Thursday 9 March 2017

Budget 2017 Committee of Supply Debate: MOE, MND, MOF, MOM, MCI

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Education

Education focus shifts to students' strengths
More aptitude-based admissions in ITE, polys and unis; Direct School Admission tweaked
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has rolled out a string of measures to encourage students to play to their strengths and tweaked admission criteria to make this possible.

The Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme, seen by many parents as an entry ticket to top schools, will be changed to reclaim its original purpose - to recognise and nurture a diversity of talent in students.

Aptitude-based admissions will be expanded for the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics and universities.

Normal stream students in all eligible schools will be given the chance to study their stronger subjects at higher academic levels.

The changes were announced yesterday by Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng and Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, who underlined a decisive shift across all levels of the system to focus on recognising a student's interest and aptitude in particular fields.

Mr Ng announced that, from this year, schools will discontinue the use of general academic ability tests to assess DSA applicants. Instead, they will consider talents in specific domains.

He also announced that, from next year, all secondary schools can set aside up to 20 per cent of their places for the DSA.

Currently those with MOE-approved niche programmes can reserve 5 per cent of their intake for the scheme.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) and Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC) pointed out that, although the scheme was started in 2004 to broaden admission criteria beyond PSLE results, over the years, it has been used to get into premier schools that offer the Integrated Programme (IP).

Instead of being a pathway for students with talents in, for example, the arts and sports, it was being used by academically bright students to secure a Secondary 1 place even before they took the Primary School Leaving Examination.

Specialised independent schools and those offering the IP can continue to take in up to 100 per cent of their students via the DSA, although the MOE said IP schools on average take only 35 per cent of their students via the DSA scheme.

Mr Ng also announced changes for Normal stream students to help them build on their strengths.

From next year, Normal stream students will be able to take up subjects at a higher academic level from Secondary 1, instead of Sec 3.

"If they are good at something, we want to help them hone their strengths into deep knowledge and skills," said Mr Ng.

In a similar vein, Mr Ong announced the expansion of aptitude-based admission for ITE, polytechnics and universities "because we are simply better at doing something we like".

This year, some 15 per cent of the intake in universities will be aptitude-based. An early admission exercise will see a similar proportion of students securing a place in ITE, based on their strengths.

"Our post-secondary educational institutions today must have an additional mission - to uncover and develop diverse talents," said Mr Ong.

Mr Bertrand Lim, 42, who has two teenage sons, welcomed the expansion of aptitude-based admissions. He said: "No doubt, aptitude-based admissions will be messy to implement. But it will be well worth it if the school system can accommodate the interests and abilities of all children."

Polys, ITE to take in more students based on aptitude
From next year, Early Admissions Exercise can admit up to 15% of poly intake, up from 12.5% currently
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

Polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) will admit more students based on talents and interests, as they widen the focus beyond academic grades alone.

All five polytechnics will be taking their existing aptitude-based admissions up a notch, even after the intake of such students was recently expanded last year.

From the next academic year, the Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) will be able to admit up to 15 per cent of the polytechnic intake, up from the current 12.5 per cent.

This means that over 500 more places would be made available for these students, Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.

This comes after there was strong interest shown among students entering the polytechnics this year. The scheme allows students to secure a place in a programme of their choice using course-specific talents and interests, even before they sit the O levels or ITE final exams.

A similar exercise known as the ITE EAE will be put in place for those entering the ITE from next year. It will also be able to admit up to 15 per cent of the intake.

The ITE admits about 14,000 students in total each year.

"For those who are clear about what they want to pursue, we should support them as much as possible, to facilitate their admission into our PSEIs (post-secondary education institutions) based on interests and aptitudes, and not just based on academic results," said Mr Ong.

He also highlighted how polytechnics said the scheme is useful in sectors such as early childhood, nursing, social work or creative subjects, where aptitude and commitment to the career are crucial.

Hand in hand with this will be the growing role of education and career guidance, which will help students discover their interests, and guide them in their choice of studies and career, said Parliamentary Secretary for Education Low Yen Ling.

"Because when our students understand their abilities, strengths and their interests, as well as the options available and what it takes, then our students can make better decisions about their education pathways, vocations and career choices," she explained.

The changes come as the Government works towards transforming the higher education landscape here to cope with a changing world.

Mr Ong said: "We have an effective and internationally well-regarded education system.

"But sometimes a great strength can also be a weakness. It gives rise to a temptation to just tinker around at the edges, instead of making more fundamental but necessary changes."

Part of the shift involves fulfilling the hopes and aspirations of students through education. This, said Mr Ong, need not be at odds with education's aim to find good jobs and lifelong employability.

Other shifts include encouraging lifelong learning, which involves finding relevant and concise training for working adults, and helping Singaporeans adapt to a data-rich and digital working environment. Education must also impart skills and not just information, Mr Ong added, stressing the need for hands-on learning.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) and Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) noted how aptitude-based admissions give those who may not have done well in school a second chance and help reduce the overemphasis on grades.

But reflecting the concerns of parents, Dr Lim cautioned against a purely aptitude-based system, which may be too subjective as it is dependent on the assessors.

20% of places in sec schools to be kept for students with no affiliation
The allocation, from 2019, will ensure schools are open to all, regardless of backgrounds or connections
By Yuen Sin and Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

From 2019, one-fifth of places in Singapore secondary schools that are affiliated to primary schools will be set aside for students who do not benefit from affiliation priority.

In announcing the 20 per cent allocation in Parliament yesterday, Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said that while affiliation helps to "foster a strong school spirit and preserve schools' traditions and ethos", the Government has to ensure that schools are open to all students, regardless of their backgrounds or connections.

In response to media queries, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said that the 20 per cent figure takes reference from its policy of reserving 40 places for students with no prior connections to the school during the Primary 1 registration exercise.

The rule was implemented in 2014 to provide open access to schools. The figure of 40 is about 20 per cent of a typical primary school's P1 enrolment of 210 pupils.

There are 27 secondary schools here that are affiliated to primary schools with links to religious and clan associations. Most already have students from non-affiliated schools making up at least 20 per cent of the student population.

However, between six and eight schools have non-affiliated students making up less than 20 per cent of the population each year, said the MOE.

Students applying for a place in an affiliated secondary school have to meet the cut-off set by the school and list the school as their first choice to qualify for priority.

The entry scores for affiliated and non-affiliated students at some schools can vary. Schools can set the minimum entry standards, subject to MOE approval, for affiliated students, and these are usually lower than the standards that non-affiliated students have to meet. For example, for entry into CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh), affiliated students need a T-score of only 200 to get into the Express stream. Other students had to score 243 and above to secure a place last year.

This discrepancy was pointed out during the MOE's budget debate on Monday by Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC), who asked if the affiliation priority scheme can be gradually phased out. Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) also described school affiliation as "a bugbear for many parents and students".

"Parents whose children are not in primary schools affiliated to popular schools are worried that their children will have little chance of gaining admission... Parents whose children are still in pre-schools are also getting very worried because they want to ensure their children can enrol in a primary school affiliated to a popular school," she said.

Mr Gerard Ee, chairman of the St Joseph's Institution (SJI) board of governors, welcomed the move to give more non-affiliated students opportunities to study at such schools. "It is good that students can mix as much as possible with those from other backgrounds, and you don't end up with a group moulded with the same mindset," said Mr Ee.

Currently, the number of SJI students from its affiliated schools make up close to 40 per cent of the student population.

Ms Geraldine Tan, 41, has a daughter in Primary 4 at Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School who will be among the first batch of students to be affected by the new move. "If she wants to move up to secondary school with her peers, she will have to make sure she does well," said Ms Tan, who is self-employed. Still, the 20 per cent figure that was announced yesterday is a reasonable quota, she added.

New diploma to help ITE grads take on larger roles
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

A new diploma to help Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduates in technical trades to upgrade their skills and take on larger job roles will be rolled out soon.

