Saturday 16 April 2016

Parliament passes $79.7 billion Budget 2016

*Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth

By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

Parliament yesterday approved a $79.7 billion Budget trained on transforming the economy and building a more caring and resilient society.

These twin spirits of enterprise and care for one another are what will enable Singapore to thrive for another 50 years, said Leader of the House Grace Fu as she wrapped up the debate on the Government's spending plans.

MPs filed 499 cuts to ministries' budgets this year, the highest in the past five such debates. Each cut lets them speak on the policies and programmes of the ministries.

Among other things, the ministries laid out their policies on helping retrenched workers upgrade themselves and get new jobs, stamping out diabetes and supporting parenthood.

Ms Fu, who is Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, said: "The challenges we face today cannot be solved by the Government alone."

She called on Singaporeans to work with the Government to tackle issues such as changing mindsets on education.

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, in her wrap-up speech, said the Budget would be remembered as one that slew not one but two sacred cows.

She cited the change in the Primary School Leaving Examination grading from numerical scores to letter grades, and the move to give unwed mothers the same 16 weeks of maternity leave that married mothers get.

MPs had long championed these changes, said Madam Halimah, who praised the moves for "placing children at the heart of what we do".

This year's Budget was presented and discussed later than usual, because of the heavy parliamentary schedule after last September's General Election. As a result, the Budget was passed only after the start of the Government's financial year on April 1.

But the Government had temporary access to various government funds to keep public services running as normal, under a constitutional provision.

Article 148B(4) of the Constitution states that the Finance Minister, with the Cabinet's approval, can authorise such spending until the Supply Bills controlling each ministry's spending are passed.

However, the amount that can be spent this way must not exceed a quarter of the total sum approved in the past year's Budget.

Rounding up the fortnight's debate, Madam Halimah said: "The challenge now is to help people navigate this period of disruption and transformation to a better future."

Policies put children at heart of what we do: Halimah Yacob
Changes in PSLE scoring system, maternity leave reflect transformational shift: Speaker
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

A slew of government schemes was introduced during the marathon Budget debate that ended in Parliament yesterday.

But what tickled Speaker Halimah Yacob's funny bone were the abbreviations to which these schemes were reduced.

She noted wryly: "I counted that, in this Budget, 22 new schemes were introduced, including TAC-CIP, HCP, GTD, EAE, iPREP, SSF, OSF and many more.

"Can you remember at least five of them?" she asked as MPs burst into laughter.

The fortnight's debate, however, is striking for the slaying of two sacred cows, she said in wrapping up the annual marathon.

One is the replacing of the numerical aggregate scores in the Primary School Leaving Examination with letter grades - as in the O- and A-level results - to curb the obsession with academic results.

The other is unwed mums getting the same 16-week paid maternity leave that married mothers get.

Their children, too, will get a savings account to help pay for childcare and healthcare costs.

Both changes reflect a "transformational shift in policy, aimed at placing children at the heart of what we do, instead of focusing narrowly just on academic excellence or procreation", Madam Halimah said.

Agreeing, Leader of the House Grace Fu said the spirit of inclusivity was "in keeping with the spirit of our National Anthem, Majulah Singapura, that we progress together as a nation".

Ms Fu, who is Minister for Community, Culture and Youth, also noted the 499 "cuts" by MPs, the highest in the past five Budget debates.

A cut is a call for a $100 reduction in a ministry's budget, to let MPs query its policies and programmes.

The Health Ministry led with 50 cuts, many of which were on ageing and diabetes, a growing scourge.

But Ms Fu's ministry topped the list on total speech time, a first since it was set up in 2012.

This reflects MPs' interest in "the softer side of nation-building, which has taken on greater emphasis in this post-SG50 year", Ms Fu said.

But what seems to trouble Madam Halimah is the seeming lack of interest among people in the debate, which provides good insights into policies, she said.

She discovered, when visiting her constituents in the past two weeks, that almost all of them had not been following the debates.

