Wednesday 13 April 2016

Committee of Supply Debate 2016: MND, MCI, MOF

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of National Development

Fresh Start families to get personalised support
About 1,000 families in rental flats potentially qualify for scheme, conditions include 20-year occupation period
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

Second-timer families on the public rental scheme, who get help to buy a new flat, will have to live in it for 20 years before they can resell it.

This is "to ensure a stable home for the children", said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday, revealing details of the Fresh Start Housing Scheme.

Families who qualify will also get personalised help even after they get the keys to their flat, he added during the parliamentary debate on his ministry's budget.

Announced last year and set to start by the end of 2016, the Fresh Start Housing Scheme aims to help public rental tenants with young children buy flats of their own.

Currently, about 1,000 families could potentially qualify, Mr Wong revealed yesterday.

The scheme will not have a large reach, but "can and will have a meaningful impact on the families we are reaching out to", he added.

To keep prices affordable, it is only for two-room Flexi flats with leases of 45 to 65 years.

Eligible families will be able to get a Housing Board concessionary loan regardless of how many such loans they have taken before.

And the previously-announced Fresh Start Housing Grant will be given in tranches. The grant will range from $31,400 for a 45-year lease to $35,000 for a 60-year or 65-year lease. Families will get $20,000 upon collecting the keys to their flat. The rest will be disbursed annually over the next five years.

But to get these later tranches - and to qualify for the scheme at all - families must show commitment to making a fresh start, said Mr Wong.

They must stay employed, manage finances well, and ensure their children attend school regularly.

To track and help families in this commitment, the HDB will work with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

MSF officers will check on the families regularly, from flat application till key collection, and for five years afterwards. They will also link families up with other partners for social support, where needed.

"We will hand-hold the families closely and walk this journey with them," concluded Mr Wong.

If families face difficulties along the way, HDB will consider their circumstances and the efforts they are making to meet the conditions of the scheme, he added.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) raised concerns about stringent grant conditions.

Replied Mr Wong: "I am very mindful that the conditions should not be onerous.

"But at the same time, we are making a major move for these families by giving them another grant. So I think it's fair they must be able to show a certain level of commitment towards home ownership."

Separately, second-timer rental families will get priority for new flats from the next Build-To-Order exercise onwards. This is under the Tenants Priority Scheme, which sets aside 10 per cent of new two- and three-room flats and is currently for first-timers. In 2015, 411 two- room flats were set aside, far more than the 48 applications received.

Extending the scheme to second-timers will increase their chances of getting a flat, said Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon.

Who's eligible

About 1,000 households could qualify for the new Fresh Start Housing Scheme. Here are the eligibility criteria.

Applicant status: Second-timers who have bought a subsidised flat before.

Rental status: The family must have occupied a public rental flat for at least two years - and not have accumulated three or more months of arrears at any point in past year.

Demographics: At least one Singaporean parent and one citizen child. Parent or parents must be at least 35, and child below 16. Parents may be married, divorced or widowed.

Employment: At least one parent in stable employment in the preceding 12 months.

Family situation: Families will be assessed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. They must be stable, hold down a job, manage their finances well, and the children must attend school regularly.


Tengah to be developed into a 'Forest Town'
Bishan-size town will be integrated with nature as well as Jurong Innovation District
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

A town as big as Bishan will be built in Tengah.

Surrounded by greenery, it will be planned as a "Forest Town", National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said in Parliament yesterday.

As he unveiled a map and an artist's impression of Singapore's 24th Housing Board town before MPs, Mr Wong said it will be integrated with nature as well as the nearby Jurong Innovation District.

"This is only one picture, I have seen many more - plans, pictures and visualisations of what our planners are doing," he said.

HDB will make public more details in due course, Mr Wong added.

Plans to develop Tengah, a 700ha site which is bounded by the Kranji and Pan-Island expressways, Brickland Road and Bukit Batok Road, were mooted as early as 1991 in a concept plan for Singapore in the future.

Twenty-five years on, the plan now is to integrate a new "industrial park of the future" that Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled in his Budget statement last month.

The Jurong Innovation District - whose first phase will be ready around 2022 - will bring together researchers, students, innovators and businesses to develop products and services for the future.

"Tengah will be a very exciting place to live, work and play," Mr Wong said in the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday.

