Sunday 30 April 2017

Anti-Vaccination: Herd immunity and how health choices affect those around you

Those who refuse to have their children vaccinated bring harm to their community
By Chong Siow Ann, Published The Straits Times, 29 Apr 2017

In the midst of World War II, the film industry in Hollywood started a nightclub called the Hollywood Canteen, which offered free food and entertainment to American servicemen and women. It was staffed entirely by volunteers from the entertainment industry, including the big stars of that time - one of whom was film and stage actress Gene Tierney.

Tierney, who was then pregnant, came down with rubella following her only appearance at the Hollywood Canteen and she subsequently gave birth to a baby girl who was brain damaged, severely underweight, and both deaf and blind. Years later, Tierney met a woman who was a big fan of hers, who professed that she had gone to the club that night to meet her despite being in quarantine with rubella. "Everyone told me I shouldn't go," she said, "but I just had to go. You were my favourite."

In children and adults, rubella (or German measles) is usually a relatively mild and self-limited infection - but its effects on a foetus are devastating, especially if the infection occurs early in pregnancy. If it does not result in miscarriage, it can result - as in Tierney's daughter - in congenital rubella syndrome where the baby is born with a slew of problems, including eye defects, deafness, heart deformities, microcephaly and intellectual disability.

Congenital rubella syndrome is now rare owing to the perinatal screening of women for their immunity against rubella and the successful immunisation programme in Singapore.

The rubella inoculation is given together with those for measles and mumps in the form of the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine, and because measles vaccination is mandated under the Infectious Diseases Act, the vaccination rate for these three diseases has been kept high.

The widespread adoption of vaccinations has been one of the greatest public health measures and has saved countless millions of lives round the world. Its success - which has both protected most people in developed countries from these terrible infectious diseases and made them innocent of their ravages - has shifted the fears instead to the risks of the vaccinations. While there are risks and side effects to these vaccinations, these are minimal and minor; the vaccinations today are never as dangerous or as risky as contracting the infections that these vaccinations seek to prevent.

Saturday 29 April 2017

K. Shanmugam rebukes academic Donald Low over remarks misrepresenting his comments on criminal sentencing

The Straits Times, 28 Apr 2017

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday rebuked academic Donald Low for misrepresenting his comments about considering public opinion when deciding on criminal sentences.

Mr Low, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, had written a Facebook post on Monday in response to an interview Mr Shanmugam gave to Mediacorp freesheet TODAY.

In the TODAY article, Mr Shanmugam had said criminal penalties should reflect public opinion, but that this does not equate to bowing to public pressure.

Mr Low then wrote: "No la, how can this be right?... We want our elected representatives to make laws impersonally and dispassionately, after proper deliberation and debate... Making laws on the basis of public opinion is populism by another name.

"If criminal punishments are to reflect only public opinion, why bother having judges do sentencing? Just run an opinion poll each time someone has been convicted."

In a Facebook post yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said some have assumed that he was suggesting sentences in individual cases should be dictated by public opinion.

He then took aim at Mr Low's comments, which "have seriously misconstrued what I actually said".

First, the minister said his remarks "had nothing to do with how individual cases should be decided and what sentences should be meted out by judges".

Sentencing has always been the exclusive province of the courts and judges - who decide based on the prescribed laws, the facts and precedents, he said.

Rather, Mr Shanmugam said his remarks covered factors that the Government should take into account when deciding what conduct should be criminalised, and the appropriate range of penalties that should be meted out for different categories of offences.

Second, the minister said he had earlier made clear that public opinion, while relevant, cannot be the sole or decisive factor in proposing legislation.

Mr Shanmugam added that "it is surprising that some like Donald misunderstood what I meant", as the TODAY article had clearly set out the considerations that he said the Government should consider in deciding on legislation.

"Government should consider what is right, what is fair, and it should also take into account the weight of public opinion," he said.

For instance, if an overwhelming majority of the public does not consider some conduct to be criminal, that sentiment is relevant when deciding whether to criminalise such actions, Mr Shanmugam added.

It would be wrong for the Government to simply follow public opinion in all situations, as it can sometimes be inaccurate due to a lack of understanding of the facts, he said.

However, public opinion is still relevant, the minister added.

"If some law completely lacks public support, and the Government is not able to persuade the public on that law, then that particular law, over time, could become difficult to enforce," he noted.

Mr Shanmugam said such considerations have long been the basis on which laws are passed in many countries, including Singapore, and "are not some new-fangled theory".