The technical diploma, which will be awarded by ITE, is offered as a new pathway under the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn programme, which encourages fresh polytechnic and ITE graduates to work and gain qualifications at the same time.

Under the Earn and Learn programme, an ITE graduate gets a diploma and a polytechnic graduate receives an advanced or specialist diploma. It is part of the Ministry of Education's (MOE) push to make students' transition between study and work as seamless as possible.

For a start, the ITE technical diploma will be introduced in sectors such as security system engineering, rehabilitation therapy, offshore and marine engineering, mechanical and electrical services, and design and supervision. These sectors were identified based on industry demand as well as the presence of strong apprenticeship partners.

MOE said this technical diploma "will be apprenticeship-based and thus in a mode of learning best suited for the strengths of ITE students, to gain mastery in technical trades". More details will be provided later.

Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said yesterday that the "ethos of 'learning by doing' actually has been the strongest at ITE", a result of its tradition of vocational education and its highly practical curriculum. "With this new pathway, ITE students need not see polytechnics as their only path for progression. They can advance through skills mastery and practice, by staying with ITE," he said.

Currently, under Earn and Learn, ITE graduates are already able to work towards a part-time polytechnic diploma in the air transport, hotel and public transport sectors. These are offered by Temasek Polytechnic, Republic Polytechnic and Singapore Polytechnic respectively.

Over 500 polytechnic and ITE graduates took part in Earn and Learn last year. This is higher than the 400 placements targeted for the year.

Focus on sport, art or specific academic talent for direct entry
DSA tweaks will bring scheme back to its original intention of recognising diverse talents
By Calvin Yang, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

Sporting or artistic talent, or specific academic ability such as in languages or science - these criteria, instead of general academic ability, will determine whether students are selected under the Direct School Admission (DSA), Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng announced yesterday.

This comes after a review of the scheme. Since it was introduced in 2004, it has been criticised for moving away from its original intention of recognising diverse talents.

Instead, as Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) put it in Parliament on Monday, it is like a "backdoor" for academically talented pupils, including those in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), to enter popular schools, such as those offering the Integrated Programme (IP).

Schools offering the IP allow students to bypass the O levels. The GEP is an elite programme for the academically gifted.

The DSA scheme should not be seen as an entry ticket to popular schools, agreed Mr Ng, as he announced a series of tweaks to bring the scheme back to its original aim.

By next year, pupils applying for the DSA will not sit for general academic ability tests. These tests, which assess general reasoning and problem-solving skills, "inadvertently put undue focus on general academic abilities, rather than identifying specific strengths", said Mr Ng.

He added that those with strong general academic abilities "would already be able to qualify for the school with their PSLE results".

Instead, schools will focus their efforts on "identifying sporting talent, artistic talent or academic talent in specific domains, for instance, languages, maths or science", he said.

Mr Ng highlighted how the DSA is supposed to work through the example of CHIJ St Theresa's Convent's hockey team. He said a few of the members joined the school, known for its hockey prowess, via the DSA as "they fell in love with hockey at primary school, and wanted to further develop their talent".

Schools can use a range of assessment tools, such as interviews and auditions, to admit students under the DSA, which grants Primary 6 pupils places in schools before they take the PSLE.

There were 16,000 DSA applications last year - 1,000 more than in the year before. Some 2,800 pupils succeeded in getting a place via the DSA. Mr Ng said about half of those were admitted into the IP.

More pupils whose talents lie beyond book smarts will have a shot at getting into their secondary school of choice with the expansion of the DSA. From next year, all secondary schools will be able to reserve up to a fifth of their non-IP places for pupils entering via the DSA. The non-IP route prepares students to sit the N or O levels at the end of their secondary school education.

This means that autonomous schools and schools with niche programmes, which can currently reserve up to 10 per cent and 5 per cent of their intake for the scheme respectively, will see the cap increased. The cap for independent schools will remain at 20 per cent.

Mr Ng said: "With this expansion, students can better access schools with suitable programmes via DSA, to nurture their strengths, talents and interests."

From 2019, pupils will also apply for the DSA through a centralised portal, using a common application form.

Mrs Lydia Wong, who has two primary school-going children, said: "For years, parents have tried to game the system, such as by sending their kids for special classes to prepare them. But I am glad that MOE is tackling the problem and returning the DSA to its original intent to recognise specific talents. Only then can we help kids to nurture their gifts."

Scheme allows Normal stream students to take subjects at higher level
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

From next year, a pilot scheme that allows lower secondary students from the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams to take subjects at a higher academic level will be extended to all schools.

The scheme, which has been on trial in 12 secondary schools since 2014, allows students from the N(A) and N(T) streams who score at least an A for English, mathematics, science or mother tongue at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) to study the corresponding subjects at the Express level.

Students in the N(T) course who score B or C in a standard PSLE subject or a 1 in a Foundation subject, could take the subject one level higher, at the N(A) level. If students perform well in their subjects after starting Secondary 1, their schools may also offer them the chance to take subjects at a higher level.

Responding to Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who asked on Monday if streaming can be done away with, Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said in Parliament yesterday that streaming has served students well in catering to different learning needs, resulting in low attrition rates.

"Nonetheless, I recognise that we cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach... For students with uneven strengths across their subjects, they can stretch themselves in their areas of strength through subject- based banding."

This builds on a flexible subject-based banding (SBB) system that has already been in place for upper secondary students since 2003. N(T) students can study N(A) subjects, while N(A) students can study O-level subjects at Sec 4. In lower secondary, students can take up to three subjects at a higher level, while there is no cap on the number of higher-level subjects that upper secondary students can take if they are eligible.

About half of Sec 1 N(A) students and about 70 per cent of N(T) students in the 12 schools where SBB was piloted took at least one higher- level subject between 2014 and last year. This translates to about 400 N(A) students and 300 N(T) students across all 12 schools each year.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) added that most from the first batch of Sec 1 students who took higher-level subjects in 2014 continued taking at least one higher-level subject in Sec 3 and 4. A small number of students, however, did not continue due to "difficulties in keeping up with the faster pace of learning and the heavier load".

To help schools and teachers cope, the MOE has allocated more teachers to schools with more N(A) and N(T) students. Teaching resources, as well as courses and networking sessions, have also been organised by MOE to support and guide these teachers.

Mrs Pauline Wong, principal of CHIJ St Theresa's Convent, one of the 12 schools that joined the pilot, said that more planning and resources are needed to ensure that SBB is implemented smoothly.

"Our planning time has doubled because of its complexity. You now have more learning groups, and you need more teachers and spaces where students can have classes," she explained.

But she added that SBB has been a "morale booster" for her students, including even those who had to drop the higher-level subjects because they could not cope academically. She said: "They actually do very well when they go back (to taking the subject at a lower level) because they have a good foundation."

Fifteen-year-old Pritika Satewan, a Sec 4 N(A) student at St Theresa's Convent, was offered the chance to take maths at the Express level when she scored well in Sec 1, despite scoring a C in the subject in the PSLE. Pritika, who hopes to gain entry to junior college, said that taking subjects at a higher level reduces the number of subjects that she has to study for when she gets to the O level next year.

"When I was first offered the chance to take (higher-level maths), I was scared that I would fail," recalled Pritika.

But she has done well in the subject. "If students... are not scoring well initially, it's because it is a change for them, and they can get better with practice," she said.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of National Development

Shorter waiting time for 1,000 new BTO flats
First-time home buyers to get priority for the faster flats located in non-mature estates
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

Next year, young couples can pick a home from 1,000 new flats that will be ready a lot earlier.

The waiting time for these flats in non-mature estates will be 21/2 years compared with the current waiting time of three to four years.

The HDB has assured would-be buyers that the shorter waiting time will not translate into significantly higher prices.

In addition, first-time home buyers will get priority for these flats, which - unlike the typical Build-To-Order (BTO) flats - will be built before the HDB receives an optimum number of applicants.

Explaining the move in Parliament yesterday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said: "I know there are many young couples who hope to move into their own home even more quickly, to embark on their marriage and parenthood journey together. We've looked into their requests seriously."

