Friday 29 January 2016

Parliament debate on President's Address 2016: Day 3

Tackling fault lines, through words and actions
The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

Minister of State for Communications and Information and Education Janil Puthucheary said Singapore's acceptance of one another, regardless of race, language or religion, can also apply to other differences. Here is an edited extract:

One Saturday in July 2015, I was at the Padang, as I had the privilege to be the reserve commander for the PAP Community Foundation's marching contingent for the National Day Parade.

Just in front of me, to my left, were three young soldiers, also on reserve duty. They were joking and poking, pushing and shoving, enjoying each other's company.

Then the music started, the first few bars of Majulah Singapura. We began to sing as we had done many times before.

But something was different that afternoon. Maybe it was the excitement of the dress rehearsal, or maybe it was just a sense of whimsy or foolishness, but these three young soldiers started to sing as loud as they could.

Whatever the reason, the aunties and uncles around me also raised their voices. In my mind's eye, the enciks behind us began to sing even louder.

So louder and louder we sang, until it was a roar full of pride (and) passion. When the last notes faded, we looked around and smiled; we all agreed we had felt something special that afternoon.

When I left the Padang, I was rushing back to my constituency for an SG50 celebration.

As the night came to an end, we were in the multi-purpose hall. I found myself standing in front of a stage filled with kids. The last song was to be Majulah Singapura. I turned around and found a small boy on the stage behind me.

"We're going to sing Majulah Singapura, are you going to sing?" I asked him.

"Yes Uncle."

"Do you know the words?" I said.

"Yes Uncle, I know all the words," he replied, full of excitement and energy.

We began to sing, he did not know the words, not at all. As the first verse finished with "Berjaya Singapura", you could hear him trying loudly to sing, but you couldn't really hear the words. He was completely out of time.

His parents began to have a worried look on their faces. I smiled at them and shrugged, it was okay, he was doing his best, a little child trying his best to sing our Majulah Singapura. Throughout this song, we heard his little voice trying harder and harder to get it right. When we finished, we all laughed and high- fived and hugged.

I have told this story many times. After a while, I began to think about how people would respond, what questions I might be asked. And there was one question that occurred to me that would be very natural in many parts of the world, and maybe would have been very natural in the Singapore of 50, 10 and perhaps five years ago. I was never asked this question.

In the six months I have been telling the story, I have never once been asked about the race of the soldiers and the little boy.

What does that say? Because it doesn't change the story. The story is about Singapore and Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion.

Our country is not a utopia and I am under no illusions about the reality of race relations in our society. There are difficulties and frictions, tensions and troubles. There remains much work to be done. But we all recognise the need to do the work together, we all want the same thing and we will deal with the problems together.

We sing the same songs, eat the same foods, wear the same uniforms, believe in the same values that drive our country. We, together, will stand shoulder to shoulder, face the future and all that the unknown may bring, regardless of race, language or religion. And listening to my story, you understand this, you embrace this.

But what if one of those boys is a new citizen? Or gay? Or an atheist? Or maybe he is someone who takes his religion very seriously? Or maybe he embraces a different set of political views? Or is very conservative?

Does the story change? Is he less Singaporean? Listening to my story, are you still convinced that he will stand beside you as a comrade and brother? Will you stand beside him as a fellow citizen?

What does it mean "regardless of race, language or religion"? In those six words, are captured thousands of years of history, hundreds of wars and conflicts, blood shed between races, fights between other countries and other religions. In those few words are described hundreds of millions of people outside our borders with whom we share history, heritage, ties of ethnicity and culture.

We don't ignore all this, we don't pretend it doesn't exist. But we look ahead and imagine a future where we have unity regardless of our history. If we can do this for race, language or religion, why not for other fault lines, other divisions among us? We will always have differences among us and between us. I am not going to suggest we can pretend otherwise. Often, these things that I described, these are factors that determine our personalities, our world views. We need to embrace this, we need to work through this together.

