Wednesday 19 August 2015

Parliament Highlights - 17 Aug 2015

Parliament passes Silver Support Scheme Bill
Seniors to enjoy payouts from 2016
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

A new law detailing the framework and penalties for the Silver Support Scheme that was unveiled in this year's Budget has been passed.

This paves the way for 150,000 eligible Singaporeans, aged 65 and above, to get a quarterly payout of $300 to $750 from early next year.

The scheme's administrator - the CPF Board - will develop a system to automatically assess a person's eligibility, and to make payments to recipients. A commissioner will also be appointed to, among other things, review appeal cases.

Information will be pulled from government databases for means- testing. But safeguards will be put in place, and Singaporeans may opt out from this process, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say yesterday.

The scheme will be permanent and will apply to "both current and future generations" of elderly people. Mr Lim will also look into Dr Fatimah Lateef's (Marine Parade GRC) suggestion to allow payouts to authorised third parties or next-of-kin of those who are unable to directly receive the benefits.

The law will also make it an offence to provide false information to qualify for Silver Support benefits, or to receive a higher quantum. Those found guilty face a maximum $5,000 fine and a year in prison.

Bill to fight organised crime passed
Law allows for syndicates' ill-gotten gains to be confiscated without criminal conviction
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

The courts will soon have the power to confiscate ill-gotten gains of criminal syndicates - even without a criminal conviction - after a Bill to combat organised crime was passed yesterday.

Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran said in Parliament that the Organised Crime Bill gives law enforcement "additional levers" to act against the masterminds of organised criminal groups (OCGs).

"They are the ones who instruct and intimidate others into criminal acts, yet are most shielded from enforcement," said Mr Iswaran during the Bill's second reading.

An OCG is defined as three or more people involved in serious crimes - such as drug trafficking and money laundering - for the purpose of material or financial benefit. One of the key "levers" of the Bill is a civil confiscation regime, which allows the public prosecutor to apply to the High Court for confiscation of material gains from activities of these OCGs - even without a criminal conviction.

The public prosecutor has to prove on a "balance of probabilities" that an individual has committed the crimes. This means that if it can be shown that the crime most probably took place, the courts can confiscate the benefits.

Such a move requires a lower burden of proof than a criminal conviction, where guilt must be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

This confiscation regime is similar to one already in place for serious offences such as drug trafficking and corruption.

Mr Iswaran said this would "diminish the incentive and the resources for persons to carry out organised crime activities. This is the ultimate objective of the civil confiscation regime".

The public prosecutor would also be able to apply for three different preventive orders - concerning organised crime prevention, financial reporting and disqualification.

An Organised Crime Prevention Order will allow the court to restrict the activities and electronically monitor the movements of a suspect for up to five years. A Financial Reporting Order will require a suspect to furnish the authorities with financial reports, which can last for his term of imprisonment plus five years. Both can be issued without a conviction.

A Disqualification Order can only be issued following a conviction, and bars the accused from acting as a director of a company.

Yesterday, two MPs - Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) and Mr Alvin Yeo (Chua Chu Kang GRC) - rose in support of the Bill, but questioned if there were sufficient safeguards to ensure the non-conviction orders would not unfairly penalise suspects who were in fact innocent. "There is a higher chance that a mistake may be made under a non-conviction regime because of the lower standard of proof," said Mr Nair.

Mr Yeo noted that the civil confiscation provisions in fact reversed the burden of proof, requiring a subject to "prove the legitimacy of his property". "In other words, any property which is disproportionate to the subject's known sources of income, and which he cannot explain to the court's satisfaction is presumed to be the benefits of organised crime," he said.

In response to Mr Nair, Mr Iswaran said that subjects would be able to defend themselves in court against the issuance of such orders.

Mr Iswaran assured Mr Yeo that the civil confiscation would be used "judiciously", adding that "a confiscation order is therefore not made simply on the grounds that defendant cannot explain the origins of his wealth. We first have to establish the predicate offence on the balance of probabilities".