"This is our challenge: How to motivate and empower people to be more interested in what's going on, so that they can make informed choices and better decisions for themselves," she told MPs.

But it is a two-way process: People need to play their part too.

Said Madam Halimah: "The Government can only do so much.

"It can act as a catalyst, it can prod, nudge, persuade and influence but, beyond that, it really depends on all of us, how fast we want to run and how much of that rainbow we want to catch."

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth

$3m push for more activities in heritage areas
By Huang Lijie, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

Those with an appetite for culture, leisure and entertainment can look forward to more of such activities in the Civic District and Bras Basah-Bugis precinct in the next three years.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said in Parliament yesterday, during the debate on her ministry's budget, that $3 million would be set aside for programmes in these spaces.

The aim is to further enliven these arts and heritage-rich neighbourhoods and endear them to people.

This effort complements a $740 million plan announced in last year's Budget to revitalise the Civic District through the refurbishment and opening of key cultural institutions and heritage landmarks. These include the $532 million National Gallery Singapore, which has drawn almost 700,000 visitors since it opened last November in the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings.

The commemorative Jubilee Walk was also launched last year under the plan. The 8km-long heritage trail wraps around landmarks in the Civic District, including the Asian Civilisations Museum, which opened two new wings last November as part of its $25 million revamp.

Also, events such as Car-Free Sunday have been launched in February in the Central Business District and Civic District, to encourage people to gather and mingle in these areas.

Ms Fu said the push to offer "outdoor and indoor experiences across sports, culture, food and entertainment" in the Civic District and Bras Basah-Bugis precinct will be a collaborative effort. The National Arts Council and National Heritage Board will "work with different stakeholders in the community, including arts and heritage groups", she said.

This partnership with the local community and arts and heritage groups is essential for such efforts to take off, stressed Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Baey Yam Keng.

He cited a block party held in Armenian Street last month as an example of such collaboration. The Peranakan Museum and Singapore Management University had worked with cultural groups such as Dance Ensemble Singapore, the Peranakan community and the area's shops to put on performances centred on Peranakan culture and poetry readings.

Do good and get rewarded with grants of up to $50,000
Ministry rolls out initiatives to promote culture of giving back to society
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

Doing good has received a big boost. Singaporeans and non-profit groups can soon apply for a grant of up to $50,000 each time they have a project that builds national identity or helps the underprivileged.

The Our Singapore Fund will pay for up to 80 per cent of the cost of an approved project.

Similarly, companies will get help from the Government to promote volunteerism among their workers, under a new programme called Company of Good. They will get training on how to set up or strengthen their corporate giving programmes, and if their efforts are assessed to be good enough, they may display a "Company of Good" logo.

These moves to promote a culture of giving back to society were announced yesterday during the budget debate of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Being a caring and cohesive community, alongside having a strong sense of national identity and pride, "will determine whether Singapore continues to thrive in the next 50 years", said its minister, Ms Grace Fu.

The many meaningful projects that came up during the SG50 celebrations last year show there is a rich store of enthusiasm and public spirit, she added.

"We want to unlock it with a little support to translate these ideas into reality," she said.

Hence the $25 million Our Singapore Fund, announced by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in his Budget speech on March 24.

It will be set up by the second half of the year and will last five years.

Help is also afoot to encourage corporate volunteerism in businesses, especially small and medium- sized enterprises.

In announcing the Company of Good programme, Senior Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann said: "We regularly speak of corporate transformation in terms of productivity and innovation.

"It is just as important that businesses in our future economy are civic-minded and play active roles in our communities."

She was replying to Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) and Mr Henry Kwek (Nee Soon GRC).

The programme, to start in June, will be organised by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), in partnership with the Singapore Business Federation Foundation.

All companies can sign up for it, regardless of whether they are practising corporate giving at the moment. They can take an online quiz to assess their corporate giving programmes, and may qualify to display a "Company of Good" logo on their premises and corporate materials.

