Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Reactions to National Day Rally 2015

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally 2015 Speech - English, Malay, Mandarin

PM's Rally speech about more than just elections
MPs and political watchers polled say his pitch to voters was restrained
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2015

It was billed as an SG50 rally, to take stock of how far the country had come as well as where it might be heading.

But coming in the midst of much talk of an impending general election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech on the Government's achievements and plans for Singapore also struck some as being a clear pitch to the voters for their support at the polls.

Political watchers interviewed yesterday, however, noted that PM Lee had taken pains to do it with some finesse.

They lauded Mr Lee for the restraint he showed in his speech on Sunday. Though he asked Singaporeans to "support (his) team", he did not use words like "vote" or "People's Action Party", they said.

MPs like Mr Hri Kumar Nair did not think the Prime Minister was engaging in electioneering.

Pointing to the policy changes announced at the Rally, such as enhanced measures to encourage parenthood and raising the re-employment age, the MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC said these have been raised in Parliament many times.

"The problem is that people think that anything announced before an election is for an election. But you must measure the Government's track record, and not just what it does three or six months before the general election,'' he said.

Mr Lee said at the Rally that elections would be called "soon''.

Other MPs argued that it was inevitable to recall the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's legacy as it was the first Rally without him. PM Lee had evoked the memory of the late Mr Lee in his Malay, Mandarin and English speeches. While the week of national mourning in March had an impact on many, law don Eugene Tan said the references could be seen as trying to gain political mileage; similarly, in giving "due recognition to the pioneers, who've been a traditional vote bank for the PAP".

But Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng said it would have been strange to omit the late Mr Lee from the speech, as he was instrumental in building the country's successes in the last 50 years.

"The party knows that there would be a backlash if it was seen to be exploiting his death. But the late Mr Lee was and is a symbol of the PAP and Singapore; even if there wasn't an election this year, I'm sure he would have been mentioned," Mr Baey said.

PM Lee had also urged Singaporeans to "be alive" to their external environment, or risk the country's survival. Ongoing troubles in Malaysia and Indonesia could affect the country, he said. It was a topic he had "spoken too little" about in recent rallies because of the focus on domestic affairs, he added.

As the PAP tends to do better at the polls in times of economic uncertainty, some had accused PM Lee of scare-mongering.

No, said Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad: "What Mr Lee mentioned were facts and market realities. Perhaps, recent developments caused him to speak up: The last few months has seen an acceleration of developments in our neighbours, like the ringgit dropping."

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Gillian Koh said the PAP can have its cake and eat it: "They can introduce measures that address long-term concerns, but which also have the right political signature, especially just before an election." For example, a new scheme to help second-timer rental households buy a flat will address the opposition's criticism that Singapore is not an egalitarian society, she noted .

Dr Koh also said the Rally could have taken a more partisan tone.

"PM Lee could have attacked the Workers' Party (WP) by talking about clean governance and being corruption-free, but he didn't," she said, referring to the ongoing spat between the WP's town council and the Government.

Rather, his electioneering was fairly subtle, in noting the diplomacy skills of Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, she said.

"The subtext is: Let's not lose another minister."

People who watched the Rally on TV or read about it told The Straits Times they saw PM Lee's speech more as an update on where the country stood at this juncture than an election appeal.

Said business development executive Jerr Lim, 46: "It was a summary update of what was done during Mr Lee Kuan Yew's era, and how PM Lee wants to continue that legacy."

He was among 20 people interviewed who welcomed the housing and parenthood measures. But more can be done, they added .

Still, some like financial adviser Melissa Tan, 29, found other aspects of the Rally moving, especially when Kit Chan sang Home.

"I was at the National Day Parade and I feel that Singaporeans have found an identity with the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew," she said.

The part of PM's message that resonated with teacher Noryn Abdul Wahab, 44, was: Singaporeans need to continually improve for the country to stay ahead.

Additional reporting by Lydia Lam

Good news for older workers
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2015

Within two years, older workers who want to keep working after turning 65 will be able to do so.

By 2017, the Government will update the law to raise the re-employment age from the current 65 to 67. After the higher age ceiling kicks in, bosses must rehire healthy workers who have performed satisfactorily until they reach age 67, or give them a one-off payment.