He added that academics such as Mr Low have every right to make criticisms, especially on issues of public importance.

"But to be meaningful, and sensible, it will be first useful to read and understand what has been said, before jumping in to criticise," Mr Shanmugam said.

"Otherwise the commentator does no credit to himself or his institution. Particularly an institution which carries Mr Lee Kuan Yew's name," the minister added.

Cabinet changes: Josephine Teo, Desmond Lee promoted to full ministers from 1 May 2017

Cabinet changes will 'consolidate front bench of tomorrow'
Four ministers of state also moving up to strengthen core team of tomorrow's leaders
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 28 Apr 2017

Mrs Josephine Teo and Mr Desmond Lee will be promoted to full ministers in the latest round of Cabinet changes, which observers say will consolidate the front bench of tomorrow.

Four ministers of state will also be promoted to senior ministers of state: Dr Lam Pin Min, Dr Janil Puthucheary, Dr Koh Poh Koon and Mr Chee Hong Tat. They will continue in their current ministries.

Dr Lam will also be appointed Senior Minister of State for Transport.

The changes are part of leadership renewal, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said yesterday.

They take effect on May 1.

Political watchers said the newly promoted ministers will add to and strengthen the core team of fourth- generation leaders. Said ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute research fellow Mustafa Izzuddin: "The Prime Minister and his generation of ministers are building a team that can provide the necessary support to the next PM so the next lap of Singapore's political leadership will continue to be a team effort."

Both Mrs Teo, 48, and Mr Lee, 40, will be ministers in the PMO.

Mrs Teo will also be Second Minister in the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and will give up her appointment in the Ministry of Transport.

She will continue to oversee population matters, assisting Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

Mrs Teo's promotion means that for the first time, Singapore will have two women as full ministers in the Cabinet. The milestone was not lost on Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, currently the only woman Cabinet minister, who hailed it as "yet another step forward for women in Singapore".

Mr Lee will be Second Minister in his present ministries: the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of National Development. He will be one of the youngest full ministers in recent years.

Experts called this Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's way of enlarging and strengthening the pool of leadership, without throwing in the rookie ministers at the deep end.

"This is a cautious pace of leadership succession," said Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh. "You don't see the standing down of senior members of the Cabinet, and you have the youngest set double-hatting a lot."

Observers saw Mrs Teo's move as a sign that she may be groomed to be the next manpower minister, especially given her past experience working in the labour movement.

Mrs Teo herself said of her MOM appointment: "It feels like I'm coming home to Singapore's unique brand of tripartism at this critical juncture for our workers."

As for the new senior ministers of state, all have been in office for under three years: Dr Lam since August 2014, Mr Chee since October 2015, and Dr Janil and Dr Koh since January last year.

Observers say this steep trajectory signals that they could become ministers if they prove themselves.

Additionally, parliamentary secretaries Low Yen Ling and Faishal Ibrahim will be promoted to senior parliamentary secretaries in their current ministries: Trade and Industry, and Education for Ms Low, and Education and Social and Family Development for Dr Faishal.

Minister of State Sam Tan will take on the foreign affairs portfolio, in addition to his current ones in MOM and the PMO, while Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin will take on an additional post in the Health Ministry.

Minister of State for Manpower Teo Ser Luck will step down from office on June 30 and return to the private sector, at his request. His term as mayor of North East District ends on May 26, but he will still be an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. Tampines GRC MP Desmond Choo will replace him as mayor.

The four other mayors - Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, Dr Teo Ho Pin, Ms Denise Phua and Ms Low - will be reappointed on May 27.

Friday 28 April 2017

Social divide in schools: Are lavish birthday parties in the classroom OK?

Children are vulnerable to comparisons but barring displays of wealth in school may not work in this age of social media.
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 27 Apr 2017

In The Necessary Stage's classic play Those Who Can't, Teach, which casts the spotlight on life in a typical secondary school in Singapore, there is a scene in which a student, Teck Liang, contemptuously lashes out against his working-class father, a fishmonger.

He scornfully questions why his father must work in a market, and does not wear a tie and jacket to work in an office. Unlike a wealthier classmate, Raymond, Teck Liang's father cannot afford to buy him Nike shoes, nor does he own a car or condominium unit. These differences fuel Teck Liang's sense of shame and self-hatred.

It has been more than 20 years since the play was first staged, but its stark illustration of how the classroom often serves as the setting in which children's eyes are opened to the realities of socio-economic difference remains relevant.