He emphasised that the new provisions were modelled after those in other jurisdictions including the United Kingdom and New Zealand, and have been shown to be effective. "The experiences of these countries have shown that such tools are effective and necessary to prevent and disrupt organised crime."

'Approach on tackling unfair employment practices has worked'
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

Over the last five years, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) received fewer than 80 complaints each year against employers for discrimination over race, language or religion, said Dr Amy Khor.

The Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Health told Parliament yesterday that the number of such complaints has remained fairly stable.

Of the number of employers facing such complaints, nine were investigated and taken to task by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) last year.

"Out of the nine companies, one received a stern warning, which means they will be on our watch list, and eight had their work pass privileges curtailed," she said.

These work pass restrictions last for at least six months.

When asked by Mr Zaqy whether restricting a company's ability to hire foreigners was an effective measure against discrimination not based on nationality, Dr Khor explained that most bosses employ a number of foreigners, so "curtailing work pass privileges would actually be very serious for them".

Today, employees who feel discriminated against can approach Tafep, she said.

When there is evidence of employers failing to comply with guidelines released in 2007 on fair employment practices, Tafep will refer the cases to MOM for further investigation.

Most employers advised by Tafep over unfair employment practices, however, have responded positively, Dr Khor said. They have either taken down the job advertisements, refined their ads, or refined the human resource practices deemed discriminatory.

Only "a small minority" were referred to the ministry for enforcement, she said, adding that this shows that "our current approach has worked well".

Complaints about discrimination related to race, language or religion are not the most prevalent, according to Tafep's annual reviews.

Rather, it is the lack of fair opportunities for Singaporeans that remains the No. 1 complaint received by Tafep, according to its annual reviews.

These cases typically make up about half the total number of complaints reported to Tafep each year, ranging in number from around 130 to 238 over the past three years.

Changes to regulate payslips and employment terms
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

Workers here will now have more safeguards in place should disputes about their pay or job scope crop up. Employers who do not issue itemised payslips or spell out key employment terms in writing for their workers can be fined under changes to a law which were passed yesterday.

The amendments by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to the Employment Act - Singapore's main labour law - come into effect on April 1 next year.

Besides making employment terms more transparent, the changes include treating less severe infringements of the law as civil offences, which may attract a financial penalty but not a criminal record. "This process is more appropriate for these types of administrative breaches, and prevents companies from being penalised too heavily, especially SMEs," said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, referring to small and medium-sized enterprises, which employ more than two-thirds of the workforce.

Four areas will be covered:
- Failure to issue itemised payslips;
- Failure to issue key employment terms, such as working arrangements, main duties and fixed salary deductions, in writing;
- Failure to maintain detailed employment records; and
- Provision of inaccurate information to the Commissioner for Labour or inspecting officers without intending to defraud and mislead.
Employers can be fined from $100 to $200 an employee or occurrence, and asked to rectify breaches. Failure to comply will become a criminal offence.

The amendments will "prevent misunderstandings and minimise disputes" between employers and employees, said Mr Lim.

The Employment (Amendment) Bill, which was passed in Parliament today, seeks to raise employment standards and...
Posted by Singapore Ministry of Manpower on Monday, August 17, 2015

MOM had announced the changes last year to give employers time to adjust, and there will also be a one-year grace period from April next year to end-March 2017.

Under the amendments, MOM also clarified that the employer will have to pay staff holiday rates or give them a day-off if they have to work on non-scheduled public holidays declared by the Government. Labour MP Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC), one of six MPs who spoke in support of the changes, said well-kept employee records would minimise long legal tussles and money spent, while Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said that without proper employment contracts, employers may take advantage of this situation in disputes.

Labour MP Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said the amendments would help low-wage workers who may not know that they should request payslips and employment terms for their protection. "The likelihood of these workers being short-changed by their employers is very high," he said.

