, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.

At the same time, the Government has become more progressive in enhancing the CPF scheme, and will continue to find ways to help Singaporeans get by as they near retirement, he said at the end of the debate on the Budget statement.

To illustrate the hybrid nature of the CPF scheme, he compared the pros and cons of both collective pensions and individual retirement accounts.

Collective pensions, he said, promise individuals regular payouts through their retirement without requiring them to bear investment risks. Such a scheme therefore gives retirees peace of mind, and tends to be more progressive because of government redistributions to the lower-income group.

But they also transfer the cost of benefits to the next generation and have become unsustainable and inequitable in places like Britain. "Countries are now making major reforms, one after another, to cut back on the future benefits of today's working population because of unsustainable benefits that have been promised previously," he said. "So people who start work today have to contribute more but will receive less benefits compared to current retirees."

While individual retirement accounts, such as in the United States and Australia, are more sustainable as they are premised on each person saving responsibly, they are not without problems. Without resource pooling, individuals have to bear the investment risk, and such accounts tend to underperform the market.

How much savings a person has also depends on whether he is lucky enough to retire when the market is healthy, he said.

By using individuals' savings as the foundation while ensuring there is "a strong element of collective responsibility" by pooling risks - such as through CPF Life - the CPF scheme avoids the major disadvantages of either system, said Mr Tharman.

"The reason why the CPF system is both progressive and sustainable... is that the transfers that take place in the CPF are from the government Budget. Not through generations, from one generation to the next, or promises made to the current generation which eventually have to be funded by the next generation.

"It is transfers that are achieved through the government Budget, (from) a government that has a triple A rating. That is the strength of the CPF system."

Such transfers have increased since 2007 to become more progressive: through housing grants, Medisave top-ups that are permanent for the pioneer generation, and the extra interest on smaller balances in CPF accounts.

These transfers mean that a young worker today whose income is at the 10th percentile would have received $200,000 in CPF support by the time he retires at 65, said Mr Tharman.

Allowing members to withdraw up to 20 per cent of their retirement savings at age 65 also gives members some flexibility, he said.

While turning down a Workers' Party's proposal for an option for CPF payouts to begin at age 60, he acknowledged the need to help Singaporeans in their 50s and 60s who cannot yet access their CPF savings.

These include helping elderly home owners unlock equity in their homes, said Mr Tharman, who noted that 80 per cent of elderly households in the bottom quartile here own homes, compared with 20 per cent in Germany and Denmark.

While the Government already allows those unable to work owing to illness to withdraw their CPF savings early, it will also give "maximum support" for those who wish to work beyond 65.

'Unwise' to give option of CPF payouts from age 60
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

A WORKERS' Party (WP) proposal to give people the option to get monthly payouts from their CPF savings at age 60 instead of just at the allowed age of 65 "is not a crazy idea, but it would be unwise", Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.

In cautioning against the move, he highlighted how countries such as Denmark, Finland and France that took such a path have had to reverse course.

Also, its negative consequences would be suffered by both the individual and society.

Said Mr Tharman, who is also the Finance Minister: "Everywhere it has been tried, the result has been that those who take up this option of early payouts end up less prepared for retirement.

"Less prepared because they stopped work earlier, and less prepared because they will have lower payouts through the rest of their lives.

"The upshot of it... is the rest of society eventually has to take on larger responsibility to support them."

WP Members of Parliament Png Eng Huat (Hougang), Chen Show Mao, Muhamad Faisal (both of Aljunied GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam had earlier called for the lower-age option to give greater flexibility to CPF members who, for various reasons, are unable to work and need money urgently.

They also want the CPF withdrawal age to be delinked from the retirement age, so it is not the "moving target" that it is now.

But, Mr Tharman said, experts had taken a dim view of countries such as Britain, which had allowed retirees to take out their retirement savings early.

"The reasons are the same all over the world: It is good to offer choice, but part of the human predicament all over the world is that we will all place greater priority on what happens today and the benefits we can get today rather than what we get well into the future," he said.

People also underestimate how long they will live, he added. As a result, some Nordic countries now link their pension and retirement ages to life expectancy.

"We should recognise these challenges honestly and not take positions for their populist appeal, when we know fully that putting such proposals into practice will merely set us back in tackling the larger challenge of ensuring adequate retirement income throughout the retirement years," he said.

More benefits for lower-, mid-income now than a decade ago
Deliberate tilt towards these groups the result of ongoing push to make Singapore a fairer society: Tharman
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

LOWER- and middle-income Singaporeans receive significantly more benefits today than 10 years ago, said Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

The deliberate tilt in favour of these income groups is the result of an ongoing push to make Singapore a fairer society, he added as he wrapped up the three-day Budget debate yesterday.

In his 90-minute speech, he set out how the Government has played an active role in redistributing resources between the haves and have-nots, with major schemes rolled out for Singaporeans at every stage of life.

As a result, Singapore has become more progressive, with higher-income households contributing most of the taxes and lower-income households getting the bulk of the benefits, he said.

Citing new data from the Finance Ministry, he said that as of last year, the top 20 per cent of households here pay 55 per cent of all taxes and receive 12 per cent of all benefits.

These taxes include taxes on income, property and cars, as well as the goods and services tax, he added.

The situation is flipped for the lowest 20 per cent of households, who pay 9 per cent of all taxes and get 27 per cent of all benefits.

As for the middle 20 per cent of households, they also receive more than they fork out: They pay 11 per cent of all taxes and get 20 per cent of all benefits.