NVPC will train about 200 companies in two years and the course will cover topics such as how to start a corporate giving programme that engages staff, and ways to promote skills-based volunteerism.

NVPC will subsidise the training fees. Details will be available when the website goes live next month.

Curation of history 'open and consultative'
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

Singapore's history is objectively presented, and no "standard" or "official" account is imposed, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Grace Fu.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday during the debate on her ministry's budget, Ms Fu said the National Heritage Board (NHB) is "open and consultative" in its curation of history, and invites visitors "to examine different perspectives and engage in critical thinking".

She was responding to Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC), who had called for NHB exhibitions to present different interpretations of Singapore's history to encourage critical thinking and educate citizens.

Mr Low said: "It is time we moved away from representations of a standard or official history.''

The Workers' Party chief said that while learning Singapore history contributes to having a stronger national identity, this can only be achieved if history is presented in a manner that encourages students to consider multiple perspectives and think critically.

"This will also reduce students' and parents' perceptions of using history as government propaganda," he added.

Citing the Parliament In Singapore History exhibition at The Arts House, Mr Low said it could present different interpretations from the perspectives of pioneer statesmen, the ruling party backbenchers, plus opposition party, women and minority members.

Replying, Ms Fu said these groups were represented in the visuals and text of the exhibition. She cited how opposition veteran Chiam See Tong's quote on being an opposition party member in Parliament was prominently displayed.

She also gave examples from the National Museum's Singapore History Gallery, which has a showcase displaying published political material leading up to the 1962 Referendum on Merger with the Federation of Malaya.

She said the showcase presents the Chinese, English and Malay versions of the Battle For Merger, a series of radio talks by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew aimed at exposing the goals, methods and organisation of the Communist movement.

It also presents two alternative political perspectives published at the time, Ms Fu said. One was a booklet, The Truth Behind Merger?, written by Felice Leon-Soh, who was then-Secretary General of the Liberal Socialist Party. She had urged people to question the People's Action Party's (PAP) campaign for merger, and to make an informed decision when casting their votes.

The other was Merger, Phony Merger And Confederation, a booklet by the former Barisan Sosialis, in which it disagreed with the merger terms set out by the PAP, and instead championed full and complete merger.

Ms Fu said NHB "draws widely on local and international experts in curating exhibitions".

For example, the National Museum is advised by senior historians from local universities who are acknowledged in their fields on the subject of Singapore history.

She added: "As NHB does not dictate content, we have seen many different topics and perspectives represented."

Mr Low also proposed that an independent commission of professional historians and heritage specialists be established to oversee grants disbursed by the board, with the aim to encourage critical thinking.

This would signal to people that the Government "is not here to control and censor history", he said.

Ms Fu replied that the board already taps the expertise of independent external panels to evaluate its grants.

These panels comprise representatives from different sectors, including academics and civic society groups such as the Singapore Heritage Society, to ensure a wide range of views, she said. portal lets users uncover Singapore's past
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

The Sri Vairavimada Kaliamman temple in Toa Payoh can trace its roots to the 1860s, when it was a resting spot in the Orchard area for Indian plantation workers and dhobis (washermen). It then evolved into a place for Hindus to pray and sing devotional songs.

This nugget of historical information, part of the Toa Payoh heritage trail, is one of thousands that online users can uncover in a new Web portal launched by the National Heritage Board (NHB) yesterday.

Called, the site is a mammoth repository of information on more than 120,000 cultural treasures and historical artefacts from the national collection.

It also includes 85 heritage trails, 72 national monuments, and about 1,000 heritage resources such as research papers and activity sheets.

The portal "presents heritage resources in a much more dynamic manner", Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Baey Yam Keng told Parliament. "Whether you are a serious researcher, or just a curious young student, will provide a new dimension for you to explore and learn more about our history and heritage," he added.

Produced by NHB's digital team, it was budgeted in 2014 as part of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth's digital engagement strategy. It took seven months and cost about $400,000 to piece together. It is targeted at educators and the general public.