With this latest offer, couples have four HDB flat purchase options: a normal BTO flat, a faster BTO flat, a flat from the pool of unsold flats, or a resale flat.

Mr Wong, speaking during the debate on his ministry's budget, said first-time home buyers will get priority for the faster BTO flats.

Of these, at least 95 per cent of the four-room or bigger flats will be set aside for these first-timers, up from the current quota of 85 per cent. More details will be made known later.

Another change Mr Wong announced is that the HDB will offer in one common pool the flats that remain unsold after a Sale of Balance Flat (SBF) exercise.

They will be sold at regular intervals, with priority given to first-time households. The first such sale will be held in the second half of this year.

The typical SBF exercise is currently held twice a year, and there are separate selection queues for each town and flat type.

Housing experts said the new options will be well-received.

R'ST Research director Ong Kah Seng predicted at least 1.5 applications for each faster BTO flat.

"Currently, young couples who urgently need flats only have resale ones as a costlier alternative.

"A BTO flat that comes with a shorter wait and is more affordable will excite them," said Mr Ong.

PropNex Realty chief executive Ismail Gafoor, referring to the four purchase options, said: "They have varying timelines, which means young couples can choose and make their plans with greater certainty. This, in turn, helps to reduce conflict that may arise from confusion about their next move."

The duration of a resale transaction looks set to be shortened too.

Said Mr Wong: "We can leverage on technology and make the process faster and more streamlined." The details will be announced later.

At present, it takes about 16 weeks for the deal to be completed and requires two appointments with the HDB.

The suite of changes comes on the back of an increase in subsidy for young couples buying resale flats.

The increase in the CPF Housing Grant was unveiled in the Budget statement last month.

Previously capped at $30,000, the grant was raised to $50,000 for four-room or smaller resale flats, and to $40,000 for five-room or larger flats.

More schemes to help elderly home buyers
By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

There will be more help given to elderly home buyers seeking smaller Housing Board flats.

This includes a new deferred down payment scheme (DDS) available from the Build-To-Order launch in May. It allows eligible buyers aged 55 and above to make a down payment only when they collect the keys.

A new temporary loan scheme (TLS) will also allow buyers to finance their purchases without taking out a mortgage, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said in Parliament yesterday.

The schemes will help elderly flat owners like Mr Sin Guin Pui, 86. With both children grown up, the kitchen helper has little need for the extra bedroom in his three-room Havelock Road flat. So he and his wife Chan Man Foong, 65, downsized to a two-room flat in 2015. "Thankfully, I had enough proceeds from the sale to not require another loan," he said.

But not all elderly folk are as fortunate.

Buyers currently need to pay a minimum of 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the flat purchase price when they first sign the lease agreement with the HDB. The balance is due when the keys of the new flat are ready for collection but they may not have the cash available until they sell their current home.

With the DDS, elderly buyers need to pay only the stamp and legal fees when they sign the lease, deferring the down payment to later. The DDS applies only to two-room Flexi or three-room flats.

They may also take out a bridging loan from HDB under the TLS. The size of the loan depends on what is needed to purchase the new flat.

An express queue for seniors has been implemented at HDB Hub since December last year.

Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme: Lower rents for those in temporary flats scheme
By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

Monthly rents for flats under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme (PPHS) will be slashed by as much as $400 from April 1.

The change means young couples awaiting the completion of their first Housing Board flats can rent units at rates that are less than half of those offered by private landlords.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced the change during the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday.

"We know that every dollar counts for a young family just starting out. That is why HDB rents out PPHS flats at subsidised rates," said Mr Wong.

The rates depend on flat type and location. The PPHS was launched in January 2013 and now has 1,300 three- and four-room flats in Bedok South, Commonwealth, Jurong, Tiong Bahru, Eunos, Boon Lay and Bukit Merah.

About 2,000 families have benefited from the PPHS to date and more than 400 babies have been born to families living in the flats. There are currently 780 households enrolled in the scheme.

The lower rents apply both to new and existing tenants.

Mr Dani Dawood, 44, and his family of four used to rent a studio apartment in Telok Blangah for $1,400 per month and are paying $1,100 now for the three-room Commonwealth Drive unit while they wait for their flat in Yishun to be built.

Said Mr Dani, a private tutor: "Unlike my previous landlord who could raise the rent at any time, the Government is in fact lowering it further, which is great."

Engineering manager Steve Tan, 31, said this would give young couples an alternative besides living with their parents after marriage.

Said Mr Tan, who welcomed his eight-month-old son while living in a PPHS flat: "Even though the rent is quite substantial, we are willing to pay for our own private space. The new rates make it a lot better."

Plans to transform farms in Singapore
AVA's Farm Transformation Map focuses on overcoming space constraints, boosting innovation
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

"Frog princess" Chelsea Wan, 33, is a second-generation farmer who plans to take big leaps to make farming a sustainable option in Singapore, which dedicates just 1 per cent of its land area to this sector.

No more is Ms Wan content with just selling frog legs. Rather, she is looking to diversify by selling more frog parts, like ovary ducts.

Some may groan at the thought of it, but others are willing to pay up to $105 per tael (50g) for this delicacy, also known as hashima.

Ms Wan, who is director of Jurong Frog Farm, sits on a new industry consultation panel formed by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) in January to look at improving Singapore's farming sector.

Through focus group discussions involving the panel, AVA has since come up with a Farm Transformation Map to guide changes to the local farming sector.

Yesterday, Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon gave details of the plan during the debate on the ministry's budget.

A key focus is how farms can overcome space constraints. Said Dr Koh: "We need to go upwards into the sky, downwards into the ocean and inwards within our buildings."

There are already farms doing this, he said, citing how fish farm Barramundi Asia is growing seabass in deep underwater net cages just off Pulau Semakau.

Innovation is also important, so food supplies are safeguarded in a climate of erratic weather patterns and natural phenomena that could affect crops.

Dr Koh also said that Singapore needs to build up a generation of "agri-specialists". This could involve polytechnic students doing internships at local farms, or getting institutes of higher learning to collaborate with farmers on research.

AVA will also be making changes to its Agriculture Productivity Fund, which co-funds investments in technology. Currently, farmers have to foot the entire bill first before claiming from AVA later. From next month, the fund will disburse up to 30 per cent of the approved funding quantum upfront.

These initiatives are encouraging, especially for an industry which has long felt it was neglected by the Government, said Ms Wan.

However, farmers need more clarity on the overall vision for agriculture before they can benefit from the new slew of measures, she said.

"Adopting new technology may be daunting, and having to bid for new land every 20 years is an additional risk," she said.

Ms Wan's farm is one of 62 in Lim Chu Kang that will have to move out in 2019 to make way for new defence training grounds. AVA said last year that the first tranche of land sales for farms to relocate "will be launched from early 2017 due to the extensive land preparation works needed at the sites".

Last November, AVA said productivity will be a key consideration in deciding whether to extend a farm's lease.

Ms Wan said she feels productivity is important, but added that the authorities should also consider farmers who add value, as well as the educational and heritage value of farms to Singapore.

NParks taking steps to improve tree health
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

The number of fallen trees has decreased significantly after the National Parks Board (NParks) introduced a tree management programme in 2001.

Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee told Parliament yesterday there were more than 800 cases of "tree failures" in Singapore last year, down from 3,000 in 2001.

"But we are deeply saddened each time such incidents cause injuries or loss of life," said Mr Lee during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan had asked about the management of trees here. A 40m tembusu tree in the Singapore Botanic Gardens fell last month, killing one woman and injuring four others.

Mr Lee said NParks' comprehensive tree management programme includes a regime of tree inspections and pruning aligned with international standards.

Records are digitised so NParks staff can retrieve information easily and ensure trees under the agency are checked and maintained according to schedule.