A recent move by at least six primary schools here to shield students from the effects of inequality by issuing guidelines against extravagant birthday celebrations - involving sweet treats and goodie bags - has sparked debate.

While schools explained that this would deter comparisons between the haves and have-nots and avoid situations where parents feel pressured to spend on their children whether or not they could afford it, some have dismissed the move as excessive mollycoddling.

After all, why deprive children of a chance to commemorate an event that only rolls around once a year? Others argue that since the practice of birthday celebrations has become common at the pre-school level, there is no reason to discourage them in primary schools.

Singapore is world's top maritime capital for 3rd consecutive time: Menon Report 2017

It is first for shipping; ports and logistics; and attractiveness and competitiveness, says report
By Ann Williams, The Straits Times, 27 Apr 2017

Singapore has once again clinched overall top place in a ranking of the world's maritime capitals.

It placed Singapore No. 1 in three categories: shipping; ports and logistics; and attractiveness and competitiveness.

Norwegian consultancy Menon Economics, which compiles the annual report, said the country was placed second in maritime technology and fourth in the final category, finance and law.

Significantly, Singapore jumped three places from fifth last year to second position in maritime technology, underlining its efforts in technology and research.

The consultancy looked at 24 objective indicators and garnered survey responses from more than 250 industry experts. Singapore was also ranked first overall in the report's 2015 and 2012 surveys.

The report also made predictions about the world's leading maritime capitals five years ahead, with most experts believing that Singapore will remain the most important city, with many noting its strong capabilities to handle digital transformation in the industry.

It noted that Singapore topped the shipping, and ports and logistics categories due to its strategic location, its position as an important centre for commercial management, and for having the world's second largest port.

The country ranked first in overall attractiveness and competitiveness, thanks to the ease of doing business here and the Customs procedures.

Thursday 27 April 2017

MINDEF on NS defaulters: National service has to be universal and fair to ensure Singaporeans' support; High Court sets out punishment guidelines for NS dodgers

Letting those abroad avoid it or choose when to serve would undermine institution, it says
By Selina Lum and Aaron Chan, The Straits Times, 27 Apr 2017

National service duties must be applied to all Singapore men fairly and equitably, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) made clear in a statement yesterday after a court ruling to enhance the punishment of three men who had defaulted on their NS obligations.

"If we allow Singapore citizens who are overseas to avoid NS or to choose when they want to serve NS, we are not being fair to the vast majority of our national servicemen who serve their country dutifully, and the institution of NS will be undermined," said a MINDEF spokesman.

The principles were spelt out by then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean in 2006 following public debate over the punishment meted out to defaulters who evade their NS obligations. Mr Teo had noted that only about 0.5 per cent of those liable for NS each year fail to register for NS. An average of 12 NS defaulters a year are charged in court.

On Tuesday, the High Court panel referred to the principles when it allowed the prosecution's appeal for harsher sentences for the three men, one of whom got close to the maximum of three years' jail for completely evading his obligations.

The court decision was met with approval by parents whose sons are due to enlist.

Mrs Tricia Koh , 46, who has two teenage sons, said: "I feel it's harsh, but it does send a strong message, especially to the parents... Parents have to take responsibility in ensuring that their children know the severity of the situation if they default."

Ms Stephanie Lim, 52, said her 18-year-old son, now in a boarding school in Britain, will return to enlist next year.

"We have not considered any option other than for him to come back," said the homemaker, whose older son had returned to serve NS while the family was in Hong Kong.

Parents of boys who are studying overseas for two years or more have to provide a bond for $75,000 or an amount equivalent to half the combined annual gross income of both parents, whichever is higher.

However, others say harsher penalties will likely deter defaulters who are overseas from returning to Singapore to face the music.

Couple who bullied old man at Toa Payoh hawker centre arrested, charged in court and fined S$2,700

Hawker centre quarrel: Couple arrested for causing public nuisance
Arrest of couple in Toa Payoh hawker centre dispute reflects intense public interest in case: Lawyers
By Shaffiq Idris Alkhatib, The Straits Times, 27 Apr 2017

In a move that lawyers said reflected the intense public interest in the case, police have arrested a couple, believed to be the ones seen quarrelling with an older man in a hawker centre, for causing public nuisance.

A video clip of the incident had been posted online, sparking negative reactions.

In a statement, police said officers arrested a 46-year-old man and a 39-year-old woman on Tuesday. They had allegedly used offensive language and force against a 76-year-old man at a hawker centre in Toa Payoh Lorong 8.

