Sunday 29 December 2019

MediShield Life to offer higher payouts with new claim limits from 1 January 2020; no changes to premiums

January 1 changes will benefit 90,000 a year although premiums will stay the same
By Timothy Goh, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2019

Patients who need surgery will be able to claim more from their compulsory health insurance from Jan 1, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced yesterday.

This comes as MediShield Life claim limits are being raised, a move which is expected to benefit around 90,000 patients a year.

MediShield Life is a basic health insurance plan that helps to pay for large hospital bills and selected costly outpatient treatments, such as dialysis and chemotherapy.

All Singaporeans and permanent residents are covered by MediShield Life, which is administered by the Central Provident Fund Board.

Patients undergoing surgical procedures listed in the MOH's Table of Surgical Procedures can claim from MediShield Life and tap their Medisave to pay for their surgical bills subject to claim limits.

There are currently seven tiers of MediShield Life claim limits to cater to surgical procedures of different complexities.

This number will triple to 21 from next year, allowing for more differentiation between procedures of varying complexities.

The new set of limits, offering higher payouts, will take effect for those admitted for surgical procedures from Jan 1.

For instance, Patient A who undergoes a complex uterus operation might currently be able to claim only up to $1,400 - the same amount as Patient B who undergoes a simpler uterus operation.

Under the revised limits, Patient A would be able to claim up to $2,180. Patient B would be able to claim up to $1,800 for the simpler procedure, less than Patient A, but $400 more than the previous limit allowed.

MOH said yesterday that the introduction of the new tiers will provide better coverage for more complex surgical procedures, which tend to be costlier.

There will be no adjustments to premiums at this point, as the Government committed to keeping premiums constant for five years when MediShield Life was launched in November 2015.

The claim limits were adjusted to keep pace with increasing healthcare costs since 2015.

The claim limit revisions were recommended by the MediShield Life Council as part of its review exercise, which started last year and is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong said yesterday that the new claim limits would be implemented first so patients can benefit earlier from the changes.

He added: "The new claim limits will improve MediShield Life coverage for more complex surgical procedures and better protect Singaporeans against large hospital bills... We will continue our efforts to keep healthcare costs sustainable and affordable for all Singaporeans."

Patients do not need to take any steps to benefit from the new limits, which will be automatically applied to their MediShield Life claims.

Dr Lily Neo, deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, said: "It is useful to have such revisions... Not all conditions are the same or require the same standardised procedures, so if we can have more tiers, that will better accommodate various conditions that require different types of treatment or better technology."

In its statement, MOH emphasised that the Government provides significant subsidies of up to 80 per cent to keep healthcare costs low, and that there are various forms of financial assistance available for those in need.

It added: "No Singaporean will be denied appropriate healthcare due to an inability to pay."

Unwarranted optimism for HDB lease top-ups turns home-buying into gamble

The proposal to provide a feasible solution to older Housing Board flats that face an undetermined fate when their 99-year lease expiry approaches is certainly well-intentioned (HDB reform proposals will further separate resale and BTO markets, Dec 23).

If all these ageing flats are granted amnesty from lease constraints and have their leases topped up - which is easy enough to do but just kicks the can down the road - then similar top-ups must be equitably extended to private housing on leasehold land for the same nominal amount of extension levies.

Otherwise giving one segment of the populace repeated bites of the cherry may be seen as being prejudicial.

It may seem a sham, then, to continue selling HDB properties on a contractual 99-year lease when this number is known to be extendable to the length that citizens can pressure the Government for.

We make informed decisions on investments based on prevailing information and must accept the natural consequences of our calculations. This is so in particular with our biggest investment - the house.

That leasehold properties have a finite shelf-life and whose values must drop beyond 30 or 40 years into the lease is not privileged information, and there is no reason to plead ignorance.

Unwarranted optimism for lease top-ups and wishful punting on the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme cloud decisions, turn home-buying calculations into opportunistic gambles that will sour should the authorities stick to the contractual letter of the law and allow the 99-year leases to lapse.

China, which parcels out land in 20-or 70-year leases, has no clear policy on lease top-ups.

Obviously its problem is far more pressing than ours and there will be a lot to learn and adapt from the strategies it devises.