The move fulfils a target that the Government set 22 years ago. From as far back as 1993, the Government had made it clear that it wanted Singaporeans to be able to work until 67. Then Labour Minister Lee Boon Yang said in Parliament that the plan was to raise the retirement age to 67 within seven to 10 years, or 2003.

This target would be missed by more than a decade. But there are some reasons for this.

The issue of hiring older workers has always been a contentious one between workers and employers. While workers want to keep working, employers naturally worry about the higher costs and lower productivity associated with an older workforce.

The re-employment age was set at 65 less than four years ago, in January 2012. Raising it too fast risks firms not being able to cope with the change. If pushed too hard, they may even stop hiring workers in their late 50s altogether, for fear of having to continue hiring them in their 60s.

While the re-employment age is set to increase to 67 by 2017, the retirement age remains at 62.

Re-employment after retirement is a relatively new concept. What it means is that workers turning 62 have the choice of retiring or to continue working until the re-employment age ceiling.

Put another way: No company can force its workers to stop working when they turn 62, or fire those who do not want to retire. At the very least, employers have to give them one-off payments if they cannot offer them re-employment contracts.

Older workers have reason to cheer.

Opposition takes aim at 'election speech'
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2015

Opposition leaders hit out at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally as an election speech, even as they welcomed some of the initiatives he outlined on Sunday.

The sole opposition MP who attended the rally, Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Lina Chiam of the Singapore People's Party (SPP), said Mr Lee had raised many issues.

"He was also campaigning for his party in his speech, dishing out more goodies to Singaporeans. In a way, it seems to be an election speech," she said.

Mr Lee had announced measures for Housing Board home buyers as well as parents and, towards the end of his speech, said: "Soon, I will be calling elections to ask for your mandate to take Singapore into this next phase of our nation-building. And this election will be critical."

Workers' Party (WP) MPs did not attend the rally, citing a clash with a party National Day dinner, and did not reply to requests for comment.

But WP NCMP Yee Jenn Jong, in a Facebook post, welcomed the announcement of a centralised campus for the Singapore Institute of Technology. "Look forward to SIT playing a key role in the development of our local talents," he wrote.

Mrs Chiam's SPP and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also praised parts of Mr Lee's speech for addressing pressing challenges.

Mrs Chiam supported PM Lee's announcement on raising the re-employment age from 65 to 67 by 2017. She also agreed with his call for Singaporeans to be aware of their external environment.

"We have destabilising forces around the region," she said, echoing Mr Lee's remarks that developments in neighbouring countries and the wider region could affect Singapore.

"Yes, I get it that MRT breakdowns are frustrating. But I hope we can work with the next group of leaders, PAP or otherwise, to tackle long-term issues," she said.

Meanwhile, DPP chief Benjamin Pwee commended PM Lee for taking steps such as raising paternal leave from one week to two weeks, and supporting madrasahs, or Islamic religious schools, to strengthen the teaching of secular subjects such as mathematics and science.

"We also affirm PM's mention of LKY's historic remarks on equality for all, and call on the PAP Government to provide equal opportunities and equal benefits to all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language, culture or religion," he said, using the popular acronym for first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew .

But the SPP and other parties aimed the bulk of their reactions to the rally speech at PM Lee's comments on immigration and foreigners, which several party leaders said had strained infrastructure in transport and healthcare, and hurt the social fabric.

Mrs Chiam acknowledged the need to balance many competing forces in developing population policy, and agreed with PM Lee that, for example, Singaporean workers want less competition from foreigners while companies want foreign worker quotas to be relaxed.

She added that while she wants to put Singaporeans first in policies, the skill sets and productivity of local workers have to be improved.

And in order to deal with transport matters in the wake of capacity issues and train breakdowns, Mrs Chiam suggested that the "critical" role of transport minister - which Mr Lui Tuck Yew will relinquish when the new Cabinet is formed - be assumed by the prime minister or a deputy prime minister.

She also touched on leadership renewal, saying the SPP was focused "on building a strong pipeline of talent" but would not "push these talented individuals out prematurely".

Leaders of four other parties said the speech could have placed greater focus on challenges such as population and immigration policy, areas they will likely focus on during their election campaigns.

The Singapore Democratic Alliance cited the top-end forecast of the Population White Paper put out by the Government in 2013 to discuss a sustainable population with a strong core, and asked: "Will we still be truly Singapore at 6.9 (million)?"

