Saturday 9 April 2016

Committee of Supply Debate 2016: MHA, MinLaw, MFA, MINDEF


ERP, traffic data to be used to counter terror threat
Shanmugam stresses that S'pore must use all available resources, as MPs raise concerns of possible data abuse
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2016

Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) data and public transport cameras will be added to the Home Team's arsenal in the fight against terrorism and serious crime - as the Government toughens its stance on the use of such information in the face of mounting threats.

This announcement by Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam during his ministry's Budget debate yesterday saw MPs raise worries about possible abuse of such data. But he stressed that with the threat of a terror attack on Singapore at its highest level in recent times, "we have to use all available resources", and these include the ERP system and public transport cameras to track travel patterns of suspicious individuals.

This will be part of a multi-pronged approach, which will include increased intelligence sharing with foreign agencies, strengthening protection of hard and soft targets, and beefing up Singapore's community response with SG Secure.

Mr Shanmugam described SG Secure, which will be rolled out later this year, as not just another public awareness campaign but a "call to action". It will help the community "stay alert, stay united and stay strong" against terror threats, added Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin.

Singaporeans will be trained to be vigilant, how to respond in the face of an attack, and to be more resilient and bounce back quickly after any incident. There will also be a focus on maintaining social cohesion.

The community initiative will start with programmes in neighbourhoods and schools, Mr Amrin said. Emergency preparedness will be taught and uniformed groups will be mobilised to champion the importance of vigilance, cohesion and resilience.

Technology will also have to be used effectively to help the Home Team cope with the manpower squeeze, and this includes making a major investment to put more police cameras in public places - an initiative Mr Shanmugam described as a "key plank" in the country's counter-terrorism strategy.

But the use of traffic cameras and ERP data caused some concern in the House. Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) and Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun asked how the Government would ensure the data would not be misused.

In February, privacy concerns were raised when the Government announced it would be rolling out the next-generation ERP system, which can track the precise whereabouts of vehicles round the clock.

"If we don't rely on the existing data, then we have to spend taxpayers' money to redo the entire infrastructure to look at how people move, because that's one of the ways in which you now analyse patterns, apart from other data," said Mr Shanmugam yesterday.

He said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) will establish a framework on how the data can be used, and individuals caught using it inappropriately will be subject to the criminal justice system. The possibility of abuse should not automatically mean "we don't collect the data or use it in the first place", as this would leave law enforcement without tools to prevent or respond to an attack.

He highlighted that in the wake of the Paris attacks last November, the authorities were able to see where the terrorists had been by tracking them through cameras.

Home Affairs Parliamentary Secretary Amrin Amin took on caller concerns on privacy issues, following MHA’s announcements that traffic cam and ERP data will be used in counter-terrorism efforts. See what he had to say on Talkback this morning.
Posted by 938LIVE on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Several MPs asked if manpower constraints would hamper counter-terrorism efforts. Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) said there has been "a slower pace of recruitment" in the Home Team for the past decade.

Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) added that there would be a need for more resources and manpower as the police "enhance and stretch their capabilities to make Singapore safe and secure".

Mr Shanmugam said a new operating model was needed for the Home Team. It would leverage technology and use data analytics to focus its resources on high-priority hot spots.

At the same time, MHA is working on enhancing the size of its emergency response teams - special teams that will be able to respond to simultaneous attacks in multiple locations.

"Numbers will have to be increased. There is really no choice. If we don't, then in my view, we take unacceptable risks," said Mr Shanmugam.

MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS COMMITTEE OF SUPPLY 2016The Home Team will develop a new operating model, harness technology...
Posted by Home Team News (Singapore) on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Terror fight 'not aimed at any race'
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2016

The battle against terrorism is waged against extremism and violence, and not aimed at any race, ethnicity or religion, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament yesterday.

He was responding to Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC), who said Islamophobia was an unfortunate by- product of terror attacks. "The concern is if we let these sentiments fester, it may grow into resentment and distrust and some extreme few may take their feelings too far," she said.

Mr Shanmugam stressed that the Government would exercise sensitivity when calibrating its anti-terror messaging, adding that Singaporeans need to stay united to "protect the multiracial and multi-religious soul of Singapore".

He also highlighted how Singapore would not allow hate speech in the name of civil liberties.

Other countries such as Belgium have allowed this, and coupled with the presence of ghettos, significant under-employment and unemployment, it has contributed to the foment of extremist groups, he said.

He was responding to Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), who asked how Singapore could be inoculated against the threat of terror groups.

He highlighted how in February, Singapore deported four Indonesians who had planned to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group, but the Indonesian authorities have since released them. "In Singapore, they would have been subjected to the Internal Security Act, no questions," he said.

"If other countries wish to treat would-be terrorists in a different way, they do so taking the consequences of their decisions."

Police force to boost numbers, enhance service

MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS COMMITTEE OF SUPPLY 2016The Home Team will continue to boost its capabilities in technology...
Posted by Home Team News (Singapore) on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Roles of NSFs and NSmen to be expanded; Home Team to harness data and technology
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2016

The police force will step up recruitment, enhance its scheme of service and, alongside the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), expand the roles of full-time national servicemen (NSFs) and operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen).

The Home Team will also take on a more data-driven approach and harness technology effectively.

These were among announcements addressing manpower concerns made by Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam at the Committee of Supply debate yesterday.

Among those who raised questions were Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), who asked about the Home Team's slowing pace of recruitment, and Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC), who addressed the declining number of police NSFs.

These issues are exacerbated by a greying population, growing traveller and cargo volumes, with land checkpoints handling almost 400,000 travellers a day, and new types of crime such as cybercrime.

Such developments will have a "profound impact on the complexity and volume of work" handled by the Home Team, said Mr Shanmugam.

He added that "all these factors increase the workload on the Home Team" which has 170 police officers for every 100,000 people, a low number compared with cities such as London.

To manage the workload, a new operating model is needed, he said.

