Thursday, 20 August 2015

Parliament Highlights - 18 Aug 2015

PUB not obliged to pay tax on Johor waterworks
By Wong Siew Ying, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

National water agency PUB is not obliged to pay land assessment tax on its Johor River Waterworks, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday.

This is because PUB's operations in Johor are governed by the 1962 Water Agreement, which governs what PUB has to pay, he said.

He was responding to a question by Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir), who had asked about the status of the tax, which the Kota Tinggi District Council had sought to impose, and whether there had been any recent developments.

PUB owns Johor River Waterworks, located in the Kota Tinggi district of Johor. It extracts and treats water from the Johor River, in accordance with the 1962 Water Agreement. This agreement is valid till 2061 and is guaranteed by the governments of Singapore and Malaysia in the 1965 Separation Agreement.

Mr Shanmugam said that late last year, the Kota Tinggi District Council issued a notice which sought to double the rate of land assessment tax imposed on Waterworks. "The revised rate was more than double that of the next highest rate in the entire Kota Tinggi district. The Waterworks' assessed property value was also increased. The new rate was applied to a category which was created solely for the PUB," he said.

He noted that under the 1962 Water Agreement, PUB is not obliged to pay the tax. The agreement gives Singapore the right to draw water from Johor River up to 250 million gallons per day, or 1.14 million cubic m a day, with Johor entitled to a daily supply of treated water in return.

"There is some additional background on the Johor authorities imposing such taxes, in the past," he said. "I do not propose to go into what had happened in the past."

With regard to the latest tax assessments, Singapore has registered its concerns with Malaysia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs through two Third Person Notes.

PUB has also got in touch with the Kota Tinggi District Council.

Mr Shanmugam told MPs he had raised the issue directly with his Malaysian counterpart Anifah Aman twice - in April and on Aug 4.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had also spoken to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on the subject when they met in May.

Mr Shanmugam said: "Malaysia is aware that the issue of PUB's rights under the Water Agreement is critical and sensitive for us.

"The Malaysian Federal Government has guaranteed in the Separation Agreement that Johor would abide by the 1962 Water Agreement. The agreement does not require a payment of this land tax."

Singapore has requested Malaysia to address the issue.

"The Federal Government has indicated that it would work with the Johor State Government to address our concerns," he said.

Rail assets 'monitored, replaced when needed'
But when things reach critical threshold, they could be replaced en masse: Lui
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

While the estimated lifespan of rail assets provide a guide as to when they need to be replaced, these typically deteriorate at different rates and are changed on an ad-hoc basis, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said yesterday.

Using the example of timber sleepers, he told Parliament that while two different sets were used, those which were installed later actually wore out more quickly. This is because of factors such as the type of wood used and how the wood was treated.

He was responding to Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, who asked if the replacement of rail assets was done on a timely basis in the light of the July 7 peak-hour breakdown of the North-South and East-West Lines.

Timber sleepers are used to hold train tracks in place.

Mr Giam said the website of rail operator SMRT indicated that sleepers last between 15 and 25 years. This meant replacement works should have been completed by 2002 or 2012, given that the MRT started operations in 1987.

But he said the SMRT started doing so only in November 2012.

Responding, Mr Lui said that "the important thing is actually to monitor them on a consistent level (and) replace them on an ad-hoc basis as and when necessary".

"But when it reaches what is considered a critical threshold, then you want to consider changing them out, replacing them en masse. And in this case, we are doing so with concrete sleepers."

Upgrading of track components also had to be prioritised. For example, replacement of the third-rail, which supplies power to the trains, faced a "slight delay" and could be completed only by 2017.

This is because there is a need to "de-conflict" works that are ongoing, such as replacing sleepers and upgrading the signalling system.

Separately, Mr Giam also asked if it was the responsibility of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) or the operators to initiate asset renewal, and if there were any conflicts between the LTA and SMRT.

Mr Lui said it was the operator's responsibility as it has the best idea of the condition of components.

He added that a "certain healthy tension" is to be expected between the two parties because the regulator does the audits and provides feedback to the operator to take certain actions.

He said that joint teams report to him every three months, and the LTA has stepped up planned and surprise audits on operators, and even embedded an audit team in SMRT itself.

Mr Giam, in another query, asked Mr Lui if he agreed that "a lot of these replacement works should have actually started earlier, pre-2012, in order to be able to complete... before the end of life of the system?"

Said Mr Lui: "I think it's not always clear when the end of life is. There may be an estimate given but, because of varying conditions, that can always change. And in any case I suspect that perfect foresight is as rare as 20/20 hindsight is common."

