Saturday 11 March 2017

Budget 2017 Committee of Supply Debate: MOH, MCCY, MOT, MEWR, MSF

$75.1 billion Budget passed; Budget debate breaks six-year record with 545 questions filed
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

The 2017 Budget debate ended yesterday with a record.

A total of 545 questions, or cuts in parliamentary parlance, were filed during the marathon debate - the most in six years.

It was also 9 per cent more than last year's 499 cuts, Leader of the House Grace Fu noted as she wrapped up the eight-day debate on the Government's financial plans for the year.

"This speaks to the scale of the challenges we face, and the dedication of the Members," she added.

Jobs, the economy and infrastructure topped MPs' concerns as the Budget was delivered amid an increasingly uncertain world economy affected by the rise of populism and protectionist sentiments.

Inevitably, the Manpower Ministry topped the list on total speech time for the cuts filed, followed closely by the Ministry of Trade and Industry. The National Development Ministry and Education Ministry were not far behind.

The order reflects the overriding issues of today - helping out-of-work Singaporeans find jobs as layoffs hit a seven-year high and job vacancies dipped last year, and being ready for tomorrow.

Said Ms Fu: "Preparing for the future economy does not only involve our businesses and workforce, it requires our young and our city to be resilient and future-ready."

Both she and Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob seemed struck by how MPs from both sides of the House championed the cause of the worker.

The two sides also stood united behind Singapore's foreign policy goals, prompting Madam Halimah, who has been Speaker for four years, to remark: "There was a noticeable convergence of views from both the Government and opposition when it came to protecting our sovereignty."

Both women observed how some MPs were visibly moved when relating the hardships of Singaporeans seeking work.

"Tears were shed, not once but three times," said Ms Fu, referring to how Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say struggled to compose himself as he described the challenges a single mother with brain tumour overcame to land a job.

But the sittings were not without levity, and many chuckled when Madam Halimah said: "If only Members could learn to do away with long preambles and go straight to the point raised in their questions and clarifications, they would not need to deliver their speeches at breakneck speed."

It appears to be an annual problem. Thanking the MPs, the Speaker added: "It is your contributions and understanding that have made this debate outstanding in many respects... although at times my deputies and I had to intervene to remind you of your allotted time.

"Very gently, most times."

President Tan gives Budget 2017 the green light

By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 17 Mar 2017

President Tony Tan Keng Yam gave Budget 2017 the green light yesterday, clearing the way for the Government to carry out its spending plans for the new financial year starting on April 1.

Dr Tan's assent comes a week after spending plans by the various ministries were approved in Parliament following eight days of extensive debate.

The plans set out how much the Government can spend, and on what items.

In all, total government expenditure, including special transfers, for the year will be $75.07 billion.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Dr Tan said he had reached the decision after receiving advice from the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). Both Dr Tan and the CPA were briefed by officials from the Finance Ministry earlier this month.

The President noted that he and the CPA concurred that Budget 2017 is unlikely to draw on the nation's past reserves. This is because Budget 2017 is expected to have a surplus of $1.9 billion.

Dr Tan also explained that the discretionary power the elected president wields in the Budget process is something unique to Singapore.

"It is a constitutional safeguard to ensure that any expenditure drawing on our past reserves will need the concurrence of the President," he said.

"This institution of the elected presidency and CPA ensures that Singapore will always adopt a prudent approach of fiscal sustainability and financial discipline when it comes to planning the nation's budget."

This is the last time Dr Tan is signing off on the Budget, before his term ends on Aug 31.

In his post yesterday, he noted that Budget 2017 is about preparing Singapore for a future fraught with change.

"It is not a road map with defined checkpoints, but more like a compass to help us navigate the uncertainties ahead," he said.

The way forward is unpredictable and challenging - countries around the world are becoming more insular, and this could impact the global economy, slowing trade and investment, he said.

But technology will continue to be a catalyst for growth, and companies and people here need to be equipped so that they can "embrace technology" and grow, he said.

Dr Tan also said Singapore has to set aside resources in important areas for future generations, so that "our children and children's children can continue to live in a quality environment and a caring, cohesive society".

"I am confident that with this right spirit, we can progress as a nation and move forward together as a people," he added.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Health

Singaporeans to benefit from subsidised health screening

From Sept 1, those aged 40 and older can get tested for common conditions for $5 at most
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

In a move to detect medical problems early - and prevent bills from spiralling out of control later - the Government is launching a highly subsidised national health screening programme to test for up to five common conditions.

The effort is part of the larger narrative to raise health levels of Singaporeans through early intervention and healthier lifestyle choices - while keeping costs in check.

Sharing the initiatives that his ministry was putting in place, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said in Parliament yesterday: "They will lead us towards good, affordable and sustainable healthcare in the long term."

One key move involves early detection of the major health problems that afflict Singaporeans. From Sept 1, all Singaporeans aged 40 and above can get tested for diabetes, cholesterol, blood pressure and cervical cancer, for $5 at most, at the 950 Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas) clinics across the island. Those older than 50 can also get tested for colorectal cancer at no extra cost. Without the subsidy, these tests would cost around $100.

Pioneers can get tested for free, while Chas card holders will pay $2. Younger Singaporeans, aged between 18 and 39, are also eligible for testing if they are at risk of diabetes.

Subsidised tests can be done every three years, and the rates cover both the screening and a consultation if required.

"We want to reduce the drop-off rate of someone who tested positive but does not follow up to see the doctor," said Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat.

Colorectal surgeon Dennis Koh said detecting cancer early makes a difference in the outcomes. He added: "Spending money now on prevention will result in spending less later on treatment."

This appeared to be in tune with the thinking of Mr Gan and his colleagues, who discussed the Ministry of Health's (MOH) budget of $10.7 billion for this year and gave an update on the Healthcare 2020 masterplan.

Pointing to the worrying finding that obesity rates among Singaporeans aged 18 to 39 doubled between 1992 and 2013 - from 4.2 per cent to 8.4 per cent - Mr Gan said the war against diabetes, and towards health, must start with the individual. "A healthy diet is half the battle won," he added.

The Health Promotion Board will spend $20 million over three years, starting on July 1, to get more food manufacturers to use healthier ingredients.

If a condition develops, early detection helps one to manage it better. To keep a lid on costs, the Government is encouraging the use of generic drugs in cases where they are as effective as branded ones.

While three more hospitals are on the way, Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said the home and community care network is being strengthened to treat people where they live. MOH will increase day and home-care services by 40 per cent by 2020. About 900 more community care nurses will be added to the current 4,900.

Overall, MOH will need over 9,000 more employees over the next three years and is rolling out schemes - like sponsoring course fees - to attract Singaporeans to take up these jobs.

After eight days of debate, Parliament yesterday approved a $75.1 billion Budget aimed at preparing Singapore for a more challenging future, where key areas of focus include helping people adapt and grow, helping firms transform and using technology to improve lives.

Minimum legal age for smoking to be raised to 21
Making it harder for youth to light up
Raising legal smoking age to 21 will protect young people during more susceptible years
By Poon Chian Hui, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

The minimum legal age for smoking will be raised from 18 to 21, to make it harder for young people to get hold of cigarettes at a time when they are more vulnerable to peer pressure and the addictive effects of nicotine.

The Health Ministry outlined several reasons for taking this step, including the fact that regular tobacco use is usually established between 18 and 21 years of age.

Singaporeans are also starting to smoke at a younger age. In 2013, the average age a smoker began lighting up was 16, compared with 17 in 2001, according to the National Health Surveillance Survey.

Tobacco use is linked to a host of health problems, from cancer to emphysema to heart disease. In 2015, six Singapore residents died prematurely each day from smoking-related diseases.

Singapore is not the first to introduce such a measure, as some parts of the United States and countries such as Sri Lanka have enforced a higher minimum smoking age of 21 too.

It also comes as the number of tobacco retail outlets in Singapore has fallen to a record low, and on the heels of a shisha ban that took full effect in August last year.

Currently, retailers who sell tobacco to those under 18 may be fined up to $5,000 for the first offence, and $10,000 for repeated breaches. Their licence may also be revoked by the Health Sciences Authority, which enforces tobacco control laws here.

Those below 18 caught using, buying or possessing tobacco products can be fined up to $300.

Supporting the move, Professor Chia Kee Seng, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, noted: "Tobacco companies are known to target youth in their marketing to get them addicted as early as possible. Youths are also more susceptible to nicotine dependency."

Several studies have found that adolescent brains are more vulnerable to the rewarding effects of nicotine, the addictive substance found in tobacco products.

Dr K. Thomas Abraham, chief executive of Sata CommHealth, said the latest measure will "effectively challenge perceptions of tobacco as a 'normal' product". "At 21, adolescents become young adults who are more mature, more rational and less impulsive," added Dr Abraham, an anti-smoking advocate.

The move also aligns with the stance of the World Health Organisation, which stated in a 2008 report that people who do not start smoking before 21 are unlikely to ever begin.

Two-thirds of underage smokers in Singapore obtain their tobacco from friends and schoolmates, according to the latest Student Health Surveys (2014-2016).

With the new rule, the number of legal buyers in an underage person's social circle is expected to be reduced, said the ministry.

Student Chrystine Wong, 23, who drew her first puff at 15 after a friend gave her a cigarette, agrees that raising the legal age would be beneficial.

"It gives you more time to think before you can buy your own pack of cigarettes," she said.

Yet Ms Wong, who stopped smoking two years ago, said she and her schoolmates were able to get cigarettes through their older siblings.

"If you really want to do it, there's no way anyone can stop you," she noted.