Besides using data analytics to anticipate where emergencies may take place while deploying resources to focus on hot spots, there will be a greater use of technology at Singapore checkpoints as well, said Mr Shanmugam.

By the end of the year, all motorcyclists passing through the Tuas and Woodlands checkpoints will be screened by automated clearance facilities, and there will be more self-service immigration facilities at Changi Airport Terminal 4.

The police will also implement a single-rank structure for officers, and diploma holders will have "seamless advancement opportunities up the ranks", said Mr Shanmugam.

The police will step up recruitment this year to fill new posts, such as in its Emergency Response teams, and expert tracks will be introduced as well, he added.

Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin also said that NSFs and NSmen will soon take on an expanded role.

Over the next few years, more national servicemen will be deployed to front-line positions, leadership roles and specialist positions, said Mr Amrin.

The police force will set up a Protective Security Command comprising both NSF and NSmen units.

The SCDF has established new NSmen positions in its Marine Command and will place more servicemen in operational roles such as in its Emergency Medical Services.

Mr Shanmugam also highlighted an increasing trend of abuse against Home Team officers. Last year, 344 such cases were reported - working out to about one case per day.

He added that this is "unacceptable", and that firm action would be taken against such abusive people, including prosecuting them and pressing for stiff sentences.

MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS COMMITTEE OF SUPPLY 2016The Home Team will enhance its preventive drug education as well as...
Posted by Home Team News (Singapore) on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Majority of auxiliary police officers are Singaporeans
By Ng Huiwen, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2016

More than half of the around 7,000 auxiliary police officers (APOs), which include those from Aetos and Certis Cisco, are Singaporeans.

And no APOs who are Malaysians are deployed at Singapore's land checkpoints.

This is a deliberate move by the Government, despite manpower challenges, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam assured the House yesterday.

He was addressing concerns raised by Workers' Party's Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) on the supposedly large number of APO positions filled by Malaysians.

"One officer recently told me that the ratio allowed is five Malaysians to one Singaporean and I wonder if that is true," she asked.

Ms Lim also questioned if there are guidelines available for the deployment of these officers, particularly at checkpoints.

"For example, at immigration checkpoints, are there Malaysians checking their fellow Malaysians and what are the risks?"

Only Singaporeans, Singapore permanent residents who are Malaysian citizens, or Malaysians are eligible to be an APO, Mr Shanmugam said. "We have deliberately maintained a Singaporean majority over the years and we will continue to do so," .

These officers are deployed in a range of functions, including protecting sensitive installations and supporting police deployment at major events.

"They are used as a complement for police resources to allow the police to perform core functions like crime-fighting and countering terrorism," he added.

But "we are conscious of the implications of hiring and deploying Malaysian APOs".

When it comes to land checkpoints, he said, his ministry requires all APOs to be Singaporeans.

Security measures are reviewed at hot spots
By Ng Huiwen, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2016

From improved lighting to additional police cameras and auxiliary police officers, security measures at Little India and other foreign worker hot spots will continue to be reviewed to ensure there is no repeat of the 2013 riot.

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Lee made this clear yesterday when he responded to Ms Denise Phua, who told the House that she noticed on a recent visit that foreign workers at Little India have returned to pre-riot numbers.

"Congregations of such high density are walking time-bombs and public disorder incidents waiting to happen," said the MP for Jalan Besar GRC, which includes Little India. "We want to protect our residents from the disamenities that arise from large gatherings of visitors, including foreign workers, in the communal areas, such as playgrounds, void decks and staircases.

"It is important that we do not take our eyes off this matter", lest history repeats itself.

She asked for a high-level multi- agency task force to look at security risks in Little India, suggested ring-fencing communal areas and building more recreation areas outside Little India.

In December 2013, a riot involving around 400 foreign workers broke out after an Indian construction worker was run over by a private bus.

It was the worst violence seen in more than 40 years here and led to alcohol restrictions and greater police control in the area.

Mr Lee said the ministry will continue to review its security measures, while working together with agencies, grassroots leaders, residents and business owners.

He added that more auxiliary police officers are deployed in Little India and Golden Mile on weekends and public holidays.

The Special Operations Command also conducts weekly anti- crime patrols.

An inter-ministerial committee led by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has also looked at providing recreation centres located away from such hot spots to meet the social and recreational needs of foreign workers.

"The issues extend beyond safety and security concerns and include housing, transport and amenities," Mr Lee said.

MP Denise Phua says sorry for remarks about foreign workers
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2016

Central Singapore District Mayor Denise Phua apologised yesterday for her choice of words in Parliament that were criticised online as being insensitive to foreign workers.

Ms Phua, an MP for Jalan Besar GRC, said in a Facebook post that she had no intention to undermine any specific group.

"I should not have used the phrase 'walking time-bombs' to describe congregations of high density," she wrote.

She added that she gets on very well with foreign cleaners in her constituency.

"To them and the other foreign workers in our country, thank you for your help and please accept my sincere apology if I have caused you concern," she said.

I recently made a short speech under the MHA budget debate. The speech is appended here. I have no intention to...
Posted by Denise Phua Lay Peng on Thursday, April 7, 2016

In a speech on Wednesday during the debate on the Home Affairs Ministry's plans, she suggested that communal areas in Little India such as playgrounds and void decks be fenced off so that old and young residents get to use the spaces meant for them.

Ms Phua said crowds in the area have returned to levels before the Dec 8, 2013 Little India riot, and residents must be protected from "the disamenities that can arise from large gatherings".

While she acknowledged the contributions of foreign workers in her speech, she added: "Congregations of such high density are walking time-bombs and public disorder incidents waiting to happen."

She also called for more recreation centres for foreign workers to be built outside Little India.

Her initial remarks attracted some criticism online.

Migrant worker advocacy group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), for instance, said labelling foreign workers "walking time-bombs" further stigmatises an already marginalised group.