When ready, the town bordering Choa Chu Kang, Bukit Batok and Jurong West towns is expected to have about 55,000 homes.

Mr Wong also outlined plans for Singapore's urban development in the next 10 to 20 years.

These include a second central business district at Jurong Lake, a new creative cluster in Punggol and a new waterfront Northern Growth corridor in Woodlands and Sembawang.

New and innovative infrastructure, from driverless cars to smart power grids, will also be studied by the Committee on the Future Economy, in which Mr Wong chairs a sub-committee on the Future City.

Existing HDB towns will continue to be rejuvenated, Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee said, as he outlined some of the makeovers in store for Toa Payoh, Pasir Ris and Woodlands in the next 10 years.

Woodlands will get a town plaza for community activities and its waterfront will see more greenery and shaded spots.

Dedicated cycling paths and new shelters will be built in Toa Payoh, while a new mixed-use development integrated with a new bus interchange will be built in Pasir Ris.

Mr Wong said that in transforming the city, greater focus needs to be placed on making sure public spaces are well-connected and conducive for walking and cycling.

Developers will be required to incorporate the needs of pedestrians and cyclists upfront in their plans.

Seamless cycling routes between six housing estates and the Central Business District would also be built, while parking charges may be raised to manage the use of cars.

In a bid to further boost home ownership, Mr Wong spelt out details of a scheme to help families in public rental flats buy homes again. Under the Fresh Start Housing Scheme, to start this year, eligible families with school-going children can get grants of up to $35,000 to buy new two-room flats with shorter leases.

Government assistance will also be given to ensure the families get the social support they need, he said.

Three HDB estates to get makeovers
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

Woodlands, Toa Payoh and Pasir Ris are to get facelifts within the next 10 years, with fresh facilities, more greenery and better connected spaces.

The three towns will be revamped under the Housing Board's Remaking Our Heartland (ROH) scheme, which spruces up public housing estates.

The proposed changes were distilled from 11 discussion sessions with 400 residents and community stakeholders last year, said Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee in Parliament yesterday.

Residents in Woodlands Central will get a new town plaza, a "sizeable space for various large-scale activities", said Mr Lee.

Woodlands Waterfront will also get more landscaping, pockets of greenery and shaded areas.

In Pasir Ris, residents can expect a mixed-use development integrated with a new bus interchange and the existing Pasir Ris MRT station.

The development will house residential and commercial facilities.

Existing parks like Pasir Ris Park and neighbourhood centres will also be improved to provide more space for recreational activities.

Mr Lee also said there are plans to improve the pedestrian mall in Toa Payoh's town centre with more greenery, rest areas and covered shopping streets in selected stretches. Dedicated cycling paths will also be introduced in the mature town.

These plans for the three housing estates will be implemented in the next five to 10 years after they are approved, said the HDB.

Public exhibitions on these proposals will be held later this year.

Woodlands, Toa Payoh and Pasir Ris are the third batch of towns under the ROH scheme introduced in 2007. Other areas to come under this programme include Dawson, Yishun, Hougang, Jurong Lake, Punggol and East Coast.

Mr Lee also announced that Singapore's parks will have more facilities for the young, the old and the disabled.

Eight playgrounds will be built in the next few years for children, including those with physical disabilities. This is on top of the first, built last year, in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park.

For seniors and dementia and post-stroke patients, there will be "therapeutic gardens" with contemplative spaces and activity zones to provide horticultural therapy.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday also introduced an Urban Redevelopment Authority programme to support projects initiated by people, to turn public areas into active community spaces.

The "Our Favourite Place" programme will evaluate proposals based on their location, timing and activities.

Those successful may get up to $5,000 seed funding for projects lasting six months or less, or up to $10,000 for longer-term ones.

Through this programme, Mr Wong hopes Singaporeans will get involved in shaping public spaces and this, in turn, "will strengthen our sense of ownership, identity and emotional connection to home".

Stepping up car-lite strategy a boost for cyclists, pedestrians
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

Singapore's car-lite strategy will be stepped up in a big way, with more measures planned to wean drivers off cars, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong in Parliament yesterday.

First, developers will be required to incorporate the needs of pedestrians and cyclists upfront in their development plans.

