Wednesday 16 March 2016

Parliament Highlights - 14 Mar 2016

Ban on display of tobacco products from 2017
Aim is to prevent impulse buys, especially among youth; rules on online ads will also be tightened
By Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 15 Mar 2016

Shop owners will not be allowed to keep tobacco products in plain sight from next year, after Parliament approved changes to the law yesterday.

The affected products include cigarettes, cigars, beedis and "ang hoon", or loose tobacco leaves.

The display ban is intended to prevent impulse buys, especially among young people.

Rules on online tobacco advertisements will also be tightened. For example, ads that come from Singapore will be banned, even if they are not targeted at Singaporeans.

"With the expansion of online access, there is increasing use of the Internet for tobacco advertising and commerce," said Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor in moving the Bill.

She said Singapore should ensure that its curbs on tobacco advertising are comprehensive.

As for the 17 shops that specialise in selling tobacco products, Dr Khor said they would be allowed to display them, as long as the products are not visible from outside the shops.

In response to queries from MPs, she added that duty-free shops at Changi Airport would be exempt from the new rules for now, while those at seaports would have to follow modified rules similar to those for specialist tobacco shops.

MPs welcomed the move, with some like Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) reeling off a string of smoking-related ailments to stress the importance of anti- smoking measures.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) even recounted his own efforts at kicking the habit, recalling how the nicotine withdrawal symptoms made him "a Grouchy Smurf ".

"If there was one thing I remember about the quitting process, it was that I did my very best to avoid places selling cigarettes," he said. "Every time I saw a cigarette packet... my cravings shot up."

Others, such as Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) and Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC), called for even stricter measures to curb smoking rates.

Suggestions included raising the minimum legal age for buying cigarettes and increasing the number of designated smoking zones.

It was even suggested that smoking be made illegal for those born after a certain year. This would not disadvantage current smokers, said Dr Tan, who is a medical oncologist by training.

"But over time, there would be fewer smokers and less harm caused by second-hand smoke," he added.

Dr Khor said the Health Ministry has given this proposal much thought, but is not fully convinced of its effectiveness.

"Our concerns are the significant practical difficulties and risks in implementing and enforcing such a ban," she said, adding that it may not even cut smoking rates.

She added that enforcement would be "challenging" and "resource-intensive", and that it would also require laws to penalise people who buy cigarettes for those affected by the ban.

School transfers fair, more transparent with new guideline
Schools told to take in only students who meet cut-off after parent feedback: Ng Chee Meng
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 15 Mar 2016

Secondary schools were directed to stop taking in transfer students who do not meet the cut-off point, to make the schools transfer process more transparent and fair, said Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng in Parliament yesterday.

The previous practice allowed schools to take in transfer students based on factors such as performance in co-curricular activities and connections to the school, noted Mr Ng.

He said this was not "entirely fair or transparent" to those students who were not posted to the schools despite having a similar or higher Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) score.

"This new guideline... is to ensure, and assure parents and students, that the system for appeals and transfers is transparent, objective and fair to all students," he said, explaining the rationale behind it.

Under the rule put in place last November, secondary schools are no longer allowed to take in transfer students whose PSLE T-scores do not meet the school's cut-off, except in special circumstances.

Mr Ng said many transfer appeals that schools receive are from students who fell short of the cut-off.

These appeals typically cited factors such as good performance in co-curricular activities, connections to the school and proximity to a student's home. Allowing transfers based on these factors will mean that these take precedence over the PSLE T-score, he said.

He added that the Ministry of Education (MOE) had received feedback from some parents who were unhappy as they felt the old transfer process "was not sufficiently fair and transparent".

After reviewing the feedback, MOE decided it would be better to have a simpler system, where only students who meet the school's cut-off will have their transfer appeals considered, he said.

Mr Ng said 95 per cent of students are posted to a school of their choice, and 90 per cent to a school from their top three choices.

Since the change, more than 800 students have successfully transferred to another school, he added.

Most of these students met the school's cut-off point, and those who did not had appealed "on the basis of medical, special needs or exceptional circumstances".

Asked to elaborate on these cases, Mr Ng gave an example of a student who has a congenital problem requiring her bladder to be cleaned every four hours. Her appeal to transfer to a secondary school near her home was successful, although she did not meet the cut-off point.

Mr Ng was responding to Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC), who asked about the change and said some parents had complained that the rule was not announced earlier.

Many students found out about the change only through online forums, or when their transfer requests were rejected.

Mr Ng acknowledged the MOE "could have done better" in communicating the rule, and said it would learn from the experience.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) asked if the MOE, which has moved away from focusing on scores, is now backtracking.