How we deal with fault lines of division depends less on the Constitution or our Pledge and more on our deeds, actions and words. Words that are said, words that are held back. For sometimes, the things that are not said have a deep impact.

My story began as a warm fuzzy tale about National Day and the Anthem, then became an example of the extent of our racial integration. I spoke only a few more words and it became a platform for some difficult and contentious questions.

If we are to build a Singapore with a unity of purpose, a nation that sees our diversity as strength, it is our deeds and words, spoken and held back, that will matter most.

Dengue prevention steps can keep Zika virus at bay
But everyone should play his part to stop Aedes mosquito from breeding, says Masagos
By Tan Weizhen, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

Dengue prevention measures can be effective in keeping the Zika virus from spreading, as it is transmitted by the same type of mosquito.

But everyone should play his part in making sure the Aedes mosquito has no chance to breed, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli in Parliament yesterday.

Mr Masagos made that point in response to a question by Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) on what the ministry was doing to keep the Zika virus at bay.

The Zika virus has been spreading across the Americas at an alarming rate, causing babies to be born with underdeveloped brains.

Yesterday, Mr Masagos gave the assurance that even if a single Zika case were to be detected in Singapore, the National Environment Agency (NEA) would step up its vector control activities around the carrier, the area he lives in, as well as his workplace.

"But beyond that, I think it is important for all of us to play our part... to understand that, in just a week, the egg can hatch into an adult mosquito and within three weeks, the same mosquito - if it is female - will start laying 300 eggs and then that is how it starts to spread," said Mr Masagos.

MOH has been closely monitoring the Zika virus situation, and will be introducing several measures with the National...
Posted by Ministry of Health on Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Ministry of Health and the NEA also issued a statement yesterday about how they plan to deal with the Zika virus.

All confirmed carriers will be admitted to a public hospital until they recover and are tested negative for the virus.

"Admitting them into a single room at the hospital will also minimise their risk of being bitten by mosquitoes while they are carrying the virus, which may result in further local transmission," said the statement.

The Health Ministry will also seek out potential carriers in high-risk areas who are related to those who have tested positive.

Since infected persons may not exhibit symptoms, the authorities are not ruling out undetected cases and have told doctors to look out for potential carriers.

The number of dengue cases is expected to be high this year, and could spike earlier than usual, warned Mr Masagos.

From last November to last month, the NEA conducted more than 193,000 inspections and removed more than 4,000 breeding habitats, the majority of which were found in homes, he said.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) also asked about the proportion of dengue breeding in homes compared with external areas, given that there seems to be a perception among residents that most breeding grounds are outside residential areas.

To that, Mr Masagos said the number of residential premises where breeding grounds were discovered was "actually large", although on record, the number of checks carried out on residential premises was comparable to that at construction sites.

But the likelihood of a recalcitrant household re-offending "almost disappears" after it is given a warning and then a penalty, said Mr Masagos.

More than 1,000 households in dengue clusters were fined last year, said Mr Masagos, who added that the current penalties have been effective in keeping re-offending rates low.

As for construction sites, more than 900 contractors were ordered to attend court, and over 100 were prosecuted for repeat offences.

Nonetheless, his ministry will introduce stiffer penalties if necessary, he said.

Hospital workload not a reason for hep C outbreak
By Tan Weizhen, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

The hepatitis C outbreak was not directly caused by nurses and doctors being overwhelmed by their workload, according to investigations so far.

Giving an update in Parliament, Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat said: "We're doing a very thorough review on how to improve infection control, and also to look at the detection and response to outbreaks."

Mr Chee, who is heading a task force set up in the wake of the hepatitis C outbreak at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), added that investigations, so far, indicate that "workload has not been a direct cause of these infections".

He was responding to a question from Non-Constituency MP Leon Pereira, who asked if workload had contributed to the outbreak.

Last October, SGH said an outbreak of hepatitis C in its renal ward infected 22 patients. Three more cases were subsequently identified. In all, eight patients died.