Second, seamless cycling routes to the Central Business District (CBD) could also be built from six housing estates that are within a 30-minute cycling distance to the city.

Third, the Government may even raise carpark charges to manage the use of cars.

These measures were unveiled yesterday in Parliament.

Mr Wong said the Land Transport Authority and Urban Redevelopment Authority would be incorporating these new building requirements for developers.

Developers will have to review the locations of bicycle parking facilities and their vehicular access points. They will have to take into account key pedestrian and cyclist access routes to minimise conflict among users, he said.

He added that these were critical for developments with high footfall, such as schools, shopping malls, office buildings and business parks.

"Through these requirements, we will ensure that our built environment is more conducive for pedestrians and cyclists," he said.

This was a concern raised by various MPs. Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Darryl David also said dedicated cycling routes should be built to connect housing estates to the city.

Mr Wong said the Government was looking at six such routes - from Bishan, Geylang, Marine Parade, Hougang, the Bukit Timah or Central area, and Queenstown.

These areas are within a 30-minute cycling distance to the CBD, and many are already linked by park connectors to the city. But Mr Wong noted that these routes were not seamless, and there were gaps along the way that would be plugged.

By doing so, people would be able to "get to their workplaces without having to drive".

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat, Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng and Mr David also asked if more was being done to improve connectivity for cyclists and pedestrians within new and mature housing estates.

"The ideal scenario for such new towns would be entire vehicle-free zones where residents can walk, cycle and scoot as they go about their activities," said Mr David.

Mr Wong said within HDB estates, there would be more paths set aside for active mobility that would boost "first mile, last mile connectivity to MRT stations".

For instance, a 14km cycling network would be completed in Bedok next year.

Within the CBD, pedestrian sidewalks would be widened and dedicated cycling paths built to connect cyclists to major office developments, said Mr Wong.

Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan asked if commercial vehicles could be allowed to park for free at night at under-utilised carparks such as those at sports stadiums.

Mr Wong said carpark charges here were already lower than those in other cities and the Government would not lower parking charges or make them free.

In fact, it may have to do the reverse and raise charges as Singapore becomes car-lite, he said.

"Free parking is not really free, free parking is a subsidy to the motorist, paid for by non-motorists," he said.

Municipal issues: MSO to work with town councils
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

The Municipal Services Office (MSO) will work with all 16 town councils here to help coordinate their response to municipal issues in housing estates.

This is because "more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB estates which are managed by town councils", Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, who heads the MSO, said yesterday.

Since last year, the office - set up in October 2014 to improve coordination among government agencies - has been working with the Jurong-Clementi and Holland-Bukit Panjang town councils in a trial.

It also works with 11 agencies, such as the police and Land Transport Authority (LTA).

The remaining 14 town councils, including the Workers' Party-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, will come on board this year starting from this month, said Ms Fu.

Speaking at the debate on the Ministry of National Development's budget, Ms Fu said the average time taken to close complex cases requiring the input of multiple agencies has gone down from 21 to 13 days.

She added that the MSO and the two town councils came up with a comprehensive manual that clarifies the municipal issues the town councils and the various agencies should handle in housing estates.

And when it comes to water-related issues, town councils and the PUB will deal with specific matters, such as leakages and water-quality problems respectively.

Moving ahead, the MSO will look into improving coordination over other issues like high-rise littering and pigeon-feeding, said Ms Fu.

But she emphasised that the MSO's collaboration with the town councils is "not meant to and will not replace the functions of the town councils nor weaken their autonomy in service delivery".

Ms Fu also announced a new crowdsourcing function that will be added to the MSO's OneService mobile app by this month. For a start, people can use it to report abandoned trolleys, so that supermarket chains can locate and retrieve them more efficiently.

If the initiative works well, the crowdsourcing arrangements will be expanded to cover other municipal issues, she said.

Mr Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) called for improved workflow between agencies.

To this, Ms Fu said the LTA will handle feedback on the maintenance of infrastructure like footpaths or walkways from June. The National Parks Board, which took over grass-cutting contracts last year, will take over other forms of greenery maintenance from the Housing Board, Singapore Land Authority and PUB from June.