Yik Keng Yeong (Dr)
ST Forum, 28 Dec 2019

Woman's data in CPF case lawfully disclosed: Govt

Government said it released personal data of sick woman in CPF case in the public interest
Necessary to provide public with facts in CPF withdrawal request case: Smart nation office
By Lester Wong, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2019

The Government said it wanted to provide the public with correct and relevant facts in the case of a woman who had sought to access her Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings. That was why it decided to disclose her personal data.

This came after it received queries from the media regarding its policy on disclosing personal data in cases of public interest.

In a statement yesterday, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) said that the law permits such disclosure - including the identity of the individual - in the public interest.

The case came into the spotlight following a Dec 17 report from sociopolitical website The Online Citizen which said that the CPF Board had rejected the single mother's request to draw funds from her CPF account.

The CPF Board responded to this through a Facebook post on Dec 19, detailing the woman's case and circumstances, and appeared to identify her as a Ms Sua.

This, in turn, led to questions on whether the woman's personal data should have been disclosed.

In its statement, the SNDGO said: "The Online Citizen first published an article on Ms Sua on 17 Dec 2019 which omitted key facts and contained misleading statements.

"The relevant public agencies jointly issued a clarification to provide the full picture to the public. Some specific personal information was disclosed in order to convey verifiable facts and to enable the individual to challenge the Government's account of the case, if need be."

It added: "Public agencies have a duty to preserve the public trust reposed in them and to ensure that citizens are not misled."

The CPF Board's post on Dec 19 flagged details that included Ms Sua's admission to the National University Hospital in 2011 for her lupus condition, her recent visits to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, as well as her application for financial aid.

It also said that the woman could reapply to access her CPF savings on medical grounds, once her doctors had certified that she met the medical criteria.

The SNDGO likened the approach to that followed by the Personal Data Protection Commission, which permits companies to disclose relevant information about an individual in a public forum to counter false or misleading allegations from that individual. "This gives the companies an opportunity to clear the air for themselves, and convey the facts of the case to the public."

It noted that such lawful disclosures should not be conflated with unauthorised breaches of citizens' data, which all public agencies, including the CPF Board, are committed to guard against.

"Public agencies abide by the data protection regulations under the Public Sector (Governance) Act and in the Government Instruction Manuals," said the SNDGO.

"These are no less stringent than the requirements of the Personal Data Protection Act which apply to the private sector."

IP schools draw students from large number of primary schools: Education Minister Ong Ye Kung

We'll continue to strive for better social mixing in schools: Ong Ye Kung
By Jolene Ang, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2019

The social mix of students in Integrated Programme (IP) schools is actually better than that in non-IP schools, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung yesterday.

The IP, offered by select schools, is a six-year secondary and junior college education programme that targets higher-performing students. Those in the programme are allowed to bypass the O levels for a direct route to the A levels or other qualifications.

"When I first asked myself (if the mix would be better or worse in IP schools), my instinctive answer was worse, because that is how we have always perceived IP schools - more exclusive, less diverse," Mr Ong said.

He was speaking at the Appointment and Appreciation Ceremony for Principals at Shangri-La Hotel, where 40 new school principals received their letters of appointment.

Mr Ong said that one indicator of the social mix is the number of primary schools that a secondary school's students come from, as a higher number means a larger catchment and, thus, a better mix.

A guide the Ministry of Education (MOE) uses is that every 100 Secondary 1 students in a school should come from 20 or more primary schools.

In 2004, 13 per cent of non-IP schools exceeded the guide's standards. This has jumped to 51 per cent as of this year.

In comparison, of the 17 IP schools that take in students at Secondary 1, 43 per cent exceeded the guide in 2004. This year, 88 per cent, or 15 schools, hit that target.

Hwa Chong Institution's Secondary 1 students came from 88 primary schools in 2014, and 100 this year. Over at Raffles Institution, the number jumped from 93 to 103, while for Raffles Girls' School, it went from 82 to 107.

One explanation for this, Mr Ong said, is that parents are increasingly prepared to send their children to neighbourhood primary schools, leading to a more diverse mix for IP schools.

Monday 23 December 2019

Government spent $2.9 billion on Home Improvement Programme for HDB flats

As of 31 Oct 2019, 170,400 units have had works done, while 132,300 are undergoing upgrades
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Sunday Times, 22 Dec 2019

The Government has spent about $2.9 billion on the Home Improvement Programme by the Housing Board (HDB) as of 31 March 2019.

As of 31 Oct 2019, about 170,400 flats have had upgrading works completed, while another 132,300 are undergoing the upgrades.