Good quality healthcare for Singaporeans starts from our healthcare professionals---------------On 27 Jan, the Hon....
Posted by Chee Hong Tat 徐芳达 on Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mr Pereira had originally asked for data to compare the workload faced by healthcare professionals in public hospitals here, with those in other developed countries.

Mr Chee said figures showed that the ratio of doctors to the population in Singapore was comparable with those in other countries.

Singapore had 21 doctors for every 10,000 people, which compared well with Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which had 18 doctors for every 10,000 people, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

As for nurses, Singapore's ratio in 2014 was 69 nurses for every 10,000 people, compared with Hong Kong, which had 66, and Taiwan, which had 60.

Mr Pereira agreed, saying: "The doctor-to-population ratio may not capture every relevant dimension to the issue. There are disease incidents, and caseloads may differ according to these incidents so, the doctor-to-population ratio may not be a perfect approximation of relative workload."

He asked if the Ministry of Health would consider conducting a benchmarking study to assess the relative caseload for doctors and nurses in Singapore, compared with other countries.

Mr Chee said there are other benchmarks to measure the well-being of staff, such as the employee engagement surveys, conducted in hospitals every two or three years.

He said: "This is used to gauge morale and job satisfaction. And we also use the survey results to further improve staff motivation, engagement and retention.

"In the latest survey that we have, seven out of eight of our hospitals have either higher or comparable job satisfaction scores, compared with the Singapore national norm."

Singaporeans urged to be bold innovators
By Joyce Lim, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

The future may no longer be one where a bigger country beats a smaller one like Singapore.

Rather, the scenario might be one where it is "the fast that beats the slow and the imaginative will eat the lunches of the uninspired", said Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) yesterday.

In his parliamentary speech which focused on the need to transform the economy from one that adds value to one that creates value, Mr Liang urged Singaporeans to be innovators and entrepreneurs, and make "bold moves" to make that happen.

Singapore can no longer rely on its economic strategy of the last 50 years, especially as the country nears its limits on manpower growth and land space.

It does, however, have conditions that are ripe for this shift in direction, he argued, citing the Republic's robust economic fundamentals, adaptable workforce and political stability.

The Republic is also famously business-friendly, has one of the best legal frameworks for the protection of intellectual property rights, and offers ready access to public and private funds, making it the perfect environment for start-ups to grow in.

The challenge lies in spotting and seizing those opportunities that could blaze a new trail.

The Committee on the Future Economy - comprising 30 members from the private and public sectors - has been tasked with identifying future growth industries and markets and aims to complete its study by the end of this year.

Mr Liang said the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance and Trade and Industry, which he chairs, will participate in discussions with the Committee for Future Economy.

Dr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang) asked the Government to provide more incentives for businesses to move into "future economy" clusters.

"This involves relocating existing supporting businesses and building new business clusters for 'future economy' industries, including smart city technologies, medical and pharmaceutical manufacturing, or finance and professional services," said Dr Teo, who is also Mayor of North West District, yesterday.

But producing innovators and entrepreneurs should be part of Singapore's education system.

In his speech, Mr Liang urged the Education Ministry to move away from a "high-stress, high-stakes" environment focused on exam-based academic performances towards one that encourages critical and creative thinking. Schools also should not segregate students based on their abilities and talents, but make programmes such as those for the arts and sports available to more students. "In the economy of the future, having good subject-based knowledge is important but not enough on its own," he added.

Call to boost skills of undergrads pursuing general degrees here
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

Undergraduates pursuing general degrees in universities here do not have industry-relevant training or skills. They may lose out as Singapore emphasises the need for its people to have deep expertise, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said in Parliament yesterday.

This comes as the Republic embarks on a SkillsFuture movement to encourage Singaporeans to develop skills to take on jobs of the future. The Government has also pushed out a series of initiatives to encourage workers to master new skills.