People's Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng focused on immigration, saying the issue of population growth had "reached a dangerous social boiling point".

Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam said PM Lee's comments on the external environment and call for greater resilience were hints of failed domestic policies.

Singaporeans First secretary-general Tan Jee Say said the updated policy measures "just scratch the surface" on providing a strong safety net for Singaporeans, and added: "It's more of the same."

What the PM did not talk about: The economy
By Devadas Krishnadas, Published The Straits Times, 26 Aug 2015

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talked of a great many things during his National Day Rally speech. What he did not talk - much - about was the economy.

However, the economy is the bedrock on which all grand plans to finance increased spending on social programmes and public infrastructure rest. It is important that this be understood and accepted by Singaporeans. Equally, they should confront the brute reality that Singapore's economy does not exist in a vacuum. Ours is a contingent economy dependent both on how the large economies perform and on how relevant we can make ourselves to them.

Seven years out from the Great Financial Crisis, and the global economy is still in a slow growth mode and slowing further.

Europe is in political and economic disarray. Japan is getting ever deeper into debt and the expensive gamble of Abenomics seems increasingly unlikely to pay off.

The United States, though much improved since its nadir in 2009, cannot seem to break out from its marginal growth curve.

China - the great emergent market hope - has equity markets quivering with fears of a structural slowdown while its Bric companions - Brazil, Russia and India - have all lost much of their lustre.

These phenomena have a marked impact on the performance of the Singapore economy. The initial gross domestic product forecast for this year had been 2 to 4 per cent growth. This would have been respectable. However, the Ministry of Trade and Industry has since revised that projection to just 2 to 2.5 per cent.

Further, the Singapore economy is showing increasing signs of entering a technical recession - this is when there are two successive quarters of contraction. The knock-on effects on employment, wage growth and consumption factors should not take long to make themselves felt.

Singapore's Consumer Price Index (CPI) - the measure for inflation - is forecast to decline 0.21 point from now until the first half of next year. This moderation in the CPI is small comfort.

It is likely an indicator of falling underlying demand as well as downward price corrections in the property and car purchase markets, both of which are due in part to government policy - the cooling measures and expanded quota for Certificates of Entitlement respectively.

We need to confront the reality that the Singapore economy is sailing into headwinds that are strengthening and probably enduring.

The fall in the price of oil to just US$40 (S$56) a barrel reflects long-term market sentiment that demand is weak and will stay that way for some time.

The sustained contraction in our manufacturing sector should inject doubt over its viability in the longer term.

While financial services remain a source of strength, the barriers to entry in employment are high and only a small number of Singaporeans can expect to make a career in this highly competitive industry.

What does this mean?

Singapore businesses need to seek out non-traditional sources of growth. We need to adventure to frontier markets such as East Africa. Economies such as Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya in West Africa and Angola in the south of the continent are growing fast. There are political, policy and infrastructure risks in all these economies. However, gone are the days when Singapore companies can expect an easy flow of business. They can also no longer expect to make reasonable returns by accessing "comfortable" advanced economies since these are all experiencing marginal growth, if any at all. It is time for us to saddle up for the new frontiers of growth and be prepared to deal with the uncertainties as part of the price of chasing growth.

Singaporean workers need to be prepared to support that spirit of economic adventure. They need to be willing to relocate and work in various parts of the world - not all of these being convenient choices. But if our companies cannot rely on Singaporeans to support expansion, then Singaporeans should not be surprised if foreigners step in to do so.

In the longer term, though, Singaporeans need to be prepared for lower growth coupled with higher volatility as the norm. This means reduced job security and greater pressure to up- or re-skill to meet changing market demands. This is neither caused by the Government nor the result of foreign labour input. It is a simple fact of the nature of the global economy. We need to stop blaming others and start owning our own economic destiny.

The writer is chief executive officer of Future-Moves Group.

Reflecting on Singapore's place in the world, post-National Day Rally.
Posted by Inconvenient Questions on Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The old age-productivity gap is a myth
By Kanwaljit Soin, Published The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2015

When I was a Nominated Member of Parliament about 20 years ago, there was a lot of discussion in Parliament about increasing the retirement age to 67 within the following few years. However, it has taken more than two decades for this fact to become a reality: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Sunday that the re-employment age will be raised to 67, with the law to be updated by 2017.