A total of 320,000 flats under the 1986 age-band were selected as eligible to undergo the programme.

These figures were released by the HDB yesterday. It said in a statement that the remaining works will be implemented progressively.

The programme was announced in 2007 to benefit residents and improve their quality of life through enhancing their safety and comfort at home. It focuses on improvements within the flat and helps owners address common maintenance problems related to ageing units in a systematic and comprehensive manner.

The scheme was previously offered to HDB flats built up to 1986 that had not undergone the previous main upgrading programme.

In August last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the programme would be extended to flats built between 1987 and 1997.

This extension will benefit about 230,000 more HDB households.

The programme looks at essential improvements that are related to public health and safety and these are fully paid for by the Government. These include repairing structural cracks, replacing waste or soil discharge stacks, which are parts of pipes, and upgrading the electrical load.

Flat owners can also choose optional improvements and pay for their share of works carried out in their flats. These include new decorative doors, metal grille gates and refuse-chute hoppers.

The programme can proceed only when at least three-quarters of a block's eligible households that are made up of Singapore citizens have voted for it.

There is also an upgrading option for elderly and vulnerable residents who need the programme, or whose blocks do not qualify for it.

This scheme, known as the Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) programme, allows seniors to choose from elderly-friendly fittings such as slip-resistant treatment for existing floor tiles of bathrooms, installation of grab bars in toilets and ramps.

More than 206,000 households have applied for the EASE programme as of Oct 31. The Government has spent about $80 million on the programme as of March 31.

Madam Kwan Kum Lai, 78, had her flat in Hougang upgraded in April under the Home Improvement Programme and the EASE scheme. She has been living there since 1985.

She said: "I was very happy when I heard about these programmes. I know upgrading can be messy and troublesome, but it is very worth it."

Ramps were installed at the entrance of the living room and the kitchen to help Madam Kwan, who is a wheelchair user, enter and leave on her own.

"Previously, my husband had to support me and be on standby all the time. Now the ramps help me to be more independent," she said.

Her husband, Mr Chan Meng Kwong, 79, had suffered a stroke a few years earlier.

Grab bars were also installed in the toilets and the tiles received slip-resistant treatment to make them safer for the couple.

"It used to be very slippery in the bathroom and I was scared my husband would fall," Madam Kwan said. "Now I have more confidence when using the bathroom and I can transfer myself from the wheelchair to the toilet seat with the bars to hold on to."

A full package under the Home Improvement Programme for a household living in a five-room flat like hers would cost about $1,260. The full suite of upgrades under the EASE programme with five single-step ramps would cost another $250.

Another resident who has benefited from the upgrades is housewife Kamariah Mohd, 52, who paid about $1,100 for the renovations, which included the toilet door, wall and floor tiles, the door grille gates and rubbish chute.

"If I went to a private contractor, it would be much more expensive. It was almost two weeks of construction but it was worth it."

Saturday 21 December 2019

Pasir Ris Heritage Trail

Pasir Ris trail opens as part of National Heritage Board move to bring heritage to the heartland
By Clement Yong, The Straits Times, 20 Dec 2019

A popular seaside getaway for Singaporeans now, the Pasir Ris coast used to be a private enclave for the British elite during the colonial days.

Yesterday, a 3.5km stretch of the beach was unveiled as part of the National Heritage Board's (NHB) 19th heritage trail, which includes another 10.1km of paths inland.

Divided thematically into three parts that together take about 3½ hours to complete on foot, the continuous trail includes such landmarks as Sakya Tenphel Ling, one of the first Tibetan Buddhist temples in South-east Asia; and Singapore's only commercial saltwater fishing pond in Pasir Ris Town Park.

NHB said yesterday that it plans to eventually have such heritage trails across the island, with two more - in Hougang and Sembawang - already in the works. They will be launched next year.

NHB said that although it does not track visitors, it is aware that existing trails in areas such as Bukit Timah and the Singapore River are "well used by heritage buffs and families looking for a weekend fun family activity", as well as tourists and schools.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB deputy chief executive of policy and community, said the board is looking at having more trails in the heartland so that "heritage can be brought right to Singaporeans' doorsteps and made more accessible to them".

About the new trail in Pasir Ris, he said: "Singaporeans will find out how Pasir Ris earned its reputation as a town for rest and recreation, and how it evolved from a getaway destination for the affluent to an affordable resort-like retreat for holidaymakers from all walks of life."