Mr Muhd Hafiz, 33, started smoking at 14 under the influence of his schoolmates and, by 18, was puffing 20 cigarettes a day. They would make modified photocopies of identity cards to dupe tobacco sellers.

The handyman, who quit smoking last year after signing up for the Health Promotion Board's I Quit programme, is unconvinced that the legal age matters that much.

Echoing Ms Wong, he said: "There is always a way for kids to get cigarettes - unless you ban them."

No profit margins on drugs sold in public hospitals: Gan
By Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

Public healthcare institutions do not make a profit on the drugs they prescribe, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong in Parliament yesterday.

"Our public healthcare institutions are not-for-profit organisations," he said. "While the drug prices include a margin, this is to offset overheads and operations costs... They are not profit margins.

"In fact, last year, we provided a total of $4.3 billion of funding to our public healthcare institutions to support their operations, to keep our healthcare costs low."

The issue was brought up by Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC), who said that some people still find medication expensive.

He asked for the profit margins of drugs sold in public hospitals, and questioned the effectiveness of measures taken to bring medication costs down, especially for those with chronic ailments.

"Based on feedback from residents, some Singaporeans still find the cost of medicine high," Mr Low said. "I believe this is partly due to doctors prescribing drugs for a long duration, or prescribing non-standard drugs."

Addressing the issue later, Mr Gan said the Agency for Care Effectiveness, which was set up to look for treatments with "good outcomes at affordable costs", will issue its first set of guidelines on drugs in May.

Minister of State for Health Lam Pin Min added that the agency will issue more guidelines in July on medications for Type 2 diabetes and how to manage pre-diabetes.

These will help patients and doctors make better choices on cost-effective medical treatment.

Dr Lam said the agency recently evaluated two classes of diabetes drugs. One was found to be "significantly more cost-effective".

The drug will be listed under the Medication Assistance Fund, and eligible patients can apply for financial support for it.

The fund helps people who need expensive non-standard drugs, said Mr Gan, adding that substantial subsidies are given for standard medication at public healthcare institutions.

9,000 more healthcare workers needed
By Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

Around 9,000 more people are needed in public healthcare and community care over the next three years, as demand rises for healthcare services.

This is why the Health Ministry (MOH) is investing $24 million to get those making a mid-career switch on board.

"Growth in the healthcare sector will bring many good jobs - clinical and non-clinical, and at different levels - for Singaporeans," Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said yesterday during the debate on the ministry's Budget.

Over the next three years, this works out to around 2,700 more nurses, 4,500 more support staff and an additional 1,800 other professionals, managers, executives and technicians.

Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) said the healthcare sector is "poised to absorb many more workers", including those who lost jobs, or women returning to the workforce.

Dr Khor said a new overseas graduate scholarship will be launched for those who do not have nursing degrees but want to join the sector. They will pursue a two-year master's programme and serve as registered nurses after they graduate.

She said MOH expects to give out 20 scholarships each year, both to fresh graduates and to those who have work experience.

Funding for nursing professional conversion programmes will also be raised, to the extent that employers will need to pay only 10 per cent of the training cost, compared with up to 50 per cent currently. Employers will also get up to $16,000 for on-the-job training for each nurse who made a mid-career switch.

Funding will also go towards on-the-job training for support staff like basic care assistants - who free up nurses' time by performing simple tasks - as well as healthcare and therapy assistants. Employers will get $10,000 for on-the-job training for each person hired in these roles.

In response to Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC), who asked about the foreign-local ratios of doctors and nurses, Dr Khor said about 16 per cent of doctors and a third of nurses are foreign.

MOH is working to increase the local component, she said, adding: "Our priority is to build a strong local core, whether it's medical, nursing, allied health professionals or even healthcare support staff."

MOH to roll out diabetes control measures
Two treatment guides out in May; polyclinic programme to lower number of kidney failures
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

The Ministry of Health (MOH) will be pushing out better ways to prevent and control diabetes, as well as encourage healthier living and early screening, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

He was replying to Mr Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) who had asked about the progress of the ministry's "war on diabetes".

Mr Gan said the Agency for Care Effectiveness (ACE), set up in 2015 to evaluate clinical and cost effectiveness of new treatments, will publish its first two treatment guides in May, and both deal with diabetes.

Giving details, Minister of State for Health Lam Pin Min said the guides are about medication for Type 2 diabetes, and a systematic way to manage pre-diabetes.

He added that ACE had evaluated two patented diabetic drugs and found one "significantly more cost-effective". MOH will subsidise the drug under the Medication Assistance Fund.

The ministry will also roll out a programme to all polyclinics to reduce the number of kidney failures among diabetics. This follows a successful pilot by the National University Hospital and the National Healthcare Group, which recruited almost 12,000 diabetics between 2011 and last year. Dr Lam said a third of the patients had improvements in their kidney function, while there was no further deterioration in over 60 per cent of patients.

One patient who benefited was taxi driver Ahmad Sahri, 65, who was diagnosed with diabetes in 2007. He also has high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Two years ago, a Woodlands Polyclinic doctor told him that there were problems with his kidneys and they were "not so good".

"I was worried," he said, as he knew kidney failure meant having to go on dialysis. He was already exercising fairly regularly.

The doctor put him on the programme and now his kidneys appear fine, much to his relief.

Every five hours here, one person loses the use of his kidneys and needs a transplant or dialysis. In 2015, more than 1,200 people started dialysis.

Recently, the biggest dialysis provider, the National Kidney Foundation, said it would run out of dialysis places by the end of this month.

From Sept 1, Singaporeans aged 40 and above can screen for diabetes and four other ailments for at most $5. Those aged 18 to 39 can do an online self-assessment. If results show that they are at high risk, they can get the $5 screening for diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol levels at Chas clinics.

New moves to enhance community care for mental health
By Poon Chian Hui, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

Resources for mental health will be strengthened so people having difficulties can be identified early and supported.

For instance, half of Singapore's polyclinics are expected to have mental health clinics by 2021.

The Institute of Mental Health (IMH), Singapore's main psychiatric hospital, will also support more patients in the transition back home after discharge.

These are part of a five-year Community Mental Health Masterplan to be launched this year that will also cover training for front-line staff and boosting of community care.

Yesterday, Senior Minister of State Amy Khor told Parliament the Ministry of Health (MOH) will enhance community care by improving early identification, strengthening response, expanding mental health services in polyclinics, boosting integrated health and social care services, and broadening the reach of IMH's post-discharge care.

She was replying to MPs Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC), Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson SMC), NCMP Dennis Tan of the Workers' Party and Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC), who asked about support for mental health.

Having mental health clinics in polyclinics will allow patients with dementia, depression, anxiety and insomnia to be cared for near their homes. People with chronic physical ailments may also be vulnerable to mental health conditions which could then be identified early, said an MOH spokesman.

Meanwhile, IMH's aftercare support will go to 3,000 more patients over the next five years, on top of the current 8,000, said Dr Khor. Staff follow up with the selected discharged patients, who usually have severe conditions, for at least 12 months to ensure they are well, and are going for medical appointments or taking medication as instructed.

Dr Khor said the number of community outreach teams will also go up from 18 to 50 by 2021.

Generally run by voluntary welfare organisations and charities, their main role is to educate the public on mental health and reach out to vulnerable people. The number of allied health community intervention teams will also grow from 14 to 18 by 2021. Comprising professionals such as counsellors, occupational therapists and psychologists, teams conduct home visits, assess and counsel people with mental health needs.

Such home visits have helped Mr Wee (not his real name), 67, who suffers from schizophrenia.

He tends to have delusions about neighbours wanting to harm him.

He had to quit his security guard job in 2000 and has been hospitalised in IMH thrice since 2006, for at least two months each time.

But his condition has improved since a social worker from Peace-Connect began visiting him weekly from September 2015.

"It's important that I can speak about my problems to him," said Mr Wee, who is unemployed and lives alone. "I feel more confident and less fearful."

To help coordinate care better, the Agency for Integrated Care will act as a "first responder" to mental health needs identified in the community, said Dr Khor.

"By 2021, we target to respond to and support about 1,000 cases a year, up from the current 500."

Also on the cards is training of the front-line staff of selected government and social service agencies to spot and respond to individuals with mental health needs.

These include government agencies such as the Housing Board and the National Environment Agency, as well as the police, she said.

Madam Rosemary Lim, a grassroots volunteer in MacPherson, said such knowledge may spur the public to be more understanding.

"When people are more aware, they can be more tolerant and more willing to help out," said the 60-year-old, who is involved in active ageing efforts.

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

New $50m matching grant for elite athletes
By May Chen, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

The Government has pledged an additional $50 million over the next five years for high performance sport, but as much as another $100 million could separately be channelled into backing elite athletes, if a new matching grant is maximised successfully.

This comes after a new One Team Singapore matching grant was announced yesterday, an initiative that will see the Government match dollar-for-dollar donations - up to $50 million over the next five years - in a bid to grow the resource pool that the nation's sporting best can draw from.

The initiatives come after a historic year for Singapore sport.

Swimmer Joseph Schooling won the Republic's first Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro, while para-swimmers Yip Pin Xiu (two golds) and Theresa Goh (one bronze) also reached the Paralympic podium.

It is hoped that the matching grant will prompt the corporate sector and the public to contribute to the success of national athletes.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu announced the grant yesterday in Parliament, while speaking about enhancements to the High Performance Sports (HPS) system.

The HPS' $50 million - first announced by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat during the Budget - will be disbursed on top of the existing budget for the HPS system, bringing expenditure to about $70 million a year.