Police received reports about the case on Sunday and the couple's identities were established through follow-up investigations.

Investigations are still ongoing.

Lawyers told The Straits Times yesterday that arrests for causing public nuisance are not common.

Mr Raphael Louis from Ray Louis Law said officers could have arrested the couple because the case had attracted a lot of public attention - most of it negative.

"Moreover, the case was between a relatively young couple and an elderly man, who is a vulnerable victim," he added.

Another lawyer, Mr Rajan Supramaniam from Hilborne Law, shared his view. He said: "Causing public nuisance is not a serious offence. However, there has been a lot of public interest in this case and so a warrant was issued for the couple to be arrested after the police conducted their investigation."

Mr Supramaniam said a person convicted of causing public nuisance has performed an act that has annoyed the public or disrupted the public peace. This includes using vulgar language and shouting in public.

Mr Louis said the police will likely consult the Attorney-General's Chambers, which will then decide if the couple should be charged in court.

The online video, lasting a minute or so, showed a woman and an elderly man exchanging words over a table at the hawker centre.

Her companion is later seen walking into the scene and, as he does so, knocking into the older man, who falls against the tabletop.

A woman claiming to be the old man's daughter has hit out at the couple's treatment of her father.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday morning, Ms Caroline Ng said she learnt about the April 21 incident after reading several online posts and watching a video of it.

She wrote: "No words can express my outrage and disgust... What I find unbelievable is for the entire two days, my dad never for once mentioned a word of it."

Those convicted of being a public nuisance can be fined up to $1,000.

Wednesday 26 April 2017

NTU's new sports hall The Wave built using mass engineered timber

Push for more efficient building techniques
By 2020, four in 10 projects will benefit from new methods that require fewer workers
By Charmaine Ng, The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2017

Singapore hopes to multiply the number of buildings it will churn out using more efficient techniques that require fewer workers.

By 2020, four in 10 construction projects, including Housing Board flats, will use these newer technologies - up from the current one in 10.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong announced the target yesterday, saying existing methods are not sustainable in the long term. They are labour intensive and would lead to a "far larger pool of foreign workers than we can possibly accommodate in Singapore".

"The shortage of workers ends up becoming a bottleneck and a constraint in our development - we end up having to defer projects," he said at the launch of a new sports hall at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

The sports hall, called The Wave, is made mostly of mass engineered timber. Parts are prefabricated, speeding up construction, while yielding a 25 per cent savings in labour.

In particular, the 72m-long, wave-like roof was put together by only 14 workers in about three weeks. Conventional methods would have taken 30 workers and up to three months to complete, said Mr Kang Choon Boon, managing director of B19 Technologies, the contractor for The Wave.

Mr Wong said if Singapore adopts similar technologies, many more projects can be carried out with the same number of workers. Public agencies will take the lead in adopting these technologies.

Many public agencies are already doing so for their projects, said Building and Construction Authority (BCA) chief executive officer John Keung.

But industry insiders say achieving the Government's goal would be an uphill task.

For one thing, the new technologies are more expensive. For instance, The Wave cost $35 million to construct. Traditional methods may require more workers, but are cheaper.

Tuesday 25 April 2017

What does the terror threat mean for Singapore?

By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 24 Apr 2017

There has been a shake-up in the world of terror.

In the past four years, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has surpassed Al-Qaeda as the prime terror threat. Lone wolf attacks are on the rise, and soft targets - from Christmas markets to concert halls - have become fresh grounds for bloodshed.

What does the evolution of the terror threat mean for Singapore, and why should it matter to Singaporeans, oceans away from the epicentre of conflict in the Middle East?


Broadly speaking, terrorism is the use of violence to intimidate people and governments, often to push a political agenda.

Acts of terror have ranged from the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914 by a member of a Serbian nationalist movement, which set off a series of events that erupted into World War I, to the serial mail bombings of "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski in the 1970s, in a manic bid to further his anti-technology ideology.

But these days, terrorism carried out under the guise of religion has borne the brunt of the spotlight.

Extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have seized on religion as a tool to divide people and incite hatred.

They dispense distorted interpretations of Islam, preaching violence and exclusivism.

The spread of this radical ideology, therefore, has become a key threat which many parties - from religious leaders to governments - are working to counter.


The face of terror has changed, for one. More than 10 years ago, Al-Qaeda - which on Sept 11, 2001 sent two planes crashing into the World Trade Centre in New York City - was the militant group that dominated headlines.

Now, ISIS has claimed that spot.