Moreover, the mechanisms that help to redistribute this wealth are built into the system and here to stay, Mr Tharman said.

About 90 per cent of the Government's transfers to Singaporeans come from permanent schemes, with the rest from temporary schemes that Singapore can afford when the Budget is in good shape, he explained.

But the system does not just redistribute income from the rich to the poor. It also aims to give the middle-income group a leg up, said Mr Tharman.

For every dollar of tax middle- income Singaporeans paid last year, they received $1.73 in benefits, he said, citing Finance Ministry data.

This was up from benefits of $1.63 in 2009 and $1.38 in 2004 for every dollar of tax paid.

It works out to a much better deal than in other developed countries such as Finland, the United States and Britain, Mr Tharman noted.

While the middle-income groups in those countries may receive more overall benefits, they also have to pay much higher taxes than in Singapore.

"Some of them have free health care, free tertiary education, free many things. But they are paying for it. It's not free. It is never free," said Mr Tharman.

He also pointed out that the tax systems in these other countries - where "everyone is paying for the 'free' benefits that they're getting" - are less progressive than in Singapore.

Middle-income Americans pay income taxes of about 17 per cent, while the tax rate for middle-income Singaporeans is "close to zero" taxes, he said.

Dollars and cents aside, Mr Tharman emphasised that building a stronger society is not just about how much redistribution takes place.

Instead, the key lies in how to strengthen the values that bolster and sustain a fair and inclusive society.

"At the heart of it all, we're seeking to build a stronger social compact for the future, a compact where personal and collective responsibility go hand in hand," he said.

New rule 'will not change Temasek's strategy'
By Marissa Lee, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

A NEW spending rule allowing the Government to use up to 50 per cent of Temasek Holdings' long-term expected returns to fund government spending will not change the state investment firm's investment strategy in the least, said Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in the Budget debate yesterday.

"It is not a dividend policy in disguise that determines how much cash Temasek has to pay the Government each year."

Mr Tharman clarified that the net investment returns (NIR) framework enables the Government to draw down from investment entities' expected rather than actual returns.

This means that no pressure is put on Temasek, GIC or the Monetary Authority of Singapore - which were already part of the NIR - to sell assets, realise capital gains or pay more dividends.

"It keeps the investment strategies independent of the spending rule of government," Mr Tharman said.

And while expected returns may exceed actual returns in some years, the Government can draw on a variety of sources to meet its liquidity needs for each Budget. "This is a liquidity management issue, not to do with the spending rule and not to do with investment strategies or investment entities," Mr Tharman said.

Another strength of the NIR framework is its stability, he said.

First, spending is based on expected long-term returns, not actual returns, which are more volatile. Second, the Government practises a "smoothening" of its asset base to counter the effect of cyclical changes in the asset markets.

For example, in the case of an asset market boom where the value of Singapore's reserves goes up, the Government does not spend on the basis of that boom. It sets aside some or all of the temporary boost in revenues for the future. "That way, we avoid feast and famine in our spending."

S'pore has to 'avoid political flaws of other nations'
By Marissa Lee, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

SINGAPORE does not want to pay the price of committing to more long-term social spending than it can afford.

To balance the Budget across the generations, the Republic has to avoid the "political flaws" of other advanced countries, said Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

"We've got to sustain a fair and inclusive society for generations, not one election at a time," he said towards the close of the Budget debate yesterday.

Mr Tharman gave the example of Britain, where "with each electoral term, each party and each government coming into power has increased social spending".

"It's a vote buyer," he said, adding that the young and the poor there have borne the brunt of spending cuts now that the nation's welfare system has become unsustainable.

But Singapore's position is "exactly the reverse", he explained. Instead of building up social benefits with unfunded commitments in its growing years, Singapore has "kept social expenditures trim" and built up its reserves.

In fact, it is unconstitutional for the Government to borrow from future generations. Although it may run a deficit in a given year, each five-year term of Government cannot run a net deficit. For these reasons, permanent social spending such as the Silver Support Scheme is sustainable, and Singapore's fiscal planning "fair (to) current and future generations", said Mr Tharman.

His comments came as MPs queried how future Budgets would be balanced, noting the introduction of the Silver Support Scheme, which will cost about $350 million in the first year.

In Parliament on Tuesday, Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) had questioned whether the Silver Support Scheme would "balloon" into a much bigger spending commitment as the population ages.

Mr Tharman assured MPs that the government Budget has been in a "healthy position".

And in a nod to a number of MPs who had called for prudent budgeting, he said this year's $6.7 billion deficit "is almost entirely due to funds being set aside for future investments".

He emphasised: "Until this year during this term of government, we've not recorded a deficit in any year before setting aside funds for the future."

In Parliament on Tuesday, Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC) noted that the Government has budgeted for a deficit in four out of the seven years from 2009.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) noted that the Government has relied "significantly" on the national reserves to finance spending since first drawing on them in 2000.

Mr Tharman told the House that Singapore "will be in a good position for at least the rest of this decade", after the change in the Government's spending rule that will include expected investment returns from Temasek Holdings, as well as other new tax changes such as the rise in personal income tax rate for top earners.

Low Thia Khiang welcomes direction of Budget
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

WORKERS' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) yesterday backed the direction set by this year's Budget, particularly schemes to develop local talent, such as the SkillsFuture accounts with an initial $500 credit for all Singaporeans aged 25 and above to use on approved courses.

But he called for Singaporeans to be given a chance to take on leadership roles in large local companies, in order to develop local talent who can replace foreigners in key positions.