The senior manager of NHB's digital team, Mr Shaun Wong, said the portal is one way to better showcase the historic gems under its care. For instance, the team wove an early 19th-century painting from Tanjore, South India, of a dhobi and his wife, into the write-up of the Sri Vairavimada Kaliamman temple.

NHB's existing website, which draws about 300,000 views annually, will now be its corporate site.

Overall, the board chalked up a digital reach of more than 3.07 million views across its digital platforms, including its museum websites and social platforms, last year.

During the debate on the ministry's budget, Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) raised the importance of implementing heritage impact assessments. Minister Grace Fu said NHB adopts a "calibrated and sensitive approach" to balance heritage preservation and development needs. The assessment frameworks of several countries were studied but these were not fully applicable to Singapore, she added.

"We have decided not to adopt such frameworks wholesale at this point of time, but to evolve an approach suited to our local context."

She also said NHB will be able to identify Singapore's heritage assets and better advise on their historical significance when the nationwide survey on the country's tangible heritage is done by mid-2017.

Different views on space for artists to express themselves
By Huang Lijie, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

A debate on the space and limits of artistic discourse arose in Parliament yesterday with members invoking comments on the balance between freedom and order by former United States leaders Henry Kissinger and John F. Kennedy to make their points.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said that "compared to a generation ago, there is more space for expression and experimentation" in the arts even as "peaceful social relations" are preserved, because the Government has "made changes and adjustments along the way" in view of evolving norms of what is considered acceptable by the public.

She was responding to a point raised by Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun on Wednesday about the lack of space for discourse and for art to ask difficult questions.

Ms Fu said that for there to be a "safe space for citizens to pursue their aspirations and for art to do its work", there needs to be "rules of engagement". She cited former US secretary of state Kissinger who, in his 2014 book World Order, wrote: "Order and freedom, sometimes described as opposite poles on the spectrum of experience, should instead be understood as interdependent."

Mr Kok responded with a quote by former US president Kennedy, who said in a 1963 speech urging the then-Soviet Union to work with the US towards a nuclear test ban treaty: "And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity." He asked Ms Fu for her thoughts on providing a "safe space" for a diversity of views to be presented through the arts.

Ms Fu clarified that "discourse, dissent, disagreements can take place and has its place in Singapore" and it is provided for in the arts through the classification and advisory rating system, allowing certain segments of the public, "perhaps more mature", to engage in such discourse.

She added that the authorities have allowed more diversity in the arts over time, including works critical of the political system and those that touch on issues which arouse dissent. She also hoped "the arts community will give the regulator the acknowledgement that it has happened".

Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera asked Ms Fu if the ministry would consider removing the National Arts Council's restriction on funding to artists and for art projects that are critical of national leaders and institutions.

Ms Fu said: "We have gone quite far already about allowing dissenting voices and also different voices to be voiced out in the art sector. There will be tension always, but as an art promoter, we will work as much as we can to facilitate respectful discussions between the artist, the art industry, as well as the regulator."

History and arts funding remain contested areas
By Lydia Lim, Associate Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

Does the Government control and censor history? Does it hem in art that raises uncomfortable questions and seems to divide society?

Those were perhaps the two most controversial questions that arose during the debate on the budget of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

Most of the debate, it must be said, was on less divisive issues, such as building national unity, sports facilities, youth programmes, volunteerism and other topics with more direct impact on most people's lives.

Still, the issue of strengthening national identity was central to how the ministry positioned its work, and that, too, was how Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) positioned his question on history.

The Workers' Party chief said it was time to move away from "standard" or "official" representations of Singapore history because national identity can only be strengthened "if history is presented to encourage students to consider multiple perspectives and engage in critical thinking".

Doing so would also reduce students' and parents' perceptions of history as "government propaganda".

Minister Grace Fu rebutted Mr Low, saying the National Heritage Board is open, consultative and "takes an objective approach in its curation of history".