In a Facebook post on Thursday, Home said that while it understood the need to maintain law and order, helping foreign workers feel included was just as important.

Barriers to communal areas would only deepen the divide between residents and foreign workers, it added.

More teeth to tackle cyber criminals
By Ng Huiwen, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2016

While traditional crime rates have gone down, cybercrime has been on the rise, driven mainly by a surge in online cheating scams.

To give the police more teeth in tackling this scourge, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Lee said yesterday: "We will continue to renew our legal framework to address the transnational nature of cybercrime and keep pace with the changing tactics of cyber criminals." This could mean amending the Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act (CMCA).

Mr Lee was responding to questions posed by Members of Parliament Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC), Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) on steps taken to deal with the transnational and changing nature of such crimes. "Criminal masterminds can hide outside our borders, while making use of local henchmen to take advantage of unsuspecting Singaporeans," said Dr Tan.

Last year, online credit-for-sex scam cases increased by 1,723 per cent, resulting in a loss of $2.9 million, said Mr Choo.

The borderless and anonymous nature of the Internet pose a special challenge to law enforcement agencies around the world, Mr Lee said. Furthermore, many of the perpetrators are based overseas. As such, "many of these investigations could lead to dead ends" despite close cross-border working relationships between law enforcement agencies.

He stressed the need to step up preventive measures to tackle cybercrime, including engaging online shopping platforms to identify and remove fraudulent advertisers.


Shanmugam: Opportunities still up for grabs in legal field
Govt will provide conducive environment for sector but law firms need to stay competitive
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2016

Law firms may be facing economic headwinds, but there are still opportunities up for grabs in the legal sector, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

He pledged that the Government will provide the framework and a conducive business environment to support the industry, but said law firms too need to do their part to stay competitive.

"The profession must ensure that it is in a position to attract and handle high-value work, and be entrepreneurial, competitive and innovative in identifying and capturing opportunities," he added.

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC), and Nominated MP Mahdev Mohan asked during yesterday's debate on the Law Ministry's budget if there are plans to grow the legal sector amid evolving economic conditions.

The bleak outlook has led to law firms laying off corporate lawyers, cutting back on pay rises and bonuses as well as pay packages for new recruits.

Mr Shanmugam acknowledged the legal sector's prospects are ultimately dependent on the economy, given that it is a support industry.

But he said that with the world's economic centre of gravity shifting towards Asia, new opportunities will open up for Singapore's lawyers.

He listed the establishment of the Asean Economic Community, which aims to create a single market for the group, the conclusion of trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

These developments will raise economic activity in the region and are likely to result in greater demand for legal services, he said.

Mr Shanmugam added that some sectors would do well despite the downturn: There is likely to be more work involving regional cross-border debt restructurings with companies facing tough times, and also in the area of projects and infrastructure, given Asia's infrastructure needs.

The Government has moved to help law firms grab these opportunities, he added, citing the dispute resolution services offered here.

It has set up the Singapore International Arbitration Centre, the Singapore International Commercial Court and the Singapore International Mediation Centre, and is also looking to introduce a Mediation Bill later this year, he said.

Another way the Government is growing the legal sector, said Mr Shanmugam, is through promoting the use of Singapore law.

While New York or English law has typically been the preferred choice for cross-border transactions, there are signs that Singapore law is gaining ground, he said.

A recent survey of those who handle regional work found that Singapore law is the second most common choice, after English law, in such transactions, he added.

Besides these efforts, said Mr Shanmugam, the Committee on the Future Economy is looking into potential growth areas for the legal industry, as part of its task to chart the next phase of Singapore's economic development.

Turning to aid for smaller law firms, Mr Shanmugam said there are schemes to help them develop new capabilities, improve productivity and venture overseas.

His ministry is also working with the Law Society on a six-month study to identify their technology needs, to provide support more directly and effectively.

But he lamented that efforts to help these firms adopt technology have met with muted response so far, saying: "While we have schemes and the money available, the take-up rate is not very high."

Ultimately, said Mr Shanmugam, law firms must be ready to take advantage of the opportunities, and lawyers must make sure they can offer value to their clients.

To Mr Mahdev, who asked how law firms can be incentivised to help transform the legal industry, Mr Shanmugam said: "In a way, you are asking me how we can use taxpayers' money to help lawyers make more money through industry transformation. I am not sure that is a popular subject."

But he said the Government would make sure there are jobs available, and invest in the training of lawyers to move things along.

"With all this help, it is now for the lawyers to go and see how they can take advantage of the situation," he said.

New law school to groom family, criminal lawyers
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2016

Graduates of Singapore's third law school are expected to practise family and criminal law, said Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah yesterday.

Although the courses at SIM University's law school will equip graduates for general practice, the admission and course curriculum are designed to encourage them to be family or criminal lawyers.

These are two areas that will soon see a shortage if nothing is done, she said.

The law school is expected to take in older students seeking a mid-career change, and they "would be better placed to decide at the outset if they want to practise in these areas", she said.

Earlier, it had said it hoped to draw older students with experience in such fields as social work and law enforcement.

Ms Indranee was replying to Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan, who asked if the students were discouraged from pursuing other areas of law.

Mr Tan, a shipping lawyer, noted that law graduates often choose an area of specialisation only after they start work.

He also asked if the law school, which will start classes in January next year, will worsen the current oversupply of lawyers.

Ms Indranee said the glut does not address the demand for family and criminal lawyers.

Fresh graduates from the two other law schools - at the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Management University - and those who received their degrees abroad, are generally not keen to practise in the two areas, she said. Those who do so tend to drop out, owing to the emotional demands of the job.

As the new law school will start with 60 students and slowly expand to 75 students, it will not have a significant impact on supply.

Ms Indranee also reiterated the Government's position on law degrees offered by universities that are not on Singapore's list of approved overseas institutions.

It had been anticipated that the new law school would offer a conversion programme to let such graduates practise as lawyers here.