Mr Low told the House that ensuring Singaporeans play key roles, and not just supporting roles, in the workplace is a major challenge for the country.

"Currently at some large companies, because of our foreign talent policy, it seems that many heads of department or senior management are all foreigners, whereas Singaporeans are merely middle managers," he said in Mandarin.

Many sandwiched-class Singaporeans feel they should have the opportunity to rise further, but cannot do anything about their situation, added Mr Low.

If the situation continues, it will threaten Singapore's development and youth, he said. "When Singaporeans can't even be the leaders in their own country's companies, to a certain extent, it means Singapore has lost a leadership role, and we will not be able to develop the younger generation to take over and become leaders in various domains."

He went on to spell out two other challenges the country had to address. First, Singapore cannot be overly reliant on foreign manpower. He welcomed the current strategy of economic transformation and increasing productivity as a path to maintaining the country's long-term interests.

Second, the widening gap between the rich and poor must be mitigated. Society will be divided if the Government does not help those who are left behind by economic growth, he added.

This is why he said Silver Support, a new permanent scheme which will give lower-income senior citizens aged 65 and above some cash to help with their daily expenses, was a necessary step.

Speaking after him, WP MP Lee Li Lian (Punggol East) also supported the Government's skills upgrading push in the Budget, saying this would help change mindsets among employers, some of whom were reluctant to let workers go for training.

Ms Lee also welcomed the move to subsidise course fees for those aged 40 and above by at least 90 per cent, and called for this age limit to be lowered to 35, saying this was the age where many, especially new mothers, look to switch careers.

Gradual path for revamp of economy
Tough for some firms, but others growing: Tharman
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

ECONOMIC restructuring has been tough on companies, but there is plenty of life in the business sector yet, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.

The number of new companies set up here, net of those that have shut down, has been around 20,000 a year for the past five years. This is more than double that of the preceding five years, he said.

He was responding to concerns expressed by MPs - including Nominated MP Thomas Chua, Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC), Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) - that the Government is not doing enough to help firms manage rising costs and the labour crunch.

The main reason for rising business costs is high demand for limited resources such as land and labour, Mr Tharman said. This shows Singapore is "not an economy in crisis... Businesses are still trying to do business, trying to expand" even as the economy undergoes a painful transition.

There were two approaches the Government could have taken when it started economic restructuring in 2010, he said. It could have used taxpayers' money to subsidise business costs like rents and wages, or gone in the other direction by withdrawing all support and allowing market forces to more quickly "sort the winners from the losers".

Instead, the Government has taken the middle path, gradually cutting foreign labour inflows to allow market forces to take effect, while also channelling the revenue from higher foreign worker levies back to businesses that invest in boosting productivity.

Mr Tharman said that the process of re-engineering a company and training people takes time, as NMP Randolph Tan and others pointed out during the Budget debate.

But Singapore can afford to take this "phased" approach because it is not an economy in crisis and does not need to resort to more drastic measures. "Shock treatment doesn't just weed out the weakest players," he noted. "It has a way of weeding out good businesses as well... When you go through a deep crisis, you lose many good businesses, including very promising entrepreneurs."

A more gradual transition also imposes less of a cost on workers by preventing a sharp spike in layoffs, the minister said. In fact, the labour shortage has resulted in higher labour force participation among older workers and people returning to the workforce, particularly women.

This might hamper productivity growth in the short run as it takes time for workers to gain the necessary skills, but fulfils the Government's social objectives of encouraging more people to stay in or join the workforce.

Meanwhile, the Government is "sparing no resources" in helping small and medium-sized enterprises through this tough transition, Mr Tharman said. While MPs and some in the business community have raised concerns about the bureaucracy involved in navigating the array of productivity-boosting schemes, "frankly, these are second-order issues", he said.

"It just depends on the entrepreneurs. If they are willing to take advantage of the schemes, the schemes are there. They are more generous than in any other economy I know of."

Charities gain from tax perks for donations
The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

TAX incentives to encourage people to donate to charity have put a small dent in the state coffers but resulted in significant gains for charities, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said.

Since 2009, people have been allowed to deduct from their taxable income 2.5 times the amount they donate to charity.

This has cost the Government about $120 million in tax revenues annually, but the charitable sector has gained about $870 million a year, Mr Tharman said yesterday.

These "good results" are why the policy, due to expire this year, was extended to 2018 in this year's Budget, he added.

He was responding to Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), who had asked if the increase in donations had offset the fall in tax revenue. Mr Seah also called for the 2.5 times tax deduction for donations to be made permanent, and asked that the special three times tax deduction for donations - introduced for this Jubilee Year - be extended to 2018.


Ukraine crisis a 'wake-up call for all'
Strong defence and strong ties must be built up steadily, says Ng Eng Hen
By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

RUSSIA'S annexation of Crimea and the recent unrest in Ukraine are a cautionary tale to Singaporeans that they should never take peace for granted, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday.

Recalling the "air of festivity" at the Munich Security Conference in January last year, Dr Ng told Parliament that most countries were celebrating 70 years of peace.

Many European countries had reduced their defence spending to "reap the peace dividends", he noted. But two months later, the "unimaginable occurred" with Crimea being annexed.

Anxious and fearful of Russia's intentions, small Baltic states, like Lithuania, reinstated military conscription last month.

Singapore will do well to learn from these incidents. It has to continue to invest steadily to build a strong defence during peacetime, said Dr Ng.