Mr Ng said the ministry has not changed its philosophy. He added that the schools admission system recognises students' non-academic talents through schemes such as the Direct School Admission, which allows schools to admit students before the PSLE using criteria such as talent in sports or the arts.

"It would be better to maintain a system that is seen to be fair, transparent and meritocratic," he said.

Teen Benjamin Lim's death: Schools assess suicide risk but not for every police case, says Ng Chee Meng
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 15 Mar 2016

When the police turn up at a school seeking a student for investigations, school staff will check on the student's emotional and physical well-being, but will not conduct a suicide risk assessment in every case, Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said in Parliament yesterday.

Instead, such assessments are done only for those students who show signs of serious emotional distress or are known to have mental health issues, he added in response to questions from two MPs.

"We do not conduct a suicide risk assessment for every case as such screening may add distress or confusion to some students, especially for those who have not even contemplated suicide," said Mr Ng.

Yesterday, Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh had asked if schools assess students in police probes for suicide risk.

In January, secondary school student Benjamin Lim was found dead at the foot of his block, hours after he was taken from his school by the police and questioned over a molest case. Mr Ng and Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam had delivered ministerial statements on the 14-year-old's death when the House sat earlier this month.

Mr Ng said yesterday that all school counsellors are trained to assess students for suicide risk, and consider factors such as a student's personal circumstances and medical status. The counsellors also check if the student has attempted suicide in the past, and ask the student if he plans to take his life.

But the minister cautioned that such assessments are not foolproof, "given the dynamic psychological state of a child".

"Subsequent developments that occur after the assessment can also alter the risk profile of the student," Mr Ng added.

He said it is more important to consistently monitor and support the student, adding that schools and parents have to work together.

Teachers and counsellors will look out for the student before and during questioning at the school, after the student returns home from the police station, and when the student returns to school, he said

Likewise, parents must give greater attention to support their child during this period, he added.

He reiterated that the Ministry of Education is taking part in the review of police procedures involving minors, which the police had announced following Benjamin's death.

Depending on the review, the ministry is open to the possibility of having school counsellors act as appropriate adults, Mr Ng said.

Currently, appropriate adults sit in when the police take statements from people with intellectual or mental disabilities.

Mr Ng also outlined the training that teachers and counsellors go through, in response to Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC), who asked how schools support students with mental health issues.

He said teachers are trained to keep an eye out for students who show distress signals and talk to them, among other things.

Students who need more support are referred to school counsellors, who all have professional qualifications in counselling, said Mr Ng.

The more severe cases are referred to medical professionals.

He said these systems were developed in consultation with mental health experts, including Dr Daniel Fung of the Institute of Mental Health.

"Our schools take the psychological and mental well-being of our students very seriously," said Mr Ng.

Lifts at Clementi station overhead bridge to run round the clock
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Mar 2016

Lifts at a new pedestrian bridge at Clementi MRT station, which were once closed at night, will now be open round the clock, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

He was responding to Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), who cited the bridge - which replaced a ground-level, barrier-free crossing - to illustrate how new infrastructure must serve people better than their previous iterations.

Dr Tan, who had filed an adjournment motion which let him speak for up to 20 minutes, said Clementi residents with mobility needs had to find a different place to cross the road at night as the lifts shut down after MRT services cease.

It is important for public servants to not "lose sight that people are at the heart of all we do", Dr Tan said.

"When we add new innovations, we must be mindful about subtracting from what came before, especially when it affects the disadvantaged and vulnerable among us."

Mr Wong, in announcing that the lifts would be accessible all day, said the Land Transport Authority (LTA) would learn from this and "make sure that solutions are available... in other towns as well".

Mr Wong added that government agencies have always sought to put people first when designing public facilities, and would continue to do so.

"One key priority for us (now) is to improve our pedestrian connectivity, to improve 'first-mile, last-mile' connections and to ensure that our environment is highly walkable," he said.

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Posted by Tan Wu Meng - 陈有明 on Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Dr Tan had also highlighted two public hospitals which could do with more sheltered walkways from their nearest MRT stations, to help make visits to loved ones who are ill less stressful.

To this, Mr Wong said the LTA will construct a covered walkway from Little India MRT station to KK Women's and Children's Hospital later this year.

There will be also be more bus services running between Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and nearby MRT stations.

Dr Tan also called for the Building Code to be revised to compel private developers to build barrier-free, overhead crossings from their retail buildings to nearby HDB precincts. He said there had been several "missed opportunities" to link malls to HDB developments, as in the case of Clementi Mall and 321 Clementi.

Mr Wong said agencies already work with developers to safeguard pedestrians' access through private developments, but added that his ministry was studying how to enhance the laws and will share the details in due course.