The MSO will also roll out a web portal in the later half of the year, which will provide information about dengue clusters, HDB block-cleaning schedules and traffic incidents, among other things.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Communications and Information

New cyber-security Bill to be tabled in Parliament next year
It will ensure operators of key infrastructure take active steps to secure systems: Yaacob
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

A new cyber-security Bill that aims to strengthen laws against online crime will be tabled in Parliament next year.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim told Parliament that the proposed law will ensure that operators of Singapore's critical information infrastructure take active steps to secure such systems and report incidents.

It will also empower the Cyber Security Agency (CSA) to manage cyber incidents and raise the standards of cyber-security providers here, he said during the debate on his ministry's budget.

The Bill comes amid growing concern globally that cyber attacks could bring down critical systems.

Dr Yaacob, who is also Minister-in-charge of Cyber Security, noted that while the existing Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act grants law enforcement agencies powers to investigate and apprehend those behind cyber crime, the nature of such crime has evolved.

The interconnectivity of such networks also means that the effects of cyber attacks can be "contagious", he added.

"Cyber attacks have increased in sophistication and attackers have become faster and bolder.

"It is inevitable that Singapore's critical information infrastructure will at some point be targets."

Dr Yaacob noted that to better tackle such threats, many countries have recently been strengthening their cyber-security legislation.

Last year, Germany passed a new law to raise cyber-security standards and mandate reporting of significant cyber-security incidents, and the United States approved an Act to facilitate the sharing of information on cyberthreats.

Dr Yaacob said the Government will start work on developing the new Bill, and the CSA will consult stakeholders on the scope of the new law.

"We are stepping up our efforts to enhance our cyber security and also the resilience of our infrastructure," he said.

"This is the necessary foundation for a successful digital economy."

Wireless@SG: 5Mbps speed by year end
Number of hot spots to be doubled to 20,000 by 2018
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

Surfing speeds on Singapore's free public Wi-Fi service Wireless@SG will be more than doubled to 5Mbps by the end of this year, as the Government sees the network as a key enabler of Singapore's Smart Nation vision.

The number of Wireless@SG hot spots will also be doubled to 20,000 by 2018 to better complement telcos' 4G networks in meeting consumers' rising demand for mobile broadband.

"We must build first-class infrastructure for pervasive, seamless and high-speed connectivity to benefit citizens and businesses," Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary said, in announcing the upgrades in Parliament yesterday.

At 5Mbps, the new Wireless@SG will be slightly faster than the average 3G connection in Singapore. The Infocomm Development Authority found that median 3G download speeds reached 4Mbps from July to December last year.

But median 4G download speeds are four to five times faster, ranging from 16.7 Mbps to 18.6 Mbps.

Some MPs had asked if there were plans to improve the surfing speeds of Wireless@SG, with Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) saying: "Today's...speeds are slower in performance than what our 4G mobile networks provide."

Addressing this, Dr Janil said that Wireless@SG's current speed is already faster than most public Wi-Fi services around the world. But because demand is increasing, there is a need to boost current speeds.

Singapore will also have the highest hot spot density in the world, calculated by the number of hot spots per inhabitant. Currently, it trails only Tokyo.

"But it is not the connectivity that makes us smart; it is what we do with it," said Dr Janil. "Operators can also use Wireless@SG to offer improved services such as cashless payment and location-based analytics. All this benefits consumers, businesses, and productivity."

One group of beneficiaries is low-income users. The idea is to allow Wireless@SG to complement existing efforts to bridge the digital divide.

Coverage expansion will target congested places such as hospitals, government buildings and community centres so more people can connect to the network without surfing slowdowns, a common bugbear.

More public places such as hawker centres, train stations and retail malls will also be added to the list of Wireless@SG zones.

About half of the existing 10,000 hot spots, at the current 3,000 locations, already allow users to surf at up to 5Mbps, from 2Mbps before. Speeds at the remaining hot spots will be upgraded by the year end.

As at December last year, there were two million frequent users on the network, clocking 10 million hours a month. Every month, they also consume 1.1 petabytes, or 11 per cent of what mobile users consume monthly on 4G and 3G networks.

This has come after the network was last upgraded in April 2014. Specifically, the log-in process was simplified using identification data already stored on users' SIM cards.

After a one-time set-up is done, Wireless@SG users can automatically connect to the network in seconds if Wi-Fi is turned on in their devices. Previously, users need to create and key in their username and password. To date, more than 90 per cent of all Wireless@SG users log in via this simplified method.