It will be "too little, too late" to build up a defence force only when danger is upon you, said the defence minister, who was responding to several MPs, including Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), on how the Government decides on defence spending.

Speaking to the House yesterday during his ministry's budget debate, Dr Ng announced that the Singapore Armed Forces will upgrade its war-fighting capabilities on land, sea and air "at a steady pace".

From next year, the Republic of Singapore Navy will start replacing its patrol vessels with new littoral mission vessels.

The army will replace its ageing V-200 armoured cars with new protected response vehicles for in-country defence.

In the air, the Super Puma helicopters, which have been in service for nearly 30 years, will be replaced in the next decade.

Dr Ng pointed out that the defence spending by Singapore's South-east Asian neighbours over the last decade has been going up 11 per cent annually.

Over that period, China's defence spending more than quadrupled.

In response to this rising trend, the Republic has to plan long-term and maintain its defence expenditure steadily, avoiding sharp increases and dips.

Dr Ng said Singapore's defence spending has grown by 4 per cent nominally on average, and more or less kept pace with inflation.

Responding to Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) on how Singapore stretches its defence dollars, Dr Ng said long-term planning allows Singapore to make "smart opportunity buys".

At the same time, the Defence Ministry and SAF will always choose to upgrade its existing war platforms rather than buy new ones, like how it modernised its mine counter-measure vessels.

But even as it arms itself or adds more firepower to its arsenal, Singapore also ensures that it continues to build better ties with other countries.

Responding to several MPs, including Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) and Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC), on Singapore's defence diplomacy, Dr Ng said Singapore has maintained excellent relations with the United States and China.

The Republic also maintains strong ties with its closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, and recently announced stepping up joint naval patrols in the region's waterways.

If called upon, Singapore will also pitch in in any disasters or search missions.

But military dialogues, such as the Shangri-La Dialogue and ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meetings, are the best platforms to build trust and understanding.

Dr Ng said: "Defence diplomacy is slow, sometimes it's laborious... Patience, slow cultivation provide us more space and actually win friends."

Need to gear up for hybrid warfare
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

IT IS a type of warfare that is as old as war itself, but today, disinformation is opening a new front that every country has to defend itself against.

Amplified by social media, disinformation can cause disunity and dissent among the population, warned Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament yesterday.

Singapore is not immune to this new threat in the changing military landscape.

It has to update its tactics and the know-how to detect and counteract threats in cyberspace and the information sphere, he added.

These efforts will include setting up cyber-defence units and sharpening Singapore's capabilities in using infocomm techonology, robotics and artificial intelligence, said Dr Ng during his ministry's budget debate.

"No country, including Singapore, is immune to this disinformation war. The SAF will have to raise capabilities to detect and counteract such threats in the cyber and info domains," he said.

Hybrid warfare is a military concept that involves using conventional weapons and unconventional tools, such as economic sanctions and communications, to achieve victory without resorting to open war.

Responding to Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) and Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) on how the Singapore Armed Forces will respond to emerging threats like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Dr Ng said such groups are increasingly using hybrid warfare to "fracture the solidarity" of a targeted country.

He said the use of these conventional and unconventional tools of warfare is the "exact antagonist" of Total Defence, a concept that Singapore had already embraced back in the 1980s to protect itself.

He cited the annexation of Crimea as a prime example of how states were using hybrid warfare to achieve their gains.

Likewise, terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been able to spread their false ideology and attract thousands of fighters to their cause.

Dr Ng said these incidents have stepped up the urgency for countries to relook their defences against hybrid warfare.

"Challenges as we see it are not neatly compartmentalised," he said.

"And it is a difficult question, but at the centre of it, if it threatens Singapore and Singaporeans, even if it comes in uncommon labels or unconfined labels, we will have to respond to it."

Safe training for troops with trackers, heat stress monitors
By Calvin YangThe Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

A NEW device to keep track of soldiers in difficult terrain and heat stress monitors to reduce the number of heat injury cases have been introduced to help keep soldiers safe in training.

These were introduced by the Defence Ministry last year as part of ongoing measures to raise the safety levels of troops in training, said Second Minister for Defence Chan Chun Sing in Parliament yesterday.

Responding to Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) and Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC) who asked about the commitment to national defence, Mr Chan said several moves are being made to raise the commitment levels across society.

One is simply to ensure that servicemen are trained well and safely, he said.

The soldier tracker system, which links a device on a team of soldiers to a central system via satellite services, provides real-time monitoring of their movements in difficult terrain. Previously, soldiers in navigation exercises were equipped with only military radio sets and satellite phones.

Hand-held heat stress monitors, which generate readings based on the temperature, wind speed, pressure and humidity, enable commanders on the ground to monitor and plan around weather conditions.

In addition, Mindef will allow students who have completed their post-secondary education to start their national service (NS) stints earlier.

Nine in 10 pre-enlistees will be able to enlist within four months of graduation, up from the current 45 per cent. The rest will enlist within six months, said Mr Chan.

One way the Government is doing this is to enhance welfare benefits for servicemen by giving them advance payment of Medisave grants.

For the first of three milestone payments under the NS Housing, Medical and Education (NS HOME) Awards, NSFs previously received $3,000 in their Post-Secondary Education Account and $2,000 in their Central Provident Fund Medisave Account after they completed their two-year national service.

But from September this year, advance disbursements of $200 from the NS HOME Medisave grant are given to NSFs one month after they enlist, with another $200 disbursed into their accounts 12 months later. They will receive the remaining Medisave grant when they complete their two-year stints.