He also noted that making a city more walkable requires the Government to make hard decisions, such as shrinking road sizes or closing more roads.

"If we truly want to embrace a more pedestrian-friendly culture, it's really about adopting a 'car-lite culture' in Singapore," he said, highlighting car-free Sundays in the Civic District as an example of how to get people used to such a mindset.

Updates to draw more foreign investment
By Marissa Lee, The Straits Times, 15 Mar 2016

Parliament yesterday approved changes to the law to attract more foreign direct investment here.

The updates to the Economic Expansion Incentives Act extend the maximum possible tax relief period for firms if they anchor their "pioneering activities" in Singapore.

Attracting foreign firms - or "queen bees" - to set up substantive operations here will allow Singapore to develop clusters in new industries and create good jobs for locals, Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang said.

Singapore has traditionally drawn foreign investment to its shores by awarding Pioneer Certificates that come with tax incentives to firms if they undertake substantive economic activity here.

Yesterday's amendments clarify that the maximum tax holiday period of 15 years for certificate-holders applies only to the activity for which the firm got the certificate, instead of the company as a whole.

As firms are awarded multiple Pioneer Certificates when they anchor different economic activities over time, the updates keep Singapore's tax regime competitive, he added.

The updates also clarify that the maximum tax relief period of 20 years under the Development and Expansion Incentive (DEI) scheme applies to the firm's qualifying activities, not the company as a whole.

Mr Lim said: "These enhancements will encourage companies engaged in high value-added manufacturing or services activities, including existing ones, to continue to expand in Singapore."

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) asked Mr Lim how local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups with the potential to become globally competitive could gain from the Pioneer Certificate and DEI schemes, and how many SMEs have received the certificates.

Mr Lim said 239 firms have been given certificates over the past decade. Between 2011 and 2015, 71 firms got certificates, including two SMEs, one of which was a local company.

"The Pioneer Certificate requires companies to commit to contributions of substantive scale. It's quite natural the bigger companies would tend to qualify," he said. There are other platforms to support local firms' growth, Mr Lim added.

All Singaporeans can choose to be in subsidised wards at public hospitals: Health Minister
Patients at public hospitals who face difficulties with their medical expenses and wish to switch from unsubsidised care to subsidised care can also approach the staff for assistance, says Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.
Channel NewsAsia, 14 Mar 2016

All Singaporeans who need to be admitted into a public hospital can choose to be admitted into subsidised ward classes, regardless of whether they had been receiving unsubsidised or subsidised care previously.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said this in Parliament on Monday (Mar 14), in response to a question by MP for Jurong GRC Tan Wu Meng.

Dr Tan wanted to know what measures are available to help Singaporeans who are on non-subsidised rates to obtain subsidised rates at public hospitals if they were previously on employer-provided healthcare insurance which has since expired.

Mr Gan assured that hospitals provide financial counselling to patients prior to or upon admission, to help them select a ward class appropriate to their needs.

Patients at public hospitals who face difficulties with their medical expenses and wish to switch from unsubsidised care to subsidised care can also approach the staff for assistance. Each request is assessed on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration various factors, such as his bill size, medical condition and his ability to pay, including employment status.

Mr Gan said resources are limited and that efforts must be targeted so that subsidies and financial assistance are extended to those who genuinely need them.

He said: "For patients who are genuinely in financial difficulties, the hospitals and Ministry of Health (MOH) will certainly extend our assistance to them, regardless if they have been using their employer's insurance before they retire. We treat all patients alike ... and we will continue to improve our processes, to ensure that those who need financial assistance will get them." 

Mr Gan said MOH has been encouraging employers to move towards portable medical benefits for their employees and efforts will continue. However, he said the real portable medical benefit is MediShield Life which has been introduced as it is independent of employers and universal.

LTA stepping up e-bike enforcement as accidents rise: Ng Chee Meng
There were 27 accidents last year, with 22 injuries and five fatal accidents, in 2015, says the Senior Minister of State for Transport. 
By Kenneth Lim, Channel NewsAsia, 14 Mar 2016

Authorities are stepping up enforcement efforts on those who flout electric bicycle rules said Senior Minister of State for Transport Ng Chee Meng said in Parliament on Monday (Mar 14).

There were 27 accidents last year, with 22 injuries and five fatal accidents, compared with just six the year before, which include four injuries and two fatal accidents, Mr Ng, who is also the Acting Education Minister, added.

"LTA had tightened the technical requirements for electric bicycles in December last year. Only electric bicycles which weigh less than 20kg - with motor power cut off as they reach 25 kilometres per hour, or if the cyclist stops pedalling - are allowed on public roads," he said.