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam raised the concern that while the payslip rule "is one step forward towards accountability, it may not be sufficient enough to stem out abuses". Unscrupulous employers may simply ask workers for cashbacks for mistakes made, she said. Nominated MP Thomas Chua said small businesses often need employees to help out in other areas. Mr Lim replied that employers can set a broad job scope at the start of employment but should reach an agreement with staff on any changes later on.

NMP Randolph Tan, a labour economist, said the amendments are good for business, too - they improve human resource management standards so that the country's economic advances are not held back.

More trunk bus services during rail disruptions
Improved contingency plan put in place after July 7 breakdown: Josephine Teo
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

Trunk bus services calling at MRT stations hit by major breakdowns will be ramped up to provide alternative travel options for commuters, Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said.

Depending on the scale of the rail disruption, buses may also be diverted from other routes with lower demand to help ease the crunch, she told Parliament yesterday.

These options are part of an improved contingency plan recently put in place after July 7's massive breakdown of the North-South and East-West lines, which affected some 250,000 commuters during the peak hour.

Mrs Teo was responding to a question from Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) on whether contingency plans to handle major rail breakdowns have been reviewed.

She said a review was indeed conducted and it was found that the contingency plans of rail operator SMRT were "not adequate" to handle the scale of the breakdown. That is why it was understandable that commuters were unhappy. "The capacity of alternative travel connections between the heartland and the city needed considerable strengthening, and would have required significantly more resources beyond SMRT's to mitigate the impact," she added.

With the improved contingency plans, commuters will have two options - to either use trunk bus services that will be boosted in frequency and capacity, or to use special bridging buses, said Mrs Teo.

In major disruptions, regular bridging services - which take commuters from affected MRT stations to unaffected ones so they can continue their journey by rail - cannot be effectively implemented, she explained.

A special bus bridging plan to serve those living in major towns may be used instead. Commuters in the city can travel via alternative MRT lines to key interchange stations, such as Bishan, Paya Lebar and Buona Vista, and transfer to special bridging buses to towns such as Ang Mo Kio, Woodlands, Tampines and Choa Chu Kang. This special bridging plan will also work in the reverse direction, she noted.

Another consideration for contingencies may be to extend the operating hours of City Direct Services - buses contracted by the Government which carry commuters directly between their neighbourhoods and the city, she said.

Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer) asked if investments could be better made to prevent major rail disruptions, through redundancy or isolating breakdowns to specific rail segments, rather than to invest in a large-scale contingency plan that would involve tapping resources of buses and drivers.

In reply, Mrs Teo said that, given the ageing rail system, resources have to be concurrently invested in preventive maintenance and improving contingency plans.

"If and when an incident were to happen, it is reasonable for commuters to expect that the management of it ought to be up to mark," she said.

Probe on withdrawal of CDA funds ongoing: Low Yen Ling
The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

The Sweetlands operators accused of making unauthorised withdrawals from children's special savings accounts will have until the end of the month to explain why their Approved Person status should not be revoked. Their request for an extension was granted. If revoked, they will no longer be able to make deductions from Child Development Accounts (CDAs).

Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry for Social and Family Development) Low Yen Ling gave Parliament an update on the case of Madam Chan Chew Shia and Mr Ho Boon Hong yesterday. She added that the Commercial Affairs Department is investigating and the ministry is taking the matter very seriously.

TKPS quake victims covered by travel insurance: Hawazi
The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

The travel insurance for pupils and staff on the ill-fated Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) trip to Sabah in June covered their treatment overseas, repatriation to Singapore and, up to a cap, their treatment back in Singapore following an earthquake.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has also been working with Temasek Cares, the charity arm of Temasek Holdings, on the Sabah Earthquake Fund which will benefit the dependents of the three Singaporean adults who lost their lives, and the Malaysian trainers and guides who died or had their livelihoods affected by the quake.

For the students who were injured, MOE has also assured their parents of appropriate continued support for their recovery, if the medical treatment costs exceed the coverage provided by their insurance.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Hawazi Daipi revealed this in Parliament yesterday when he was asked by Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh whether the insurance required by MOE for the trip was sufficient, and if it would consider helping the pupils and their families financially.