But the conversion course will not be offered, said Ms Indranee.

The practice of Singapore law "affects the lives of people, society and economy", and must be held to high standards, she said.


Questions on how South China Sea tensions may affect Singapore
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2016

The ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea came under the spotlight yesterday, as several MPs asked how rising temperatures in the waters might affect Singapore and its relationships with the countries involved.

Four out of 17 MPs who spoke during the debate on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' plans for the year raised the subject. Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will give his response when Parliament sits today.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) asked about the role Singapore could play to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

Singapore is in the first year of its three-year term as country coordinator for Asean-China relations.

Mr Singh said the role is significant, as developments in the South China Sea saw Asean foreign ministers meeting in 2012 fail to agree on a joint communique. He wanted to know Asean and China's response to Singapore's proposal for an expanded Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea that includes coast guard ships to help prevent untoward clashes. The South China Sea has also become a flashpoint between the United States and China, and Singapore has longstanding ties with both.

Four Asean members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - have overlapping territorial claims in those waters with Beijing.

Amid these tensions, Asean continues to look towards China as an economic partner, Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) noted.

Beijing, too, has been "pulling out all stops to try to build trust", she added, citing initiatives like the One Belt, One Road that aim to spur development, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Ms Sun shared how at a recent meeting, individual Asean members spoke of how they could cooperate with China on production capacity and spoke glowingly of Chinese investments in their areas.

She wants to know how Singapore intends to build on this relationship amid testy regional ties.

Geopolitical tensions aside, MPs like Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling- Yew Tee GRC) sought updates on Asean integration.

Dr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang) asked how Singapore could provide consular services to firms that are keen to expand within Asean.

Mr Ong said the success of the newly declared Asean Economic Community will depend on how well Asean countries can cooperate to deal with emerging challenges.

These may be intra-regional, such as transboundary haze, or involve external parties, like in the South China Sea disputes, he said.

"If we play our cards right, the Community will allow Singapore to project our national interests with the voice of the entire grouping, achieving far greater outcomes than we could alone," he said.

"But the flipside is that there may be situations where our sovereignty and interests are challenged by others within the group, and compromises will need to be made."

Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC) sought an update on Singapore's ties with its immediate neighbours, as well as with Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines which are undergoing leadership transitions .

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) was concerned about the Trans-Pacific Partnership's future amid the US presidential election. The agreement was signed in February by 12 countries, including Singapore, but uncertainty swirls over its ratification as both front runners have questioned the trade pact.

MPs also asked how the ministry intends to meet the demand for greater consular support among Singaporeans, who are travelling more frequently and to more obscure places.

Delivered my first Committee of Supply speech as Foreign Minister this afternoon. I made three key points.One, Foreign...
Posted by Vivian Balakrishnan on Thursday, April 7, 2016

Singapore can't accept that 'might is right': Vivian Balakrishnan
As a small nation, it has vital interest in seeing territorial disputes in South China Sea settled peacefully: Vivian
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

Singapore does not take a position on territorial claims in the South China Sea but, as a small state, it has a vital interest in ensuring disputes are resolved peacefully, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said.

And it cannot accept that "might is right", he told Parliament in a speech during the debate on his ministry's plans and policies.

Several MPs had, a day earlier, raised concerns about ongoing tensions in the South China Sea that made headlines in recent weeks, and asked how territorial disputes there might affect Singapore's ties with the countries involved.

China has done extensive reclamation work, built runways and ports, and deployed significant military assets to the disputed waters, Dr Balakrishnan noted.

While some claimant states have also done similar activities, these "have not been on the same scale or pace as that conducted by China".

"What a major power does inevitably carries a far bigger signature. China, for its own reasons, has become more assertive in the East and South-east Asian regions," he added.

Four Asean members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - have overlapping claims in the South China Sea with Beijing.

But Dr Balakrishnan noted that economics is the centrepiece of the Asean-China relationship, and the grouping will mark the 25th anniversary of relations with China with a special summit later this year.

"We all stand to lose if tensions escalate and it is thus important to maintain open dialogue on issues of mutual concern, to prevent contentious issues from overshadowing the overall Asean-China relationship," he said.

Asean and China are also working on implementing a declaration on conduct in the South China Sea, including a hotline for maritime emergencies, and both sides have had "productive and frank" discussions on a code of conduct, he added.

Highlights of my speech in Parliament during the 2016 Committee of Supply Debate on MFA
Posted by Vivian Balakrishnan on Thursday, April 7, 2016

In his 40-minute speech, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore was a small state in a tough neighbourhood, without the natural advantages of bigger countries.

Hence it had to stay united, relevant and nimble and constantly navigate choppy geopolitical waters.

Turning to the United States-China relationship, he noted that while there is some degree of competition between the two powers, they will not embark on an "all-out confrontation" given their intertwined economies and common interests.

The dynamics of China's relationship with Japan, a US ally and the world's third largest economy, with which it has longstanding territorial disputes, are also complex. Dr Balakrishnan said: "We hope all these major powers will work closely together to tackle issues of common interest, and avoid direct and destabilising confrontations."

These tensions were also described by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen as "symptomatic of a more powerful dynamic of strategic rivalry and rising nationalism".

He observed that the dynamic has stressed existing military cooperation and alliances, as well as international agreements.

He noted during the debate on the Defence Ministry's budget that Japan regularly scrambles its fighter jets in response to Chinese military aircraft entering disputed airspace in the East China Sea.

Indonesia has also confiscated and destroyed some 150 foreign fishing boats that entered its exclusive economic zone since President Joko Widodo took office in 2014.

Incidents like these are on the rise as Asia ramps up military spending, Dr Ng added.

"Rising nationalism and improving economies have fuelled many Asian countries to spend larger and larger sums to modernise their militaries. In itself it's not wrong. But with more capable militaries, miscalculations or missteps can precipitate serious tensions and even physical conflicts," he said.