Singapore's Minister for Home Affairs and Law, Mr K. Shanmugam, declared last year that the group poses a far graver threat than Al-Qaeda ever did.

ISIS, which caught international attention in 2013, has been waging a bloody war in the Middle East to carve out territories in Iraq and Syria for its self-declared caliphate.

Monday 24 April 2017

Growing number of young Singaporeans in need, relying on Government handouts

Growing number of them relying on handouts - accounting for one in five recipients of ComCare; rise of gig economy may worsen situation
By Janice Tai and Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 23 Apr 2017

Three months ago, Ms Chloe Lin (not her real name) splurged on a big-ticket item. It was her daughter's 11th birthday.

Ms Lin, 33, bought a mango vanilla cake decorated with characters from the movie Frozen. It cost her $50 - one-seventh of the $360 she got a month from ComCare, Singapore's social aid scheme for the poor and needy.

But for Ms Lin, it was worth it. "It's her favourite cartoon and flavour," she said simply.

Having dropped out of school in Secondary 2, Ms Lin struggles to hold on to a job. Her longest stint was as a property telemarketer from 2010 to 2013, earning $7 an hour. But when the sector slowed, she was let go. Twice divorced, she now lives in a one-room rental flat in Ang Mo Kio with her daughter.

Last year, Ms Lin applied for and received ComCare help. For nine months, the monthly stipend was all the pair had to live on.

Ms Lin is among a growing number of young Singaporeans who are in need and having to rely on the Government for handouts.

Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) data shows that 5,644 young households - with applicants aged below 35, the official definition of youth - received ComCare's short- to medium-term financial aid in the financial year of 2015.

This is a 40 per cent jump from the 4,016 young households who got such ComCare aid in 2012 - the earliest year that age-segregated data was made public. By contrast, the number of older households whose applicants are aged 35 to 59 went up less - by 34.9 per cent.

Over the years, the Government has become more generous in administering ComCare, bumping up cases. Families now get help when they have a monthly household income of $1,900 or less, or a per capita income of under $650, among other criteria.

But what experts say is troubling is that young Singaporeans account for one in five recipients - a proportion that has not budged despite government efforts such as student care and skills-upgrading subsidies.

It is also just a shade under the share that older Singaporeans aged 60 and above form (these do not include those who get long-term help due to illnesses or disabilities).

Wanted: 10,000 volunteers to help the elderly in Central Singapore

Silver Alliance to woo more volunteers to help seniors
By Joanna Seow, The Sunday Times, 23 Apr 2017

Madam Chen Yueh Lun, 81, has been helping her neighbours in the 24 years she has lived in Teck Ghee, collecting and distributing food items for those with mobility issues. She also helps the residents' committee check on neighbours if they pull the distress cord in their flats.

But the widow, who lives alone in a one-room rental flat, is glad to get help cleaning her home from student volunteers who visit about twice a month. "I'm afraid if I climb up to clean the fan, I'll fall down," she said. "I'm happy when the students come - we chat and I tell them stories."

She is one of over 10,000 seniors helped by Silver programmes run by the Central Singapore Community Development Council (CDC). Over the past four years, these include home cleaning, befriending and social outings.

The CDC aims to raise its pool of volunteers to 10,000, and launched a recruitment drive called The Silver Alliance yesterday.

Volunteers from companies and schools are matched with seniors, who are identified by grassroots groups and senior activity centres. Last year, about 9,000 people volunteered for the Silver programmes.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was at the launch, said such programmes are important as one in seven Singaporeans is aged 65 and above, and it is important for seniors to stay in the community and remain connected to others. "We can take care of our old people and connect with them, and make them feel they are valued citizens and have something to contribute."

Mr Lee, who helms Ang Mo Kio GRC, visited two residents' rental flats and helped volunteers paint a wall and lay sheets to prevent spills.

Central Singapore District Mayor Denise Phua said more than half of Singapore's rental units are in her district, with a large number of seniors living in them. The Silver Alliance is a call to action and aims to nurture a culture of care in the community "where we don't just perform a one-time act... but have a passion for and a culture of serving".

Yesterday, seniors in 32 flats in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 had their homes spruced up by 120 students from Raffles Institution, Teck Ghee Primary School and Pathlight School.

Teck Ghee Primary 6 pupil Seah Wei Xiong helped paint Madam Chen's flat and taught her how to take photos with her smartphone. "I think it's a very meaningful programme," he said. "I want to help the elderly have a better environment."