One reason for the delay is that many employers and organisations are reluctant to hire older workers because of the increasing gap between pay and productivity - wages increase with age, while productivity does not keep pace.

However, there is conflicting evidence for this. Academics Jan C. van Ours and Lenny Stoeldraijer from the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany, published a paper in 2010 which found little evidence of this gap.

The paper also found that older workers are thought to be more reliable and have better skills than average workers, although they also incur higher healthcare costs, are less flexible in accepting new assignments and may be less suitable for training.

Professor Axel Boersch-Supan from the Munich Centre for the Economics of Ageing debunks the myth that older workers are not as productive as younger ones. He says that based on 1.2 million observations, age and experience beat youth and inexperience.

He urged countries with an ageing population to "exploit unused labour capacity" as the top priority if they want to see continued economic growth. According to him, health decline is very slow between the ages of 60 and 69, "so there is no age penalty for productivity in changing the retirement age from 65 to 67".

A 2014 paper published in the Journal Of Gerontology by Lowsky D. J., Olshansky S. J., Bhattacharya J. and Goldman D. P. found that 85 per cent of Americans aged 65 to 69 report no health-based limitations on paid work or housework. Similar trends are evident in other parts of the developed world.

Thus, it is possible and feasible for older workers to extend their working lives. This proposal often meets with resistance from society and policymakers because of ageism and misconceptions about old age. However, the benefits of continuing to work in old age are immense both for the individual and society.

Some studies of healthy ageing suggest that older adults who are engaged in paid or unpaid work have lower mortality rates, are less likely to experience various physical and mental illnesses, and are more likely to have a strong sense of identity and well-being. There are also protective effects against cognitive decline.

For many people, retirement at 65 is not economically feasible. In the words of Stanford economist John Shoven, "the reality is that few workers can fund a 30-year retirement with a 40-year career". Societies can also ill afford to finance longer and longer retirements.

There are changes in the ageing brain that make it ideal for work in creative areas. We, therefore, should be promoting not retirement but transition at age 65 when older people can express themselves in a creative domain for the betterment of themselves and of society.

Thus policymakers and societies should consider raising the retirement age (except for manual workers with physically demanding jobs) or abolish it altogether.

Older people should be given the option of working part-time or retraining for other types of work, including participation in the creative domain.

In societies of longer lives, work life can be made longer only if the work that is done is bearable and hopefully meaningful for the worker. Some changes that will help to prolong work life and manage age diversity at the workplace are:
- Develop suitable vocational training paths, especially for those over 40. Lifelong learning has to be the norm for all. The SkillsFuture initiative introduced in Singapore recently should address this need.
- Offer occupational prospects and mobility to all age groups, based on age diversity. Have more horizontal mobility to let people move horizontally within roles, without having to move up or down hierarchies, so that different generations can work together.
- Improve workplace safety and health and well-being, leading to a longer and sustainable worklife.
- Recognise the value of experience and human capital to the organisation and organise the transfer of skills between generations.
Policymakers, employers, unions and society need a paradigm shift in attitudes towards age and wage earners. A life course perspective to work, employment, training and welfare is essential to build a society for all ages.

The writer is a former Nominated Member of Parliament and a former president of Women's Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS). She is 73.

PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke on hot-button issues during his National Day Rally, such as housing, population and education. Three IPS researchers give their take on what PM Lee's speech meant to them.
Posted by IPS Commons on Monday, August 24, 2015

Concerted approach may boost baby numbers
By Kang Soon-Hock, Published The Straits Times, 28 Aug 2015

While Sunday's National Day Rally speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong aimed to stir a nation on its Jubilee year of Independence, it was also noteworthy for the slew of announcements that enhanced pro-family and pro-natalist policies.

Taken together, these changes are quite significant, as they speak of the country's push to improve Singapore's constant low fertility levels.

The changes announced represent a concerted approach to tackling a longstanding issue. The various initiatives thus should be viewed together as a complete whole. Each has a part to play in encouraging young couples who may be considering getting married, as well as married couples who may be considering having their first child or another child.

First, it speaks to couples considering marriage that they are not alone when making this very important decision.

Many couples at this stage of their lives are concerned with wanting to own their first home. The adjustments made to give more generous Central Provident Fund housing grants as well as the raising of the income ceiling (from $10,000 to $12,000) to own Housing Board flats will help more young couples buy and own a Housing Board flat - their first home.