Taking 1½ years to research - including conducting interviews with residents and scouring old newspaper clippings - the Pasir Ris Heritage Trail presents users with three themes.

The first is an exploration of the area's coastal heritage, a route that takes in mangrove swamps, Sungei Api Api - a river where settlers used to catch prawns to make belacan - and the iconic elephant playground whose design is frequently reproduced on souvenirs.

Then there is the 5.6km architectural highlights walk, which features religious institutions like the multi-faith Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple and the 24-hour Masjid Al-Istighfar, a mosque that caters to tourists and locals going to and from the haj and is about a 20-minute drive from Changi Airport.

Finally, the more family-oriented 4.5km Play @ Pasir Ris Trail passes by Pasir Ris Hawker Centre, Downtown East - formerly a National Trades Union Congress "country club" for workers - as well as one of Singapore's largest playgrounds.

Friday 20 December 2019

Attitudes towards Migrant Workers in Singapore: Just 1 in 4 sees need for migrant workers despite labour shortage

But Singaporeans have a more positive view of migrant workers than other nations surveyed
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2019

Just one in four Singaporeans says there is a need for migrant workers, even though seven in 10 agree there is a labour shortage here.

Underscoring some resistance to migrant labour, more than half also believe crime has increased and the country's culture and heritage have been threatened because of migrant workers, according to a new survey of four Asian countries by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United Nations Women.

The findings were in line with those in Japan, Malaysia and Thailand. Positive attitudes towards migrant workers have declined over the last decade even as migration has increased overall, said the report, released yesterday to mark International Migrants Day.

Nonetheless, Singaporeans have a more positive view of migrant workers compared with their Asian counterparts.

About 58 per cent of respondents here see migrant workers as having an overall positive net effect on the national economy, a greater proportion than respondents in Japan (34 per cent), Thailand (32 per cent) and Malaysia (30 per cent).

About 30 per cent here view migrant workers as a "drain on the national economy", lower than the 47 per cent in Malaysia, 40 per cent in Thailand and 32 per cent in Japan who agree with the statement.

The report, Public Attitudes Towards Migrant Workers In Japan, Malaysia, Singapore And Thailand, was based on a survey of 4,099 nationals of the four countries, including 1,005 Singaporeans. It also included interviews with governments, employers' bodies and non-government organisations, among others.

It was conducted between last December and January this year.

There were 1.4 million foreigners working here as of June, according to Ministry of Manpower data.

These include 255,800 domestic helpers, 284,300 construction workers on work permits and 189,000 employment pass holders.

The ILO report also said 32 per cent of respondents here felt migrant workers have poor work ethic and cannot be trusted, the lowest percentage among the four countries surveyed.

But 60 per cent felt that migrant workers should not receive the same pay benefits as local workers, the highest share among the four countries.

The report noted that popular beliefs in the region include migrant workers receiving more workplace benefits than they actually do and such workers taking away jobs from citizens.

But it also said the Singapore public seems better informed about socio-economic migration trends and realities than people in the other countries.

They are also more likely to have closer relationships with foreigners, such as having friends, colleagues, subordinates or employees who are migrant workers.

But overall support for migrant workers here has declined. A score to measure knowledge, attitudes and practices towards migrant workers compared against that of a similar survey done in 2010 showed Singapore's score had dropped seven points to 29.

However, this was still higher than the scores of Malaysia (down three points to 13) and Thailand (down seven points to 12). Japan was not surveyed in 2010.

The score is based on 15 questions, such as whether migrants commit a high number of crimes in the country and whether the respondent has helped a migrant integrate into the community or get ahead in his work.

More frequent and better quality interactions with migrant workers, such as having friends or staff who are foreigners, helped drive support for them, said the report.

In the three countries, the decline in support was far greater among respondents with no interactions with migrant workers.

"It is critical, therefore, to encourage more interaction of communities with migrant workers," said the report. "Decreasing the distance between nationals in countries of destination and migrant workers requires a multi-pronged approach, including changes to laws and policy to ensure there are no exclusions or 'special rules' that apply to migrant workers; that they receive fair and equal treatment; and that city planning, workplace inclusion and community platforms work to encourage social interaction."

Thursday 19 December 2019

No need for yellow sticker, just ask for a seat on MRT trains and public buses

What a sad commentary on a people who need some "official sticker" to yield a seat to someone who needs it more (Improve 'yellow sticker' priority seating scheme, Dec 16).