Replacing Causeway ‘not solution’ to easing congestion: Vivian Balakrishnan
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016
Replacing the Causeway is "not the solution" to border congestion, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

"Both governments are working to improve congestion at the Causeway and at our borders," he added.

Dr Balakrishnan gave this update in the debate on his ministry's plans. Dr Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC) had asked about efforts to boost connectivity between Singapore and Malaysia.

Dr Balakrishnan said the Causeway continues to have sufficient capacity. The conclusion was reached after a joint study by both neighbours, while Singapore had also done its own projections.

His comments come amid renewed calls to consider replacing the Causeway with a bridge. The latest came from the Sultan of Johor last month. In 2001, then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had also mooted an arched bridge to let vessels sail under it.

The solution to congestion lies in continually enhancing checkpoint efficiency and operations - but not at the expense of security considerations. This is done through such measures as the use of technology and improving infrastructure, Dr Balakrishnan said.

For example, all motorcycle clearance counters at Singapore land checkpoints will have automated features by the year end. "We have a responsibility to Singaporeans to ensure that we maintain a stringent level of checks," he said. "The Malaysian Government has also had to step up its own security measures."

Meanwhile, progress is also being made on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail, which aims to connect both cities in 90 minutes, and the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System link.

Dr Balakrishnan, recounting his visit to Sabah last week, yesterday expressed his gratitude to the Malaysian guides and the authorities who helped Singaporeans after an earthquake struck Mount Kinabalu in June last year, killing 18 people.

"The Malaysians' swift, instinctive and spontaneous response at our point of acute need reflects the close ties between our two peoples," he said. "It behoves us as politicians to build on the already strong ties of kinships, friendships and relationships."

The annual Leaders' Retreat will be held in Malaysia this year.

Dr Balakrishnan said it will allow both sides to "take stock of" various bilateral projects. Economic ties also remain robust, he said. Singapore and Malaysia are each other's second largest trading partners.

Staying open, forging ties crucial for survival
International engagement with multilateral organisations also critical for Singapore, says Vivian
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

Singapore is a tiny island in a tough neighbourhood, but staying open, relevant and forging partnerships are key to the country's continued survival, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

"The fundamental constraints that Singapore faces as a small island city-state with a multiracial and multi-religious population remain unchanged," he said in a speech that touched on the constraints of being a small state, but showed how the country was navigating the challenges it faced.

"We must have no illusions about our significance in the world or our ability to influence global events," he told MPs as he wrapped up the debate on his ministry's budget.

It does not have a say, for instance, in who the next president of the United States will be, but has to work with the next administration in Washington regardless of who is elected in November.

"This is the karma of being a small state," he said.

This is why since 1965, Singapore has assiduously forged national unity, achieved economic success and built strong partnerships at the bilateral, regional and international levels, he said.

"Our international engagement with multilateral organisations is also critical. As a small state, we must engage with everyone."

Singapore's openness means it will be exposed to external economic headwinds but "we have no choice", he said.

"We have to remain plugged in to regional and international trade groupings because this opens doors for our people and businesses."

The newly declared Asean Economic Community, for example, will create jobs and open up a market worth US$2.5 trillion (S$3.4 trillion) and with more than 620 million people to businesses here.

Also, ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact will create more trade and business opportunities for Singapore companies. He urged parties to ratify the pact, which has been inked by 12 countries, including Singapore.

Singapore is also reviewing or upgrading agreements with countries such as China, Japan and Australia.

It is also on the lookout for opportunities that firms can seize in emerging markets in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam will make a state visit to Mexico in June, the first by a Singapore head of state to Latin America.

In his speech, Dr Balakrishnan also updated the House on Singapore's relationships with its neighbours, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Thailand.

Countries must work together to tackle transboundary challenges such as haze pollution and threats to cyber security, he said.

Singapore remains committed to working with Indonesia to addressing transboundary haze, he said, adding: "Year after year, the main victims of this haze are not Singaporeans but the Indonesians themselves who live at ground zero."

Singapore wants to do more with the Indonesian government to promote sustainable agricultural practices, to strengthen the response to forest fires, and to hold errant companies responsible for the fires they start or allow to occur in their concession areas, he added.

He also said that as Singaporeans travel more frequently and to more far-flung places, one of his ministry's top priorities was to ensure consular assistance to them.

But Singaporeans should also register online with the MFA when they travel, said Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman, who also spoke on the issue.

This is so they can be easily contacted and helped in the event of an emergency, like a terrorist attack.

Maliki: Be careful not to be drawn into conflicts in Middle East
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

Conflicts in the Middle East may be far away, but they resonate with many in South-east Asia, including Singaporeans, said Senior Minister of State Maliki Osman.

But there is a risk of Singaporeans, especially the Muslim community, being drawn into the narrative of sectarian strife, given the geopolitical complexities involved, he added.

He asked Singaporeans to be careful, saying that while some conflicts are historical and longstanding, others are driven by current regional political rivalries.

"Singaporeans have always displayed tolerance for all religions and should continue to do so... We should be careful not to be drawn into these conflicts that are exploiting religion for political ends," he said in response to MPs' questions during the debate on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' (MFA) budget.

Dr Maliki noted that one longstanding conflict is the Israeli-Palestinian one.

Singapore's hope is for both sides to reach an agreement so that Israel and Palestine can live side by side in peace and security, he said.

He stressed: "Singapore's position on this has been consistent. We support the rights of the Palestinian people to a homeland."

Singapore has voted for several Palestinian-related resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly, and has also provided aid, such as a $5 million assistance package, for Palestinians to rebuild their lives and develop their economy.

"As a friend to Israel and Palestine, we urge both sides to engage in direct negotiations and to refrain from taking any unilateral actions to change the status quo, including through acts of violence," he said.

