Thursday, 3 March 2016

Parliament Highlights - 1 Mar 2016

* Death of 14-year-old student Benjamin Lim - What happened?

Volunteers to get powers to enforce littering rules
NEA officers to train and supervise volunteers; number of littering fines hit 6-year high in 2015
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2016

Individuals can soon join the National Environment Agency (NEA) as community volunteers to nudge litterbugs to pick up their rubbish, and spot those who smoke, spit or urinate where they are not allowed.

These volunteers and auxiliary police officers will be given enforcement powers, such as issuing warnings and summonses.

Previously, only those from relevant non-governmental organisations could join the volunteer scheme. Volunteers could also only ask for the particulars of uncooperative offenders, to hand over to NEA officers for further investigation.

In addition, NEA officers have been given more powers to photograph or take a video of any violation of environmental laws.

These steps, in the NEA (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill passed yesterday, come as the number of littering fines hit a six-year high of over 26,000 last year.

Since the community volunteer programme began in 2013, about 340 volunteers have engaged 2,500 litterbugs. And keeping Singapore clean requires everyone to play an active role, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli told the House.

"This Bill will allow passionate individuals to take greater community ownership of our environment and better complement NEA's enforcement efforts."

But three Workers' Party MPs spoke up against the Bill, saying the extension of enforcement powers to volunteers could be abused. One called for the Bill to be referred to a Select Committee.

Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh feared the expanded powers would lead to a toxic environment of neighbours policing each other, while Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) took issue with giving the NEA chief executive the ability to grant these powers.

Mr Masagos said the main role of community volunteers is to educate offenders, and that most offenders are cooperative. To prevent abuse, NEA officers will train and supervise volunteers and make sure that reports are made properly and forms filled up correctly.

"At the end of the day, these powers are there for them to be able to use, but not for them to abuse," he said. "It is not about giving them a badge and the powers to do whatever they want."

Some MPs were also concerned about how volunteers are picked.

Mr Masagos assured Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) that NEA would choose "suitable individuals who have the right public spirit, good communication skills, and who care deeply about our environment".

All volunteers would be interviewed to assess their maturity and interest in environmental activities, he added. They must also be Singaporeans or permanent residents who are at least 18 years old.

Responding to Ms Lee's question about how to ensure that volunteers feel appreciated, Mr Masagos said the ministry would make an effort to recognise them in the media and other outlets.

Several of the six MPs who spoke talked about the need for a mindset change, where people avoid littering not due to the fear of fines but because it is morally wrong.

To that end, Ms Lee and Mr Gan said the Education Ministry's move to introduce daily cleaning by students in schools by end-2016 would go a long way in fostering new social norms.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) said anti-littering campaigns could be more creative and targeted at hot spots, instead of the usual nationwide ones which "the public might be immune to".

In the interim, Mr Gan suggested that offenders carrying out corrective work orders do so at the place where the offence took place, as well as where they live. They should not be allowed to wear any accessories that cover their face, so that the fear of embarrassment can act as a deterrent, he added.

The Bill was passed without amendment, but all nine WP MPs voted against it.

Uptick in high-rise littering cases reported to NEA
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2016

Some 2,800 cases of high-rise littering were reported to the National Environment Agency (NEA) last year, said Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor yesterday.

This is up from the 2,500 cases reported in 2014, and 1,600 cases in 2013.

No one was killed by killer litter last year, although police arrested two high-rise litterbugs who caused injuries, she said.

Dr Khor was responding to Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who asked how many cases of high-rise littering had resulted in injuries and deaths.

Several MPs also called for harsher punishment for recalcitrant litterbugs, citing examples of residents who have complained of clothes being burned by cigarette butts, and faeces being thrown from flats.

Dr Khor acknowledged that high-rise litterbugs "are traditionally difficult to apprehend".

To nab the persistent litterbugs, the NEA deploys surveillance cameras at suitable sites, she said.

More than 3,000 cameras have been deployed since August 2012.

Dr Khor said the cameras have led to identification of offenders in one-third of cases. She said this in response to Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), who asked how successful the surveillance cameras have been.

Last year, the NEA took enforcement action in more than 800 cases, an 80-fold increase compared to 2011, before surveillance cameras were introduced, she said.

Those who were prosecuted in court were fined between $700 and $5,600.

When cases are reported, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources works with town councils and grassroots organisations to caution residents against high-rise littering, said Dr Khor. In most cases, the situation improved after these efforts, she said.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson SMC) asked ifthe ministry would consider revealing the identities of litterbugs, and confiscating the flats of recalcitrant offenders who persist despite being fined many times.

Dr Khor said naming and shaming litterbugs is something the ministry will "monitor and consider".