We should not need government chaperoning and chiding with an "official" sticker to become a more considerate and compassionate society.

If we need a seat on a bus or train, we should just simply and politely ask for one.

And if the person asked is reluctant for whatever reason to yield the seat, then the nearby passengers can do so.

When this happens we can then honestly say we have made some progress as a civilisation.

Thomas Lee Hock Seng (Dr)
ST Forum, 19 Dec 2019

Part-time university, polytechnic students on bursaries to pay lower tuition fees from Academic Year 2020

MOE says about 2,100 Singaporean students are expected to benefit from higher bursaries next year
By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 18 Dec 2019

Part-time students in universities and polytechnics on bursaries will pay lower tuition fees from next year, just like their peers studying full time, with higher bursaries to kick in from next year.

In particular, part-time undergraduates and diploma students in the bottom income group - whose gross monthly household income is $4,000 or less, or monthly household income per capita is $1,000 or less - will get more financial support.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) said in a statement yesterday that about 2,100 Singaporean part-time undergraduates and diploma students are expected to benefit from increased bursaries next year, with the Government investing $2.8 million per year for part-time students, up from the current $1.8 million.

About 1,900 part-time students get bursaries now.

Part-time undergraduates in the lower-income group earning $4,000 or less will receive $2,500 annually in bursaries, up from $1,350 previously, while part-time diploma students will get $800 instead of $600.

Part-time university students from the next tier of families - whose gross monthly household income is $4,001 to $6,900 - will get $1,600 in yearly bursaries, an increase from the current $1,350. Those in polytechnic will get $660, an increase from the current bursary amount of $600.

Part-time undergraduates and diploma students whose gross monthly household income is $6,901 to $9,000 will continue to receive yearly bursaries of $700 and $300, respectively.

The bursary for part-timers will also be known as the Higher Education Bursary from next year, and it aims to "enhance the affordability of higher education for part-time students studying at publicly funded post-secondary education institutions", MOE said.

There are currently about 19,000 part-time students in polytechnics and universities, and the average annual part-time fees are $900 and $4,500 for diploma and degree courses, respectively.

The higher bursaries mean part-time diploma students from the lowest income group will pay $100 a year, down from the current $300, while part-time degree students from the same tier will pay $2,000 a year, compared to $3,150 now.

New and existing Singaporean students enrolled in publicly funded part-time courses at all five polytechnics and the autonomous universities that offer such programmes are eligible for the financial support.

Students at the National Institute of Early Childhood Development, set up by the MOE, will also benefit.

The greater support for part-time students comes after MOE announced in August significant bursary hikes for full-time students pursuing higher education.

All in, around 21,000 undergraduates and 33,000 polytechnic students - in full-time courses - are expected to benefit from the bursaries, as government spending on bursaries increases by $44 million per year, from $123 million currently.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

The best policies are those with empathy

By Tee Zhuo,The Sunday Times, 15 Dec 2019

Cold, hard logic has a certain appeal, and many public policies in Singapore are successfully guided by it.

Take the principle behind home ownership: Give people a stake in the nation and they will feel invested in it.

The soundness of this principle is demonstrated by the fact that more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing.

An August 2015 Business Times piece looking at 50 years of housing policy described Housing Board flats as "the people's equity stake in Singapore".

But Singaporeans are not holding equity in a company. They are citizens of a country, and the notion of co-paying cannot be used as a proxy for pride and loyalty.

Let me use two government responses from last month to illustrate what I mean.

The first response was to a letter on the TODAY news website asking why Singaporeans have to pay $10 to replace their National Registration Identity Card (NRIC) when they turn 55.

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) said the cost of replacing an NRIC is about $60 and the Government subsidises $50.

The remaining $10 is "very manageable for most people" and these fees have been "charged and unchanged" since 2000, it said.

"We believe that a system where the applicant pays a small sum is better: It brings a stronger sense of pride and ownership of the card," the ICA added.

This reasoning seems to have a similar transactional logic as the housing policy: money, for a stake.

But a sense of pride in being Singaporean - which an identity card symbolises - is something intangible.

Linking this pride with a payment, however small, is unnecessary, I feel. In fact, it also has the unfortunate effect of cheapening it.

The second response was to a Facebook post that highlighted how a pupil's original Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results slip was withheld because her family had not paid school fees of $156 for two years.

Among other things, the Ministry of Education (MOE) explained that this was "a longstanding practice" that was "not about recovering the money", but instead a "teachable moment" for children.