Turning to other conflicts, Dr Maliki said the situation in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq is also of deep concern, given the humanitarian toll and the threat posed by terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Singapore welcomes the efforts mediated by the United Nations to seek a political solution to the conflicts, but recognises that the process will not be easy because of geopolitical complexities, he added.

He said the leadership role of the United States and other major powers will be critical in pushing the negotiating process forward.

Singapore and Middle Eastern countries share a common goal of combating religious extremism, he added.

He said he had met religious scholars in the Middle East who "categorically reject violence in the name of Islam", and invited them to visit Singapore to share their experiences.

Singaporean students pursuing Islamic education in the Middle East also play an important role as they can apply what they learnt there to the multiracial and multi-religious context here, he added.

Dr Maliki also cautioned against viewing the entire region through the same lens, adding that there are still economic opportunities there. Singapore will continue to cooperate with the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran and Egypt, he said.

Singapore's value lies in its 'unique culture'
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

The cultural similarities and differences between members of Singapore's Chinese community and their China counterparts are what make Singapore interesting and relevant to China, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Josephine Teo told the House.

While Singaporeans have much to learn from China in terms of culture and language, they must maintain a sense of dignity and pride in their own unique culture, she added.

She said: "Our value lies in our independent viewpoint and unbiased voice. It creates valuable opportunities for us to share perspectives with our Chinese friends that they are unlikely to find elsewhere."

Speaking in Mandarin on people- to-people ties between both countries, she said Chinese Singaporeans feel a cultural affinity with mainland Chinese, with both groups speaking the same language and celebrating common festivals.

But one key difference is Singaporeans' diverse yet inclusive cultural make-up, she said.

"The experiences and outlook of Chinese Singaporeans are rooted in a multicultural society where each community enjoys our common space and interacts respectfully with one another," she added.

This sets Chinese Singaporeans apart from ethnic Chinese elsewhere and makes the community relevant to China, she said. For example, Singapore's successful implementation of social management policies in a multiracial society with a Chinese majority has been a useful reference for China.

But if Singapore cannot make its system work, China will be much less interested in it, she said. With many Chinese all over the world, "a few undistinguished millions in a small island in South-east Asia cannot be more than a curiosity".

"Ultimately, to be of value, Singaporeans as a community must be outstanding, confident and cohesive," she said, urging Singaporeans to demonstrate their independence and uniqueness as a nation.

Mrs Teo also updated the House on Singapore's strong political and economic ties with China.

China is Singapore's largest trading partner, and has been China's top foreign investor since 2013. Last year, two million Chinese tourists visited Singapore, and a million Singaporeans visited China.

Both governments also cooperate on large-scale projects, she said, like the Suzhou Industrial Park and the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. The third government-led project, the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, aims to develop modern connectivity and modern services in the western Chinese city and Singapore is optimistic that the project will play a pathfinder role in China's development, Mrs Teo added.

No better defence against threats than keeping Singapore united from within
By Aaron Low, Deputy Business Editor, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

In today's physical or ideological battleground, the threats to a small country like Singapore are not limited to hulking tanks and screaming fighter jets.

Cyber warfare, transnational terrorism and economic survival are just some of the other threats in play, and that was also very much on the minds of MPs for much of yesterday's debate in the House.

To be certain, traditional threats to Singapore remain a real and present danger, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said.

He cited rising tensions in the South China Sea, surging military spending in Asia and the growing threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terror group, all of which warrant a strong military to deter would-be aggressors.

Similarly, Singapore's ability to secure its economic future will underpin its very existence. That is why companies and workers need to prepare themselves for the future economy by gaining new skills and upgrading their capabilities, said Trade and Industry Minister (Industry) S. Iswaran.

But what was also clear from the debate yesterday is that what happens within the confines of Singapore remains as important as stiffening its external defences.

And there were two instances in the course of yesterday's debate that underlined the importance of keeping Singapore's multiracial society united.

The first was in remarks by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Josephine Teo on Singapore-China relations. Ties are strong with both sides engaged in various projects, and Singapore has been China's top foreign investor since 2013.

Speaking then in Mandarin, Ms Teo went on to explain how Singaporean Chinese are different from those in China, despite sharing some similar traits. There is a cultural affinity, both celebrate common festivals and speak the same language. But the Singaporean Chinese community must retain its sense of identity as being part of a multiracial society that it helped build up.

"Having joined hands with other races and successfully built up modern Singapore over the last 50 years, the Chinese community in Singapore can engage our Chinese friends with a sense of confidence, as well as demonstrate our independence and uniqueness as a nation," she said.

Coming against the backdrop of an economically strengthening and more assertive China, her remarks can be seen as a reminder to the community, perhaps especially to new citizens, that they are part of Singapore and need to embrace and uphold its multiracial character.

The second instance came during the debate on the Defence Ministry's budget plans.

The Workers' Party's Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) wanted Singapore's naval vessels to be equipped with halal-certified kitchens, so as not to deprive Malay-Muslim Singaporeans of the opportunity to serve on board ships.

Senior Minister of State for Defence Maliki Osman said that while all Singaporeans have the right to practise their religions freely, Singapore remains a secular state. And while the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will accommodate where possible and make provisions for the dietary requirements of Muslim servicemen and those with other dietary requirements, the military's operational needs come first, he said.

Not satisfied with the answer, Mr Faisal pressed for reasons why the needs of Muslim servicemen could not be met on ships. This brought Defence Minister Dr Ng to his feet to deliver a sharp response.

"Mr Faisal Manap says he doesn't need to be reminded we are a multiracial, multi-religious society but he is only championing in his speech for Muslims," he said.

He said there are other groups with religious observances apart from Muslims, and the SAF can accommodate such needs wherever possible.

But the "overriding principle must be that SAF operational concerns must come first and individual needs sometimes must subsume under that", he said.

Subtle or direct, comments of the kind from Dr Ng, Dr Maliki and Mrs Teo need to be aired now and again.