$120m to help arm Singaporeans with IT skills as demand rises
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

The Government has earmarked $120 million to arm Singaporeans with infocomm technology skills to help meet its goal of building a Smart Nation. The money, double the sum in the previous four years, is to be spent over three years.

It will be used to expand existing training schemes that target Singapore professionals and students.

The new urgency stems from growing demand. It is estimated that about 30,000 such jobs will be in the pipeline by 2020 in such areas as software coding, cyber security and data analytics.

In announcing the move in Parliament yesterday, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim acknowledged the need to build a strong Singapore core for the industry.

"We must do our best to support our Singaporeans to be highly skilled so that they can compete with global talent," he said in his reply to MPs' worry about manpower shortages in the IT industry.

MPs Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) as well as Nominated MP Randolph Tan had asked how Singapore could reduce its reliance on foreigners.

The plan, the minister said, starts with the very young, beginning with the Code@SGprogramme.

It offers enrichment lessons to primary school pupils, the first step to making coding a national capability, thus creating a base to develop future technology professionals.

Dr Yaacob said the programme will be expanded to target 24,000 school-goers every year, up from the current 22,000.

The lessons will get more complex as the pupils move up to the upper primary classes and secondary school. For instance, the Python programming language, which is not offered at present, will be taught to secondary students.

His ministry will also offer more structured internship and mentorship programmes to the 6,000 students each year who are already in infocomm disciplines.

The aim of these measures is to give them enough skills and experience at the foundation level even before they graduate.

The new target is produce 800 such pre-graduates a year - up from the current 130.

"Today, our estimates indicate that a significant proportion of them do not enter the sector on graduation," Dr Yaacob said.

Overall, the ministry's goal is to get 8,000 professionals and pre-graduates trained each year, almost double the present 4,500.

Funding for their training comes from many programmes such as the Critical Infocomm Technology Resource Programme (Citrep). It funds up to 70 per cent of the course fees.

But it too will be expanded to include courses for professionals who are new to the industry. Currently, Citrep focuses only on specialised courses like certification for security analysts. It has funded 3,000 IT professionals a year since 2014, but the expanded programme will target 5,600 a year.

A separate $1.55 million will also be set aside by the ministry for the SkillsFuture Study Awards, for people who want to hone their IT skills, including software developers, satellite engineers and master craftsmen.

A total of 310 awards will be given by the ministry this year.

Big push to kindle love of reading
NLB campaign will culminate in first National Reading Day in July
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

From bringing specially curated reading materials to offices to transforming an MRT train into a mobile digital library, the National Library Board (NLB) is going all out to get more people to read.

It is starting a National Reading Movement and, on July 30, will mark Singapore's first National Reading Day. It will also conduct a nationwide survey on reading habits to better understand how to promote reading.

The push comes amid survey results that paint a sobering picture of reading habits here.

Only 44 per cent of respondents in a year-long National Arts Council survey that ended last year had read at least one "literary book". And only half of Singapore residents had used library services in the past year, an NLB survey last July found.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim told Parliament yesterday that the NLB will focus on three priorities for a start: reaching out to new audiences, encouraging reading in the mother tongue languages, and expanding its network of partners to better court readers.

Adults are among those the NLB hopes to get on board, he said. Work commitments might leave them with less time to pick up a book, so the NLB is looking to "bring books to (them), instead of merely encouraging people to come to the books".

It plans to create more opportunities for reading while on the move and in offices. For one thing, it is looking at curating and pushing out short articles for commuters to access on mobile devices. Later this year, the NLB and the Land Transport Authority will launch a library-themed MRT train, "which not only takes you to the libraries, but will also function as a library", said Dr Yaacob.

Users can scan QR codes with their mobile devices to download e-books over the NLB mobile app, or access content like short essays.

Under a new Read@Work programme, the NLB will also partner firms to curate reading materials tailored to the companies, such as on industry trends or common management topics, and even short pieces of fiction.

It is also reaching out to seniors, a group the survey identified as the least frequent library user. Only 24 per cent of those aged 60 and above visit public libraries while less than 20 per cent borrow library materials.

The NLB plans to expand its range of reading programmes for seniors, and take books to those who may not be able to go to the library. It will start book clubs and set up more reading corners at community spaces, doubling outreach to senior activity centres by 2020.