It added that the ministry's funding for each primary school pupil comes up to $12,000 a year, and each pupil pays only $13 in miscellaneous fees a month.

"MOE's consideration stems from the underlying principle that notwithstanding the fact that the cost of education is almost entirely publicly funded, we should still play our part in paying a small fee, and it is not right to ignore that obligation, however small it is."

Most Singaporeans would say it is fair to pay school fees. But I doubt many would think it right to withhold the PSLE results slip of an innocent 12-year-old to achieve this.

And how does doing so create a "teachable moment" for the child?

The more likely lesson the child will pick up is that it is shameful to be poor - which would be ironic, given how schools are supposed to be one of society's great levellers.

On the face of it, though, both responses were reasoned, principled defences of the Government's position.

But the problem may be exactly that: The responses came across as being too much about reasoning and appeared defensive.

They followed a familiar formula: Cite longstanding practice, note that most of the fees are subsidised, and highlight financial aid or case-by-case waivers that are available.

But just because something has been done for a long time doesn't mean it has been right all along.

For example, on the PSLE issue, one could say that while comprehensive, aid options for needy families are not always easily accessible.

My point isn't whether the Government had good reasons for its actions - it almost always does - but how, when and where these reasons are used.

Caring for the elderly and people with disabilities

Home-bathing service for seniors who are bed-bound
Team of 3 needed for a bath; bulk of cost subsidised by Montfort Care
By Theresa Tan, Senior Social Affairs Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 Dec 2019

Mr Haron, an 84-year-old former cleaner, had not had a proper bath for at least six years after a stroke left him bedridden, incontinent and unable to speak.

His 73-year-old wife said she and their maid were unable to lift him from the bed onto a wheelchair to bathe him in the toilet. So, they used a towel to wipe him clean twice a day.

She said: "I feel so much better that the team from Montfort Care comes to bathe him so he doesn't smell. He is also happy that he is clean, and when he is happy, I am happy," she said, declining to reveal their full names.

Since about four months ago, Montfort Care has helped to bathe Mr Haron. His wife pays $15 for the service each time.

In November last year, Montfort Care, a charity which runs family service centres, among other services, started its home-bathing service for bed-bound seniors.

These elderly suffer from strokes, advanced dementia or other medical conditions and are unable to bathe themselves.

Its director of Eldercare Services, Ms Wang Yu Hsuan, said that for those who are bedridden, getting a regular bath is not easy, especially when their caregivers are also frail and elderly. So, they will only be wiped down with a towel in their beds, for example.

She said the lack of a proper bath affects their hygiene and self-esteem. Ms Wang added: "We have learnt that a bath is often taken for granted. Our clients don't feel comfortable and they are not happy they don't get a proper bath. Old and bed-bound people also want to look good and smell good."

How Singapore stacks up: What do 2019 global reports scoring country's performance say

Global reports scoring Republic's performance show overall rosy picture, persistent weak spots
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 Dec 2019

On average, a new report on how Singapore stacks up against the global competition emerges every other week.

One of the latest, the Human Development Index by the United Nations Development Programme, attempts to determine a country's level of development by indicators such as education and living standards. Singapore was ranked ninth this year.

And on the Global Power City Index by Japanese think-tank Mori Memorial Foundation, which aims to capture a city's "magnetism", Singapore managed to hold on to fifth place - but barely.

Over the course of the year, The Straits Times has published the results of more than 20 such reports.

These score Singapore's performance in areas as broad as innovation, or as specific as the city's readiness for disruption brought about by artificial intelligence.

The Republic tends to do well on indices which measure a country's economic potential, such as innovation, competitiveness, and being a smart city.

In contrast, its performance on indices designed to capture the more intangible, "softer" aspects of life has been somewhat lacklustre. These include happiness, soft power, liveability and quality of life.

But taken as a composite whole, what do these indices say about Singapore as a brand? And how seriously should we take such rankings in the first place?


The overall picture painted by these indices is rosy.

This year, Singapore topped the World Economic Forum's competitiveness ranking of 141 economies. It has placed among the top three for at least eight years.

It also came in among the top 10 in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Safe Cities Index and the Global Innovation Index, which was put together by Insead, Cornell University and the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

But drill down into the details, and persistent weak spots begin to emerge.

For example, both the Global Innovation Index and Global Competitiveness Report marked Singapore down on its environmental policy.