The quake, which occurred in Sabah during the school trip, had claimed the lives of 10 Singaporeans, comprising seven pupils, two teachers from TKPS, and an adventure guide.

Subsidies for dyslexic youth in remediation programme
The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

From January next year, eligible students in specialised independent schools who suffer from dyslexia will be able to receive subsidies when they take part in the remediation programme conducted by the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS).

Minister of State for Education Sim Ann told Parliament yesterday that specialised schools, which offer a customised curriculum for students with an aptitude in mathematics, science, sports and other areas, are a recent development in Singapore's education landscape.

"Currently, there are a few students in (these schools) attending the DAS' remediation. We have worked with the schools to provide school-based financial assistance for students in need," she said.

Ms Sim was responding to Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair's question as to why students in the schools were excluded from subsidies available to other students, and whether MOE would review that policy.

Singapore 'a small player in AIIB but ensure its views are heard'
By Chia Yan Min, Economics Correspondent, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

Singapore is a small player in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in terms of its monetary commitment but it should still ensure that its views are heard, Mr Ong Teng Koon (Sembawang GRC) said yesterday.

Mr Ong also noted in Parliament that Singapore has a lot to bring to the table despite its small size.

The Republic can leverage its "reputation as an honest broker on the international stage" to make sure that the AIIB finances a diversified and representative range of projects and does not advance "the narrow interests of one or two dominant shareholders".

Mr Ong was speaking during the Parliament debate about a Bill that will allow Singapore to contribute US$250 million (S$352 million) towards the AIIB, or about 0.25 per cent of the bank's US$100 billion starting capital.

This would give Singapore 0.48 per cent of the total voting share.

Senior Minister of State for Finance Josephine Teo told the House that the bank will facilitate better infrastructure and connectivity in the region and, in turn, provide positive spin-offs for the Singapore economy.

The China-led AIIB is set to begin operations next year.

MPs supported Singapore's participation, although some cautioned that the bank has met with criticism from some quarters.

One concern is that the AIIB might become a competitor to other international financial institutions, especially the Asian Development Bank, Mr Ong noted.

There are also concerns that the AIIB will come to be seen as a vehicle for advancing the national interests of its largest shareholders, specifically China. He called on the Government to ensure that the AIIB's directions "will indeed be to the broad benefit of all of Asia, while also being consistent with Singapore's own national interests".

In response, Mrs Teo said that the Government has been taking a proactive approach in shaping the development of the AIIB, and aims to help make it an "open, inclusive and modern institution".

There are 57 prospective founding members - 30 regional countries and 27 non-regional countries.

Nominated MP Thomas Chua called on government-linked companies to open up opportunities for local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to participate in AIIB projects.

SMEs see many business opportunities arising from regional infrastructure projects, but as the scale and size of these are usually large, they are beyond the reach of any single company, Mr Chua noted.

"If there is government support, and if government-linked companies are willing to take the lead, the success rate of local enterprises in bidding for the projects would be substantially higher."

The Bill, which was passed yesterday, gives certain immunities, privileges and exemptions to the AIIB and its officers, on par with those Singapore has accorded to other international financial institutions.

In response to Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam, who raised concerns about the implications of these immunities and privileges, Mrs Teo said it is "not every day that a new international organisation like the AIIB is set up".

"I think the (worries) that we will suddenly be flooded with all these international organisations in Singapore, all enjoying privileges and immunities, is not a major concern at all," she added.

Botanic Gardens 'a shared responsibility'
Lawrence Wong: Everyone has part to play in upkeep of Unesco World Heritage Site
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

The number of visitors to the Singapore Botanic Gardens has risen 35 per cent since it was named the country's first Unesco World Heritage Site last month, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong told Parliament yesterday.