Second, it signals to these couples, as well as those considering having another child, that many of the basic needs - with regard to having children - have been acknowledged and reflected in the enhanced measures announced.

For example, they will get a higher Baby Bonus of $2,000 per baby, raising the bonus to $8,000 and $10,000 per baby, depending on the birth order of the infant. The Baby Bonus is also extended to cover all children, and does not stop at the fourth baby of a married couple. Babies' healthcare needs are also catered for, with the MediShield Grant for Newborns sufficient to help cover MediShield Life premiums up to the age of 21.

Reflecting the importance of the family as a pillar of support, a Proximity Housing Grant of $20,000 is being offered to those who buy HDB resale flats with or near their parents. For young couples with children this is a definite plus, knowing that their parents are close by and can help them in times of need.

But how effective will these measures be?

It is still early days yet as the enhancements have just been announced. However, in view of past marriage and parenthood incentives rolled out over the years, it would not be overly optimistic to speculate that there would be positive effects that would bear fruit in the foreseeable future.

This is because the enhancements made this time are largely focused on existing measures, and if the increase in marriages reported earlier this year by the Department of Statistics and the increasing number of newborns reported by the National Population and Talent Division are anything to go by, it suggests that the enhancements will be effective in the long term.

Last year, there were 24,000 marriages involving at least one citizen, the highest number since 1997. Singaporeans had more babies: 33,000, up from 31,000 in 2013. This raised the country's total fertility rate to 1.25, from 1.19 in 2013.

However, as with all policy initiatives rolled out, patience is key to its success. What is more important to point out from the basket of initiatives are two specific enhancements that may likely contribute to nudging fertility rates up in the future.

First, the enhanced Baby Bonus is now not limited to just the first four children but extends to all subsequent children born. This sends a strong signal that every baby is precious.

The other is the additional week of paternity leave that fathers will enjoy with the birth of their child.

This signals not only to fathers the important role they play with bringing up the child; but more importantly, it also signals to employers that they need also to reconsider any traditional views they may have with regard to parenthood and the need to take into account the fact that it encompasses both fathers and mothers.

These are small but significant steps in the right direction. In fact, these two initiatives are, to a certain extent, in line with recent research published in Population And Development Review by Nikolai Botev where he discussed how policies that cater specifically to striking a balance between work life and family life, as well as the need to move away from parity-targeted incentives, may motivate couples to consider favourably having children.

The mix of symbolic enhancements to policies, and the use of concrete, monetary incentives can be viewed as a package, representing a concerted approach to trying to nudge more couples into considering parenthood.

If recent observations with regard to marriage numbers and birth numbers reported are anything to go by, the outlook is positive.

Dr Kang Soon-Hock is the Head of Social Science Core at School of Arts and Social Sciences, SIM University.

Reactions to NDR initiatives 'largely positive': Amy Khor
Contributors to government feedback unit REACH are heartened by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's vision for Singapore, which he shared during his National Day Rally speech, adds the Senior Minister of State for Health.
By Chan Luo Er, Channel NewsAsia, 27 Aug 2015

Contributors to government feedback unit REACH find this year's National Day Rally (NDR) initiatives "responsive, forward looking and generous", according to REACH chairman Dr Amy Khor, who was speaking at a National Day Rally 2015 public forum on Thursday (Aug 27).

REACH has received over 1,000 feedback inputs through its various platforms since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation on Sunday. Dr Khor, who is also Senior Minister of State for Health, said the top three topics of discussion were the re-employment of older workers, housing and parenthood issues. She added that reactions to announcements in these areas were "largely positive".

"Contributors were heartened by PM's vision for Singapore and how he is motivating Singaporeans to move forward. They said that they felt secure and confident about our future," said Dr Khor.

Issues raised by contributors included how some companies may not be supportive of the additional week of paternity leave, and worries that the increase in the income ceiling to buy Build-to-Order (BTO) flats and Executive Condominiums could lead to an increase in resale and BTO flat prices.

Concerns over how some jobs may not be suitable or appropriate for older workers, and how employers may not be supportive of re-employing older workers were also brought up.

Thursday's dialogue session saw about 150 members of the public - including REACH contributors, youths, Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs), grassroots, and business leaders - raise issues close to their heart. It was chaired by Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, and Dr Khor.

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