Because if Singapore is where people have chosen to make their home, then tolerance and a level of give-and-take must also prevail in that common space.

With potential external threats to Singapore looming, keeping the country's diverse social fabric tight becomes as critical as buying the latest military hardware.


Soldiers to step up patrols, training to combat terror
Patrols in hot spots like MRT stations, malls among moves to tackle heightened threat
By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

More armed soldiers will be seen patrolling public areas islandwide as Singapore scales up its resources to thwart possible terrorist attacks.

The move was the most eye-catching among a series of measures announced by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday to fortify Singapore against the escalating threat.

Currently, round-the-clock patrols by soldiers are carried out only at key installations such as Jurong Island and Changi Airport.

Speaking during his ministry's Budget debate, the minister said the action is aimed at ensuring that the military can deal with orchestrated attacks - like those carried out in Paris last year and more recently in Brussels - in hot spots such as MRT stations, shopping malls and town centres.

The move signals Singapore's redoubled efforts to counter terrorism, with soldiers joining forces with their Home Team colleagues against this threat. To better equip units of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) for this role, Dr Ng also announced other measures, including:

• Building a "high density" mock city, complete with high-rise buildings and road networks, to conduct "highly realistic" counterterrorism training;

• Boosting the firepower of its special forces troops, the first responders in counter terrorism and other contingency operations, by equipping the Special Operations Task Force with better tactical sensors such as palm-size unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) suitable for the urban landscape;

• Sharing intelligence information with the Home Team and jointly coming up with operational command systems in order to bring to bear the "full strength" of Singapore's security capabilities.

The new moves come just a day after Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam spelt out measures like increasing the size of Emergency Response Teams to deal with simultaneous attacks on multiple sites and strengthening the protection of hard and soft targets.

Dr Ng also said that Singapore is an "attractive target" for militant groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Even if ISIS is defeated, another group will rise and take its place.

"They may not be in Iraq and Syria but there are a host of failed states that an extremist group can gain geographical foothold and take the resources, whether it's Libya or other countries.

"In cyber attacks and biological pandemics, Ground Zero can be anywhere," said Dr Ng.

During his 50-minute speech, Dr Ng also touched on how Singapore is faced with "troubled peace", which has now become the new normal in a globalised world.

He noted that Singapore also has to grapple with rising tensions in the region, for instance, in the South China Sea, which are the result of strategic rivalry and rising nationalism.

Defence analyst William Choong said that it is timely and necessary to exploit the combined training efforts and capabilities of the Home Team and the SAF.

Dr Choong, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: "It represents a closing of ranks between both entities. Having them work in sync and in tandem will serve as a strong deterrent to anyone who is interested in launching an attack on Singapore."

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New moves to recognise NSmen's contributions
They include enhanced insurance and reward scheme for top performers, and vouchers for those who start families
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

In a new scheme, recognition for national servicemen's contributions will include a token when they start families.

Under the Celebratory Gifts initiative, NSmen will receive $100 worth of vouchers when they get married or have a child. These vouchers can be used at participating merchants including retail and food and beverage outlets.

To be implemented by the end of the year, it was announced by Senior Minister of State for Defence Ong Ye Kung at the debate on the Defence Ministry's budget yesterday.

In reply to questions from Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) and Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) on how NSmen are recognised, Mr Ong said the Government provides tax relief, and awards for housing, healthcare and education.

"These forms of recognition are important to let them know their sacrifices are deeply appreciated," he noted.

Still, more will be done, including the enhancement of a programme to reward those who do well during in-camp training and national service courses, Mr Ong said.

Starting this month, the NS Excellence Award will be given to the top performing 30 per cent of NSmen, up from 10 per cent previously.

The top 10 per cent will receive $200 worth of vouchers, while the next 20 per cent will receive $100.

Mr Ong also said the Government will enhance the basic life and personal accident insurance coverage for national servicemen from the Singapore Armed Forces, Singapore Police Force and Singapore Civil Defence Force.

With this, each serviceman will be covered for $150,000 in group term life and in group personal accident insurance. This covers all incidents during full-time NS and operationally ready NS activities.

More will also be done to recognise employers who adopt human resource practices that support NSmen.

A national accreditation scheme, the NS Mark, will be launched this year. Under the scheme, organisations can be awarded the NS Mark or a more prestigious NS Mark (Gold).

Mr Ong also touched on the SAF's compensation framework, in reply to questions from Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) on whether the loss of income and costs of care are adequately covered when a serviceman becomes disabled.

Mr Ong said Mindef's compensation framework takes reference from the Work Injury Compensation Act (Wica) and is "more generous", with amounts generally "two to four times" that provided under the Wica.

Mindef also pays medical expenses incurred at government and restructured hospitals or clinics for the treatment of service-related injuries, for as long as required.

Moreover, the SAF Benevolent Fund and the SAF Care Fund provide a welfare framework for servicemen and their families.

Spending kept up with eye on future: Ng Eng Hen
It's most effective way to stretch defence dollar as social costs rise
By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

Confronted with a rapidly ageing population and an increasing need to spend on social measures, Singapore must maintain its steady defence spending, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

This is because it is "the most effective way to stretch the defence dollar", Dr Ng told the House yesterday.

"It allows you to plan long-term (and) allows you to avoid disruptive changes from fluctuating expenditures," the minister added as he announced new war machines that will be added to the Singapore Armed Forces' arsenal.

They include a new armoured vehicle for combat support troops, eight new littoral mission vessels and two new submarines, and the move to finalise new helicopters for the Republic of Singapore Air Force.

Dr Ng also announced that SAF will double the number of troops in the Cyber Defence Operations Hub by 2020 to thwart cyberthreats more effectively.

And as part of efforts to make up for its shrinking manpower and sharpen its technological edge, a new scholarship will be launched to draw top engineering minds into the military and grow its pool of military engineers.