Remaking Our Heartland: Toa Payoh and Pasir Ris to get makeovers

Toa Payoh to get new flats, new parks in makeover
A few thousand flats will be built on two sites, including one next to Caldecott MRT station
By Melissa Lin, The Sunday Times, 23 Apr 2017

Singapore's oldest HDB town, Toa Payoh, will undergo a facelift which will see the building of a few thousand new flats.

There will be two new public housing areas: a 10ha site next to the Caldecott MRT station on the Circle Line and the upcoming Thomson-East Coast Line in Toa Payoh Rise, and a 4ha site in Toa Payoh East, next to the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery.

The exact number of new flats is yet to be finalised. But analysts say that the two plots could fit roughly 5,000 units, depending on the flat sizes. There are currently about 37,000 flats in Toa Payoh.

The new flats, to be completed within the next five to 10 years, come under the Housing Board's Remaking Our Heartland (ROH) programme. Nine towns and estates have been identified for renewal - Punggol, Dawson, Yishun, East Coast, Hougang, Jurong Lake, Woodlands, Pasir Ris and Toa Payoh.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who is also a Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP, launched an exhibition on the area's renewal plans at the HDB Hub Atrium yesterday.

Living with noise pollution in Singapore: Serangoon, Bukit Timah and Clementi among the noisiest neighbourhoods

Serangoon, Clementi and Bukit Timah are among the noisiest neighbourhoods in Singapore, one study has found. What does it mean to be living with noise pollution? The Sunday Times finds out.
By Ng Jun Sen and Tang Fan Xi, The Sunday Times, 23 Apr 2017

For the past three decades, Mr K.C. Tang, 72, and his wife have been communicating by shouting at each other.

Even then, the couple can barely make out what each other is saying, due to the unceasing cacophony of horns, sirens and revving engines from the Central Expressway (CTE) around 40m away from their three-room flat at Block 115, Potong Pasir Avenue 1.

Said Mr Tang, a retiree, with a sigh: "We have grown used to this."

Over in Yew Tee and Choa Chu Kang, where MRT tracks are within spitting distance from some Housing Board blocks, residents say that they, too, have become accustomed to living with noise.

Choa Chu Kang resident Nadia Begum, 29, whose home is some 30m away from a stretch of MRT track where a train rattles past every few minutes, said: "Closing all the windows is not sufficient. We have to use pillows over our heads to muffle the noises at night."

Mr Tang and Ms Begum are among the tens of thousands living next to busy roads, MRT tracks, construction sites and shopping malls around Singapore, who are coping with din just outside their homes.

A new study from the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that Singapore's average outdoor sound level throughout the day is 69.4 decibels, which is equivalent to the noise made by a vacuum cleaner.

This exceeds the National Environmental Agency's recommendation of no more than 67 decibels averaged over an hour, and is a whisker shy of the World Health Organisation threshold of 70 decibels a day. Consistent exposure to that level can cause hearing impairment.

United States has no military option against North Korea: Experts

Twenty-five million reasons the U.S. hasn’t struck North Korea
The Sunday Times, 23 Apr 2017

TOKYO • If the US were to strike North Korea, Mr Kim Jong Un's regime would retaliate by unleashing its conventional weaponry lined up on the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that has separated the two Koreas for about seven decades.

And that conventional weaponry is reliable, unlike North Korea's missiles, and could cause major devastation in South Korea, which is a staunch ally of the United States.

"This becomes a very limiting factor for the US," said retired air force officer Carl Baker, who has extensive experience in South Korea.

As tensions between Pyongyang and the outside world have risen over the past month, there has been more talk about Washington using military force either to pre-empt a provocation or to respond to one.

Although most of the recent focus has been on North Korea's ambition to be able to strike mainland US with a missile, the South Koreans have been living under the constant threat of a conventional attack from the North for decades.

North Korea has "a tremendous amount of artillery" right opposite Seoul, said Mr Joseph Bermudez Jr, a senior imagery analyst at 38 North, a website focused on North Korea.

The Second Corps of the Korean People's Army based at Kaesong on the northern side of the DMZ has about 500 artillery pieces, Mr Bermudez said. And this is just one army corps; similar corps are on either side of it.

All the artillery pieces in the Second Corps can reach the northern outskirts of the South Korean capital, just 50km from the DMZ, but the largest projectiles could fly to the south of Seoul. About 25 million people - or half of the South Korean population - live in the greater Seoul metropolitan area.