It invites visitors to examine different perspectives and engage in critical thinking, she said, "rather than impose a standard or official account of history, as Mr Low says".

The second question was raised by Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun, who represents the arts community.

During the main Budget debate last week, he called for a different model of funding for arts organisations that encourage experimentation, such as The Substation.

He made the point that the arts have intrinsic worth, and should not be viewed only in terms of the political purpose they serve.

And he quoted famed Chinese writer Lu Xun, who said politics and the arts must diverge because while politics seeks to maintain the status quo, it is in the nature of art to examine change, to pursue truth.

In her response yesterday, Ms Fu said there is now more space than before for arts expression and experimentation.

But there is still a need for "rules of engagement to safeguard the social harmony that we cherish".

She quoted famed American diplomat Henry Kissinger, who said that freedom and order are interdependent.

The Government's role is to drive progress while remaining in step with the populace and maintaining societal order, she said, adding: "It is only with social harmony that we can enjoy the peace and ultimately the freedom that comes with it."

Questions about different - and at times contradictory - interpretations of Singapore's history, and over arts funding for groups whose work is critical of the status quo and may be seen as sowing discord, will not be settled in brief parliamentary exchanges.

These are two areas that look set to remain contested.

Yet it is also striking that the word diversity cropped up so frequently during yesterday's debate on the budget of a ministry focused on the softer, less tangible aspects of development.

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, speaking in his capacity as the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, said there was a need to address "a more diverse socio-religious landscape".

Muslims in Singapore, he said, have always been guided by principles of moderation, inclusiveness and respect for differences.

"Diversity is not new. And our Malay/Muslim community has been long used to diversity. We have been traditionally open and welcoming of diversity.

"Yes, it will be increasingly difficult to try and balance the competing views and interests, but let us instead instil - especially among our young - a sense of curiosity and appreciation of diversity," he said.

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin and Senior Minister of State (MCCY) Sim Ann also spoke of creating opportunities for young people to speak openly and honestly to one another about race and religion, so as to learn respect for different points of view and lessons in embracing diversity.

When it comes to religion, there is broad consensus on the need to respect different beliefs, values and practices.

Building such a consensus has become a priority for many governments around the world, in an era of violence carried out in the name of religious extremism.

But this embrace of diversity does not always extend to contested spaces of national history and arts criticism.

And yet, there is merit to Mr Kok's plea for the arts, which he expressed by quoting John F. Kennedy, that "if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity".

People with disabilities and their caregivers to get free entry to special exhibitions at museums
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

People with disabilities as well as their caregivers will be granted free entry to special exhibitions at eight National Heritage Board (NHB) museums and institutions from June 1.

The free entry applies to upcoming special showcases such as the Asian Civilisations Museum's Christianity In Asia: Sacred Art And Visual Splendour, and the Peranakan Museum's Nyonya Beadwork And Embroidery: Craft And Heritage.

They will also be given concession rates when visiting special exhibitions at public museums such as the National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum, Senior Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann said yesterday.

Free admission applies to the first caregiver, regardless of nationality, who accompanies a Singaporean, permanent resident or foreigner with disabilities.

Concession rates for special exhibitions across public museums also apply to foreigners with disabilities.

Since 2013, entry to permanent exhibitions at all public museums and institutions has been free for all Singaporeans and permanent residents.

However, entry to special exhibitions has been free only for students, seniors, full-time national servicemen and teachers.

Bringing arts and culture to more pre-schoolers
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

More children will be exposed to the arts through professional artists and instructors, as the National Arts Council (NAC) and Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) expand an arts education programme to a total of 55 pre-schools, up from the current 19.

Separately, a pre-school in Punggol that opens in June will focus largely on the arts as a pilot with the NAC, Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Baey Yam Keng said.

The new pre-school is "a partnership between artists and teachers, as they seek to incorporate the arts more holistically in the pre-school environment", he told the House during the debate on his ministry's spending plans.

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) and Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) had asked the ministry about its plans to make arts and culture accessible to young children.