"This system also enables NParks to zoom in on, and pre-emptively replace, storm-vulnerable species," said Mr Lee. Singapore has seven million trees, of which two million are along streets, streetscapes and parks.

With the weather becoming increasingly unpredictable, NParks has stepped up inspections and taken measures to improve the health of trees, Mr Lee said. These include employing pruning techniques that improve tree structure and balance.

"NParks is also developing modelling techniques to better understand the structural behaviour of trees under heavy rain and wind, and also in microclimatic conditions," Mr Lee said.

HDB help for vulnerable groups
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

As divorce rates climb, several MPs urged the Housing Board to let people apply for a flat even before their divorce is finalised, so that they have a roof over their heads after the marriage ends.

Divorcees, unwed mothers, divorced foreign spouses and elderly singles in rental flats were among the vulnerable groups for whom MPs sought more help.

Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon said that while criteria are drawn up to ensure policy objectives, they are not applied in a blanket manner.

He cited how atypical families who did not fulfil some policies' criteria were helped. "The HDB takes a compassionate approach towards these cases in need."

He also gave updates on various HDB schemes. The Assistance for Second-Timers scheme, which gives priority to divorced or widowed parents with children under 16, has received 282 applicants as of end 2015.

Of these, 199 cases - or 71 per cent - went on to book a flat. Sixty-six did not proceed despite qualifying, he added, and 17 fell outside the quota.

On singles sharing public rental flats, Dr Koh noted that some do not get along and that the HDB had put out 180 rental flats with partitions for more privacy since 2015. Another 320 are under construction.

The Fresh Start Housing Scheme, to help families renting public flats own a home again, has received 68 applications from families who meet the basic criteria, he said. Of these, 13 qualify and four of them have applied for two-room flexi flats in last month's Build-To-Order exercise. The remaining applications are being processed.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Finance

MyInfo to be expanded to banks, more services
Singaporeans, PRs need not key in personal data on online forms or submit supporting documents
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

By June, Singaporeans and permanent residents opening bank accounts with OCBC, UOB, DBS and Standard Chartered Bank will no longer need to key in information such as their NRIC number and address, or submit physical documents to verify such data.

Instead, they can give their consent for such information to be pulled digitally from a government-backed digital vault of their personal data - MyInfo - which was launched in May last year.

The pilot with the first four banks was announced by Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong during the debate on his ministry's budget in Parliament yesterday.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) had asked for updates on the Government's digital efforts.

Mr Wong, who is also Minister for National Development, added that by next year, more than 150 government digital services will be linked to MyInfo, which people can access by logging in with their SingPass.

"One inconvenience that you hear from people is that they need to submit the same data repeatedly to different government agencies, and provide supporting documents to verify their data," said Mr Wong.

Created by the Government Technology Agency (GovTech), MyInfo now pulls residents' data - such as name, NRIC number and registered address - from six public agencies.

These include the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

The data in the consolidated repository - which has 100,000 citizen and PR sign-ups so far - can be used to automatically fill up digital forms required by a handful of e-services provided by nine agencies now.

The services include applying for or renewing work permits for domestic helpers, and applying for public housing.

Mr Wong acknowledged the need to educate people on MyInfo's benefits to improve the sign-up rate.

"Ultimately, the person must also give consent for their data to be shared for privacy reasons," he said.

The Government is also exploring a one-stop platform to allow payments through mobile phones, potentially consolidating bills from public agencies, he added. No details are available.

Also in the pipeline are plans to improve government digital services for businesses. The percentage of businesses surveyed last year which were satisfied with government e-services was 68 per cent. In comparison, 77 per cent of citizens surveyed said they were very satisfied with such services.

"Many businesses need to go through the process of applying for grants and government licences," Mr Wong said.

"We will strive to make these transactions more convenient."

SMEs to get more chances to participate in govt projects
By Chia Yan Min, Economics Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will get more opportunities to take part in government projects, said Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong yesterday during the debate on the Ministry of Finance's budget.

Several MPs had expressed concerns that government projects are often too large for SMEs, and small firms without a track record might not get a chance to take part.

More than 80 per cent of government contracts - comprising about half the total value of government contracts - go to SMEs each year, said Mr Wong.

More than 40 per cent of all contracts was won by companies with revenue of less than $10 million. Of these, almost half were won by micro-enterprises with revenue of less than $1 million.

More will be done to support businesses through government procurement, the minister said.

First, government agencies are using crowdsourcing - partnering businesses, the community and individuals - to come up with innovative solutions, he noted. Second, government agencies will continue to ensure that tenders are appropriately sized to give SMEs a chance to compete for them, said Mr Wong.

About 90 per cent of tenders called by government agencies each year are below $100,000 in value, he said. There were more than 30,000 of such contracts last year. Only about 5 per cent of contracts are above $1 million.

For larger projects , the Government may call separate tenders for different parts, giving smaller companies an opportunity to participate, Mr Wong said.

For example, the construction of a single MRT line is often carried out in many parts. Separate tenders may be called for individual MRT stations or MRT stations with connecting tunnels.

The minister said the Government will also help SMEs without track records take part in government procurement. A programme called Partnerships for Capability Transformation through Government Lead Demand, or Gov-PACT, for instance, provides grants to SMEs and start-ups to undertake innovative projects initiated by public agencies.

The Government will also put in place measures to safeguard the basic employment rights of outsourced workers under government contracts, and build up procurement capabilities, he said.

"We have started the work to build up capabilities to enable government agencies to be smarter buyers and we will continue to do so," said Mr Wong.

"This includes understanding the industry and technology well, so that we can stay on top of what the suppliers are doing and ensure that tender specifications are well crafted. These capabilities can help to minimise the likelihood of being locked in to certain vendors, especially to incumbent suppliers."

Means test: Household income 'still best gauge'
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

Household income remains the best measure for assessing who qualifies for government social assistance schemes, said Senior Minister of State for Finance Indranee Rajah.

It is fair, and helps ensure aid reaches those who need more assistance, she told MPs who asked if the current method of means testing could be more flexible or targeted.

Currently, many social assistance programmes - such as the Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas) and ComCare schemes - use gross total monthly household income or monthly household income per capita as a criterion for eligibility.

During the debate on the Finance Ministry's budget yesterday, Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) asked if the Government could consider family income as a metric instead, so that schemes could be targeted at families at the relevant income level.

He cited the example of an elderly person living with his "middle-income" family, who might not be eligible for Chas - which helps those with a monthly household per capita income of less than $1,800.

On the other hand, a separate elderly person living apart from his "richer" family would qualify.

Ms Indranee replied that family relationships are "complex and fluid", and cannot be fully captured by data analytics systems used to determine eligibility. She also pointed out that the Government is not privy to family dynamics.

Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC) asked if the ministry could refine the current eligibility criteria, which also consider the annual value of a resident's home.

Some elderly residents living in private properties have no income and little savings, he noted, adding that a needy person living at a relative's private house or apartment on goodwill terms would also be ineligible for some social assistance schemes.

Ms Indranee said in response: "Our underlying principle is to provide support according to need, and those in private housing are generally better off than those in public housing."

Nominated MP Randolph Tan also questioned the efficacy of payouts such as GST Vouchers, which have broad coverage and might be "diffused in their impact".

Ms Indranee said Singapore has a "progressive social system where support is extended to all, but those with greater need received more".

She acknowledged, however, that no criterion for means testing is perfect, and each has trade-offs.

"To date, the household income remains the best available proxy for family support. But we will keep in mind good and practical ideas on how to improve on this," she said.

Singapore has strong fiscal safeguards in place: Indranee
By Chia Yan Min, Economics Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

Singapore has a strong system of budgetary safeguards and does not need an independent watchdog to monitor government finances, said Senior Minister of State for Finance Indranee Rajah yesterday.

She was replying, at the debate on the Ministry of Finance's budget, to a suggestion by Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) that Singapore set up an independent Office for Budget Responsibility(OBR), similar to Britain's.

Mr Low said such an institution "will enhance public confidence" in government spending and could provide useful advice to the elected president in his role as the second key to the reserves.