The HPS, which supports both able-bodied athletes as well as those with disabilities, covers components such as athletes' allowances, annual grants to national sports associations, as well as sports medicine and sports science support.

The new injection is expected to put a targeted focus on building support capability in areas like coaching and technical know-how.

It will also be used to give athletes more opportunities to train and compete in a more conducive environment.

"Podium success at world championships and the Olympics requires a focused and sustained effort at all levels," said Ms Fu.

"A talented and dedicated athlete is a necessary starting point. To groom that athlete into a world champion, we need great coaches supported by deep sports science and sports medicine capabilities."

She was responding to questions from Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) about government efforts to further enhance the support system for top athletes.

It is understood that under this additional funding, resources will also be set aside for athletes who aim to shine at major Games but do not come under the Sports Excellence (Spex) Scholarship, the country's elite sports support programme.

The new targeted funding could put athletes such as Olympians Justin Liu and Denise Lim in good stead as the sailors aim for a run at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Despite qualifying for Rio in 2015, the pair, who did not meet the Singapore Sailing Federation's criteria for funding then and are not Spex scholarship recipients, got there largely on their own dime.

They forked out an estimated $100,000 to cover travel and training needs, even paying their coach's salary themselves.

Said Liu, who estimated that their 2020 campaign could cost $100,000 a year: "One of the biggest challenges in our Rio campaign was when we were trying to secure qualification.

"We fell through the cracks and struggled for funds. Hopefully, the additional funding will be beneficial for athletes like us."

In the works: More sporting spaces near residents' homes
By May Chen, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

For the last eight months, housewife Suzana Hamzah has begun each weekday with a good sweat, exercising at a new multi-purpose lawn court a few minutes' walk from her home in Boon Lay Avenue.

What began as a personal pledge to get fitter with two friends has now grown to workouts with a group of about 40 who live in the area. They spend about an hour every weekday morning following Ms Suzana's lead in exercises such as jumping jacks, planks and yoga poses.

The facility where they work out is part of a newly completed Sports-In-Precinct (SIP) project, which also includes a street soccer court and jogging track. Without easy access to such a space, the 47-year-old reckons that she and her band of housewives would not be as committed to physical activity.

"It's really convenient and it's also sheltered, so not even the rain will get in the way of us exercising," said Ms Suzana, who noted the nearest alternative venue would be the park at Jurong Lake, about 3km away.

Building on such SIP initiatives, $50 million will be set aside for 20 such projects across the island, expected to be completed by 2020.

The SIP drive began in 2014 to construct more sporting spaces in local communities, particularly in places farther from town sports centres.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu announced this yesterday during the debate on her ministry's budget.

She said: "We will expand the roll-out of the SIP programme to additional precincts to ensure a good geographical spread and create more sporting spaces near residents' homes."

Parliamentary Secretary Baey Yam Keng noted that the additions will now include precincts that are not eligible for the Housing Board's Neighbourhood Renewal Programme. He was responding to questions from Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) on whether more new spaces would be provided for community use.

A second SIP project in Jurong Spring is expected to be completed this year, and there are also plans for another site in Taman Jurong.

Besides more investment in infrastructure, there will also be more programmes - in the form of five more ActiveSG academies and clubs - to encourage greater participation in sport. Academies and clubs for badminton, frisbee, floorball, hockey and martial arts will be introduced this year.

Said Ms Fu: "The programmes will cater to different competency levels and provide young adults with both recreational and competitive opportunities to remain active in sports even after leaving the school system."

There will also be Active Masters programmes catering to adults aged 40 and above. The activities under this initiative will include functional exercises and modified sports and fitness activities.

Three academies - for basketball, football and tennis - and one club, for athletics, were launched last year, followed by an Outdoor Adventure Club in January.

More disability-inclusive gyms in the pipeline
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

Gyms with equipment for both the able-bodied and people with disabilities will be set up at government-run sports centres in Bedok, Jurong West, Tampines and Toa Payoh.

These disability-inclusive gyms at ActiveSG sports centres are expected to be ready by next year.

The move, announced by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu in Parliament yesterday, is part of the Government's Disability Sports Master Plan, to encourage more people with disabilities to pick up sports.

Ms Fu was responding to Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC), who noted that government support was strong for para-athletes like swimmer Yip Pin Xiu, who won two golds at the Paralympic Games last year.

Dr Lim, speaking during the debate on the ministry's budget, hoped non-competitive people will also get "the help and push needed to participate in sports and other cultural activities, to give persons with disabilities the opportunity to lead an active and enriching life".

ActiveSG runs only one disability-inclusive gym now. It is at the Enabling Village, a community space in Redhill where people with disabilities can shop, eat, access services and attend training.

News of the additional gyms was welcomed by telemarketer Vinayagan Mohan, 29, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.

He said: "I've been looking for a gym to train and build my muscles. Exercising in gyms would help people with disabilities to maintain their physical strength, too."

People with special needs will also receive more attention at museums. Ms Fu said that staff, docents and volunteers will get more training this year on ways to engage them.

More than 100 museum staff members and docents have gone for introductory training, which will be extended to everyone.

Those who engage directly with special-needs visitors will attend in-depth workshops, said the National Heritage Board.

Ms Fu said: "With these developments, everyone can participate more fully in sports and the arts."

SG Cares to cultivate volunteerism here
To be launched later this year, nationwide movement is part of multiple efforts to encourage ground-up projects
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

Step up to help a neighbour, or a cause. That is the call of SG Cares, a nationwide volunteerism movement to be officially launched in the second half of this year.

It aims to "harness the goodwill of Singaporeans, inspire them to step forward, and support them to help others in need", said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu yesterday. The movement is part of her ministry's efforts to nurture a community of caring people in the coming year.

Its focus includes increasing volunteerism opportunities, coordinating partnerships, and building capabilities of volunteers and organisations through training.

It will be led by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) and the National Council of Social Service, but is "not a government scheme", said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin on Wednesday.

"It is about giving and volunteering... and a lot of this is already taking place in the community. (SG Cares) provides an overall umbrella to encourage and support these efforts, to help and facilitate even more outreach," he added.

Ms Fu cited the work of Ms Siti Nurani Salim, founder of Project Goodwill Aid, during her speech. The group has visited more than 1,000 families in rental flats since 2013, distributing groceries and refurbishing their homes, for instance.

Said Ms Fu: "This is the spirit we hope to cultivate through SG Cares - communities self-organising to care for their members and inspiring others to do good.

"It is the members of each community who truly understand the needs of their neighbours and friends, who are best placed to help make Singapore a truly caring society."

Last year, 350 volunteers took part in Project Goodwill Aid's activities. Said Ms Siti Nurani, 35: "We still don't have enough volunteers. It'll be good if SG Cares can help us attract volunteers, and match people with time and interest to meet the social needs."

Ms Fu also gave updates on other initiatives to promote volunteerism during the debate on her ministry's budget. The inaugural Youth Corps Service Week will be held from tomorrow till next Saturday, to encourage the young to contribute to social and community causes.

It will comprise volunteering activities held islandwide.

Meanwhile, nearly 40 ground-up projects that build national identity or help the community have been supported by Our Singapore Fund, launched last year.

The projects have benefited more than 37,000 people.

Ms Fu also encouraged more companies to give back to society.

She said there are more than 470 members in NVPC's Company of Good programme, started last year to promote corporate giving.

The programme also has two new schemes, which will be introduced later this year.

One is the Champion of Good scheme, which recognises companies with best practices in corporate giving. The other is the Company of Good Fellowship, which aims to grow a community of corporate leaders and develop their capabilities in corporate giving through training and mentoring.

Said Ms Fu: "We need to look out for one another. We are as strong as the most vulnerable among us."

Blueprint for heritage sector being drawn up
Plan will include preservation of tangible and intangible assets; first edition to be out next year
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

A comprehensive blueprint for the heritage sector is being developed to map out the national vision for the museum and heritage landscape.

It will examine how tangible and intangible heritage can be systematically documented and preserved.

The plan will also look at how to better protect the country's archaeological heritage through policy and legislative reviews, said Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Baey Yam Keng.

The first edition of the plan will be published early next year, and will detail new strategies and initiatives for the next five years. It will be updated every five years.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) will engage heritage stakeholders and community partners.

It will also invite the public to share their views later this year, said Mr Baey yesterday during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Other aspects of the plan include making museums and cultural institutions more accessible.

The ongoing nationwide surveys on the country's tangible and intangible heritage, launched by NHB over the past two years, will be worked into the blueprint.

The plan also involves NHB supporting more ground-up projects, partnering more communities, and exploring ways to empower them to co-curate heritage content.

Such a blueprint is long overdue, said the heritage community, which hopes it will lead to concrete policies and laws to protect heritage.

On their wish list: standardised, structured and independent heritage impact assessments, coordination across ministries, and systematic public engagements.

Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin said: "There needs to be a greater whole-of-government approach to heritage. In order to be meaningful and effective, the heritage plan has to include other agencies whose work also play a crucial role in deciding the fate of the country's heritage assets."

Dr Terence Chong, head of NalanDa-Sriwijaya Centre at the ISEAS- Yusof Ishak Institute, said the plan is a positive step towards formulating long-term heritage strategies.

His suggestions include making it compulsory for landowners or developers to notify NHB of proposals to redevelop sites of significant size, to allow for mandatory archaeological investigations.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu also updated the House about the Founders' Memorial, which will honour the nation's founding fathers.

She noted that a majority of Singaporeans engaged so far have picked Bay East Garden as the preferred site of the memorial as opposed to Fort Canning Park.