"This is to minimise injuries in case of accidents. LTA has also stepped up enforcements and penalties against electric bicycles that do not comply with these requirements," he stated.

The Ministry of Transport had said earlier this month that there was a 63 per cent increase for offences specific to electric bicycles from 2010 to 2015.

Mr Ng also said that the review of cycling path safety, headed by Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Social and Family Development Faishal Ibrahim, is in its advanced stages and the review panel will be making its announcements soon.

Parents can use CPF savings to pay for children's tuition fees at approved institutions: MOM
However, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say says using CPF Retirement Account savings compromises the savings set aside for retirement, especially if their children "do not or are unable to repay the loan after graduation”.
By Kenneth Lim, Channel NewsAsia, 14 Mar 2016

Parents can use their Central Provident Fund (CPF) Ordinary Account (OA) savings to pay for their children's full-time subsidised diploma or degree courses’ tuition fees at approved tertiary institutions, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in Parliament on Monday (Mar 14).

Some CPF members have also used funds in their Retirement Account (RA) for this purpose.

However, this compromises the savings set aside for retirement, especially if their children "do not or are unable to repay the loan after graduation”, said Mr Lim.

Instead, he told the House that CPF members with insufficient OA savings should consider other avenues to finance their children's tertiary education. These include various loans and bursaries offered by the Education Ministry, financial assistance schemes offered by tertiary institutions, as well as other community organisations, or the Tuition Fee and Study Loan schemes offered by the Government.

"Under the Tuition Fee Loan scheme, students are able to loan up to 75 per cent of the tuition fees for those doing the diploma courses, up to 75 per cent, and the remaining 25 per cent they can even apply for the Student Loan (Study Loan) scheme,” said Mr Lim. “So the Tuition Fee Loan Scheme together with the Study Loan Scheme will be able to cover up to 100 per cent of the tuition fees, and on top of that, they will be able to apply for living allowances as well."

Citizenship not automatically granted to PRs who complete NS: MHA
But having completed National Service is a "plus factor" in the evaluation of a Permanent Resident's citizenship application, says Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Home Affairs Amrin Amin, with 98% of such applicants between 2011 and 2015 successful.
Channel NewsAsia, 14 Mar 2016

About 98 per cent of applications for Singapore citizenship among Permanent Residents (PRs) who have completed National Service (NS) from 2011 to 2015 were approved, said Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Home Affairs Amrin Amin in Parliament on Monday (Mar 14).

During this period, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore (ICA) received about 4,000 applications among this group of PRs, Mr Amrin said, in response to a question by MP Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC).

"Singapore citizenship is not granted automatically to PRs who have completed National Service," he clarified.

Each application is evaluated holistically, said Mr Amrin. It will be a "plus factor" in the evaluation if a PR has completed NS and performed well during the stint.

The evaluation assesses how committed an applicant is to sinking roots, and also how well the applicant is able to contribute and integrate into our society, he added.

Society at large has a role to play in anti-radicalisation efforts: K Shanmugam
Singaporeans, employers and workers can all play a part in protecting the country against threats of radicalisation, said Minister of Home Affairs K Shanmugam.
Channel NewsAsia, 14 Mar 2016

While security agencies will continue to monitor and investigate when there are signs of radicalisation in Singapore, society at large also needs to play its part, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in Parliament on Monday (Mar 14).

The larger Singaporean society must also play a part in protecting us against these threats,” said Mr Shanmugam. “Singaporeans need to help to safeguard family and friends from becoming radicalised. Employers need to pay attention to goings-on in workers’ dormitories. Workers too, can play a part in reporting suspicious activities that they may come across.”

He was responding to a question by Marine Parade GRC MP Fatimah Lateef, who asked whether there were any follow-up efforts and strategies in identifying more radicalised groups after the arrest and deportation of 27 radicalised Bangladeshi nationals.

In January, 27 Bangladeshi nationals were arrested in Singapore and repatriated for having terror links. The 27 had planned to conduct extremist activities in Bangladesh, but no acts were planned to take place in Singapore.

In response to a question whether there can be any action plans to be put in place together with dormitory operators, Mr Shanmugam noted that the size and structure of foreign worker dormitories have have to be cleared by security agencies, due to other issues beyond that of terrorism, such as the possibility of violence.

“The issue of overall security is an ongoing conversation, not just with the people who manage foreign worker dormitories, but we need to involve the broader Singapore society,” said Mr Shanmugam.

He added that the Ministry of Home Affairs will be “announcing some plans” soon.

Mr Shanmugam also pointing out that the incidence of crime is lower among foreign workers than the wider Singaporean population, possibly due to the “huge economic costs” for them if they are deported.

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