Ms Indranee told Parliament: "In determining whether to adopt institutions similar to those elsewhere, it is also important to understand the context in which those institutions were established."

The OBR was set up in Britain in 2010, when a new coalition government had just taken over after the general election.

The new administration was burdened by a huge deficit inherited from the previous government. In addition, there was little confidence in government economic and fiscal planning, she added.

In Singapore, "our situation is very different. Our Government has a strong track record of sound finances", said Ms Indranee. "While many other countries are in a net debt position, we have consistently spent within our means and achieved a balanced budget in each successive term of government."

The Government has also consistently planned ahead, she noted. For instance, the Finance Minister said in his Budget speech this year that the Government is reviewing measures to raise revenue in order to meet growing long-term healthcare and infrastructure needs.

Singapore's Constitution also outlines a strong system of rules and safeguards to ensure government spending remains sustainable.

The Government is required to seek Parliament's approval for its expenditures during each year's Budget. In addition, the President may veto the Budget if he is of the opinion it is likely to draw on past reserves, said Ms Indranee. "This effectively instils discipline for the Government to achieve a balanced budget over each term of office."

The net result, she said, "is that markets have confidence in our system... This can also be seen from the fact that we are among the few countries today that continue to enjoy an AAA credit rating."

NMP Randolph Tan asked about potentially lower corporate income tax rates in the United States and the impact this will have on Singapore's competitiveness.

Singapore has to be mindful of income tax changes in other countries, Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong said in response.

Corporate income tax rates have been falling around the world and some countries have announced plans to further cut these rates.

Singapore's 17 per cent corporate income tax rate is still competitive internationally, he said. "We will continue to monitor the trends and ensure that our tax system remains competitive and pro-growth."

In addition, Singapore's competitiveness is not based on taxes alone.

"We compete on many other factors - our quality workforce, rule of law, good corporate governance and infrastructure," Mr Wong said.

Will GST be raised by end of 2020?
The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2017

Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) yesterday asked Second Finance Minister Lawrence Wong whether GST will be raised. Here is an extract of the exchange.

Mr Low: Will the Government raise GST before the end of this decade? Does the minister agree that GST vouchers do not fully offset the amount of GST paid by lower-income households?

Mr Wong: As the Finance Minister said, we are studying all revenue options. Let's not jump to the conclusion of which particular tax is going to be increased or when. The point is that we are preparing ahead, and we're studying and keeping our options open at this time. GST is a progressive tax, the way we have designed it. It's not a question of whether its offsets are sufficient to cover everything that the low income has to pay - but it's the overall progressivity of the system. And the way we have designed the GST with a permanent voucher is to make it a progressive consumption tax.

We have had many debates in this House about this particular design feature of our GST system. More fundamentally, on this issue we have to ask ourselves, and I think, ask Mr Low, these two questions.

First, despite our best efforts to be prudent in spending, do we agree that our long-term expenditures are going to go up, particularly in areas like healthcare with a population that is ageing rapidly? And with huge infrastructure requirements that we do need to put in place to prevent our basic infrastructure from deteriorating and decaying, do we agree that these long-term expenditures are going to go up?

Second, if we agree that long- term expenditures are going to go up, is it not proper and responsible and prudent for the Government to start thinking ahead of what these expenditure needs are, and preparing for all options and studying the revenue options that we need to prepare for this eventuality?

Mr Low: Are there other forms of revenue that we can look at, for instance, revenue from land sales which my colleague spoke of during the Budget debate?

Mr Wong: I believe the Finance Minister had explained that land sales revenues go into our past reserves. So unless the Workers' Party would like the Government to use past reserves, then this option is not going to be made available.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Manpower

More help for PMETs, retrenched workers
PMETs can join companies on training stints, Govt will pay monthly allowance of up to $4k
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

More help is on the way for workers who get laid off or struggle to carve out new careers for themselves in an uncertain economy.

Professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), for example, will be able to join companies on training attachments without having to be on their payroll. The Government will chip in with a training allowance of up to $4,000 a month for them.

Rank-and-file workers will receive allowances to try out new jobs for up to three months before they decide if these are suitable for them.

The Government has also made special efforts to help the vulnerable segment of PMETs aged 40 and above. There will be higher salary subsidies for employers who hire people from this group or those who have been unemployed for one year or more.

These were among a series of measures to help workers announced yesterday by Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say when Parliament debated his ministry's budget.

The biggest rise in subsidy was for the Professional Conversion Programme that helps PMETs switch sectors and jobs. The Government will continue to subsidise 70 per cent of a worker's salary under this scheme, but has doubled the cap from $2,000 to $4,000 a month. This will encourage employers to hire PMETs seeking to switch careers at higher salaries.

In another incentive to hire PMETs aged 40 and above who have been unemployed for more than a year, employers will be offered higher wage subsidies under the Career Support Programme for 18 months, up from 12 months.

To make it easier for smaller firms to join this programme, the minimum salary of eligible workers will be lowered from $4,000 to $3,600 per month for them.

In an unprecedented move, the Government will engage two foreign employment agencies - which have worked with governments in Britain and Australia - to help PMETs find jobs. "They were selected because of their business focus on active job seekers - these are the workers who are actively looking for jobs - rather than passive job seekers where the jobs were looking for the workers," Mr Lim said.

The workers must take responsibility for their careers, too, instead of having a sense of entitlement. "We can only help those who want to help themselves," said Mr Lim.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has formed a task force to study how freelancers can be given more protection.

Mr Lim also hit out at firms that continue to prefer foreigners over Singaporeans. The number of companies on MOM's watch list has swelled to 250 from 100 a year ago. "About 50 of them have not been receptive or cooperative," he said. These companies will not be allowed to hire any more foreigners until they improve, he said.

Besides helping workers with jobs, Mr Lim announced that the Central Provident Fund Board is reviewing its investment schemes so that Singaporeans can save enough for retirement. In Parliament yesterday, Ministers of State Teo Ser Luck and Sam Tan also spelt out the ministry's plans to do more to protect foreign workers and improve the lot of low-wage workers.

The ministry's budget of $1.73 billion for this year was approved by the House after a 4 1/2-hour debate - the longest period allocated among all ministries. MOM also had to field the most questions from MPs in the Budget debate, reflecting rising worries over jobs.

Logistics sector first to tap Attach and Train scheme
Industry picked because it is growing, there is interest from PMET jobseekers: Swee Say
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

The logistics sector will be the first to see a new Attach and Train scheme in which workers can join companies for training attachments without the companies having to hire them.

The scheme, which is part of the broader Professional Conversion Programme aimed at helping professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) switch careers, will "convert PMETs ahead of job placement", said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.

Under the scheme, workers are put on attachments in sectors where growth prospects are high but companies are not hiring yet.

During the attachments, the workers will receive monthly training allowances from the Government amounting to between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of the pay relevant to the jobs they are being trained for, capped at $4,000. The employers they are attached to pay another 10 per cent of the salary.

The logistics sector was picked for the pilot run this year because it is growing and there is interest from PMET jobseekers, said Mr Lim.

When the Supply Chain and Logistics Academy (Scala) launched its career conversion programme last year, there were 250 applicants vying for 80 places, but there were only 43 jobs provided by firms.

"As a result, 37 of the (training) places were wasted," Mr Lim said.

Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC), chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, was worried that these trainees would be exploited.

He said: "I am concerned that they are not treated fairly and are being used as cheap labour."

Responding, Mr Lim said that the Manpower Ministry will monitor the scheme closely to ensure that employers do not abuse it. He also made it plain that the industry has to help the ministry select the candidates and find responsible companies to train the workers. "We are putting the obligation to hire (the workers after their training) on the industry partner," he said.

Logistics firm Yang Kee Logistics is open to tapping the scheme.

Said its chief executive, Mr Jos Raaymakers: "At the PMET level, the hiring will very much be dependent on winning new projects and vertical expansions."