The developments are positive, said Dr Intan, as they will allow the recognition of diverse abilities that go beyond academic grades.

But she is concerned that undergraduates in general degree programmes are ill-prepared, and urged the Ministry of Education (MOE) to study the benefits of "cross-discipline attachments or internships, and opportunities for multiskilling and second-skilling during the course of (the students') undergraduate studies". This may boost their employability, she said.

Dr Intan also encouraged mothers and housewives to use the SkillsFuture credits to gain new knowledge and skills, which will come in handy when they want to return to the workplace and supplement the household income.

All Singaporeans aged 25 and older will receive credits, starting from $500 now, that can help pay for training programmes ranging from language skills to the retail trade.

She also urged Malay/Muslim organisations such as Mendaki Sense - the training arm of self-help group Mendaki - and the Singapore Muslim Women's Association to develop upgrading programmes that can be paid with the SkillsFuture Credits for housewives, mothers, and single mothers.

"This way, our mothers will not feel that they are alone in their effort to enhance their knowledge and skills.

"When we strengthen our mothers and housewives, we guarantee the future of our community through our children," she said.

3 unhealthy trends plaguing education: Denise Phua
One is the obsession with scores - scrapping PSLE is the way to counter that, she says
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

The high-stakes Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) should be scrapped to counter the country's preoccupation with academic scores - one of three unhealthy trends plaguing the education system here, Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) said yesterday.

At 12, the pupils are also too young to be sorted by potential or ability, she suggested.

Ms Phua also renewed her call for the Ministry of Education (MOE) to pilot a 10-year through-train school model - with children moving from the primary to secondary level without taking a national exam at Primary 6. Referring to the upcoming revamp of the PSLE grading system, she said: "The problem is unlikely to disappear even if we replace PSLE T-scores with banding. Students will start scoring 4As or 5As and so forth, and we are back to square one."

The obsession with academic scores is due to "years of conditioning" and because most still believe academic success is the best avenue for social mobility, she said.

But the pursuit of academic rigour has become an impairment as even academically strong students are seeking tuition; popular secondary schools are selecting students based on their PSLE cut-off points; and teachers are focusing on preparing students to take standardised tests, Ms Phua added. "It is hard to cultivate or inculcate a love for learning when all that matters to the majority is the score from a series of high-stakes exams."

The two other negative trends are parents putting in top dollar to ensure their children's academic success; and physically segregating students of different learning abilities.

She said "parentocracy" - where children gain success due to their parents' wealth and social capital and not their own means - will "further rear its ugly head" as the stakes of academic scores become higher.

Ms Phua said it is an "open secret" that the Direct School Admission Exercise, which lets students enter secondary schools based on achievements in sports or the arts even if their PSLE scores fall below the cut-off points, benefits children from wealthier homes.

They have the means to be nurtured in specific areas from a young age, she said.

To level the playing field, Ms Phua suggested developing a software which teachers, students and parents can share and access the best learning materials and practices. Those who share good material and pedagogies should be rewarded, she said.

The current practice of physically segregating students when they are assessed to learn differently impedes the building of trust and empathy, said Ms Phua.

Students are now sorted into top schools or schools focusing on sports, the arts, or on supporting those who are academically weaker. They meet and interact only occasionally at events.

This practice should be examined and even scrapped, said Ms Phua. She instead suggested that the ministry pilot "education villages", which will take in students of different abilities and backgrounds.

"Let those who are academically strong learn via subject-banded classes, but design school campuses that allow diversity and vibrant social interactions for all.

"There is no better way to learn inclusion except to play, eat, interact and learn with others who are unlike yourself," she added.

Similarly, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) felt sorting secondary level students into Express and Normal streams "creates and entrenches the self-limiting belief... that they are only as good as the academic stream they are in".

She also wants the Special Assistance Plan schools to be relooked.

These schools promote the learning of the Chinese language and culture and admit students who have scored well in both the Chinese and English languages at the PSLE. They should recruit students who made the grade but did not take the Chinese language exams at the PSLE, as this will allow for "multiracial interactions and learning", she said.