The wider public will get to weigh in from next week when a showcase is rolled out at Gardens by the Bay.

When it is ready, the Founders' Memorial will tell the extraordinary story of the Singapore spirit, she said. "The story doesn't end there. We will write the next chapters together."

SGSecure network to link religious groups
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

A new SGSecure Community Network will be established to connect all religious organisations in Singapore and help places of worship get ready in the event of a terrorist attack.

It is one of the upcoming national efforts to foster greater resilience and understanding among Singaporeans, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu in Parliament yesterday.

The new network will complement the work of the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, which promote racial and religious harmony at the constituency level, as well as strengthen the Government's partnership with religious organisations, she added.

"All religious organisations should be plugged into the SGSecure movement, so that they are well informed and can count on one another for help when the need arises," said Ms Fu during the debate on her ministry's budget.

"In the hours and days after a terrorist attack, we need respected community and religious leaders to convey messages of calm and solidarity to their congregations, and to the wider community."

Earlier this year, her ministry and the Home Team held two counter-terrorism seminars for religious and community organisations.

More than 500 leaders from about 180 organisations learnt from parties, such as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, on how to develop crisis management plans and keep their followers safe. More of such seminars are in the works.

The seminar drove home the importance of being prepared to Al-Khair Mosque vice-chairman Abdul Wahab, 61. "We're still lacking awareness on the security aspect, and we have a lot to do to get not just our staff ready, but also our congregation," he said. "Now, nowhere is completely safe from attacks."

Yesterday, Ms Fu said plans are on the horizon to deepen religious understanding, too. Gaps in understanding about religious practices still persist, she pointed out, and irresponsible voices could use this to sow seeds of prejudice.

Her ministry will work with community organisations to clarify how religions are practised in a multiracial, multi-religious society, as well as address sensitive questions in a mutually respectful setting.

Such efforts to band together are crucial in today's uncertain global climate.

She said: "At a time when tensions are tearing at the fabric of other countries, the bonds and bridges we build in times of peace will enable us to stand together in a crisis."

Madrasahs to get $1.5 million in grants
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

Singapore's six full-time madrasahs will receive an annual grant of up to $1.5 million to improve the quality of education in secular subjects, such as science and mathematics.

About $100,000 will be put up for an estimated 350 new awards, for students who shine in these subjects. The rest will go to the 127 teachers of secular subjects, as financial incentives or training grants.

The grant makes good on a pledge that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made, in 2015, to give the teaching of these subjects in madrasahs a boost.

The awards for madrasah teachers and students were announced yesterday by Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim.

The government grant will be matched by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), which is setting aside its own funds for religious education.

Muis will pour $1.1 million a year into incentives and training for the 112 teachers of religious subjects, and about $100,000 into awards for students who excel in subjects such as Islamic jurisprudence and theology.

"This partnership between the Government and the community will encourage our madrasah students and teachers to continue to improve themselves and be the best that they can be," said Dr Yaacob, at the debate on the budget for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Muis is a statutory board under its purview.

Yesterday, Muis' deputy chief executive, Dr Albakri Ahmad, told The Straits Times that the government grant will help madrasahs do even better at national exams.

Dr Yaacob said that 98 per cent of madrasah students who sat the PSLE were eligible for a secondary school course in either the madrasahs or national schools last year, up from 91 per cent in 2012. More qualified for the Express stream as well.

"These trends bode well for the future of our asatizah fraternity and Muslim institutions," he said.

Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) wanted to know if there were plans to review the Administration of Muslim Law Act.

The minister said that draft proposals will be put up for public consultation on March 14. The amendments seek to reinforce Muslim institutions, enhance the management of Muslim assets and further strengthen Muslim families.

Dr Yaacob also gave updates on the new Madrasah Al-Arabiah campus in Toa Payoh.

It will be equipped with up-to-date information technology infrastructure and facilities, and is estimated to cost $17 million.

Muis has set aside $10 million for the new campus and the madrasah will raise the rest. Construction is expected to start next year.

Dr Yaacob also said that collections for the Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund (MBMF) have been healthy, despite a revision last June that saw Muslims paying $1 to $10 more in monthly contributions.

"The support for the changes to the MBMF is an affirmation of the affluence of our community and of our spirit of self-help," he said.

The 26th mosque under this fund - the Yusof Ishak Mosque in Woodlands - will be opened next month.

Dr Yaacob also responded to comments by Workers' Party MP Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) on wanting to see Malay-Muslims in all aspects of public life.

Mr Faisal said the move to reserve this year's presidential election for Malay candidates compromises meritocracy and added that some in the community feel that there is a lack of fair opportunity in seeing themselves represented in positions such as permanent secretary.

Dr Yaacob said that while the community hopes to see achievements in a range of fields, this will take time. "My colleagues and I believe that what we have done all this while will give us the excellence we want in our community," he said.

More help for Malay/Muslim PMETs in uncertain times
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

Malay/Muslim professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) can soon turn to a new committee for help in weathering the headwinds of an uncertain economy. Its focus is to help this growing group retrain, and rebound from employment setbacks, said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim.

The committee is chaired by Parliamentary Secretaries Faishal Ibrahim and Amrin Amin.

Dr Yaacob said more will be done to boost the community's take-up of national schemes like SkillsFuture. Out of the 126,000 Singaporeans who have used their SkillsFuture credits as of last December, only 8.4 per cent are Malays, he pointed out.

While Mendaki's training arm, Mendaki Sense, will boost efforts to provide good job opportunities, "at the same time, more must be done to make continual learning and training a social norm or a natural impulse of our community", he added.

The self-help group, which kickstarts its 35th anniversary celebrations tomorrow, has turned to technology to help in its efforts.

New plans are also on the cards for Mendaki's Future Ready Unit, which was formed in 2015. This year, it will launch a Future First programme to help Malay/Muslim students in Higher Nitec courses develop IT skills and competencies like critical thinking.

Dr Yaacob also touched on efforts to strengthen and safeguard families. PPIS Vista Sakinah, which supports Malay/Muslim couples remarrying and stepfamilies, is looking at further working with asatizah, or Islamic religious teachers, to engage such families.

He also spoke of changes in the Syariah Court, which administers Muslim family law relating to divorce and inheritance matters.

Two new presidents - Ustaz Muhammad Fazalee Jaafar and Ustazah Raihanah Halid, both on secondment from Muis - came on board last year, said Dr Yaacob. They are being mentored by senior president Mohamad Haji Rais and president Zainol Abeedin Hussin, who will both retire in June.

In the next two to three years, the Court will also have a new system to boost efficiency. This will include new e-services, like being able to make appointments online, and a new case-management system.

Health is wealth, and so are the arts
Quality of life encompasses not just staying healthy but enriching our lives through the arts as well
By Lydia Lim, Associate Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2017

Yesterday's debate was an apt way to end eight days of scrutiny by Parliament of the Government's plans for the next financial year that starts on April 1.

It began with a discussion on ways to keep Singaporeans healthy in mind and body, and ended with a discussion on the role of the arts in helping society thrive.

It spanned familiar ground for this Government - the supply of hospital beds, nurses' training, campaigns against obesity and a law to ban smoking for those below age 21 - but also stretched to the outer reaches, where the avant-garde and experimental arts reside.

The sitting started on a light note, with Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC) quoting the late American comedian George Burns, who liked to say, "I look to the future because that's where I'm going to spend the rest of my life".

Dr Chia did so to stress that good health is to a large extent a choice: "We reap what we sow; the lifestyle decisions we make have a significant impact on our health in later life. We cannot choose our parents and so our genetic make-up is predetermined. But we can choose how we live our lives."

The Ministry of Health(MOH) wants individuals to take charge of their health, and will help them through a slew of programmes to spur lifestyle change when it comes to health checks, diet, exercise and sleep. These are linked to the Government's war against diabetes launched last year.

Yesterday, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told the House of a worrying rise in obesity among younger Singaporeans aged 18 to 39, with the obesity rate doubling in two decades from 4.2 per cent in 1992 to 8.4 per cent in 2013.

"This is worrying as obesity is a key driver contributing to the diabetes burden in Singapore. Based on projections, one in three Singaporeans will develop diabetes in their lifetime. Obesity and diabetes are risk factors for heart disease and stroke. If we do not address these risk factors early, the progress we have achieved over the years will be eroded," he said.

He sought to rally the troops by urging everyone to keep in mind three Rs - refrain, reduce and replace - when deciding on what to eat: refrain from unhealthy food, reduce the amount of such food one eats, and replace them with healthier alternatives.

Another challenge is the rising rate of dementia as society ages.

One aim is to empower members of local communities, including general practitioners, to detect the disease early and help care for those suffering from it.

MOH is working with MPs and volunteer welfare organisations to build dementia-friendly communities on the ground. Ms Tin Pei Ling, whose MacPherson ward already has such a community, called for a national database of those diagnosed with dementia so befrienders can reach out to them and their families.

Empowering individuals to take charge of their health and cultivating communities able to care for those in need is the right way to improve quality of life for people across age groups.

Quality of life, too, is at the centre of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth's (MCCY) work which, as Minister Grace Fu noted, deals with intangibles and yet has the power to stir the deepest emotions.

Building on recent major advances to develop sports, the arts and culture, Ms Fu announced measures to make arts and sports facilities more accessible to people with disabilities, and plans to grow arts education through a new Performing Arts-based Learning Programme for lower secondary school students.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun, a theatre director, said the arts sector brimmed with vitality, but also called for greater acceptance of artists who push boundaries and suffer a pushback that leads to their work being removed or censored.