Scala chairman Robert Yap said the scheme will allow firms to seize opportunities in the sector "without compromising their cash flow".

Mr Stanley Lim, chairman of the Singapore Logistics Association, said that the scheme can help companies ride out the slowdown.

"Due to business uncertainty and the economic slowdown, companies are more cautious in hiring," he said, adding that the scheme will allow companies to ensure that there are trained staff in the pipeline "at the right time as part of its forward planning for manpower".

Other industries being considered for the Attach and Train programme include the infocomm, healthcare and biologics sectors, which are projected to see growth in the future.

Additional reporting by Joanna Seow

Four key job schemes


• Employers who offer mid-level jobs to professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) who switch careers or jobs will get a 70 per cent salary subsidy capped at $4,000 a month, up from $2,000 a month.

• Those who hire PMETs aged 40 and older, or who have been jobless for at least six months, will get a 90 per cent salary subsidy capped at $6,000 a month, up from $4,000.


• New scheme in which trainees get a monthly training allowance from the Government at 50 per cent to 70 per cent of the salary relevant to the jobs they are being trained for. Companies training them top up another 10 per cent.

• Pilot run in logistics sector this year.


• Rank-and-file workers will get $7.50 an hour when they try out new jobs, with stints lasting up to three months - a cap of $3,600 for the trial period - up from two weeks and $600.

• After the trial, employers who hire workers who have been out of work for at least 12 months will get a 30 per cent salary subsidy for six months, capped at $600 a month.


• Employers who hire PMETs aged 40 and older who have been unemployed for at least 12 months will get more salary subsidies over a longer period - first six months: 50 per cent subsidy capped at $3,500 a month, up from 40 per cent and $2,800; next six months: 30 per cent subsidy capped at $2,100 a month, up from 20 per cent and $1,400; last six months: 20 per cent subsidy capped at $1,400 a month - a new provision.

• Employers who hire jobless PMETs younger than 40 will get salary subsidies even if they were not laid off. Those who hire jobless PMETs in the 40- 49 age group will get the same subsidies as those who hire PMETs aged 50 and older.

250 firms on watch list for unfair employment practices
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

About 50 companies that were unfair to Singaporeans when hiring workers have been taken to task, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said yesterday.

More than 500 Employment Pass applications from these employers have been rejected by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) or withdrawn by the companies, he said.

These firms are among the 250 on the Fair Consideration Framework watch list, which tracks firms not doing enough to hire and groom Singaporeans. The framework was introduced in 2014 to get companies to look for suitable Singaporeans before hiring foreign professionals.

Responding to four MPs who asked about the list during the debate on his ministry's budget, Mr Lim provided an update on the scheme's effectiveness to date.

At the end of last month, there were 250 companies - in industries ranging from information and communications technology to professional services - on the watch list, up from 100 at the start.

These companies get guidance over six months from the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices to improve their employment practices.

Some have responded positively by recruiting and grooming more local talent, said Mr Lim. Collectively, these firms have hired 800 more Singaporean professionals, managers and executives since being placed on the watch list.

Those that continue to improve can be progressively removed from the list, he added. As for the 50 or so uncooperative firms, he said: "We will continue to curtail their work pass privileges until they improve."

Mr Lim also shared plans to develop more progressive employers.

The Human Capital Partnership programme was launched last month - with 74 employers who employ about 100,000 Singaporeans - to recognise exemplary employers who invest in staff development.

MOM will now treat companies differently based on their employment practices, he said.

Human Capital Partnership partners will be given "fast lane" access to development schemes and services such as SkillsFuture, as well as a dedicated hotline to MOM, while the majority who are fair employers will be in the "normal lane". Those on the watch list for unfair HR practices will be in the "slow lane", and subject to additional scrutiny when it comes to work pass applications.

While foreign manpower "is and will always be an integral part" of Singapore's workforce, employers must give fair consideration to recruiting and developing local manpower, Mr Lim stressed.

There are about 1.2 million foreign workers, excluding foreign domestic workers, he said. About 40 per cent of these foreign workers take on labour-intensive jobs few locals want, in sectors such as construction. And while about 45 per cent of them do jobs that locals will opt for, "we do not have enough locals to do these jobs", he said, citing the shortage of Singaporean integrated circuit design engineers.

The remaining 15 per cent of foreigners are in global headquarters. He said this is a boon for locals: There are about seven locals for every three foreigners in this segment.

"On the whole, most of the foreigners working in Singapore do complement our local workforce rather than substitute our locals," said Mr Lim.

The persistent view that "foreigners are here to take away our jobs" is due to employers in some segments not giving fair consideration to the recruitment and development of local manpower, he added.

New group to study issues that freelance workers face
MOM taking concerns seriously as pool of such workers is set to grow in the future economy: Lim Swee Say
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

Greater protection for freelance workers is on the cards, with the setting up of a tripartite group to study the issues they often face.

The move follows the findings of a pioneering survey the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) did on the 200,000 or so freelancers in Singapore. Their No. 1 worry is whether they can find enough work, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say when he announced the group of government officials, union leaders and business officials.

Another is the lack of income security, which is made worse when they fall ill or go for training.

Other concerns are whether their clients will pay them on time and in full, and if they can save enough to buy a home and for retirement.

Mr Lim said his ministry is taking the concerns seriously because the pool of freelancers will "grow in our future economy, in tandem with the growth of the platform economy".

Primary freelancers, however, have remained at around 8 to 10 per cent of employed residents over the past decade. These are people who freelance as their main job.

Most freelancers, or 81 per cent, choose to work this way. Many are in traditional jobs such as taxi drivers, real estate agents, insurance agents and private tutors. There are over 10,000 in each of these.

More than 20,000 freelancers are in the gig economy - those who use online platforms to link up with and offer services to people.

It includes about 10,500 private- hire car drivers with Uber and Grab and about 10,000 other gig freelancers such as graphic designers, photographers and deliverymen.

At least seven MPs want the Government to give more help to freelancers and gig workers.

Several suggested ways to help them get better medical benefits.

Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) suggested letting employees pay to continue their coverage after leaving an employer.

Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) called for more risk-pooling initiatives to offer protection if they are injured at work. Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) suggested a marketplace for pooled medical coverage for gig workers. She also called for rules on contributions to the Central Provident Fund by both the clients and freelancers.

Mr Lim also gave details of other measures to improve employment protection for workers.

From April 1, workers can tap the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) for mediation on salary-related disputes, and head to the Employment Claims Tribunal if mediation is unsuccessful.

Local workers can approach TADM at the Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability in Jurong, while work pass holders can go to the MOM Services Centre in Bendemeer.

From April 1, TADM will also give local low-wage workers financial aid from its Short-Term Relief Fund, financed by MOM. It is for those who cannot recover unpaid salaries because their bosses do not have money or have closed shop. The help will be means-tested and likely for workers in the bottom 20 per cent.

TADM will work with other organisations to link people to services such as legal clinics, employment help or social and emotional support, and the scope of its services will be broadened progressively.

The ministry is also launching new tripartite standards for employers to follow voluntarily.

These could include standards for flexible work arrangements or sector-specific work arrangements. Companies that agree to adopt them will be listed online on the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices website and Jobs Bank.

The first series of tripartite standards will be launched by the end of the year, said Mr Lim.

Salary base for local workers to go up
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

From July this year, the minimum salary firms must pay their local workers each month if they want to hire foreign workers will go up.

The amount a resident worker must earn to count as a full-time worker will rise from $1,000 now to $1,100 in July, and $1,200 from July next year, Minister of State for Manpower Sam Tan said.

Sustainable wage increases are one way to lift the lot of low-wage workers, Mr Tan said at the debate on the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) budget, as he detailed changes to the salary threshold.

The number of foreign workers a company can hire is tied to its number of full-time local workers, under a quota system known as the Dependency Ratio Ceiling (DRC). The DRC of 60 per cent in the manufacturing sector, for instance, means an employer can hire up to 1.5 foreign workers for every full-time local worker.