Mr Baey said he agreed that children should be exposed to arts and culture at an early age, as it helps develop creativity and confidence.

The arts education programme by NAC, a statutory board under the ministry, and ECDA, which comes under the ministries of Education as well as Social and Family Development, started in 19 pre-schools last year to promote arts education in the early childhood sector.

Children are exposed to the arts through age-appropriate performances, and have opportunities to try out various art forms, such as dance, music and visual arts. They will also visit arts venues such as museums and artists' studios.

The 55 pre-schools to offer the arts programme this year are run by the Ministry of Education and two anchor operators - PAP Community Foundation and Metropolitan YMCA's MY World. Anchor operators get government grants and priority in securing Housing Board sites for centres, but are required to keep school fees low for parents.

The new pre-school in Edgefield Plain is run by NTUC My First Skool, another anchor operator. At this centre, artists and pre-school teachers will jointly develop and teach the curriculum.

Said Mr Baey: "The new curriculum aims to provide an even more comprehensive and integrated art and music experience for our young children."

More school facilities can be used for sport
Disability Sports Master Plan launched, in bid to have physically active and inclusive society
By Jonathan Wong, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

Singaporeans keen to adopt a healthy lifestyle and even pursue sports more seriously will find it easier to do so in the coming years.

Announcing the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth's plans for the sports sector in Parliament yesterday, Minister Grace Fu said the public will have greater access to sports programmes and facilities island-wide.

This builds on the $1.5 billion Sports Facilities Master Plan to ensure Singaporeans have a venue to play and exercise within 10 minutes of their home by 2030; and the Dual-Use Scheme, which opens indoor sports halls and fields in schools outside of school hours.

There are now 87 chargeable school fields, 49 free-to-play fields and 77 indoor sports halls. This is about half of all government primary and secondary schools. The rest will be opened by around 2020.

More than 210,000 bookings for these facilities were made in the last financial year.

Auditor Jacqueline Wong, 35, plays badminton at Yishun Town Secondary School every weekend. She welcomed the expansion of the scheme, saying: "Yishun Town has just four courts, so there's a limited number of people who can play if we just book one court. More courts will help the whole community."

There were more than 15 million visitors to public sports facilities last year and a Ministry of Communications and Information survey found that 76 per cent were satisfied with efforts to create a vibrant sports scene.

Besides more spaces to play, more citizens and permanent residents are also joining the country's biggest "sports club": ActiveSG

Membership in ActiveSG, launched in April 2014, reached 1,011,529 as of March 31. The national movement for sport will set up academies and clubs for basketball, tennis and athletics this year.

Hosting last year's SEA Games and Asean Para Games also stirred the nation, and the ministry aims to build on this legacy towards a physically active and inclusive society.

Said Ms Fu: "Sport is a great way to bring diverse communities together." To that end, a Disability Sports Master Plan has been launched. It will expand access and opportunities for participation by the disabled community. Mainstream schools Jurongville Secondary and Sengkang Secondary will begin a pilot programme this year to develop a sports curriculum for students with disabilities.

Sport Singapore will launch five Centres of Expertise, where sports programmes and gym facilities will cater to persons with disabilities, within the next five years.

This will start with Sengkang Sports Centre for swimmers with disabilities and Queenstown Sta- dium for those with cerebral palsy.

Full-time national serviceman Ismail Abdul Kadir, 25, was excited about training with Singapore's national cerebral palsy football team at Queenstown. Said Mr Ismail, who experiences uncontrollable trembling in his hands: "My disability is not a barrier for me to go forward to play sports. This is a proper channel for people like me to pursue our soccer dreams."

Additional reporting by Alvin Chia

Muslim groups doing more to guide their community
Efforts under way to counter extremist views online, support religious teachers and students
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

The Muslim community is stepping up its efforts to counter extremist influences online, at a time when radical groups abuse the Internet as a platform for their views.