"I feel the need to emphasise the importance of experimental, avant-garde art ... They represent adventure, exploration; offer new ways of seeing," he said.

The public often meet such works with suspicion and derision but "it is the unconventional that brings new knowledge, understanding and change", he added. That extends to arts in the community.

Mr Kok waded into an ongoing issue between the Jalan Besar Town Council and Lasalle College of the Arts student Priyageetha Dia, 25, who covered a flight of stairs outside her family's HDB flat in gold foil for her final-year project. He said "art in community is often spontaneous and interventionist", "serves as a response to the place and people around it" and engages and enlivens the community.

He called for policies to be adjusted to allow for more such engagement and arts participation.

MCCY office-holders disagreed.

Parliamentary Secretary Baey Yam Keng said the Government had, over the years, expanded the space for artistic expression but "we need to be mindful of our social and cultural context, and balance this with mutual respect of views and social harmony".

Artworks, he added, need to be context- and age-appropriate.

Such tension is to be expected when it comes to edgy artworks that fall outside the comfort zone of politicians, civil servants and many Singaporeans. Still, a healthy society is one that remains open to growing - within limits - the space for artistic expression as a source of new ideas and perspectives.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Transport

Bukit Panjang LRT system to get complete overhaul
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Plans to overhaul the problematic Bukit Panjang LRT (BPLRT) system have been set in motion, but commuters are likely to have to wait a few more years for a new and more reliable ride.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in Parliament yesterday that the Government intends to call a tender this year for the "complete replacement" of the LRT's ageing components and an upgrade of its systems.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said it would be sourcing new trains, power rail, signalling system and various other critical components.

Plans to fix the glitch-prone system, which has been acting up since it first began operations 18 years ago, were first revealed last October.

Mr Lee Ling Wee, managing director of operator SMRT Trains, which runs the BPLRT, had said in a blog that a few options were being considered.

The first option was to deploy self-powered, autonomous guided vehicles on the existing viaduct.

The second was to build a new LRT system with significant design enhancements. Mr Lee then noted that the current system is more suitable as an airport shuttle plying short distances on flat ground, instead of the gradients that BPLRT trains are made to tackle currently.

The third option was to renew the existing Bombardier system with a more updated signalling system where trains can be tracked more accurately as they operate at higher frequencies.

If all three options were not feasible, there was another alternative: scrap the system and revert to buses. The Government has ruled out this alternative, saying it would lead to heavy congestion on the roads.

The first option of autonomous vehicles has also been ruled out.

Asked for more details of the BPLRT renewal process, the LTA would say only that it will be "a complex project".

"We also need to minimise any inconvenience to commuters as these works will have to be done on a 'live' and running system," an LTA spokesman said, adding that there will be an announcement on this at a later date.

Experts said that if the plan is to replace existing operating and fixed assets with no fundamental design changes, the bugs may remain.

They added that a redesign is unlikely to be feasible without closing the line temporarily.

Singapore Institute of Technology assistant professor (engineering cluster) Andrew Ng said: "If closing the BPLRT in phases is impossible, the authority should consider providing bridging bus services between the affected stations to reduce the disruption of residents' travelling patterns."

Khaw Boon Wan: Public transport fares may go up
Tax burden for transport 'can't be too excessive'
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

It is not sustainable for taxpayers to increasingly subsidise the cost of operating Singapore's public transport systems.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said this and raised the possibility of commuters paying higher fares in his speech in Parliament yesterday, during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Mr Khaw said that over the next five years, the Government expects to subsidise public bus services by almost $4 billion.

Under the new bus contracting model, fare revenue goes to the Government, but this is still insufficient to cover operating costs, he explained.

The Government, he said, also expects to spend another $4 billion or so on replacing ageing rail assets in the same timeframe.

"And all this is on top of about $20 billion we will be spending to build new public transport infrastructure," he added. "We must ensure that the fiscal burden does not become too excessive for taxpayers."

He said that in the earlier years, taxpayers funded the construction of transport infrastructure while commuters bore the operating costs through fares.

"But over the years, as fares have not kept up with rising costs, taxpayers have to subsidise more and more of the operating costs, especially as we have been raising service standards significantly," he said.

Mr Khaw said the Public Transport Council (PTC) will review the fare formula when it expires following this year's fare adjustment exercise.

"They will consult widely. I am confident that they will decide wisely," he said, emphasising that "many commuters have benefited" from the council's recent harmonisation of fares between above-ground and underground MRT lines.

"They have seen their fares reduced," he said. "But remember, the PTC cannot always bring good news. Sometimes, they have to adjust fares upwards. If they do, I hope commuters will be understanding."

Khaw sets new target for MRT reliability
Aim for 2017 is an average of 300,000km before a delay of over 5min; last year it was 174,000km
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan has set MRT operators a new reliability target this year - trains are to travel an average of 300,000km before a delay occurs.

The target will be a 72 per cent improvement over last year's average of 174,000km that trains travelled before encountering a delay of more than five minutes.

"And next year, we will shoot for 400,000. It can be done," he said yesterday during the debate on the Transport Ministry's budget.

He said Singapore's MRT reliability is "not yet where we want to be, but we will get there".

The mean kilometre before failure is used by many cities as an indicator of rail reliability.

The Taipei metro, for example, achieved 800,000 train-km in 2015 before a breakdown.

Responding to concerns raised by Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan about delays and breakdowns faced by commuters, Mr Khaw said raising train reliability is a "multi-year" effort as replacing ageing assets takes time.

He said that a number of projects to upgrade the 30-year-old North- South and East-West Lines (NSEWL) are under way or in the pipeline. The replacement of the power-supplying third-rail system of the trunk lines will be completed this year.

The upgrade of the North-South Line's signalling system - which will allow trains to run at up to 100-second intervals during peak hours, instead of 120 seconds - will also be completed soon, he added. For the East-West Line, this upgrade will be completed next year.

Tenders will be called soon for an overhaul of the NSEWL's power supply system, Mr Khaw said, adding that this has been a "source of many problems in the last few years".

He also warned commuters of potential problems when the MRT cuts over to the new signalling system. That has been the "painful experience" in London, Hong Kong and Taipei, he said.

"They warned us that we should expect many teething problems," said Mr Khaw.

Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng said in his speech yesterday that the new trains and power supply system will have condition- monitoring sensors.

The power system, for example, will have instruments to monitor the temperature of the switchgear panel in real time to detect anomalies early. The switchgear is a device used to control, protect and isolate the electrical supply.

Mr Khaw said that to improve the maintenance regime of tracks, a new automatic track inspection system will be acquired.

This system will use imaging sensors and laser scanners fitted on the undercarriages of trains to monitor track conditions. For a start, four Downtown Line trains will be fitted with these devices.

Mr Ang also raised concerns about the recent delays between the Jurong East and Joo Koon MRT stations.

He said: "There were at least three major breakdowns... in January alone, and numerous incidents where residents had to add tens of minutes of travelling time between the two stations."

In reply, Mr Khaw said that there are very old signalling components which need to be replaced, but these works, along with maintenance, may not be completed during the limited off-service hours. This is why train service was occasionally impacted when planned works extended into revenue hours.

He added that he has asked the Land Transport Authority and operator SMRT to consider Mr Ang's suggestion of ending revenue service for that stretch of the EWL earlier to accommodate the works.

Open strollers allowed on buses from 2 April 2017
By Zhaki Abdullah, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Commuters travelling on buses with children will not have to fold their strollers from April 2.

"We hope this will make travelling with young children on public transport more convenient," said Second Transport Minister Ng Chee Meng in Parliament yesterday during the Transport Ministry's budget debate.

He added, however, that parents will have to take responsibility for the safety of their children, including holding on to the open strollers.

A restraint system to secure strollers will be tested on one bus service - which has yet to be announced - from the second quarter of this year. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said open strollers carried on board buses should be no larger than 120cm in length and 70cm in width.

They should also not be placed where they will obstruct the entry or exit of passengers, such as in the aisles or on the upper deck of double-decker buses. Strollers should be placed in designated wheelchair space, but wheelchair users will be given priority, said LTA.

Bus drivers may also request that open strollers in these spaces be folded when passengers in wheelchairs board.

Parents with young children welcomed the move.

"This is good news for me as I have to take the bus with my baby almost every day," said housewife Thu Lan, 29.

She added that she had once been asked to leave a bus as she had taken her one-year-old daughter, who was asleep, on board in an open stroller.

Mr Ng said the future transport system will be more inclusive and must be designed "thoughtfully" to serve the needs of those with disabilities, families with young children, and the elderly.

Initiatives such as making all MRT stations and bus interchanges barrier-free, and efforts to make all public buses wheelchair-accessible by 2020 have helped make public transport more accessible so far. But Mr Ng said there was still room for improvement.

In response to queries from Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), Mr Ng said more spaces for wheelchairs and strollers would be available on future buses.

For those with visual disabilities, the LTA will begin testing audio announcements on buses.

Due to its proximity to the Enabling Village, Redhill MRT will be used as a test bed for new mobility technologies and infrastructure to improve access to public transport for those with disabilities.

"The journey from Redhill station to the Enabling Village is also a challenge for persons with disabilities, because of the hilly topography and the 400m distance," noted Mr Ng, adding that he has "challenged" the LTA and SG Enable to improve this last-mile stretch for them.

Several other accessibility initiatives will also be expanded.

By the end of next year, 24 more pedestrian overhead bridges will be installed with lifts, in addition to the 23 already completed.

Mr Ng said the Silver Zone programme - aimed at allowing elderly and disabled pedestrians to cross roads safely - will be expanded to another 41 locations, up from nine now.