This salary threshold is regularly reviewed to stay in line with income trends, said Mr Tan. "If not, it means that we are gradually loosening our foreign worker controls simply due to rising nominal wages," he added.

The figure was last reviewed in 2013, when it went up from $850 to $1,000. Then, the income of workers at the 10th percentile was $1,200. This rose to $1,300 in 2015. Given rising income levels, the ministry has decided to adopt the new salary threshold.

"If we do not update the salary threshold now, it will mean having to make an even larger increase in future," Mr Tan said.

Low-wage workers are being helped by supplementing their incomes and retirement savings, through the progressive wage model, and stepping up "best sourcing" efforts, which encourage service buyers to award contracts based not just on price.

An updated Tripartite Advisory on Best Sourcing Practices was released yesterday. MOM is also working with other agencies to review further measures against contractors that fail to safeguard basic employment rights of outsourced workers under government contracts. More details will be announced at a later date.

Mr Tan noted that measures are also in place to ensure vulnerable workers, such as the elderly and injured, are looked after. The re-employment age will be raised to 67 from July this year, so that a growing pool of older workers can contribute as long as they are able to.

A Return to Work programme - which will give personalised help to injured workers and their companies - will be introduced this year.

Coordinators will help employers make adjustments to workplaces and jobs to facilitate the rehabilitation of injured workers. This will be an effort by the Government, employers and unions, he added.

Job woes: New office to help foreign workers
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

Worker advocacy group Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) will set up an office with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) to help foreign workers facing job-related issues, Minister of State for Manpower Teo Ser Luck said yesterday.

The new office will be located with the TADM's upcoming centre at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) Services Centre in Bendemeer Road, and bolster the group's two existing centres in Serangoon and Geylang.

Mr Teo announced this in Parliament during the debate on his ministry's budget, as he highlighted avenues for foreign workers to get assistance if they face employment issues.

The TADM is a dispute resolution centre that helps resolve issues such as payment disputes between employees and their employers.

The MWC said it hopes to time the launch of its new office with TADM's opening next month.

Mr Teo said the MOM will help see through the valid claims of foreign workers whose salaries have not been paid, and let them change employers and stay on in Singapore to work even if their work passes have been terminated by their existing employers.

"Where employers wilfully refuse to comply with the law to pay the salaries due to their workers, MOM will take such employers to task," said Mr Teo.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun had asked the Government to consider reviewing its policy requiring workers to be repatriated once their work permits have been terminated - which often happens during disputes with employers.

But beyond the punitive action against employers and assistance provided to workers, Mr Teo said it was also important that foreign workers be able to return to "clean and safe accommodation after a hard day's work".

Giving an update on the state of dormitories here, he said 48 out of the 50 large dormitories - each housing 1,000 or more workers - have been licensed under the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act so far. The Act came into force in January last year and requires dormitories to adhere to stricter rules.

Over 70 per cent of factory- converted dormitories inspected have also been found to meet additional standards, which came into force in January this year.

These standards require them to put in place facilities such as personal lockers for workers, establish a mechanism for workers to give feedback on living conditions, and install a Wi-Fi network.

"Migrant workers come here to earn a living for their families. We'll continue to work with the employers, employment agencies, NGOs (non-governmental organisations)... to ensure that these foreign workers can work safely and be treated fairly during their stay in Singapore," said Mr Teo.

CPF Life escalating plan available from January 2018
By Lorna Tan, Invest Editor/Senior Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

Central Provident Fund (CPF) members will be able to opt to receive escalating payouts under the CPF Life national annuity scheme from January next year.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say outlined the timing for the changes to the scheme in Parliament yesterday.

The option of getting payouts that grow 2 per cent larger each year for life was unveiled last year to address the concerns of some members about rising living costs.

The other two CPF Life payout options - Standard and Basic - pay fixed monthly amounts for life. CPF members who are already on these two plans will have one year from January next year to switch to the new plan if they want to.

CPF Advisory Panel member Christopher Tan, who is the chief executive of financial advisory firm Providend, said CPF members choosing the escalating plan should be prepared for a lower monthly payout at the start. This is because payouts would be about 20 per cent lower compared with those under the fixed-payment Standard plan.

"So who should choose the plan? A member who is concerned with the rising cost of living and is able to cope with a lower starting payout," he said.

Financial experts said those wanting higher initial payouts under the new escalating plan can either top up their CPF Life premiums or delay the payout starting age up to the age of 70.

On the review of the CPF Investment Scheme (CPFIS), Mr Lim said there is "nothing wrong" with the scheme. However, it may not be the right scheme for those who lack the time and knowledge to manage their investments.

"They could be better off leaving their CPF money to earn risk-free CPF interest rates," he said.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) noted that $24 billion has already been invested through the CPFIS. While 84 per cent of CPFIS- Ordinary Account investors did not achieve returns above the risk-free 2.5 per cent interest rate offered by the Ordinary Account, a substantial number suffered losses, she said.

To help members, plans are afoot to introduce a self-assessment tool to help them determine for themselves if CPFIS is suitable, as well as to lower the cap on the sales charge to discourage intermediaries from actively selling products.

"This is because investment churning could erode investment returns," said Mr Lim.

In addition, a review of asset classes offered under CPFIS will be held to see if they are appropriate for growing retirement savings.

"This is to encourage members to invest for the long term and provide them with a diversified portfolio," Mr Lim said, adding that more details will be announced later this year.

Those who prefer a simpler investment option can wait for the new CPF Lifetime Retirement Investment Scheme, which will feature low fees, offer simple investment choices, and be passively managed investments.

After a successful pilot exercise last year, a new CPF Retirement Planning Service will be offered to all CPF members who turn 54 this year. These one-on-one sessions aim to help members understand the CPF schemes and the options available to them.

Mr Lim estimated that 20,000 members who turn 54 this year will be invited for these sessions.

Meanwhile, CPF members have benefited from recent enhancements, through making CPF savings transfers to their spouses, and cash top-ups to their own and their family members' accounts. In fact, 49,000 members (up 27 per cent from 2015) received cash top-ups of $860 million in total last year.

Last year, about 900 CPF Life members took up the option of deferring the starting age of their payouts, which means they will receive higher payouts later.

"The Government has and will continue to strengthen our CPF system to help members improve their retirement adequacy," Mr Lim said.

"We hope that members will make good use of options available to better meet their retirement needs as well as that of their loved ones."

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Communications and Information

Going all out to help more SMEs go digital
Govt will provide customised aid under new scheme to help firms stay in business amid disruptive tech: Yaacob
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

The Government is committed to getting its hands dirty to help more small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) transform digitally to stay in business amid disruptive technological innovations.

The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), the government agency leading the charge, will play sector "chief information officer" to SMEs, providing customised help from funding and consultancy to approving tech products to participating in joint pilots. This will be available under a new scheme dubbed SMEs Go Digital Programme, targeted at the 200,000 SMEs here.

During the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said: "It will help raise SMEs' overall level of digital-readiness by giving them step-by-step advice on the technologies to use at each stage of their digital journey."

The kitty is $80 million over four years from this April under this scheme, first announced two weeks ago by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.

SMEs Go Digital aims to defray up to 70 per cent of the cost of technology purchases, capped at $300,000 per SME. It will replace the seven-year-old iSprint scheme, which provided similar subsidies and basic tech advice, benefiting some 8,000 SMEs.

SMEs Go Digital aims to be more comprehensive than iSprint by also helping SMEs with more advanced needs such as cyber security, data analytics and artificial intelligence, through a new SME Digital Tech Hub to be set up by September.

In response to Dr Yaacob's announcement, nominated MP Thomas Chua, who is president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, voiced concern about the prospect of disparate technologies being implemented by different firms.

Specifically, supply chains that connect buyers and sellers must be inter-operable. "Applying a standardised system for the industry is like learning a common language to facilitate communication... If not, the transfer of large masses of data could cause system errors," said Mr Chua.