The students will instead take Chinese as a third language from Secondary 1, she added.

Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) is also worried about tuition.

He questioned the effectiveness of MOE's "teach less, learn more" approach, which had trimmed syllabuses to give students more time to learn on their own.

"Has the shift to focus on quality teaching instead of quantity teaching... merely shifted more of the learning from the classroom to the private tutors?" he asked.

Mr Png wants the ministry to study the billion-dollar tuition culture here to help educators formulate better policies.

'Zoom in on new opportunities that longevity brings'
Amy Khor calls for a change in how people view ageing, envisaging a 'nation for all ages'
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor yesterday sketched out her vision of a "nation for all ages", an inclusive society that requires people to change the way they view ageing.

She called on Singaporeans to focus on the opportunities a longer-living population brings, instead of fearing the "silver tsunami" and its attendant problems.

Dr Khor said the advantages of longevity abound for the individual, the community and the country. At the individual level, long life can mean more years of earning an income, and the chance to enjoy new experiences and careers.

For the community, it can be a unifying cause, as residents and grassroots organisations strive to create programmes that embrace seniors.

Citing senior activity centre Goodlife! in Marine Parade, she said it started a community kitchen for the many elderly residents living alone in Marine Terrace.

The kitchen is in the void deck of their block and the seniors "come down, cook together, eat together and clean together," she said.

At the national level, the elderly present a new market for savvy businessmen, just like younger people do for the smartphone market and social media marketing.

Dr Khor, who is also Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, said: "Just as we have turned our water insecurity into path-breaking water technology solutions - highly sought after even by other countries - we need to reframe our ageing problem as a platform for us to innovate and create new opportunities."

She added that the Government will continue working with companies to be more elderly friendly and strengthen laws to protect the vulnerable elderly. But Singaporeans also have to buy into the idea of a city for all ages, she said.

Families must provide care and support for their elderly members, neighbours should look out for one another, and businesses need to see older workers as an asset. Older workers, too, must be willing to adapt and keep learning, she added.

"The vision of a distinctive nation for all ages I have sketched out may sound impossibly hard to achieve because it means changing thought patterns and ingrained practices.

"But challenges have never deterred us, as Singaporeans, from striving to build an exceptional nation. We can apply that to population ageing," Dr Khor said.

Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC) also called for greater societal support for the elderly, saying the principle of "ageing-in-place" should be "robustly defended".

He noted that 80 per cent of the heads of families aged 65 and older want to spend their silver years in their existing flats. They are also keen to stay close to long-time neighbours.

Hence, he cheered the government programme that lets up to six neighbours select replacement flats together when Tanglin Halt estate is redeveloped.

"This social glue is important. We want to see as many Singaporeans as possible grow old with dignity in the community where they have spent the better part of their lives."

Dr Chia, an orthopaedic surgeon, offered suggestions to the Health Ministry on eldercare.

He urged it to hasten the development of alternatives to nursing homes, and called for public education to make young and middle-aged Singaporeans more aware of the need to plan for old age.

He said insurers should be given a bigger role in long-term care financing. The Government can also provide more funding to develop mobility aides, monitoring devices and robotics that help the elderly, he added."Let us work together to help our senior citizens remain healthy... and provide options for them to age in the community," Dr Chia said.

Singapore to work with UN agency to help refugees
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

As a small and densely populated city state with limited land, Singapore is unable to accept any refugees, even as millions of Syrians flee their war-torn country now overrun by militants.

What is needed is a "political solution to end the conflict definitively", Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told the House yesterday.

Until then, Singapore will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and legitimate humanitarian groups to help the victims, said Dr Balakrishnan, who did not provide details.

"Unfortunately, that is the limit of what we can do right now, until a political solution and peace are achieved within a fractured country, and in the region as a whole."

He was replying to Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), who wanted to know what Singapore's position is on the Syrian refugees.