Metered fares likely even as cab firms plan for surge pricing
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Taxi companies look set to continue offering metered fares even as they have informed the authorities of their plans to introduce surge pricing.

Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng told Parliament of the likelihood yesterday, saying: "The taxi companies, I understand, intend to retain the traditional metered fare system even as they introduce dynamic pricing."

Such pricing will see fares go up or down according to supply and demand, but some commuters prefer metered fares, said Mr Ng, as they are more familiar with it.

Cab companies ComfortDelGro, Trans-Cab and Premier recently informed the Public Transport Council (PTC) that they want to implement surge pricing, which is used by private-hire services Uber and Grab.

The system has drawn flak from some commuters for being exorbitant, particularly during periods of high demand. There were instances when fares went up by 3.9 times during train breakdowns.

Mr Ng said the PTC is discussing the details of the new pricing system with the taxi companies.

He made the point when addressing the concerns of Mr Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) about Uber and Grab drivers competing with taxi drivers for fares.

"My view is that we should let the taxi industry innovate and adapt to new market conditions and competition," said Mr Ng. "Our taxi drivers have to make a living, and we should not restrict their ability to compete effectively."

He said the "light-touch" approach to managing changes in the evolving industry has served commuters well.

New regulations, such as requiring private-hire car drivers to obtain a vocational licence from July, will protect commuters' interests, he added.

These drivers will have to undergo a 10-hour course and be subject to background and medical checks.

Mr Ng said the Government will continue to maintain some differentiation in regulations between taxi and private-hire car services for now. These include allowing only taxis to pick up street hails.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) asked if the availability of taxis will become a problem, as demand-based pricing could influence drivers' behaviour.

Mr Ng said the Government will monitor and take any action should availability become an issue.

13,000 new jobs in air, sea sectors by 2025
MPA to provide more funds for upgrading; CAAS working with partners to boost productivity
By Karamjit Kaur, Aviation Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

About 13,000 jobs will be created in the air and sea transport sectors by 2025, as Singapore continues to expand its airport and port operations.

The nature of the jobs, though, will be different, said Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo in Parliament yesterday during the debate on the Transport Ministry's budget.

"Innovation and the intensive use of technology will transform the way people work and companies do business," she said.

The increasing deployment of smart technologies means that new jobs will be more knowledge-intensive.

Currently, there are 250,000 workers in these two sectors, which contribute around 10 per cent to Singapore's gross domestic product.

More jobs will be created over the next 10 to 15 years, when Changi Airport's Terminal 5 and a new port in Tuas are operational. Both of them will double their current operational capacity.

At the port, more data scientists and operations research analysts will be needed to optimise shipping routes, port operations and vessel traffic management.

At the airport, Changi will need data scientists skilled in air traffic operations research and analysis, to optimise runway and airspace capacities through modelling and simulation, she said.

Technology will also transform existing jobs into higher-skill, higher-value jobs, Mrs Teo added.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) will provide more funding and support to help Singaporeans under the Manpower Development and Productivity Fund.

Workers can tap the fund to upgrade their skills to take on these knowledge-intensive jobs, and maritime companies can use the fund to adopt technology to improve business processes, respectively.

Mrs Teo yesterday also assured MPs that the Government was constantly looking at ways to innovate at the port and airport.

Singapore will continue to innovate to stay ahead, she said, addressing concerns raised by several MPs including Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC), Mr Lee Yi Shyan (East Coast GRC) and Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) about intensifying competition in both sectors.

To prepare for the future, the MPA will set up a Living Lab this year at its ports and work with partners to set up three centres to deepen maritime research and development competencies.

It will focus, among other areas, on the development of drones and other autonomous systems to enhance productivity and safety.

Technology to bolster safety and security with smart sensors for detecting intrusions, for example, will also be explored.

In the aviation sector, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) is working closely with industry partners to boost productivity and efficiency on the ground.

For example, the deployment of robotics will relieve workers of labour-intensive tasks.

Ground handler Sats uses automated guided vehicles to transport food items between food stores and assembly lines, eliminating the need for workers to walk up and down. This has reduced preparation time by almost 40 per cent.

Another initiative is the use of smart watches paired with hands-free headsets to help ground workers who escort planes to and from the parking gates work better and faster.

Sats technical officer Alvin Chan Yu Tong, 31, who uses the smart watch, said: "This has helped me make better decisions, react faster to changes on the ground and redeploy manpower more efficiently."

Whether in 10, 20 or 50 years, Singapore must remain leading aviation and maritime hubs, Mrs Teo said. "We cannot stop others from upping their game. We will just have to do everything within our powers to stay ahead," she added.

Tighter standards to rein in vehicle emissions
New scheme will mean tax surcharges for more cars, may signal end for diesel models
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

A new Vehicular Emissions Scheme (VES) effective from Jan 1 next year is likely to see more cars slapped with tax surcharges and, quite possibly, the death of diesel models.

The new scheme, administered by the National Environment Agency and announced by Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli yesterday, will be far stricter on carbon dioxide emissions, and will include checks on four other pollutants - hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

Diesel models tend to produce a lot more of the last two pollutants, and the impact on their prices could squeeze them out of the market, experts said.

Stressing the importance of clean air, the minister said the World Health Organisation had reported that every year, air pollution killed more than half a million children. "Diesel vehicles are a major source of local air pollution, especially particulate matter and nitrogen oxides," he said.

Models will be banded according to their worst-performing pollutant. Diesel models, with their comparatively low carbon dioxide levels that would have qualified them for rebates, are likely to be slapped with hefty surcharges because of their relatively high nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions.

Many popular petrol cars that qualify for $5,000 or $10,000 tax breaks today will fall into the neutral band, where no rebate or surcharge is applied.

As of now, only electric models are likely to qualify for the top rebate of $20,000 and $30,000 for cars and taxis, respectively. There will, however, be a grid emission factor to take into account the carbon dioxide generated for electricity to charge these battery-powered vehicles.

Mr Masagos also announced that petrol vehicles in use today will have to pass stricter inspections from April 1 next year.

Most of these vehicles will have to emit less carbon monoxide than now, and will have to meet a new hydrocarbons cap. For instance, any car registered from April 1, 2014 should have a carbon monoxide composition of no more than 0.3 per cent in its emissions, and a hydrocarbon make-up of no more than 200 parts per million at an engine speed of 2,000rpm.

Less stringent standards apply to motorbikes and older cars. For diesel vehicles, the National Environment Agency said the current smoke opacity test will continue to apply.

Mr Masagos said: "These standards are designed to be easily met by properly maintained vehicles."

Meanwhile, the Early Turnover Scheme will offer bigger carrots to entice fleet owners to replace their older light diesel commercial vehicles with those that comply with the latest Euro 6 emission standard.

The enhanced scheme, which will run from Aug 1 this year to July 31, 2019, targets owners of Euro 2 and 3 light commercial vehicles of up to 3,500kg. Those qualifying will be granted a 35 per cent certificate of entitlement (COE) bonus of their vehicle's remaining 20-year lifespan, up from 13 per cent now.

This bonus will be applied as a discount to the COE prevailing quota premium, which the owner can use for his replacement vehicle instead of having to bid for a new certificate.

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources

Water-efficient toilet bowls, smart shower devices for homes
6,000 older flats may see reduced water bills after bowl change; 10,000 new homes to track usage with devices
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Old flats will get new toilet bowls as part of the national push to save water. In another move, intelligent devices will help people track how much water they use as they shower.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli, in announcing both initiatives yesterday, said Singapore could do more to reduce water usage.

"I have been inspired by the many stories of people who have gone the extra mile to conserve water... This is the right spirit. We should do more together," he said during the debate on his ministry's budget.

The first effort involves replacing non water-efficient toilet bowls in Housing Board flats built between 1986 and 1992, occupied by lower- income households.

PUB said details about both projects will be announced later this year.

The existing, single-flush 9-litre toilet bowls in these flats will be replaced with more efficient, dual- flush ones that have a capacity of 4 litres. This is expected to reduce monthly water bills by up to 10 per cent. Such a replacement is expected to save 5 litres for each full flush, and about 6,000 flats may benefit.

The other project involves installing smart shower devices in 10,000 new homes. These devices tell people how much water they are using as they shower. Both schemes come under national water agency PUB.

PUB also clarified changes to water usage calculations, after Mr Masagos revealed slightly lower per capita water usage.

Last year, PUB excluded water usage in dormitories and common areas when calculating per capita daily water usage, to better reflect water consumption within household residential premises.

Based on this new formula, each person in Singapore used about 149 litres of water a day in 2015, less than the initial reported figure of 151 litres. The figure declined to 148 litres last year. However, it remains some way off from the 2030 target of 140 litres a day, Mr Masagos said yesterday.

"My ministry and PUB have a suite of measures - in addition to right pricing - to promote greater water savings for households and businesses," he said. The Government had earlier announced that PUB will raise water prices by 30 per cent over the next two years.

Mr Masagos was responding to queries raised by six MPs, including Associate Professor Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC) and Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC), on how lower-income households can cope with increased water prices.

The installation of the smart shower devices follows an earlier study that PUB did with the National University of Singapore, which showed that a person could save up to 5 litres of water a day using such devices. To further help people save water at home, Mr Masagos said PUB will start to phase out less water-efficient products.

PUB will raise the minimum standards of water fittings to two-tick products, up from one-tick, from April 2019. The tick system awards more ticks to more water-efficient products. PUB will also extend such labelling requirements to dishwashers from October next year.