LTA gets greater control over bus services
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

Singapore's transport regulator will get more powers to manage public bus operators and ensure that they meet standards, under a Bill passed by Parliament yesterday.

The new law is part of the shift in the way the bus sector will be run from next year, and it provides the framework for the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to contract out public bus services.

The buses will be owned by the Government, which also decides the standard of service to be provided.

This means the Government can respond "more expeditiously" to changes in travel demand, said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew when presenting the Bus Services Industry Bill for debate yesterday.

Currently, regulating and licensing bus operators is undertaken by the Public Transport Council (PTC).

Mr Lui also pointed out another advantage of the new bus contracting model. Competitive tendering, he said, means "operators have to compete for the right to run bus services, which will raise bus service quality in a cost competitive manner, thereby benefiting commuters".

The first such tender was awarded in May to London's Tower Transit, and the second closed last week, with 10 bidders.

The Bill also lets the LTA set performance standards on reliability, with an incentive-penalty system.

It will get operators to "actively manage en route bus arrivals, to minimise bus bunching or long gaps", Mr Lui said.

The Bill also ensures smooth bus services because when a bus operator's licence is revoked or suspended, for example, a step-in order will allow the LTA to take over or appoint a stand-in operator.

While MPs welcomed the Bill, they worry that the contracting model bringing in new players could worsen the shortage of bus captains.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), a senior vice-president at SBS Transit, said whimsically that he had a "dream" of long lines of people seeking to be bus captains.

The dream came true, he added, but it was mainly Malaysians, not Singaporeans, who wanted the job, owing to the weak ringgit.

He said more Singaporeans need to be attracted to the profession.

Mr Lui replied that the contracting model is expected to improve the situation, as operators will, among other things, have to make attractive employment offers.

Pay is one part of the equation, he said, adding that the national SkillsFuture movement will help to enhance the profession's standing.

To improve welfare, better rest facilities and lounges are also being built at new interchanges or retrofitted in existing ones, Mr Lui said.

As the PTC relinquishes its regulatory and licensing tasks, it will take on a new advisory role to the Transport Minister.

The council can conduct surveys to get public feedback or do research on global best practices and put up recommendations.

"The new role will complement PTC's existing mission of regulating public transport ticket services and fares, where it has to balance the interests of the public with the long-term viability of the public transport operators," said Mr Lui.

The Public Transport Council (Amendment) Bill for this change was also passed by Parliament yesterday.

Along with it, several recommendations of the Fare Review Mechanism Committee, such as the flexibility to carry over fare adjustments, were formalised. The Bill also gives the PTC powers to standardise the structure of taxi fares.

MPs across political divide thank Lui
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

PAP and opposition MPs paid tribute to outgoing Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew in the House, after Mr Lui said last week he was leaving politics.

Yesterday's sitting was likely the last before Parliament is dissolved for the general election.

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam of the Singapore People's Party (SPP) ended her speech at the debate on the amended Public Transport Council Act by saying: "The SPP would like to thank Mr Lui Tuck Yew for the hard work he has done on a very challenging portfolio as Minister for Transport."

"Mr Chiam and I wish Mr Lui all the best for the future," she added. Her husband is former MP of 27 years Chiam See Tong.

Taking a photo with my colleagues-turned-friends after Parliament sitting today; just in case this is our final session...
Posted by Denise Phua Lay Peng on Tuesday, August 18, 2015

NCMP Gerald Giam of the Workers' Party, during the Bus Services Industry Bill debate, thanked the minister "for patiently answering all my PQs (parliamentary questions) and responding to my speeches over the past four years".

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), a senior vice-president at SBS Transit, said under Mr Lui's leadership, bus services have "improved tremendously" and would continue to do so with the Bus Service Enhancement Programme. And in spite of the July 7 train service breakdown, Downtown Lines 1 and 2 were largely completed under Mr Lui's close supervision.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said Mr Lui had put his heart and soul into serving Singapore. "He has done so much to improve our public transport system, with this bus contracting model being one of the most important (measures)," he said.

"You will be sorely missed."

Bill to regulate human biomedical research passed
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

A Bill to protect people whose body tissues are used for research was given the nod in Parliament yesterday. It sets out what researchers can and must do, and the penalties for failing to adhere to the rules. The fines are of up to $100,000 and the maximum jail term is 10 years.

The Human Biomedical Research Bill, however, did not get the support of the Workers' Party (WP). Seven of its nine MPs abstained from voting. The remaining two - Aljunied GRC's Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Chen Show Mao - were absent during the vote.

The WP's reason is that its call for a Select Committee to "holistically scrutinise the clauses that confer significant powers to various entities" was not taken up.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), one of six MPs who spoke on the Bill, had made the call during the debate. He argued that the Bill "gives complete latitude to the minister to change the parameters and scope of biomedical research" without further debate in Parliament.