Mr Chan said: "Since the implementation of the award last September, more than 56,000 national servicemen have benefited, and about $270 million has been disbursed."

He added: "Today, we have a capable military to defend what is ours. But this capable military machine will come to naught if we do not have the gumption, the will, the unity and the determination to defend what is ours."

Commitment key in deployment of servicemen
By Calvin YangThe Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

RACE is not a factor when it comes to the deployment of servicemen to sensitive units.

Instead, what is of greater importance in deciding where to place them is their abilities and commitment, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday.

"If you are committed to Singapore and have the abilities, we will put you in the best possible position," he said.

He was replying to Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) who had asked if there were sensitive areas that were out of bounds for Malays.

Mr Faisal also raised the subject of Dr Ng's comments at a forum last month organised by the National University of Singapore and the Government's feedback arm Reach.

Dr Ng had said there are now Malays deployed on board ships as sailors who venture out to sea.

He also explained why Malays had previously been excluded from the navy, saying it was a "practical issue" of having halal-certified kitchens on board ships and it was difficult to put in such a kitchen in the confined space of a ship.

Yesterday, Dr Ng said that during the forum he was asked how the Defence Ministry deploys people.

"And when it came to sensitive positions, I made the point about security clearance and that's routine for these positions," he said.

Noting that the military has to be able to secure and keep its information safe, he said there are "sensitive units within Mindef that are out of bounds to Chinese, to Indians".

He stressed that race is not a factor and that the issue is about commitment. And some areas are even out of bounds to senior people, he added.

"That's how you run militaries, you have to keep your secrets."

He added: "It is common, it is applied, and we have to protect, to make sure that information we have is secure and is restricted based on security clearance."

Dr Ng also cited what had happened in other countries.

"(Edward) Snowden is a classic example, where your secrets are all out and you put your people in danger," he said, referring to the American defence contractor who leaked classified information of the National Security Agency.

"We will continue to commit to make sure that every Singaporean in national service is put to the best use, as we have done," he added.


Freedom of navigation vital to S'pore
Focus on Code of Conduct to better manage tensions at sea: Minister
By Walter SimThe Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

FREEDOM of navigation on the high seas is an economically existential issue for Singapore, as trade flow is vital to the country's existence as a sovereign state, Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday.

At the same time, China has confirmed at the highest levels, including through Premier Li Keqiang, that it guarantees freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, he noted during the Committee of Supply debate on his ministry's budget.

Mr Shanmugam was replying to a question by Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, who expressed concern about China's extensive building on reefs and islands in those waters. Mr Giam asked what Singapore, and Asean, would do if China threatens freedom of navigation.

"At this stage, that remains a hypothetical question," Mr Shanmugam replied, citing the assurances by top Chinese officials.

"We cannot presuppose, one way or another, whether China is entitled to build on these islands and reefs, because that's a circular question," he said.

"It depends on whether China owns those islands and to what extent it has an EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and to what extent it has territorial sea, and whether these are islands which are capable of generating either territorial sea or EEZ.

"And these are questions on which we take no position," he said. "They are to be sorted out between the various claimant states and subject to international law."

Asean has begun negotiations with Beijing to agree on a framework or Code of Conduct to better manage tensions at sea.

Four Asean countries - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - have territorial claims in the South China Sea that overlap with China's, and tense incidents over the past year have lent urgency to the need for this code.

Singapore's task is to focus on this code, said Mr Shanmugam, who noted that China has indicated its willingness to work towards it, most recently at the Asean-China Summit in Naypyitaw last November. Asean also provides a platform, whether at the Asean-China, Asean Plus Three or East Asia summit, for officials to discuss these issues with China at the highest levels, he added.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC), Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) and Mr Ong Teng Koon (Sembawang GRC) had also asked about the situation in the Asia-Pacific, including relations between major powers.

Against the backdrop of tensions in the South China Sea, Mr Shanmugam stressed it was important to remember that the Asean-China partnership is a broad-based one.

China is either the largest or second-largest trading partner and investor in most Asean countries, and the relationship between Beijing and South-east Asian capitals has deepened.

"If you look at mainland South-east Asia, it is being criss-crossed with infrastructure, often financed by Chinese capital and built by Chinese companies, which integrates mainland South-east Asia effectively with southern China," he said.

"It increases their economic vibrancy and the whole region is becoming integrated economically."

China is also the engine driving important regional initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which aims to fund key development projects.

"We try and keep relations on an even keel," he added, noting that Singapore takes over from Thailand as country coordinator of Asean-China dialogue relations later this year.

"We have limited influence on major power relations," he said, adding that Singapore has created a small role through its active participation in regional platforms.

"We try to be an honest broker in dealing with these issues and in our relations with the major powers," he said.

"We work closely with like-minded countries to encourage the constructive engagement of the major powers in our region."

S'pore can use more soft power for cultural diplomacy: MPs
By Walter SimThe Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

SINGAPORE should do more to leverage on its soft power assets - from food to tourism - as a form of cultural diplomacy, two MPs said yesterday.

"Cultural diplomacy can help to create a foundation of trust and shared interests with citizens of other countries," said Nominated MP Tan Tai Yong, a history professor.

"This is our best insurance against misunderstanding, hatred, and terrorism targeted at our small city-state and our values," he told the House.

He suggested expanding cultural exchange opportunities for youth to forge friendships abroad, while regional heritage bodies could work together to showcase the connectedness of the region before colonisation.

Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) cited South Korea as a stellar example of soft power, with its dramas, music and food, and offered several ideas.

He said: "Singapore has quite a large amount of soft power. We just don't really think about it, or give ourselves credit for it." Pop stars like Stefanie Sun, icons like Changi Airport and Singapore Airlines, and even Singapore's widely used maths textbooks are symbols of soft power, he added.

Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said his ministry had been deploying soft power, which was a key priority "from minister downwards".

ASEAN Economic Community will bring benefits
By Walter SimThe Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

THE ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which will be formed this year, will boost opportunities for Singaporeans and local companies, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament yesterday.

Singapore can become the "New York of ASEAN", he said, in a bid to clarify misperceptions that the AEC will result in jobs being lost, and put small and medium-sized firms at a disadvantage.

"Every ASEAN country will benefit in its own way through the AEC. For us, the AEC provides our people and companies with greater opportunities across ASEAN," he said.

In Singapore's favour is its unique position as a centre for capital, with rule of law and a safe, stable environment conducive for businesses, he added.

"Our choice is to be plugged into the AEC and benefit from it, or erect walls and prevent our companies and our people from reaping the benefits of integration."

In a half-hour speech, Mr Shanmugam said strengthening the regional architecture, with ASEAN at its core, has been a cornerstone of Singapore's foreign policy. A key milestone for the 10-member grouping is the formation on Dec 31, 2015 of an ASEAN Community, of which the AEC is a key part.

Mr Shanmugam said Singapore grew at an average of 3.6 per cent over the last two years.

But the ASEAN economy, the world's seventh-largest, grew at about 5.3 per cent annually.

"Singapore itself is a very small market. We need access to a larger market. We have to be well-connected to the region to prosper and create jobs for our people," he said.

This is key given the increasing numbers of skilled Singaporeans entering the workforce, he added.

ASEAN has signed eight agreements to facilitate the flow of skilled labour in specific professions, provided they meet domestic regulations and standards.

Beyond economics, Mr Shanmugam said ASEAN has also worked together to improve the quality of life of its people, in areas such as education and human rights, and Singapore will continue to promote a greater understanding of ASEAN to its people.

Apart from being integrated with the wider region, Mr Shanmugam also said there was a need for Singapore to stay relevant in the world.

"We need to be relevant so that others will engage and cooperate with us. That will allow us to work with others to advance our national interests, and shape and strengthen regional architecture," he said.

He also said Singapore had to stay vigilant to threats and opportunities, and that Singapore was not immune to the threat of terrorism. This is why it is hosting an East Asia Summit symposium on religious rehabilitation and social reintegration next month, to share ideas on how to best tackle the scourge of extremism.

Relations with neighbours 'stable and good'
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

SINGAPORE'S relations with both its immediate neighbours are stable and good, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is set to host Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the next Leaders' Retreat here on May 5, and Singapore is also looking forward to maintaining a strong relationship with the new administration in Indonesia, he added.

He and his colleagues were replying to MPs seeking updates on Singapore's ties with key partners.

Mr Shanmugam said Singapore had made steady progress in its relations with Malaysia, with both countries working together on key projects.

These include the iconic project in Iskandar Malaysia, the high-speed rail between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and the Rapid Transit System linking Woodlands to Johor Baru.

"We also help each other in times of need. The upcoming retreat will be another step in keeping up the positive momentum," he said.

As for Indonesia, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore looks forward to President Joko Widodo's introductory visit. PM Lee met Mr Joko at his inauguration last October, and hosted him to breakfast in Singapore last November.

There is potential for both sides to do much more together, Mr Shanmugam said, adding that they will explore strengthening collaboration in areas such as defence, the environment and people-to-people links.

Singapore will continue to maintain its "special relationship" with Brunei, and will expand links between younger leaders and youth. It also enjoys excellent relations with Thailand, whose new Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is expected to come for a Leaders' Retreat next month.

Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Grace Fu also told the House that Singapore's relations with other ASEAN countries are strong, as it continues to deepen ties and support their integration into the ASEAN Community.

Further afield, Australia and Singapore are working towards their leaders launching a comprehensive strategic partnership later this year.

Both the United States and China remain key partners for Singapore and for many in the region, she said. "They have important roles to play in ensuring continued stability and growth in the region," she added.

Ms Fu also gave an overview of relations with key partners Japan, South Korea, India and Europe.

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli noted that the security situation in the Middle East would remain fluid for the foreseeable future, but cautioned against overgeneralising as each region and country is unique in its own right.

Singapore will continue to actively engage the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and looks forward to working with the new Saudi leadership.

He also said the 23-year-old Singapore Cooperation Programme, which extends technical assistance to other government officials in a range of fields, expects to receive its 100,000th participant this year.

Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC), on Singapore's relationships with its neighbours:

In the last 50 years, relations between Singapore and our two neighbours have progressed rapidly... The relationships are not without road bumps, however. From time to time, Singapore is still a convenient bogeyman. Recent accusations of Singapore stalling on the development of the Rapid Transit System link, of being too much of a complainer over the haze, the naming of the KRI Usman Harun are just some examples to show that foreign relations are often a careful balancing act.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs of the 'abang-adik' relationship, but he emphasised very strongly that when non-vital interests were at stake, Singapore is prepared to humour those that see themselves as our abang - or elder brother - but not when the adik (younger brother) has legitimate interests to defend.

How we keep on an even keel and continue building on the strong bilateral ties between our two neighbours will have implications not just for us but for the wider region as well.