Sunday 23 April 2017

8 junior colleges among 28 schools to merge in 2019 due to falling birth rates: MOE

8 junior colleges among 28 schools to be merged in 2019
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2017

Faced with a shrinking student population, 14 schools will be folded into others by 2019 to keep school sizes feasible. For the first time, this merger exercise will include junior colleges.

Serangoon, Tampines, Innova and Jurong JCs will be absorbed by Anderson, Meridian, Yishun and Pioneer respectively, cutting the number of JCs from 23 to 19.

Seven pairs of primary schools and three pairs of secondary schools will also merge.

For some of the JCs being merged, annual intakes would have dipped to the 200-to-300 range over the next few years, compared to optimal levels of between 700 and 800, the Education Ministry (MOE) explained.

Between 1993 and 2002, births each year fell about 20 per cent from about 49,000 to 39,000. As a knock-on effect, JC intake is now expected to drop by a fifth, going from 16,000 in 2010 to 12,800 in 2019. Said Ms Liew Wei Li, director of schools at MOE: "We have thought through the various options. This is a very difficult decision. We have agonised over it. We find that we have little choice but to merge the JCs, in order that we can provide that kind of opportunities and range of choices for the students to come."

The ministry said that despite the mergers, there will be a place for every student who qualifies for JC admission. All JCs will expand to cater to more students and no teachers will lose their jobs, it added.

The four JCs which will fold into others in 2019 will not take in a fresh cohort of JC1 students next year so that students will not have to move in 2019, while the current cohorts will complete their A-level studies at the same school.

Apart from falling enrolment, schools were picked for merger based on location, to keep a good spread across the country. Hence, two JCs not offering the integrated programme were selected from each region - east, north-east, west and north - to form a merger pair.

MOE said that unless action is taken, some schools might lack the "critical mass" to offer a broader range of educational programmes and co-curricular activities.

Population demographics across various estates have also changed.

As Primary 1 demand falls in mature estates, schools have to be merged. But in newer estates, new schools may be needed. Fern Green Valley School will open next year, to meet the high demand for school places in Sengkang.

Meanwhile, dedicated spaces at the merged schools will preserve the heritage of schools that are no longer on the map.

Saturday 22 April 2017

A Smart Nation limited only by imagination: Peter Ho

IPS-Nathan Lectures 2016/17: Lecture II - Governing in the Anthropocene: Risk & Resilience, Imagination & Innovation

Mr Peter Ho's expertise is in futures thinking and, in his second Institute of Policy Studies-SR Nathan lecture on Wednesday, the former head of the Civil Service explores what Singapore can become if its people can imagine and innovate. Below is an edited excerpt of his speech.
The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2017

Singapore has a big ambition to become a Smart Nation.

But what is a Smart Nation?

On one level, it is about the exploitation of technologies in order to make the lives of people better, by giving them convenient and fast access to information and to customised services, including those that we cannot even imagine today. The current state of technology already offers all the ingredients of a Smart Nation.

But on another - I would argue more fundamental - level, being a Smart Nation calls for innovation at the systems level - aggregating technologies and combining them with new operating concepts, policies and plans - to solve national problems, such as the effects of climate change, traffic congestion, an ageing population, or simply to improve service delivery.

But its realisation is the sum of many innovations, big and small. Its ambition should be big, but its implementation is in hundreds and thousands of projects, both large and little.

But on both levels, it is a product of our imagination, and it is limited only by our imagination. Imagine a Smart Nation where there is increased efficiency, convenience and connectivity in and between workplaces and homes. Wearable technology such as hologram devices are used on the go to check and respond to work e-mails. Wi-Fi is available islandwide, eliminating restrictions from fixed data and limited call minutes. In the workplace, robots take over routine administrative tasks like coordinating meetings, conducting research and running daily errands.

At home, robotic helpers do the household chores and prepare meals. They order groceries when food items are low in stock, which are then delivered by drone to the doorstep.

Throughout Singapore, there are healthcare pods deployed islandwide at every housing block. These provide medical diagnosis, dispense medicine and provide simple medical services as well. These make it more convenient for elderly residents, who have mobility problems, and those who do not have the time to visit a clinic.

However, the Government may not be structured to reach this level of imagination and boldness of vision. Some might argue that it is not even its business. Innovation at this level is perhaps better achieved by the private sector, and by individual start-ups with the boldness and the ideas.

Empowerment is key. Too much top-down control will kill the spirit of innovation that is central to a Smart Nation. Instead, the role of the Government should be to facilitate such innovation by funding incentives and arrangements through flexible - rather than restrictive - regulations.