The religious education curriculum already includes lessons that help inoculate youth against online radicalisation, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim told Parliament yesterday.

And the Mufti's office at the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and the Religious Rehabilitation Group - which counsels radicalised persons - are developing print as well as online material to guide the wider community on the issue.

Dr Yaacob was responding to Malay/Muslim MPs at the debate on the budget for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Muis is a statutory board under its purview.

The above efforts are part of a range of measures that Dr Yaacob outlined yesterday, which aim to build a progressive Muslim community that strengthens Singapore's multi-religious society at a time when regional and global events could affect social bonds.

Dr Yaacob, who is Minister for Communications and Information, noted that Muslims in Singapore have long been guided by the principles of moderation and respect for different races and religions.

And while it will be increasingly difficult to balance competing views and interests, the community must instil, especially in youth, an appreciation of diversity.

"To me, being progressive is the ability to understand the modern world with an open mind and heart...We need to be well-read and be respectful as we balance differences in ideas, concerns and interests and gain a consensus to find the best possible solution," he said.

To better guide the community, Muis will work to build the capabilities of religious teachers.

Some 80 per cent of religious teachers are registered under the Asatizah Recognition Scheme, and Muis will discuss with them how to enhance it and get the remaining 20 per cent - some of whom are informally trained - on board.

To better guide those seeking Islamic religious education abroad, Muis will have an enhanced Student Welfare and Careers Office.

Muis will also share knowledge on how Muslims in multicultural societies like Singapore practise their faith in a multiracial society. It will organise the first conference on fatwa - or religious guidance - in contemporary societies later this year.

And to ensure there are enough prayer spaces for Muslims, 15 mosques have been upgraded and two built since 2009. Maarof Mosque in Jurong West will open later this year, and the Yusof Ishak Mosque in Woodlands next year.

When current projects are ready by 2018, there will be 24,700 more prayer spaces compared to 2009.

Dr Yaacob also said the site for the new mosque in Tampines North has been decided: It will be built along Tampines Avenue 10, in the heart of the future Tampines North town.

Madrasah Al-Arabiah in Lorong 6 Toa Payoh will also have a new home next to its current premises.

The six full-time madrasah are also doing more with technology in teaching and learning, he added. Madrasah Irsyad Zuhri worked with the Infocomm Development Authority to set up a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) lab to expose students to game designing and robotics, and Madrasah Aljunied is piloting the teaching of the Arabic language using iBooks.

Dr Yaacob noted that just as the nation's pioneers struggled to make a nation out of disparate communities, today's generation must work hard to move into the future.

"Let us not wait for others to find the solutions to the challenges that trouble us," he said.

Imam makes it a habit to make friends from other faiths
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

As an imam and course coordinator at the Al-Muttaqin Mosque in Ang Mo Kio, Ustaz Muslim Amad spends most of his time with the Muslim community.

But he also has many friends from other faiths and makes the effort to meet young leaders from other religions regularly to organise joint activities.

His interest in learning more about different cultures and faiths was sparked as a student at then Madrasah Al-Irsyad, when he had few non-Muslim friends.

For Racial Harmony Day, his class was in charge of showcasing Indian culture and Ustaz Muslim, 25, still recalls taking oil lamps and copies of Tamil-language daily Tamil Murasu to school to share with his friends.

His fondness for Chinese horror flicks also led him to read up about Chinese culture.

In 2012, Ustaz Muslim discovered the Harmony Centre, which promotes inter-faith understanding, and jumped at the chance to join as a docent.

Four years later, he is still a regular at the centre at An-Nahdhah Mosque in Bishan and takes visitors for tours around it.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday cited him as an example of young and upcoming asatizah, or religious teachers, who play a role in guiding the community and imparting values such as integrity, respect for human dignity and compassion.

Ustaz Muslim has spent hours in open conversation with fellow Singaporeans from other faiths.

His key message to other youth out there? "Listen more, talk less. Learn to share about your religion with confidence. Be good to all, regardless of race, language or religion."