Concerns raised about Home Team resources
Officers' experience, cybercrime and border security among issues cited
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

CONCERNS over whether the Home Team has the resources it needs to tackle growing security challenges, from terrorism and cybercrime to border control, were raised by several MPs yesterday.

The use of technology can increase capabilities, but it is no replacement for boots on the ground, said Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC), one of six MPs who spoke as the debate on the Ministry of Home Affairs' (MHA) budget kicked off.

While Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and several other MPs praised Home Team officers for doing an excellent job despite the manpower crunch, they asked if MHA is taking measures to boost recruitment and retention of officers, particularly more experienced ones.

"The experience of a senior front-line officer is something that cannot be replicated nor automated," said Dr Janil. "No amount of productivity initiatives will be a substitute for an experienced, well-trained officer."

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said Singaporeans will continue to expect "low crime rates, safe and secure communities, speedy clearances at immigration and fuss-free travel, quick and effective response by the police, civil defence and ambulances when things go wrong".

"How is the Home Team going to stay ahead of the curve?" he asked. "Apart from increasing our headcount, we need to make sure that our officers are equipped with the right training and skills."

He raised the growing worry of cybercrime. "Given the increase of crime online, we need our investigative officers to be equipped with the requisite expertise and technological know-how," he said.

Cheating cases involving e-commerce more than tripled from 510 cases in 2013 to 1,659 last year, he noted.

Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) cited other worrying figures, adding that cybercrimes not just target individuals, but are also premeditated attacks which threaten national and financial security in Singapore.

He asked if there was "a shortage of cyber security experts" even as attempts are made to set up agencies devoted to fighting cybercrime in Singapore and the region.

Mr Tong also highlighted the need to keep Singapore's borders secure against foreign terrorists and the smuggling of drugs by international syndicates in the light of an increasingly globalised environment. "We can only expect volumes of travellers and cargo handled at our land, air and sea checkpoints, which have been increasing over the past few years, to continue to do so," he said.

He asked if the Home Team has the resources to handle the increasing volumes at checkpoints - not just for passengers but also container cargo and parcels.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) also brought up border security issues, and asked if a ministry-level review committee formed in April last year in the wake of checkpoint breaches at Woodlands had made any decisions on boosting security at checkpoints.

She also warned about officers becoming "de-skilled" by an over-reliance on technology, especially social media, in combating crime. "Instead of police working on the ground and developing skills and experience in searching for information, they manage by 'remote control', blindly following information drawn from systems," she said.

With the growing prevalence of CCTV cameras being used in policing, Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam from the Workers' Party also asked if safeguards were in place to ensure surveillance was being done only for legitimate purposes and is not intruding on people's privacy.

The Minister for Home Affairs will reply to MPs' concerns today.

Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC), asking how Singapore plans to tackle the growing threat of cybercrime:

Singaporean cybercrime victims (are reported) as having the highest average per capita losses worldwide in 2013. That's about US$1,158 (S$1,580). This is four times the global average of US$287.

Direct financial losses in Singapore due to cybercrime have grown from US$944 million in 2012 to about US$1 billion in 2013. Asia has increasingly become targeted for cyber attacks as people here have become more affluent and technologically advanced...

Apart from enhancing enforcement capabilities, what steps are being taken to promote public education and awareness, which are often the first lines of defence against cybercrime, to facilitate better detection, deterrence and investigation?

Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam of the Workers' Party, on the level of government surveillance on citizens:

What safeguards are in place to ensure that surveillance on individuals, particularly Singaporeans, is done only for legitimate purposes, like security operations and criminal investigations?

How are the data and intelligence protected to ensure that it is not misused or leaked by those who have access to it?

Which of our laws authorise surveillance of individuals who are not targets of security operations or criminal investigations?

And lastly, what independent oversight, like the courts or parliamentary committees, are in place to guard against abuse?

How will we cope with a terror attack?
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad SallehThe Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

WHEN a self-declared sheikh held patrons in a Sydney cafe hostage for 16 hours last year, Australians reacted to anti-Muslim sentiment with a resounding show of support online.

They used the #illridewithyou hashtag on Twitter, offering to accompany Muslims on public transport to ensure their safety.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) cited this example during the Committee of Supply debate on the Ministry of Home Affairs budget and wondered whether Singaporeans would respond in the same way should an attack happen here. "Not with hatred, distrust or hysteria, but with compassion and solidarity," he said.

"We pride ourselves as a shining example of multiracial, multi-religious harmony, but there are other societies we can learn from... In the event of a terror attack in Singapore, how will Singaporeans respond? Will we turn against certain nationalities or people of certain faiths?"

Mr Nair, who is chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Home Affairs and Law, was one of three MPs concerned about how ready Singapore is for a terrorist attack.

Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) asked if the country's borders were truly secure. And Mr Nair said while a country needs resources to deal with the terror threat, it was impossible for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to face this threat alone.

"There is another resource we must develop and prepare, and that is our people," he said. Singaporeans themselves must know how to react in such a situation, he added.

The importance of instilling a "culture of alertness" was echoed by Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC). But he cautioned that a delicate balance has to be struck.

"We have to temper the approach so that this does not cast a pall of insecurity over our populace or, worse, sow distrust and undo the harmony we've so carefully built over the years."

The MHA, he suggested, could look at more public communication and education programmes to galvanise people to be alert.

Mr Fong was also particularly concerned about the resurgence of lone-wolf terrorists, who are harder to detect. He noted that Australia was on the alert and its agencies were well equipped, but the Sydney siege still happened.