Expressing Singapore's sympathies, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore is "not in a position to accept any persons seeking refugee status, regardless of ethnicity or place of origin", given its constraints.

"This is a longstanding, indeed decades-old, government policy."

Calling the ongoing Syrian conflict a tragedy, Dr Balakrishnan noted that over 220,000 Syrians have been killed, and four million forced to flee. Millions have also been internally displaced by the ongoing battle between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group, and government forces.

"Syria has become the epicentre for extremism and violence, and this is becoming an international phenomenon," he said, adding that what is needed is an eventual solution and clear strategy to deal with terrorist groups that pose "a clear and present global menace", including to Singapore.

While efforts to resolve the crisis, like recent meetings of the International Syria Support Group and the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution, are steps in the right direction, "achieving this in reality on the ground is much harder than talks and resolutions", said Dr Balakrishnan.

Over 4,000 seek visit pass for prospective spouses
By Joyce Lim, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

A scheme that allows Singaporeans and their prospective foreign spouses to start applying for a long-term visit pass before they tie the knot has received more than 4,000 applications.

Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin yesterday said the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore received 4,159 applications last year, and it assessed 3,764 of these applications last year.

Mr Amrin was responding to Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who wanted to know how many Singaporean-foreigner couples have gone for the Pre-Marriage Long-Term Visit Pass Assessment since it was introduced in January last year.

The scheme gives such couples a better idea of whether they will get a long-term visit pass before they register their marriage. Before it was introduced, they could apply for the visit passes only after marriage.

Mr Amrin yesterday said 2,481, or 66 per cent of the applicants assessed, were given a Letter of Eligibility, which allows them to apply for a long-term visit pass once they are married.

It takes an average of four weeks to assess a case, he added.

The assessment was one of several initiatives introduced to make sure Singaporeans and foreigners who want to get married are fully aware of each other's backgrounds.

Both sides are required to provide information about their financial status, educational background, past marriages and criminal records, if any.

With the long-term visit pass, the foreign spouse can stay in Singapore for up to a year at a time.

Madam Samai Chatthahan, 32, a Thai national, said: "When I first married my Singaporean husband in 2002, I was worried if I would be allowed to stay here long-term. I believe many foreign spouses have the same concern. The new scheme will give them more assurance before moving here."

School classrooms to get air purifiers
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2016

Classrooms in schools under the Ministry of Education (MOE) will be equipped with air purifiers by July in an effort to deal with the severe haze that could hit Singapore again this year.

About 25,000 air purifiers will be installed in classrooms in primary, secondary and special education schools, and in the 15 kindergartens that MOE runs.

This will "further enhance the well-being of our students and staff during a haze situation", Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said in a written reply.

He was responding to a question from Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), who had asked if MOE has plans to use air-conditioners and air purifiers in classrooms when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading reaches the unhealthy range, or when the reading crosses the 100-point mark.

Mr Ng said the move to put air purifiers in classrooms was done in consultation with the National Environment Agency and the Ministry of Health.

MOE also took into account the "unusually prolonged haze season of 2015 as a possible forerunner of future haze seasons", he said.

In September last year, the ministry ordered primary, secondary and special education schools and its kindergartens across the island to close for a day due to worsening haze conditions. Two O-levelexaminations were rescheduled, affecting about 100 students.

The 24-hour PSI reading then was between 219 and 270, in the very unhealthy range. A PSI reading above the 300-point mark is considered hazardous.

Yesterday, Mr Ng also responded to a question from Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, who had asked if the primary and secondary school curricula would include detailed explanations on why balloting secrecy remains inviolate in elections.

Mr Ng said the social studies, history, and character and citizenship education subjects teach students about elections here and how they contribute to good governance. But as curriculum time is limited, content needs to be selective and specific topics such as balloting secrecy are not included.

However, students are given references such as the website of the Elections Department, so that they can find out more about the voting process, he said.

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