The competitiveness report put Singapore at 62nd place for renewable energy regulation, and 119th when it came to the number of environmental treaties the country has in force.

Meanwhile, Singapore was ranked 45 out of 129 economies for "environmental performance" in the innovation index, with the report's authors noting that this was one of the country's weaknesses.

The environmental performance measure gauged how close countries are to established environmental policy goals by looking at 20 indicators, from environmental public health to ecosystem vitality.

The Republic also consistently lagged behind on measures of freedom, many of which are calculated based on the results of surveys and questionnaires.

For instance, Singapore was ranked 13 out of 126 countries in the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index. Its score was dragged down in areas such as the civic participation section, where participants were asked how much they agreed with statements like: "In practice, people in Singapore can freely hold public non-violent demonstrations without fear of reprisal."

One generalisation to be drawn from such results could be that Singapore does better on "hard" aspects and less so on "soft" ones, said writer Koh Buck Song, who authored Brand Singapore.

But he also pointed out that on the whole, Singapore tends to rank well among Asian countries. This means that the Singapore brand still emerges well "because investors, tourists and immigrants make comparisons regionally".

"Reputable indices should all be taken seriously," Mr Koh added. "The power they have to shape opinion is undeniable on people without first-hand experience."

Other groups have role in deciding what is fake news, says Barack Obama

Govts should not be the only arbiters of what is false, says former US president at Singapore event
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 15 Dec 2019

Governments have a role to play in arresting the spread of fake news, but they should not be the only arbiters of what is false, said former US president Barack Obama last night.

The 44th president of the United States made the remarks at a charity gala at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore, when asked about his views on media literacy during a moderated dialogue.

Speaking on social media companies, he said they, too, play an editorial role in selecting what information should be prioritised and what people see.

Therefore, these firms need to take responsibility as media companies to prevent the spread of fake news, instead of insisting they are merely conduits of information akin to utilities companies, he added.

He noted how countries around the world, including Singapore, have tried to deal with the issue of fake news, by exploring if labels can be applied to flag blatant untruths.

Asked about who should decide what is untrue, Mr Obama cited the example of China, where he said the government makes the call. He added that he is uncomfortable with having only the government make such decisions, as it could lead to fewer checks and balances.

"In any country, if the government's the only one that is deciding what is true and what is not, that's dangerous. Because, let's face it, those who are in power tend to want to look good, that's human nature. And so then you reduce checks and balances over time," he said.

He acknowledged that it is a challenge, and suggested that the judiciary and other independent organisations should also play a role in deciding what is true or false. "The key is for us to recognise this is a genuine problem," he added.

He also said that having more media choices now has allowed more voices to be heard. Harking back to his youth, Mr Obama said there used to be fewer TV stations and fewer programmes to watch.

When he was growing up in Indonesia, he quipped, there were news clips of former Indonesian president Suharto cutting ribbons, which he was not interested in, and one cartoon, which he watched.

Sunday 15 December 2019

Why we need Mr Rogers, Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch more than ever

By Abby Whitaker, Published The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2019

America is currently in a Mr Rogers renaissance. While television personality Fred Rogers died in 2003, between last year's premiere of the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbour? and actor Tom Hanks' recent portrayal of the sweater-clad saint in A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood, we have become obsessed with Rogers' wisdom.

His kindness, his ability to speak to children and his seemingly unwavering moral compass have inspired new audiences. But he is not the only person who has inspired audiences through children's television.

The late Caroll Spinney did too. Spinney once called himself "the most unknown famous person in the United States".

Most people are better acquainted with his alter ego: A 2.5m-tall canary appropriately named Big Bird. Spinney wore a suit of yellow feathers for nearly 50 years on Sesame Street.

This week, on the same day Sesame Street was honoured by the Kennedy Centre, Spinney died.

His characters, however, will live on and with them the vital role that fantasy plays in teaching children to navigate life.

Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood made its national debut on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1968, with Sesame Street premiering just over a year later. Both programmes were born out of the belief that children's educational programming had more to teach children than the basic ABCs. Neither show shied away from difficult subjects and real-world problems.

The success of both programmes also depended on characters with a special talent for communicating with children.

For Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood, it was Fred Rogers, for Sesame Street, it was Big Bird and his fellow muppets.

Yet, while both had a keen sense of how to reach children, Rogers and Spinney stood at odds with each other on how exactly to teach their young viewers.