He urged the ministry to consider displaying its arsenal of anti-terror measures so as to deter such lone wolves.

Single-shift taxi drivers earned S$3,173 monthly in 2014: Tan Chuan-Jin
Channel NewsAsia, 5 Mar 2015

The average net monthly earning of taxi drivers in 2014 was S$3,173 for a single-shift operation, and S$5,933 for a two-shift operation, said the Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin on Thursday (Mar 5).

Mr Tan said this in a written response to Member of Parliament for Tampines GRC Irene Ng Phek Hoong’s Parliamentary question on the average annual salary of taxi drivers in Singapore. Ms Ng also asked about the numbers and educational qualifications of taxi drivers.

In response, Mr Tan said that as of December 2014, "about 98,000 Singaporeans held a Taxi Driver’s Vocational Licence", of which "about 56,000 of them were registered with taxi companies".

He added that about four in five were aged 50 and above, and over nine in 10 possessed non-tertiary educational qualifications.

“We do not have data on how many taxi drivers were formerly in PMET (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) jobs,” Mr Tan said.

More seats up for grabs at biggest NDP, to mark SG50
Two shows at Padang, Marina Bay; funpack for each resident household
By Jermyn Chow, Defence CorrespondentThe Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

THIS year's National Day Parade (NDP) will not only be the biggest, with plans to stage two shows, but there will also be twice the number of spectator seats for the ever-popular ceremony.

The main show will be at the Padang, where the first NDP was held in 1966, and it will be coupled with a bayside show at The Float @ Marina Bay.

Together, the venues will double the number of seats that will be up for grabs for Singaporeans and permanent residents.

Besides the 26,000 seats at the Padang, people can also choose to ballot for the 25,000 seats at the floating platform to catch the NDP action.

All in, Marina Bay will be turned into a giant party zone for more than 150,000 revellers at Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay, among other places in the area, to enjoy the Aug 9 show, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament yesterday.

Noting that parade organisers get many requests and suggestions every year, Dr Ng said: "One of them I feel is particularly important for us to try to accede to... Allow as many Singaporeans as possible to share in this historic 50th NDP because the next golden jubilee will be 2065."

As part of this year's birthday bash, every Singaporean and permanent resident household - about 1.2 million in all - will each receive a fun pack, said Dr Ng.

"So even if they can't come to Padang or the areas around the bay... they can watch at home, wave the same banner, slap the same clappers all over the island."

Spectators at the floating platform and those by the bay will be able to catch - via giant LED screens - the live action at the Padang, which will include a vintage section featuring pioneers and a mobile column involving more than 160 war machines.

The air force and navy will also strut their stuff.

Fifty Republic of Singapore Air Force warplanes will criss-cross the sky in an aerial display and also form the number 50 in the air.

Eight naval vessels, double the number in previous years, will put up a show of force in the Marina Bay waters. The fireworks show will be more spectacular than any in NDP history.

Brigadier-General Melvyn Ong Su Kiat, who will be in charge of coordinating the extravaganza, said the jubilee show will be a nostalgic one to "remember our roots" and to look to our future, reminding everyone that they "can be a pioneer of tomorrow".

All in, the NDP celebrations in additional party venues and the fun packs will cost about $50 million, more than twice the cost of staging previous NDPs.

The theme of the Aug 9 show is Majulah Singapura, the title of the National Anthem, which in Malay means "onward Singapore".

Noting that the theme was a "rallying call" back then to all Singaporeans to move forward as one people to overcome the challenges, Dr Ng said: "And we have succeeded."

Paying tribute to the pioneers, he said they had to go through three "bitter periods" - the Japanese Occupation in the 1940s, Konfrontasi in the 1960s, and the fight against the communists.

"Just one challenge would have been severe, but you would have pioneers who went through all three. And for this reason, the bitter lessons that they learnt forged in them an epiphany and the fierce determination that only with a strong defence could Singapore safeguard its sovereignty.

"Because without this strong defence, Singaporeans would never be able to chart our own destiny."

'Pay tribute to Mr Lee and other pioneers'
By Calvin YangThe Straits Times, 6 Mar 2015

LET the country pay tribute to its pioneers, including former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, at this year's National Day Parade, said Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC).

The plan to celebrate the nation's 50th birthday may be big, but Ms Ng hopes it does not simply result in an extravaganza.

She asked for the parade committee to allow Singaporeans to pay tribute to the country's founding leaders, including Mr Lee, 91, who was admitted to the Singapore General Hospital with severe pneumonia last month.

"It is only right that we, as a nation, pay him a special tribute in this year's NDP," said Ms Ng.

"Without his strong and visionary leadership, without his determination and gumption, Singapore would certainly not be where it is today."

She added: "Even if Mr Lee may not want it or expect it, I feel it is important that we, as a nation, honour him during this special occasion."

Ms Ng also called for the former People's Defence Force (PDF) volunteers, who took part in the march-past at Singapore's first National Day Parade in 1966, to be invited to this year's parade.

"The NDP, held at a low point when the people's morale was sliding dangerously low, boosted their faith in the country and its leaders," she said.

"We should invite them and give them their due spotlight in our jubilee parade, now back at the Padang where it all began."

Responding to Ms Ng's call for the nation to pay tribute to its pioneers, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said that some of the PDF volunteers will be involved in this year's parade.

"We are inviting those that we can find. So, yes, some of them will be involved," said Dr Ng.

"But the larger picture is that we plan a good celebration, that all Singaporeans can come together."

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