In response to questions from Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) on the Republic's plans to cope with unpredictable and intense rainfall, Mr Masagos said PUB will start drainage improvement works at another 27 locations. Such works have already been conducted at about 300 locations islandwide over the past four years.

The Stamford Detention Tank - an underground concrete tank that can hold up to 15 Olympic-size pools worth of rainwater - will also be ready this year. The Stamford Diversion Canal and Bukit Timah First Diversion Canal will be ready next year.

"These works, when ready, will enhance flood protection for their catchments," said Mr Masagos.

Masagos: Planning ahead crucial for reliable water supply
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

When a storm raged across the Netherlands in 1953, massive floods claimed 1,800 lives. The country was unprepared: sea water breached dykes, which had not been raised despite warnings of trouble.

"The fact was that nobody felt like spending a vast amount of money on raising the dykes. After all, there were no floods for years," Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said yesterday, during the debate on his ministry's budget.

That flood is etched in Dutch national memory, he noted, as he cited their experience with water to highlight the need for long-term planning.

The Dutch have built a system of dykes, pumps and water storage capabilities - with each household contributing water taxes, enabling the world's first and only Water Bank for large investments. Today, the Dutch pour over €400 million (S$598 million) into flood protection a year, have attracted water-intensive investments and exported their expertise.

While Singapore does not have enough water, it has taken the same determined approach to ensure a reliable supply, Mr Masagos said. Planning and investing in water resources ahead of time have become even more critical with climate change posing a challenge to water security globally, he added.

He cited how Johor's Linggiu Reservoir, which feeds into the Johor River from which Singapore draws its supply, is a third full "and can dry up if current abstractions continue and prolonged dry weather returns unpredicted". Fortunately, he said, Singapore was prepared during a dry spell in 2014.

"For PUB, it's always about ensuring resilience in our water supply so that disruptions do not occur to our industries and no Singaporean will die of thirst," he said. Last year, the national water agency completed its latest review of a plan to ensure Newater and desalination plants meet up to 85 per cent of the country's water demand by 2060, as well as new pipelines for drinking water and used water.

"We are making good progress," Mr Masagos said, citing the opening of a fifth Newater plant in January and the three new desalination plants being built. "All these have now become critical so that we have a resilient water supply when the weather does not favour us," he added.

"Our strategy involves not just long-term planning, but also right pricing and water conservation measures. All these levers work in tandem."

$90m fund lined up to boost hawker trade
Money to support suggestions by Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

A $90 million kitty will be set up to breathe new life into the hawker sector, which is dogged by an ageing workforce and a shortage of fresh blood.

The money will help pay for initiatives such as centralised dishwashing services and cashless payment systems, which will be rolled out at existing hawker centres.

A productivity grant will also be introduced in the third quarter of this year to spur hawkers to adopt kitchen automation equipment by co-funding such purchases.

These are some ways the $90 million fund will be used to support recommendations put forth by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee last month.

Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor yesterday said her ministry has accepted the suggestions of the committee, which she chaired.

For a start, the National Environment Agency (NEA) will alter the infrastructure of 25 existing hawker centres it manages over the next few years, to facilitate the adoption of initiatives like cashless payment systems that benefit all stall-owners.

It will co-fund up to 70 per cent of the operating costs of such productivity measures for a period of time to encourage hawkers to take them up, Dr Khor told the House.

A Hawkers' Productivity Grant will allow each stall-owner to claim 80 per cent of the cost of kitchen automation equipment on a reimbursement basis, capped at $5,000 within three years.

"This will help lower the initial costs of adoption of productivity measures that will help realise manpower and cost savings in the longer term," said Dr Khor.

Separately, the Government will launch a three-year hawker centre adoption programme later this year. It will allow organisations to apply for a grant of up to $2,000 to organise an event or activity at a hawker centre, capped at $10,000 a year.

The NEA will also work with cleaning contractors to promote tray returns and dispel the misconception that it will make cleaners jobless. It will also enhance tray-return facilities to make them more prominent and accessible.

She told the House that the initiatives are aimed at ensuring that the hawker trade remains sustainable and viable.

In line with that goal, "incubation" stalls will be made available in the second half of this year to aspiring hawkers, who will get to try their hand at the trade for six months and decide if they are cut out for the trade without heavy investments, she said.

Other initiatives to be rolled out include a one-stop information and service centre that will provide information essential for hawkers, such as on training courses and funding, as well as a new training course on hawker business management. A series of classes starting in May will allow members of the public to learn how to cook from veteran hawkers.

"(The initiatives) should help to support both existing and aspiring hawkers. This, in turn, will allow Singaporeans to continue enjoying affordable food in a clean and hygienic environment," she said.

Upgraded waste system for new private apartments
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Plans are under way to encourage private apartment dwellers to recycle more and make it easier for cleaners to collect their trash.

All new private apartment blocks with more than four storeys must soon have two waste chutes - one for recyclables and the other for trash that will be incinerated.

Developments with at least 500 housing units must also have a pneumatic waste conveyance system (PWCS), which will transport waste from rubbish chutes to a central collection area via an underground network of vacuum-type pipes.

These measures, which will kick in for developers that apply to build new apartments from April next year, were announced by Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor.

MPs Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC) and Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) spoke about Singapore's poor domestic recycling rate, and Dr Khor said yesterday the dual chutes will encourage recycling by making it more convenient.

Studies have found that households in apartments with such chutes recycle up to three times more than those in apartments which do not have such facilities.

Such systems have already sprung up in public housing. As of April last year, they were in 72 new Build-To-Order projects comprising close to 426 blocks, and will hopefully take Singapore closer to its goal of recycling 70 per cent of the waste it generates by 2030.

At present, only about 61 per cent is recycled, a figure boosted by the non-domestic sector which recycled 76 per cent of waste last year.

The domestic recycling rate stands at a mere 21 per cent. Dr Khor said such initiatives will have to go hand in hand with education.

On waste collection, Dr Khor agreed with Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC) and Ms Cheng that current methods are "manpower intensive and unsustainable".

She said the PWCS is a more efficient, manpower-light method that will reduce pest nuisance, odours and exposed waste. It has been installed in more than 100 condominiums and the Yuhua estate, and will be in place in new Housing Board estates Tampines North and Bidadari.

The authorities will also study the feasibility of implementing it at a district level, to reap greater economies of scale.

Industrial sector to face stricter energy laws
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Singapore will tackle climate change by targeting the biggest culprits - the industrial sector, responsible for 60 per cent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

From next year, the Energy Conservation Act will be enhanced and made more stringent, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli yesterday.

The Act now requires large energy users to appoint an energy manager, routinely monitor and report energy use and annual emissions, as well as submit annual energy efficiency improvement plans to the National Environment Agency.

After the laws are tightened, companies will have to ensure common industrial equipment and systems meet minimum energy performance standards, among others.

During the debate on his ministry's budget, Mr Masagos said: "These practices are in line with that of leading jurisdictions and will help companies to adopt more efficient equipment, conserve energy and enjoy life cycle cost savings."

He cited electronic component manufacturer Murata Electronics Singapore as a good example. The firm is replacing 50 motors with higher-efficiency ones, helping it save $21,000 on electricity a year.

Having a structured measurement, reporting and verification system will help pave the way for the carbon tax scheme the Government plans to impose from 2019.

The scheme will tax power stations and other large emitters based on the amount of greenhouse gases they produce, likely in the range of $10 to $20 per tonne.

Other changes to the Act require companies expanding their facilities to factor energy efficiency into their designs, as well as measure and report energy usage for key energy-consuming systems.

Under the Paris climate pact inked in December 2015, Singapore pledged to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to achieve each dollar of gross domestic product by 36 per cent from 2005 levels, come 2030. It has also pledged to stop any increase to its greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030.

Said Mr Masagos: "As a responsible member of the international community, Singapore is committed to fulfilling our pledge under the Paris Agreement to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions."

But he added the perennial haze - caused by forest fires in countries such as Indonesia due to illegal land clearing methods by palm oil and pulp and paper companies - represents a major setback to global efforts to fight climate change.

Said Mr Masagos: "It is important that we continue to send a strong deterrent signal to errant companies responsible for the fires, that they must change their ways."

Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Social and Family Development

Scheme to draw housewives, grandmas to infant care sector
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Housewives and grandmothers are being wooed to enter the infant care sector, with a new training scheme that focuses more on hands-on practice.

Similar to an apprenticeship, it caters to people "including more mature women, who are not inclined towards long classroom-based training", said the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA).

The Government hopes to train about 200 allied infant educarers (AIEs) in the next two to three years under this scheme, to be piloted at the end of this month.

It is part of ECDA's plans to attract 1,000 more infant educarers - who work with children aged two months to 18 months - by 2020.

There are about 1,400 infant educarers now.

It is one of three initiatives announced in Parliament yesterday to attract and develop manpower in the early childhood sector, which is facing a chronic labour shortage. They support plans announced in the Budget speech last month to have 1,000 more infant care places by 2020 to meet demand.

Said Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Faishal Ibrahim during the debate on his ministry's budget: "We understand that some people with interest, aptitude and competence to care for infants may be unable to join the sector, either because they do not want to attend classroom-based training, or they lack the appropriate academic records."

He said the AIE scheme will focus on "aptitude and competency, rather than academic qualifications".

On-the-job training will take up 45 per cent of the course's 110 training hours. By contrast, an existing course for infant educarers runs for 300 hours, of which 40 per cent is spent on on-the-job training. This gives them more guidance on planning activities for children.

The new scheme aims to give trainees "fundamental skills for quality infant care", for instance in feeding.