He said this makes "Parliament little more than a mere rubber stamp with regard to human biomedical research in Singapore".

Replying, Minister of State for Health Lam Pin Min said the Bill's purpose is to "ensure the safety and welfare of research subjects whilst not stifling sound, ethical research". But the regulations may be calibrated according to the level of risks of the research, with additional restrictions imposed if it is sensitive or controversial, he added.

He also said the Health Minister can impose more controls, but cannot "expand the scope of what is regulated under the Bill, which can only be done by Parliament".

Dr Lam also addressed concerns raised by three doctor-MPs involved in research. Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) wanted paperwork to be kept to a minimum. Dr Lam promised that where possible, "electronic or other innovative solutions" would be used.

Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC) asked if donors could share in the profits if the research results were commercialised. No, said Dr Lam, as all donations must be voluntary and altruistic.

Nominated MP Benedict Tan asked if leftover specimens from treating a patient can be used for research. Yes, Dr Lam said, if these were no longer needed and the patient gave consent.

Non-constituency MP Lina Chiam asked about the use of "great apes'' in such research. Dr Lam said the Health Ministry consulted widely on the Bill and "recognised that the greater the possibility of 'humanisation' of the animal, the greater the need for restrictions".

Dr Lam thanked Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) who, speaking in Mandarin, said "the goal of human biomedical research is ultimately to help all of us achieve healthier and happier lives".

Overall nurse-to-patient ratio 'has improved', but patient care remains demanding: MOH
The nurse-to-patient ratio for day shifts in the general wards in the public hospitals was 1:5 in 2014, as compared to 1:8 in 2004, says Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor.
Channel NewsAsia, 18 Aug 2015

The overall nurse-to-patient ratio has improved during the period from 2004 to 2014, but caring for patients remains demanding, said Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor in Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 18).

The nurse-to-patient ratio for day shifts in the general wards in the public hospitals was 1:5 in 2014, as compared to 1:8 in 2004, Dr Khor said, adding that the appropriate ratio is determined by patient needs and the main factors considered are patient acuity and the clinical setting.

"The overall ratio has improved, but caring for patients remains demanding because our patients’ acuity and needs have also increased over the period, partly due to our ageing population, and partly due to higher expectations," she added.

To address these challenges, the ministry has been redesigning processes and using technology to improve productivity, he said. For instance, the Closed Loop Medication Management (CLMM) System implemented in several public hospitals has "significantly improved efficiency and patient safety", even while the hospitals are handling increasing patient volumes.

"As nursing ward care in the hospital is 24/7, we are also looking into implementing more flexible work arrangements in the public healthcare institutions to better meet the work-life needs of nurses," he said. Flexible work arrangements have been piloted at selected wards in the Changi General Hospital, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Singapore General Hospital and Tan Tock Seng Hospital since the start of this year, she pointed out.

"Feedback from the pilot wards has been encouraging. The participants of the pilot generally welcomed the initiative," he added. "We are making steady efforts to enhance nursing as a profession and will continue to invest in our nurses and support them in their work."

Govt policies help keep rents low for hawkers: Vivian
He also says social enterprises will buy in bulk to suppress prices of ingredients
By Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

Hawkers enjoy low rents for their stalls, thanks to government policies, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in Parliament yesterday.

Statistics he cited show more than eight in 10 hawkers pay less than $1,500 in rent for their stalls each month. In fact, four in 10 pay less than $400, he added.

Dr Balakrishnan was replying to Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin, who had asked how the National Environment Agency (NEA) plans to help hawkers deal with the rising cost of food ingredients and manpower.

He said NTUC Foodfare and Fei Siong Food Management, which NEA appointed to manage several hawker centres, will help suppress ingredient prices by buying in bulk.

On the rising costs of manpower, Dr Balakrishnan said these wage increases for cleaners and hawker assistants are "well-justified and well-deserved".

"I think I stand with the support of all of you that we were right in imposing progressive wages to increase the wages and employment conditions of cleaners," he said.

"I would also expect Members of the House to support wage increases for hawker assistants."

Earlier this year, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources said its surveys show that in general, ingredients form about 60 per cent of a hawker's costs. Manpower makes up 17 per cent, rent 12 per cent, utilities 9 per cent and table cleaning and other costs, 3 per cent.

Social enterprise NTUC Foodfare, which manages a hawker centre in Bedok and will operate another in Bukit Panjang that is due to open by year's end, said it could help its hawkers save 15 to 20 per cent on their basic ingredients - such as oil, cooking flour and eggs - through bulk-buying.