More help on the cards for students, workers and families
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

Malay/Muslim youth can soon tap mentorship schemes and coding courses to better prepare themselves for the opportunities offered in a changing economy.

Self-help group Mendaki's Future Ready Unit, set up last year to help the community tap the national SkillsFuture scheme, is organising these activities to complement national ones, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim told Parliament yesterday.

In the pipeline are "NextStop" sessions for students in secondary schools, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnics to better learn about growth sectors in the economy, and academic and career pathways out there.

Secondary and ITE students can also be linked up with mentors. "Some of our students may not be well-informed of the available opportunities, or they may lack the confidence to pursue their aspirations. Mentors will help broaden their perspectives, and advise them on their choice of education and career pathways," Dr Yaacob said.

Mendaki's training arm, Mendaki Sense, will organise fairs to help adult learners and workers understand SkillsFuture, and offer a number of free courses that support lifelong learning.

Later this month, Mendaki will launch a coding and robotics programme targeted at younger students to whet their interest in the growing infocomm sector.

Called CM-Tech@Heartlands, it aims to reach out to 450 students by next year.

Meanwhile, Mendaki is training its pool of tutors, and making its tuition scheme MTS more accessible.

The MTS@Mosques programme will be expanded to the mosques in Ang Mo Kio and Sengkang, given the high demand in these areas.

Dr Yaacob also noted there was a dip in the number of marriages involving minors.

In 2014, 1.3 per cent of Muslim grooms and 4 per cent of brides were below 21 years old, down from 3.9 per cent and 13.8 per cent respectively in 2004.

Meanwhile, divorce rates stayed stable, averaging 1,600 divorces a year over the last five years. However, Muslim couples with younger grooms aged 20 to 24 were more likely to split up, and counsellors will help support such couples.

The Syariah Court, which governs divorce and inheritance, will work with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) to develop a certification programme on the practice of Muslim law in Singapore.

Since 2004, its marriage counselling programme has helped more than 30,000 couples, about 45 per cent of whom were reconciled.

Said Dr Yaacob: "Our strength as a community depends on strong families and how we look after those in need."

Choice of Court Agreements Act

Law boosts global enforceability for rulings on civil, commercial matters
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 15 Apr 2016

Enabling court judgments here on civil and commercial matters to have greater international enforceability is at the heart of a new law passed by Parliament yesterday.

Approval of the Choice of Court Agreements Act also makes Singapore courts a more attractive forum for deciding cross-border disputes, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah explained during the debate on the legislation.

Its approval now paves the way for Singapore to ratify an international pact that 28 countries have adopted: the Hague Convention.

Under the convention, if a Singapore court has been chosen to preside over a dispute, under what is known as an "exclusive choice of court agreement", the hearing must be held in Singapore. The court's judgment must thus also be recognised and enforced by courts of all other parties to the convention. Singapore signed it in March last year.

"The implementation of the convention demonstrates Singapore's commitment to be a global player in facilitating international commerce," said Ms Indranee.

"Drawing more complex cross-border commercial cases to our courts will allow us to develop and shape commercial law, as well as international jurisprudence relating to the convention."

This latest step comes as Singapore moves to establish itself as an international arbitration hub. The Singapore International Commercial Court heard its first case in November last year.

Responding to questions from Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan and Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC), Ms Indranee said the Hague Convention is "very promising" despite the relatively small number of countries that have adopted it so far.

She said 27 of the 28 European Union states are party to the convention, and the United States and Ukraine have also signed it. Singapore will do its part to encourage fellow Asean members to adopt the convention, she added.

As for Mr Nair's question on whether courts would be obliged to recognise judgments made by convention nations with "less robust" legal systems, she said there are built-in safeguards in the convention and the Act that provide grounds for the courts here to refuse to recognise or enforce foreign judgments.

These include instances where the judgment was obtained by fraud, or where enforcement would be against Singapore's public policy. The courts also have some discretion in the matter, said Ms Indranee.

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