Therefore, he said, the National Parks Board (NParks) is increasing the number of heritage tours and stepping up public outreach efforts to ensure these visitors are informed about the Gardens' historical significance and rich heritage.

On what is being done to preserve the 156-year-old landmark, Mr Wong outlined a series of measures the Government was taking. He said the Urban Redevelopment Authority has a comprehensive land-use planning framework to ensure new developments near the Gardens are compatible with it.

For instance, all new developments within a 1km radius of the Gardens' Bandstand must not be tall enough to be visible from the Bandstand.

Second, any future developments will be carefully designed and located so that visitors are spread more evenly across the Gardens, to protect more vulnerable heritage trees. The Government will also continue to seek advice from Unesco experts to ensure the site is well protected.

But Mr Wong stressed that the Gardens belongs to all Singaporeans and thus everyone had a part to play in its upkeep. He said: "It is their shared responsibility to upkeep it and pass on its legacy to future generations. We can visit often with our families and friends, so it can forever be cherished both as a place of historical significance and fond personal memories."

Mr Wong said Singaporeans who want to help out can volunteer with NParks. Its volunteer scheme covers a wide range of activities, such as gardening, conducting guided tours and helping curate and document herbarium specimens.

He added that there was also a World Heritage Site management committee that includes residents, experts and volunteers.

The committee will discuss future developments that lie within the boundaries of the Gardens.

Opportunities open to women in SAF, based on merit: Ng Eng Hen
By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2015

Can a woman one day rise to the top and helm the army, navy, air force or even the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)?

Why not, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday in Parliament, adding that opportunities are open to women and the SAF promotes "based on merit".

"If a particular recommendation comes across my desk that this person (or) this woman is deserving to be the chief of navy, chief of army, chief of air force or chief of defence force... I would say yes, if she deserves it."

He was responding to a question from Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) about whether the SAF has provided adequate opportunities for women to participate and excel in their military careers.

She also wanted to know what impact women have made on Singapore's defence.

Dr Ng said career soldiers in the SAF are appointed and promoted based on the principle of "best person for the job". It is a meritocratic process regardless of gender, race and religion, he added.

Servicewomen have "made good progress" across all career schemes and served in elite units - becoming naval divers and fighter pilots, said Dr Ng. A "good number" have risen to take up key positions such as department heads, battalion commanders, brigade commanders and division sergeant majors.

They include Senior Warrant Officer Jennifer Tan, the first woman division sergeant major, and Brigadier-General Gan Siow Huang, the head of air intelligence and director (special projects), who became the first woman to receive the one-star rank in July.

<<Women in the SAF>>Over the years, the number of SAF women regulars has grown. Today, we have 1,500 uniformed...
Posted by Ng Eng Hen on Sunday, August 16, 2015

Today, there are 1,500 uniformed servicewomen, comprising about 7 per cent of regulars in the army, navy and air force.

In line with national workforce policies, the SAF's human resource policies have progressed over time to flexibly accommodate and support the needs of its servicemen and women, like when they get married or when they become parents.

Dr Ng told the House that SAF human resource practices are in line with international agreements that Singapore is party to, such as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

About 100,000 first-timers bought new HDB flats since 2008: Khaw
Among the successful applicants, about 50,400 have collected keys to their flats, says National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan.
By Eileen Poh, Channel NewsAsia, 18 Aug 2015

About 100,000 first-timer applicants, including families and singles, have bought a new HDB flat since 2008.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said this in a written parliamentary reply to MP Gan Thiam Poh on Monday (17 Aug). Among the successful applicants, about 50,400 have collected keys to their flats.

Another 6,700 will be collecting their keys later this year, added Mr Khaw.

"We expect another 31,100 (31 per cent) to collect their keys in 2016 or 2017, and the balance 11,800 (12 per cent) after 2017," he said.

Mr Gan also asked for the number of applicants who had been successful in receiving grants to buy a resale flat. In reply, Mr Khaw said since 2008, 38,400 first-timer applicants had received grants to purchase a flat from the resale market.

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