To this, Dr Yaacob said IMDA will adopt a sectorial approach to ensure systems talk to one another and to accelerate the pace of transformation, especially for the deployment of more sophisticated systems.

Specifically, IMDA will partner influential companies to pilot sector-specific solutions that have the potential to scale up. It will start with sectors such as retail, food services, logistics and cleaning.

For instance, IMDA has partnered retail store Robinsons to integrate some 200 SME suppliers on a common e-procurement platform for better sales planning and inventory management.

IMDA has also partnered StarHub to target some 1,000 SMEs in the food and beverage business, offering them a comprehensive automation package including broadband services, and retail analytics, digital ordering and payment systems. StarHub is working with the Tampines Merchant Association on this.

Recognising that SMEs' digital needs vary widely across and within sectors, Dr Yaacob said his ministry is open to feedback to fine-tune the SMEs Go Digital scheme.

Broadcast laws to be updated this year
Move ensures overseas content is in line with local values; addresses concerns over 'fake news': Yaacob
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

Singapore will update its laws to ensure that overseas content - which has become more readily available - is in line with local values.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday said the Broadcasting Act will be changed later this year, and details will be announced soon.

Dr Yaacob said the amendments are necessary as technology has enabled Singaporeans to access a wide variety of content online.

"When overseas content providers are directly targeting Singaporeans, we need to ensure that their content is in line with our community values, including the need to uphold racial and religious harmony," he added.

During the debate on his ministry's budget, several MPs raised concerns about the spread of false information, or "fake news".

Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) noted that false information was said to have shaped voter behaviour in last year's Brexit vote and United States presidential elections, and countries like Germany are looking at laws to tackle the problem.

Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) stressed the danger of fake news straining religious and ethnic fault lines in Singapore's diverse society.

But he also cautioned that over-regulation would harm Singapore's image as an open society. "A totally draconian approach is unlikely to work," he said.

Dr Yaacob said the update to broadcasting laws will address such concerns.

"The Internet is vast and open, but if an entity reports news about Singapore regularly to inform Singaporeans on matters of public interest, we expect them to do so responsibly," he said.

He also pointed out that tech giants such as Facebook and Google have recognised that a certain degree of control is necessary.

For instance, Google has prohibited advertisements on sites with deliberate misinformation, while Facebook is mobilising users to call out misinformation in their news feeds.

The amendments will cover all broadcast content, including entertainment and news reporting.

Dr Yaacob said the Government is studying the proposed changes very closely, to avoid adding undue burden to businesses.

But a review of laws and regulations is just one aspect of dealing with misinformation, he said.

The public also plays a crucial role in being discerning when accessing information, he added.

"To this end, we will continue to promote information and media literacy to all Singaporeans, particularly the young and those who may be vulnerable."

During the debate, Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) suggested that Parliament sittings be streamed live online. This would provide a source of reliable information to better inform the public.

In response, Minister of State for Communications and Information Chee Hong Tat said videos of all parliamentary speeches are uploaded online the day after the sitting. The videos are also kept online for six months, he added.

New scheme to develop cyber security professionals
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

The Government will launch a Cybersecurity Professional Scheme in July to attract cyber security experts to the public sector, and to develop and retain them.

Centrally managed by the Cyber Security Agency (CSA), the national agency overseeing Singapore's cyber security efforts, the new scheme is part of plans to double the existing pool of cyber security professionals in the public sector to 600 over the next few years.

"The scheme will develop a core of cyber security specialists to be deployed across agencies to support Singapore's cyber defences," said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim during the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) had asked what the Ministry of Communications and Information plans to do to increase its cyber security capabilities and strengthen the cyber security industry here.

Dr Yaacob said officers recruited under the new scheme can look forward to a cyber security career in the public sector with postings to critical sectors and different public agencies.

It will focus on developing capabilities in areas such as cyber forensics, vulnerability assessment, and security governance and readiness.

"Protecting Singapore's cyberspace and critical information infrastructure remains a core mandate of CSA," he said.

The upcoming scheme will complement existing IT and security manpower training efforts, such as the Defence Ministry's plans to equip national servicemen with cyber security skills.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked how the employability of tech personnel can be improved.

In response, Dr Yaacob pointed to the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA), launched last April. He said it has since trained 10,000 professionals in new tech skills to prepare them for the digital economy.

There are some 15 companies - including data analytics software firm SAS Institute, cyber security consultancy firm Deloitte & Touche Enterprise Risk Services and telco Singtel - under TeSA's company-led training programme.

"Going forward, we will continually expand TeSA's range of training partners and courses," said Dr Yaacob, adding that the company-led training programmes continue to see high placement rates.

Mr Zaqy asked about opportunities available for those above the age of 50 under TeSA.

Dr Yaacob replied: "IMDA (Info-communications Media Development Authority) is prepared to consider all professionals who may want to make that transition (to the technology sector)... The opportunities are in cyber security and data analytics, but this is something (about which) the individual will have to make the choice."

Revamping libraries to be vibrant places of learning
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2017

Four newly renovated libraries will reopen this year in Sengkang, Bukit Panjang, Tampines and Bedok, with facilities such as a workspace with 3D printers and a storytelling room for children.

Adults will also be encouraged to read more as well as more widely, following a national survey that found only one in five adults reads books more than once a week.

Yesterday, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim fleshed out these two broad thrusts of his ministry's plans this year to promote reading and sustain a vibrant reading culture.

He said during the debate on the Ministry of Communications and Information's budget: "Our libraries are places for learning no matter what stage we are in life.

"But libraries are also community places for our people to learn from each other, to come together and share their knowledge and experiences."

He said libraries will be redesigned to bring people together and help them learn from one another.

The Sengkang Public Library, located in the Compass One mall, will open on March 18. It will have an area with flexible seating that caters to those between the ages of 10 and 14.

There will also be interactive digital displays for people to browse recommended digital books and download them via the National Library Board's mobile app.

Bukit Panjang Public Library in Bukit Panjang Plaza will reopen in the third quarter of this year with double the floor space it had before. It will have a storytelling room, with sound effects and lights to bring stories alive for children.

The Tampines Regional Library will have "a space for makers" with 3D printers and collaborative work spaces.

As for the Bedok Public Library, it will have a dedicated area for seniors that includes large-print books that are easier to read.

Dr Yaacob also gave details of the first National Reading Habits Study conducted from May to September last year, in which 3,515 adults were interviewed at home.

It found that 69 per cent of people read at least one book a year, and libraries remain one of the top sources for books, with 56 per cent of those who read books borrowing them from libraries.

About 80 per cent read more than once a week, but they read more news articles than books. Also, about 68 per cent of adults read news more than once a week, compared with 19 per cent who read books more than once a week.

People said that what stops them from reading more is their tendency to spend more time on other activities. They also prefer watching TV or online videos.

Most do not find reading as stimulating as audio-visual content, said Dr Yaacob, adding: "The study shows that we can do more."

For example, the National Library Board will work with a group of small business owners called the Bosses Network, to run a business acumen series in Chinese.

The series will have established business owners sharing their knowledge and favourite reads.

The move to form partnerships and get adults to read more builds on the National Reading Movement launched last year. The five-year campaign encourages adults to read, and also urges more people to read in their mother tongues.

More than 380 companies encourage their staff to read by running activities such as mass reading sessions, book swops and book review competitions, said Dr Yaacob.

He said: "I hope... more Singaporeans will remember never to stop reading and learning. Our libraries will continue to play key roles in helping us do that."

Singapore Budget 2017
Budget 2017: Moving Forward Together
2017 Budget Statement debate in Parliament
Budget 2017 Committee of Supply Debate: MINDEF, MHA, MFA, MTI, MinLaw, PMO
Budget 2017 Committee of Supply Debate: MOE, MND, MOF, MOM, MCI
Budget 2017 Committee of Supply Debate: MOH, MCCY, MOT, MEWR, MSF

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