On efforts to encourage reading in Chinese, Malay and Tamil, Dr Yaacob said the NLB will double the number of mother tongue language reading clubs from the current five to a total of 10 by this year.

The NLB is also assembling teams of advisers to provide recommendations on Chinese, Malay and Tamil collections and reading programmes at the libraries.

Since he joined Malay-language book club Kelab Membaca Wira Pintar at Tampines Regional Library, eight-year-old Dhiya Durrani Ashraf Adri has picked up Malay words that stun even his parents.

His mother, part-time pharmacist assistant Siti Sapura, 46, said: "Instead of using simpler words, he goes for more difficult words. One day, my husband called me to ask: 'Have you heard our son speak Malay? Where is he learning all these words?'"

To kick-start the National Reading Movement, a two-month campaign to get people to pledge to read will run this June and July, culminating in the inaugural National Reading Day on July 30.

"We hope to focus the nation's attention on reading, and to encourage busy Singaporeans to set aside time to read by creating opportunities for people to read together," said Dr Yaacob.

Making sure technology tale has a happy ending
The stories we tell in our progress towards a Smart Nation are crucial to its success
By Lydia Lim, Associate Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

Stories are powerful things.

They move people, shape perceptions and change behaviours.

That is why in this digital age, it matters what story is told about technology and its impact on society.

Several stories emerged yesterday when Parliament scrutinised the budgets of the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). The first takes charge of the digitalisation of government services, and the second, of the push to build a Smart Nation.

The story that Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) highlighted was of older Singaporeans who risk being cut off when the 2G mobile phone network is made obsolete. He called for a rebate to help affected seniors cope with the increased costs of upgrading to the 3G network.

Two other MPs, Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) also worried that older and poorer Singaporeans would find it difficult to access government services which are increasingly moving online.

They were right to highlight such digital divides, which, if unaddressed, can result in further marginalisation of vulnerable groups even as the rest of society gains from new technologies.

Yet another story that has emerged is of foreigners dominating infocomm technology (ICT) jobs to the extent that Changi Business Park - which houses back-office functions, including IT data centres and support units - has been dubbed "Changalore" for its higher-than-average foreign workforce.

In making this point, Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said the Government needs a clear strategy "to maximise our local talent pool who are keen to develop a career in ICT".

That means helping them to specialise and get certified in new fields, as well as equipping them with soft skills in areas such as leadership and business management, so they can differentiate themselves from workers in low-cost countries.

At the top-end, Mr Zaqy added, "it is also important that we produce ICT and business leaders who can compete on the international stage, given competition from other tech powerhouses in Asia such as Korea, China, India and Japan".

In his reply, Minister of State (MCI) Janil Puthucheary acknowledged that many do, in fact, view technology developments with anxiety. They ask: "Will a machine take over my work? Will social media divide society? Will I be left behind as technology progresses? Is cyberspace safe?"

"We cannot ignore such concerns," he said. "We cannot pretend that as a small, open country, we can shield ourselves from these forces. The only way ahead is to prepare for the threats and opportunities, and try to be the disruptor rather than the disrupted."

He then went on to tell several stories of Singaporeans doing just that, learning to master technology rather than being mastered by it.

One such story was of a "multi-generational" boot camp held in Punggol East, where a group of 10-year-olds taught seniors how to go online to stream videos and do Internet banking. What's more, "they were doing so in a mixture of English, Malay, Mandarin and Hokkien. It was really a very interesting experience", he said.

Technology, in this case, created not a gulf but a bridge between generations.

Another story was of start-up space BASH (for Build Amazing Start-up Here), which has, in its first year of operation, built 65 start-ups. That is thanks to the help of experienced entrepreneurs like Tan Teik Guan, who have stepped forward to mentor the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Stories are also essential to the digital age in the area of content creation. In digital media, for instance, nothing beats a top-notch script, said Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC). And at the heart of such scripts is an engaging, well-told story, he added.

Besides masterclasses in scriptwriting and game narratives, MCI is also tapping an old resource to spur learning, creativity and innovation. That resource is none other than books.

It will launch a National Reading Movement with a two-month campaign in June and July to get people to Read More, Read Widely and Read Together.

Here, too, is a way to tap the power of stories to help people embrace the future, in a time of rapid change.

As Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim observed in his final speech of the debate: "Countries are grappling with the need to be future-ready, in a landscape of ever-changing demands, values and technologies which are set to disrupt the paradigm in which we have been used to operating.

"The push to become Smart - that is, connected, knowledgeable and engaged - is a global endeavour that our country is very much a part of."

And good stories are indispensable to this effort.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Finance

More govt e-services for Singaporeans, platform to help firms share data
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

Singaporeans will soon be able to access more government services online and on their mobile devices while at home or on the go.

Companies will also find it easier to do business with ministries and agencies as they share more data with each other and cut through red tape.

Senior Minister of State Sim Ann, in outlining these coming changes, said at least six agencies will go paperless and, by 2020, most of their records and operations will be digitised.

The six are: Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (Iras), Ministry of Manpower, Supreme Court, State Courts and Vital, which is the Government's shared services centre.

With the move to digital, users of ICA's services need to submit supporting documents only once, instead of doing it each time they apply, said Ms Sim as she wrapped up yesterday's debate on the budget of the Ministry of Finance.

She also said the Government's digital drive is bearing fruit.

Taxpayers spend less time filing their taxes because of electronic tax-filing and no-filing schemes.

Employers can also renew their foreign domestic worker permits online themselves, instead of going through an agent.

As for businesses, the upcoming National Trade Platform will provide software tools to help them digitise their documents or information.

This will help bosses share their business data with the Government and business partners, a move that will allow them to plan their operations better.

Ms Sim also assured MPs such as Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Ms Cheryl Chan (Fengshan) that seniors unfamiliar with technology will not be left behind.

She said the 26 Citizen Connect Centres, used by 120,000 Singaporeans last year, will be upgraded.

These centres are kiosks with mobile tablets featuring touch screen interfaces that are less cumbersome and easier for the elderly to use.

Some kiosks will be height-adjustable for wheelchair users.

The home pages of the tablets will also be redesigned for users to access swiftly the most commonly used services, such as checking their Central Provident Fund accounts and personal tax statements.

Bridging the digital divide was addressed later by Minister of State Janil Puthucheary as well, during the debate on the Ministry of Communications and Information's budget.

"We must ensure that no segment of the community is excluded from computer and Internet connectivity, especially low-income households, the elderly, and people with special needs," he said.

He added: "Getting people online is only the start. Serving them online is just as important."

During the Finance Ministry debate, some MPs also urged the Government to make it easier for small companies to comply with regulations, or to win government contracts.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said business owners had complained to him that their grant applications had been rejected multiple times because of inadequate information.

Replying, Senior Minister of State for Finance Indranee Rajah said the Government continually reviews the appropriate level of documents and information needed for grant applications.

It will also help promising start-ups with good products but no track record compete, she added.

Social benefits: Pleas over criteria
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 12 Apr 2016

Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC) yesterday joined a chorus of pleas from MPs in the past week, for the Government to rethink using the annual value of a person's home as the main criterion in giving out social benefits.

Giving help based on property ownership could exclude those living in private homes but who had little income or savings, like retirees. But because of their home's annual value, they fail to qualify for the social schemes they might need, he argued.

"It is really no answer to tell these people they should sell their home, their property, relocate and live off the remaining proceeds," said Mr Tong during the debate on the Finance Ministry's budget. "We would only be dislocating many of them from their home, the environment they have grown comfortable in." He suggested the Government should also look at other eligibility criteria based on needs, like unemployment due to disability.

Several MPs, including Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC), had also spoken about this group of asset-rich, cash-poor Singaporeans last week.

But Senior Minister of State for Finance Sim Ann was not swayed, saying the annual value of a person's home is still the best way to assess whether he qualifies for help from social schemes.

"While it is not a perfect measure for wealth, it remains a best available proxy," she said.

She also noted that any criteria for means-testing had to be clear, reasonable and practical to implement. Another plus in using annual home value is that the Government knows the value. This means those who qualify automatically receive benefits, without having to apply for them.

But in all this, private property dwellers are not left out, said Ms Sim, as social support schemes are only a small part of the total amount of benefits Singaporeans get. She said the Government would continue to review its means-testing criteria so that those most in need of help would get it.

She added: "Appeals by those who are in need and in exceptional circumstances will be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis."

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