He was responding to Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who questioned if Singapore's defence spending policy has changed.

Thanking all MPs for their "steadfast support for the defence budgets over the years", Dr Ng said the next decade will not be easy for Singapore. In fact, the next few decades will pose the "greatest challenge" to Singapore since its independence in 1965, he said.

He explained that nearly one million people in Singapore will be above 60 in 2030. "So the workforce is declining and your social spending needs to go up," he said.

This is set against the backdrop of the highest-ever defence spending by Asian militaries, exceeding their European counterparts' in absolute dollars since 2012, said Dr Ng.

"Rising nationalism and improving economies have fuelled many Asian countries to spend larger and larger sums to modernise their militaries.

"In itself it's not wrong. But with more capable militaries, miscalculations or missteps can precipitate serious tensions and even physical conflicts," he said.

Faced with this scenario, Dr Ng said to realise the need to build a strong defence only because of worsening threats will be "too little, too late".

Even as the Government continues to invest wisely and spend prudently on defence, it buys only what the SAF needs. It also carries out a robust and stringent evaluation process to ensure "we don't go around shopping for expensive or highly sophisticated stuff", he added.

The Defence Minister also noted that some people have wondered if the era of troubled peace is "hyped up" and whether Singapore needs to continually arm itself and boost the firepower of its arsenal.

The United States, he said, can perhaps take that line and "live with the consequences if something goes wrong". This is because it remains the world's most wealthy democracy with the largest and most capable military, he said.

"But I think for Singapore, a little red dot in the middle of a region of extremist threats, rising nationalism and strategic rivalry, we should guard against the worst and prepare ahead."

When the home turf becomes the new battlefield
By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

The battlefield that a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldier has to fight in has changed.

No longer must he prepare only for the hot war in the jungles, high seas and air. Just as important is guarding the home turf, thwarting threats from wrecking lives here.

As part of their evolving combat roles, soldiers will also be trained and armed to patrol the streets, especially crowded areas. The SAF troops will work in tandem with their counterparts in the Home Team.

As Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen declared yesterday in Parliament, the SAF will redouble its counterterrorism efforts.

His pledge comes just a day after his Cabinet colleague, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, outlined a multi-pronged approach taken by his ministry and the Home Team to fight terror.

Combining the capabilities and efforts of both security agencies is not only timely but will also boost Singapore's firepower against an unpredictable threat.

Forget the frontal assaults that countries used to train their soldiers to face. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has changed the equation with its cocktail of suicide bombings, gruesome beheadings and clever use of social media. The threat is greater than what Al-Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiah ever posed.

Dr Ng gave a stark example: In the last three years, ISIS has not only matched but also exceeded the number of sympathisers and operatives that Al-Qaeda was able to attract in the last 10 years.

Soldiers must adapt to face down this new threat.

ISIS operatives have already formed networks in the region and even marked Singapore as an "attractive target". So it makes sense for Singapore to pool its security resources.

This, of course, is not the first time that the two security agencies are joining forces to fortify Singapore, especially in the post-9/11 world.

After all, SAF troops have patrolled the Republic's key installations - Jurong Island, Changi Airport and Sembawang Wharves - around the clock since 2001. The police are also part of joint patrols at the airport.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC), who is also chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs, said yesterday that in the event of a major terror attack, it may be necessary for the military to step in - both to engage and eliminate the perpetrators and to restore public confidence.

He rightly warned that the military's role in homeland defence has to be carefully calibrated because calling the military in to deal with minor threats will send the wrong message and get the public "unduly worried".

At the same time, there can be no underestimating the enemy. The SAF and the Home Team are moving towards breaking down any existing silos. After all, new threats call for nimble responses.

Halal ship kitchens difficult but SAF offers food options
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 8 Apr 2016

While halal-certified kitchens can be provided on military camps, this is not possible on board naval ships, where space is a premium and has to be prioritised for operational needs.

But provisions are made for servicemen - whether Muslim or those with other dietary requirements - so they have food options, Senior Minister of State for Defence Maliki Osman told Parliament yesterday.

Dr Maliki said this practice is similar to that in French and American navies, whose ships do not have separate halal kitchens.

"SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) will accommodate where we can, but the SAF's operational priorities come before individual needs. Our servicemen and women understand and accept this," he added.

During the debate on the Defence Ministry's budget yesterday, Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) had called for navy vessels to be equipped with halal-certified kitchens. This was a "practical issue" which he said should be resolved promptly, so as not to deprive Muslim Singaporeans the opportunity to serve on board ships.

In reply, Dr Maliki said provisions are made for Muslim naval servicemen through options such as seafood, chicken and vegetables.

But having a halal-certified kitchen was not possible, he said, as space has to be maximised for operational requirements such as ammunition and combat systems.

In military camps, halal kitchens are built wherever there is space, but otherwise, food is also brought in from centralised kitchens, said Dr Maliki. Halal and vegetarian combat rations are also available during operations.

Dr Maliki said the SAF operated like "society at large", where, rather than encourage one religious group to push fully for its own strict requirements, Singapore's approach has been - as far as practicable - to accommodate the needs of different devotees, while maintaining a common space and goals for all.

"I would like to remind Mr Faisal that Singapore is a secular state and all Singaporeans enjoy the right to practise their religion under our Constitution," said Dr Maliki.

In a clarification, however, Mr Faisal reiterated his call for halal kitchens on ships.

"I'm a strong believer of an inclusive and open SAF, and I don't think that I need the Senior Minister of State to remind me that Singapore is a multiracial and multi-religious society," he said.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen rose to rebut him: "Mr Faisal Manap says he doesn't need to be reminded we are a multiracial, multi-religious society, but he is only championing in his speech for Muslims."

He said that there are other groups with religious observances apart from Muslims, and the SAF can accommodate such needs wherever possible.

But the "overriding principle must be that SAF operational concerns must come first and individual needs sometimes must subsume under that," he said.

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