She also urged Singaporeans to play their part to combat high-rise littering, saying: "I would like to urge every member of the public to play his part to cultivate social graciousness, good habits and a sense of shared responsibility for the cleanliness and safety of our neighbourhoods."

Parked vehicles: More leaving engines running
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2016

More drivers are leaving the engines of their parked vehicles running despite it being an offence.

In the last three years, about 12,000 motorists have been issued advisories, warnings or offers of composition, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said yesterday. The total works out to 4,000 a year, far more than the 2,700 in 2012, he noted.

Of the 12,000 cases, 24 drivers had their offences compounded for $70, double the number between 2009 and 2012, an NEA spokesman said.

The increase surprised Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC), who had asked for the figures.

But the jump, Mr Masagos said, was due to increased complaints and stepped-up enforcement by the National Environment Agency (NEA).

He added: "Leaving the engine running when the vehicle is stationary results in fuel wastage and unnecessary environmental pollution."

Under Environmental Protection and Management (Vehicular Emissions) regulations, which date back to 1999, a driver can be fined up to $2,000 the first time and up to $5,000 for subsequent offences.

Mr Masagos said some drivers perceived, albeit wrongly, that they needed to warm up their engines before driving off, to get better fuel efficiency or help the engines last longer. But new technology has changed that, he added.

"Vehicle manufacturers we have consulted say that engines warm up faster to reach the optimal temperature when the vehicle is driven at moderate speeds on starting, he said, adding: "So I hope we'll move away from the old habits."

To raise people's awareness of the rule, the NEA has installed signs to remind drivers, and these are found at places where motorists often gather, such as carparks, loading bays and along roads near schools.

People who spot such vehicles may report them to the NEA, giving the vehicle registration number, as well as the location, date and time of the incident. They may call the NEA hotline on 1800-CALL NEA (1800-2255 632), use the smartphone app myENV or send videos to

Quality of healthcare 'not tied to workforce numbers'
Chee Hong Tat says having more doctors and nurses also does not mean health outcomes are better
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2016

Having more doctors and nurses does not automatically lead to better-quality healthcare or better outcomes, said Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat.

He made the point yesterday when replying to Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, who had said he was concerned that Singapore's ratios of doctors and nurses to population are closer to those of Taiwan and Hong Kong rather than to those of the developed OECD countries.

The two Asian economies suffer a shortage of doctors and nurses.

Mr Perera had raised the issue when he asked about the Health Ministry's plans to improve the two ratios in the next five years.

He also wanted to know if the ministry had "fallback options" if it could not meet its target to improve the two ratios.

In responding, Mr Chee reminded Mr Perera that he had given the numbers at the January parliamentary sitting, in response to a question from the opposition NCMP.

In 2014, Singapore had 21 doctors and 69 nurses per 10,000 people.

In comparison, it was 18 doctors in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and 66 nurses in Hong Kong and 60 in Taiwan.

The ratios are just "broad comparisons" as healthcare needs and practices differ, he noted. Also, the OECD countries "don't necessarily have better health outcomes than Singapore".

Mr Chee also said Singapore is on track in its recruitment of 20,000 healthcare workers between 2011 and 2020.

Mr Perera asked if the hiring was because current numbers "are not really where they should be".

No, it is to meet future demand as the population ages, Mr Chee said. "We always plan ahead, we always anticipate... we build ahead of demand, we deal with the situation before the problem emerges.''

He, however, warned that beyond 2020, "Singapore will face an increase in projected healthcare demand and a smaller local workforce due to our ageing population".

Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) said his residents have told him that local language, culture and nuances were important, and asked how the ministry was going to maintain "a strong Singapore core" in healthcare.

Mr Chee said the ministry is working with hospitals, healthcare institutions and unions to look at ways to improve the work environment so that healthcare workers can work till a later age.

It is also looking at funding the training of mid-career professionals who want to be healthcare workers and giving them training allowances during their studies to help defray their living expenses, he added.

The ministry had also given 630 pre-employment grants, by March last year, to Singaporeans studying medicine and dentistry overseas. They have to return to work here.

In his reply to Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC), Mr Chee noted the recent opening of Ng Teng Fong General Hospital and Yishun Community Hospital to meet demand. And in the next few years, general hospitals will open in Sengkang and Woodlands. "So we do plan ahead and build ahead.

CPF members go for higher top up limits
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2016

Central Provident Fund (CPF) members made 1,700 top-ups - worth $80 million - to their Retirement Accounts in January to boost their retirement savings beyond the Full Retirement Sum.

This was the first month that a change in the CPF system took effect, allowing people above the age of 55 to set aside a higher sum - the Enhanced Retirement Sum - that will give them higher lifelong payouts under CPF Life.

CPF Life is an annuity scheme that gives members monthly payouts when they reach the eligible age, with the amount depending on how much money they have in their Retirement Account.