Fei Siong Food Management, which operates a hawker centre in Hougang through a social enterprise subsidiary, estimates it could help its hawkers save 5 to 10 per cent on their basic ingredients.

Said Dr Balakrishnan: "I have told (the social enterprises) very clearly that my main objective is to help keep food prices affordable and bring down the cost of raw ingredients for hawkers. Everything else is an extra."

NTUC Foodfare and Fei Siong have set price caps on some basic dishes like chicken rice to keep hawker fare affordable. While some hawkers have criticised the move, saying stall-holders would struggle to make a living, Dr Balakrishnan said it was not a new idea.

"All of us will remember school canteens and, even today, workplace canteens, where in exchange for low or subsidised rentals, the hawkers serve their food at low prices or even at prices which are approved by the landlord.

"It's a tightrope, a balancing act: Hawkers, employers and the people of Singapore," he said.

"Let's take a data-driven approach, watch the food prices, quality and nutrition, and let's calibrate the policy along the way."

'No' to proposed changes on small flats
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday turned down two suggested changes to the studio apartment and two-room- flat housing schemes, even as a plan to merge them is in the works.

The upcoming Two-room Flexi scheme offers flats on 99-year leases, and shorter leases of 15 to 45 years for elderly households, as long as the lease lets them live there until they are at least 95 years old.

Yesterday, MP Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) suggested that the Housing Board grant loans to senior citizens who wish to buy studio apartments with personal guarantees and for the loans to be serviced by their children.

However, Mr Khaw said that there was no need for such loans as studio apartments are aimed at those who are selling off a larger flat or private property.

He added that HDB also does not accept guarantor arrangements for loans out of prudence and to avoid disputes if an owner defaults.

Mr Gan later asked if priority for new two-room flats could be given to Singaporeans who are married to foreign spouses and who do not have children.

In a written reply to Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC), the Ministry of National Development said 1,700 former rental flat tenants have moved into flats that they bought in the last three years.

Another 2,600 tenants have booked flats and are waiting for their completion.

Mental health of maids
The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

Mental health checks for foreign maids are available at hospitals, the Institute of Mental Health and private specialist clinics, Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower Amy Khor said.

But they are not mandatory as they are "time-consuming, costly and not always foolproof", she said in reply to Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin.

However, domestic workers have to go for a medical screening every six months, and doctors will raise concerns should they arise.

Training and guidebooks for workers and employers provide information on mental well-being and stress management, she added.

No new anti-doping law
The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

Singapore will ensure its anti-doping practices are in line with global standards against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, but there is no need for further legislation, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong said. New testing requirements under the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code can be introduced under current laws, he said in reply to Nominated MP Benedict Tan.

Dr Tan also asked how doping among bodybuilders and gym users can be prevented. Mr Wong said Anti-Doping Singapore would ensure mechanisms are in place for bodybuilding, even though the sport has been dropped by the Singapore National Olympic Council.

Public education could be stepped up for recreational gym users, he added, but said: "I'm not sure that we want to go in to start policing or administering anti-doping tests at the private gyms all over Singapore."

Trade fair funds
The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

About 40 trade fairs were organised by the Citizens Consultative Committees every year in the last three years. Held for between 16 and 32 days, two-thirds of these fairs earn a revenue of $10,000 to $100,000, People's Association (PA) deputy chairman Lim Swee Say said in a written reply to Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC).

The remaining fairs received revenues of between $100,000 and $350,000, with the exception of the Geylang Serai Trade Fair held during Ramadan. It drew between $900,000 and $1.3 million a year.

The funds raised are used for welfare assistance, scholarships and bursaries, among others. But their use is subject to good governance, and must comply with the PA's financial rules, Mr Lim added.

Airport development fund
The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2015

A development fund for major airport projects such as Terminal 5 will be set up under an amendment to the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) Bill passed yesterday.

The Changi Airport Development Fund (CADF) will be administered by the CAAS, and is expected to receive an initial sum of $3 billion.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said the Terminal 5 expansion will require a "sizeable, long-term financial commitment" by the Government, given its complexity and scale.

The CADF enables funds to be set aside while the Government has the fiscal resources.

Around 1.6 million transport concession cards issued: MOT
Between January 2014 to July 2015, around 760,000 people applied for the card, Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim says.
Channel NewsAsia, 18 Aug 2015

Around 1.6 million people in total currently hold a public transport concession card, Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said in Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 18).

Between January 2014 to July 2015, around 760,000 people applied for the card, Associate Professor Faishal said in response to a question by MP Gan Thiam Poh.

The cards are issued to children, senior citizens, students including those in polytechnic and university, full-time National Servicemen, those under the Workfare Income Supplement Scheme and people with disabilities, he said.

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