An ECDA spokesman said the AIEs can be counted as programme staff, who are factored in pre-schools' staff-child ratio requirements. "They will support the certified infant educarers and work under the close supervision of a senior infant educarer," he said.

The scheme will start with about 30 childcare centres run by anchor operators, which get government grants and priority in securing sites to set up centres but have to meet fee caps and quality criteria.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) asked if the AIE scheme will compromise the quality of infant care.

In response, Dr Faishal said safeguards are in place: Operators will nominate "only experienced senior infant educarers" to mentor the AIEs, and regulations will ensure standards are upheld. The hands-on training will also be based on real-life scenarios.

"I think this will translate into better quality services for our infants and our parents," he said.

Ms Nyaneswari Paramasivam, 35, of My First Skool will be among the first batch of AIEs trained. She used to work in another centre as an untrained employee for two years, then took on jobs in other industries. The classroom training in courses made her reluctant to return to the sector. The mother of two said: "It's good to focus on hands-on practice, because you need that to know how to manage kids."

Ms Loy Wee Mee, director of Pre-School By-The-Park, welcomed the scheme but hoped it would be rolled out to other operators later.

She said it is harder to attract infant educarers as their jobs are perceived to "involve a lot of nannying" but they support children in reaching developmental milestones too.

"Any increase in supply of infant educarers is welcome, but the importance of classroom training should not be underestimated."

Other initiatives announced yesterday include a new professional development programme for those who work with children aged two months to four years. There will also be an advanced diploma course for experienced teachers to prepare them for leadership roles.

Stepped-up bid to spot developmental delays
Pre-school teachers, polyclinic docs to be trained to screen kids
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Doctors in neighbourhood polyclinics and pre-school teachers will be trained to spot and screen children who are not reaching their developmental milestones, so the children can get help earlier.

In the next few years, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) will work with the Ministry of Health (MOH) to form a network of touchpoints that can identify children with developmental conditions, such as speech and language delays and autism.

This way, the children can be referred more quickly for appropriate support, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin in Parliament yesterday. "Timely and appropriate support in the early years of the children's lives can maximise their potential."

Mr Tan announced the scheme in a speech that focused on how the Government is seeking to build an inclusive society for the disadvantaged.

He stressed, for instance, that there is leeway for front-line officers to calibrate the amount and duration of ComCare assistance given to families with differing needs.

The move to equip doctors and pre-school teachers at the front line with skills to detect children with developmental problems comes amid a rise in the number of children with such issues.

The Straits Times understands that currently, the bulk of them are diagnosed by the Child Development Programme at the KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

Together with the National University Hospital, 4,000 new patients were identified in 2015.

This was a 60 per cent increase from around 2,500 new cases diagnosed in 2010, according to MOH.

The top four most common conditions are speech and language delays, autism spectrum disorders, behavioural problems and global developmental delay.

Now, polyclinics and family medicine practitioners will be trained in developmental screening. Pre- school teachers will learn the skills to detect children with such needs early. MSF did not disclose the number to be trained.

Children assessed and given early intervention therapy range from babies to those under seven years of age.

MOH attributed the rise in diagnosis to a greater awareness of developmental problems and an improved system of screening in pre-schools and in the community.

With more eyes on the ground, the hope is that even more children with needs can be detected early.

Ms Paula Teo, senior manager at Autism Association, said 90 per cent of children served by the association were diagnosed with autism when they were about two or three years old. The rest came to learn about their condition at age four or five.

Said Ms Teo: "Research (says) that earlier detection and intervention does improve outcomes. Neural circuits, which create the foundation for learning, behaviour and health, are most flexible... during the first three years of life.

"Over time, they become increasingly difficult to change."

The Autism Resource Centre said more than 90 per cent of children in its early intervention programme make progress in aspects such as communication.

Ms Iris Lin, assistant director at Fei Yue Community Services, said many parents of special needs children go straight to a hospital to get a diagnosis once they sense something is amiss.

"Parents are more sensitive and educated now, and if the child is not doing certain things he is supposed to do at a certain age, they have the child assessed," said Ms Lin. "With more community touchpoints, they can get a second opinion or get screened more conveniently."

Ms Sun Meilan's son was diagnosed with autism at age two after her friend noticed he was behaving differently and urged her to see a specialist.

Said Ms Sun, 44: "Even as a 'seasoned' mother of three children, I missed all the signs for my boy. The onus lies more on the parents but it will be good if doctors are more vigilant too."

More children get to live with foster families
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Four out of every 10 children who were unable to live with their own families last year were cared for by foster families.

In 2013, only three out of 10 were under foster care. The rest were placed in children's homes.

Over the past three years, the Ministry of Social and Family Development has been trying to recruit and better support foster parents so that fewer children end up in institutions.

The thinking behind it is that children grow up best in a familial environment.

"Family-based care is important as children are better able to create bonds with a consistent caregiver in families.

"Such bonds are crucial for the development of the child's social, emotional and mental well-being," said a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) spokesman.

Yesterday, MSF Parliamentary Secretary Faishal Ibrahim gave updated numbers on children under foster care.

Last year, 430 were under foster care, compared with 309 in 2013. Another 643 children lived in children's homes last year, a drop from 749 in 2013.

These children cannot live with their own families as they have been abandoned, neglected or abused by their parents, or because their parents cannot care for them due to imprisonment or illness.

In 2014, MSF announced an $8 million, three-year pilot scheme to boost the foster-care system by having dedicated fostering agencies to support parents in better caring for foster children.

Two agencies have since been set up and a third will be ready later this year.

MSF hopes more parents will come forward to provide care for infants who are aged below two, children who are seven and above, and those with special educational, physical or medical needs. These are the ones who may have a harder time securing foster families.

To find out more about fostering, call 6354-8799 or visit

Definition of 'family' in spotlight
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

What makes a family?

That was a question that was raised in Parliament yesterday, with Nominated MPs Kok Heng Leun and Kuik Shiao-Yin asking the Ministry of Social and Family Development to be more "inclusive" in its definition.

Mr Kok asked if it could do away with the use of "illegitimacy" in policies on inheritance and tax reliefs, noting that some policies "disadvantage" unwed mothers and their children. Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Faishal Ibrahim said Mr Kok's suggestion has "far-reaching implications".

Mr Kok clarified later: "I would like to know what far-reaching impact (there is)... We must be able to justify this impact or else these kids are going to bear this stigma for the rest of their lives."

Dr Faishal responded that such policies depend on how society has evolved, and that Mr Kok's suggestion is one that must be considered "carefully".

Ms Kuik called for more support for unwed mothers. She asked Dr Faishal: "(You) mentioned that responsibility to family is a critical guiding principle to protect.

"In the case of unwed mums, are they are not demonstrating responsibility to family in their choice to keep and raise their child?"

Dr Faishal replied that some benefits for married mothers have been extended to unwed mothers.

"We will help wherever possible, whoever we can... There are policies that cannot cover everything, but we will look at issues on a case-by-case basis," he said.

Mr Kok also asked if foreign spouses can be considered part of the family nucleus when applying to buy a Housing Board flat.

Dr Faishal suggested that people facing such problems see their MPs "and (we'll) see how we can facilitate it".

More help for caregivers of those with disabilities
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2017

Fifteen-year-old Yip Boon Hong has epilepsy, and waves of seizures can strike up to 10 times a day.

His mother, Madam Lim Bee Lay, 45, keeps a close watch as he may hurt himself during those attacks when he loses control and falls.

Her years of caring for him makes for exhausting work, yet she finds herself unable to fall asleep on some nights, worrying about his future.

Since last year, however, she has been getting some respite every Saturday. She drops her son off at the headquarters of voluntary welfare organisation AWWA, where he finger-paints or plays with hula hoops. Meanwhile, his mother gets a much-needed rest or spends time with her nine-year-old daughter.

More caregivers such as Madam Lim will soon be able to have their needs better met with the setting up of a disability caregiver support centre, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin in Parliament yesterday.

It will provide information, planned respite and training, as well as links to peer support groups and other agencies for further help.

Currently, some charities have support services for caregivers but these are usually for their own clients with a specific disability or condition - for instance, mental illness or intellectual disability. AWWA's pilot programme for caregivers started in April last year.

The new caregiver support centre, slated to be ready next year, will be a key node in a network of support being established by the National Council of Social Service and voluntary welfare organisations.

The network intends to reach out to about 2,000 caregivers over the next five years, said the ministry.

Mr Tan noted that the move to support caregivers better comes as families get smaller and a gap in caregiving may be more keenly felt. He said: "The role of a caregiver is physically and emotionally demanding and a burn-out is likely to happen."

The 2010 National Health Survey, which captured caregiver data for the first time, showed that about 210,000 people aged 18 to 69 provided regular care to family and friends. This number is expected to rise with the ageing population.

Caregivers could do with more support because many of them struggle with burn-out. A 2013 study by Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School revealed that nearly half of 1,190 caregivers surveyed here have jobs. Yet they spend 38 hours every week on caregiving, and are more likely to experience higher caregiver stress and depression.

Said Madam Lim: "Caregiving work is never-ending. With more support services coming up, I look forward to meeting other parents who face similar experiences to share tips, so that it feels less lonely a journey."

The ministry also announced that it will study the feasibility of an "Inclusive Pre-school" model that allows children with special needs to attend pre-school with other pupils.

"Children with special needs growing up in such an inclusive setting will develop age-appropriate social and communication skills, and motor and cognitive skills," it said.

"On the other hand, children who grow up alongside their peers with special needs will learn to understand and accept differences (from a young age)."

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