The Enhanced Retirement Sum is $241,500 for those turning 55 this year, which translates to monthly payouts of $1,770 to $1,990 later on.

Previously, the maximum amount members could set aside was the Full Retirement Sum, which is $161,000 for those turning 55 this year, and translates to monthly payouts of $1,220 to $1,320.

This was known as the Minimum Sum under an older scheme.

Ms Foo, speaking to The Straits Times, said she lobbied for the cap on these savings to be raised because many of her constituents felt the lower level of payouts would not be enough to give them a secure retirement, based on their needs. "There is clearly a segment of people who appreciate CPF giving them high returns, risk free," she said.

Another change to the CPF system allows members to transfer money to their spouse's Special or Retirement Account, if they themselves have met the Basic Retirement Sum. It is $80,500 for those turning 55 this year.

Previously, they could make such transfers only if they met the Full Retirement Sum.

Mr Lim said there were over 400 transfers of CPF savings to spouses in January, around 2 1/2 times more than the same month last year. About 20 of the transfers were made possible only after the scheme was changed.

In total, $12 million was transferred by CPF members to their spouse in January.

Ms Padmaja Nair, 57, was among those who topped up their Retirement Account to get higher payouts in future. She put in $15,000 beyond the Full Retirement Sum for her cohort.

"I'm not an investment-savvy person, so I'd rather...put it in the Retirement Account to get better interest rates," she said.

Possible extension for HDB shops
The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2016

Heartland shops sold on a 30-year lease will be taken back by the Housing Board when the lease expires, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong confirmed yesterday.

But HDB will consider allowing lessees to continue renting the shops after the lease expires, he added, saying it would have to be "in line with future planning intentions".

He was replying to Ms Cheryl Chan (Fengshan), who asked what will happen to these shops when their 30-year leases run out in a few years.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked if businesses would get any help when the commercial units they occupy are destroyed by fire.

Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee said both HDB and JTC have measures to help tenants. For instance, for factory units, the HDB would carry out repair works and grant rent remissions.

IRAS rejected 43,000 PIC claims
The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2016

Of the 71,000 Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) claims investigated by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) between 2011 and 2015, more than half were rejected.

Responding to a question from Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), Senior Minister of State for Finance Indranee Rajah said yesterday that IRAS rejected 43,000 of these claims.

Another 1,500 of the claims investigated had already been approved and the funds paid out had to be recovered, she added.

IRAS has clawed back $8 million of the $11 million paid out for such fraudulent claims.

In a separate reply to another question from Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) on government tenders, Ms Indranee said there are guidelines on how to draft contract specifications, but it is impossible to cover every scenario across different industries.

Explore indoor farming, solar power, says NCMP Perera
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2016

Singapore needs to do more to explore large-scale indoor farming and the generation of solar energy, Workers' Party (WP) Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera said yesterday.

This could make the country less reliant on imported food and fuel, and help local companies develop expertise that can be exported, he said in an adjournment motion.

The motion lets him speak for up to 20 minutes before the House adjourns for the day.

He noted that the Government had acknowledged the potential of indoor farming in launching a $63 million agriculture productivity fund in 2014, for instance.

But with only $690,000 disbursed within a year of its launch, more can be done, he said, adding that economic development agencies could actively groom local firms.

He also suggested that some underground space could be developed into large-scale indoor vertical farms, noting that an underground farm opened in London last year.

Mr Perera proposed investing more in solar power as well.

Renewable power is better for energy security and economic stability, given volatile fossil fuel prices.

Investing in solar power will create "good jobs" that range from maintenance to operations to research and development.

Noting that the Housing Board aims to have solar panels on 5,500 blocks by 2020, he said: "We can be more aggressive and set a goal to install solar panels on every HDB building roof by 2025."

National water agency PUB has also been considering solar panels in Tengeh Reservoir and Choa Chu Kang Waterworks. Solar panels could also be deployed across all reservoirs and parts of Singapore's territorial waters, Mr Perera said.

He proposed a study to assess how much of Singapore's total electricity generation could be from solar power, under both conservative and "stretch" scenarios.

The WP member said he hoped his party's suggestions would lead to more fact-finding by the Government, working together with academia and the private sector.

Replying, Parliamentary Secretary for Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling thanked him for the suggestions.

On underground farming, she said developing underground space is expensive. "We do need to understand the trade-offs, the cost- benefit analysis, and so more studies need to be done to ascertain the best use of underground space."

As for solar power, she said "government-led demand is helping to grow this very nascent industry".

She also listed various government efforts to move into other new industries, such as the manufacturing of "biologics" or genetically engineered drugs.

New and emerging industries, including the two highlighted by Mr Perera, are very much on the agenda of the Committee on the Future Economy, she added.

The committee aims to complete its work in developing future economic strategies for Singapore by the end of this year.

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