Friday 21 April 2017

Singapore and Germany have the most powerful passports in the world: Global Passport Power Rank 2017

Singaporeans, Germans hold 'world's most powerful passports'
By Chew Hui Min, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2017

For the first time, Singapore is tied with Germany as the country with the most powerful passport in an international ranking.

Both Singapore and Germany top the Global Passport Power Rank 2017, published by Arton Capital's Passport Index.

Holders of a Singapore passport can now get a visa on arrival in Ukraine for up to 15 days, raising the Republic's score by one to 159, Arton Capital said in a press statement on Tuesday. Singapore was ranked second before this change.

Germany still has the edge for visa-free travel, it said.

Germans can travel to 125 countries without a visa, while holders of a Singapore passport can travel to 122 countries without a visa.

But Singapore beats Germany with a visa-on-arrival score of 37 to 34. The result - a tie.

"Singaporeans can rejoice that their passport offers them first-class global mobility," said Arton Capital. The Passport Index compares the passports of 193 United Nations member countries and six territories.

Singapore was fourth this year in the Visa Restrictions Index, another ranking of travel freedom, which uses a different way of calculating how "powerful" a passport is.

Germany also tops this table, published by Henley & Partners. It has visa-free access to 176 countries out of a possible 218, according to this index.

The Visa Restrictions Index said Singapore passport holders enjoy visa-free access to 173 countries.

In both tables, Singapore is the highest-ranked Asian country.

Woodleigh MRT security incident: Local running group Seletar Hash House Harriers apologises for causing security scare

Running group apologises for MRT station scare
Members had used flour to mark trail through Woodleigh station as it was 'safest route'
By Ng Huiwen, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2017

Running group Seletar Hash House Harriers yesterday apologised for the alarm and inconvenience it caused when three of its members used flour to mark a running route through Woodleigh MRT station.

Their actions set off a security scare and the station was closed for three hours on Tuesday.

The group, in a statement, said three of its members were marking a trail for its Tuesday evening run from Bidadari to Woodleigh Close.

The trio, who chose a route that ran through the station, left a little flour at three to four points in the MRT station to mark out the trail, as "this provided the safest route to cross Upper Serangoon Road".

One of its members, a 69-year-old man, was later arrested for causing public alarm. He is believed to be out on bail. The other two members, aged 53 and 70, are helping the police with investigations.

The station was closed after SBS Transit staff found a suspicious white substance and alerted the police. The Singapore Civil Defence Force's hazardous materials team was also deployed.

"In retrospect, they should not have placed any markings in the station, and instead, should have used directional signs outside the station," the statement said.

It added that the three members "stepped forward immediately to identify themselves and have cooperated fully with the authorities", after learning of the security scare.

"They are sorry that their actions caused public alarm and inconvenience," it said, noting that the incident emphasised the seriousness of the security threat in Singapore.

Thursday 20 April 2017

Woodlands Health Campus will add 1,800 beds and use technology for better patient care

Hospital campus of the future to rise in Woodlands
Driven by tech, facilities will be designed to complement one another from the start

By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2017

Woodlands is raising the bar for healthcare by getting Singapore's first hospital complex with facilities designed from the outset to complement one another. It will also be driven by technology that enables fewer staff to care for patients.

The 1,800-bed Woodlands Health Campus (WHC), which expects to see its first patient in 2022, will have an acute hospital and a community hospital sharing the same building from the start. It will also house a nursing home and specialist clinics.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told The Straits Times that the WHC would be the first hospital complex in which acute and community care services have been conceptualised together and are being built at the same time.

"We will have seamless integration from hospital to community hospital to nursing home, so if you are in the nursing home and need acute care, it's very near," he said.

Set on a plot of land the size of 11 football fields, the various institutes will also share common facilities such as gardens and rehabilitation centres, as well as services like laundry and cooking.

At the ground-breaking ceremony yesterday, Mr Gan said the WHC has to be "future ready" to meet the growing demands of an ageing population, while overcoming manpower constraints.

The WHC will use new technology to reduce manual work and tap data analytics and artificial intelligence to improve patient care.

The campus plans to provide every patient with a device akin to a watch on admission, to monitor vital signs, activity and location.

Nurses would know the moment a patient's blood pressure rises by too much, or be able to locate a dementia patient. They could also keep tabs on a patient's condition via teleconferencing after he returns home.

In that sense, Mr Gan said, hospitals of the future would be like air traffic control towers "from which the healthcare team monitors its patients whether they are in the hospital or at home".