Sunday, 8 March 2020

Committee of Supply 2020 Debate Highlights

Less rhetoric, more robust actions is the Singapore way, says Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2020

Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin is sometimes asked to view clips of parliamentary debates overseas, showing fistfights or speeches that are eloquent, humorous or sharply satirical. "But I ask myself, after this, what is next? What then do we do?" he told the House yesterday, as he stressed the importance of translating rhetoric into action.

In contrast, MPs' speeches in Singapore are often "substantive and heavy", Mr Tan said. Some may be challenging to sit through, or could benefit from more flair and panache. But such speeches also feature "solid, down-to-earth ideas, plans and execution, and not just creating beautiful castles in the air", he said. They also give a sense of how the Government intends to address Singaporeans' concerns, and realise their collective vision.

In a speech capping the nine-day debate on Budget 2020, Mr Tan noted that last year's edition centred on killing the "sacred cow" of secondary-level streaming. This year, he quipped that the Budget debate included "Mandai Zoo, River Safari and Jurong Bird Park" as MPs and ministers highlighted various creatures when debating about food security, disease outbreaks and environmental conservation.

There were Impossible Meat satay and gyoza, Aedes in the war on dengue, and the Raffles' banded langurs that monkeyed around in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, he added, bringing smiles to faces.

But all this talk is just "small slivers of a bigger whole... Nothing is too trivial not to be addressed (by the MPs)," Mr Tan said. He noted that Singapore has learnt lessons from the coronavirus outbreak, a point also made by Leader of the House Grace Fu in her round-up.

Although the virus has generated fear and anxiety, it has also shown the community at its best, Ms Fu said. Larger businesses are stepping up to help smaller ones, while community groups and companies have banded together to help the needy.

The challenges Singapore faces will be "increasingly complex and unexpected". But if citizens work together - as they are doing in the current outbreak - problems can be turned into possibilities, she added.

She listed four themes in this year's Budget that will shape Singapore in the years to come: forging a resilient nation, establishing a city of possibilities, creating opportunities for all, and building a caring and cohesive community.

"I am heartened to hear the theme of partnerships come through strongly in our debates," said Ms Fu, who is Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. "The momentum is clear. Singaporeans can and want to play a bigger role in shaping Singapore."

Mr Tan noted that one criticism of the Government is that it spends on the future and, therefore, has less to spend on the present. "We all know the common complaint that Singaporeans may have," he said. "Why do you not care for me today? I've got problems today."

But this approach allows Singapore to do what it is doing in the current outbreak, he said.

"With our prudence and savings, we are able to fund and deal with this event... Imagine if we decided to spend more, save less. It is far easier to be popular than to be prepared."

Beyond all the "political bluster", Mr Tan saw a strong unity in approach from MPs on both sides. It is the people's support that allows Parliament to have the courage to take "the more difficult, but yet perhaps the more correct path".

"This support will not and does not exist if there is no sense of unity and no sense of togetherness, which is why the idea of Singapore Together is really so precious," he added. "It is not just a slogan, something that we just mouth off in Parliament. There are actually things that we can do."

Debate on ministries' budgets: Culture, Community and Youth

Free entry to all public gyms and swimming pools for Singaporeans aged 65 and above
New initiative, which starts from April 1, likely to benefit more than 500,000 citizens
By Nicole Chia, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2020

Singaporeans aged 65 and above will be given free entry to all public swimming pools and gyms from April 1, as part of Sport Singapore's efforts to encourage senior citizens to stay active, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu told Parliament yesterday.

One in four Singaporeans will be 65 years old or above by 2030, and there will be 900,000 seniors, she noted.

"Sports and physical activity allow our seniors to sustain their health and mobility longer, and continue to be engaged in the community," she said, adding the age criterion will be reviewed "from time to time, in keeping with the trends and life expectancy of Singaporeans".

Seniors currently pay between 50 cents and $1.50 for entry to ActiveSG's 26 pools and 24 gyms. The new initiative is expected to benefit more than 500,000 citizens.

Retiree Nancy Gan, 69, spends $30 a year for her visits to the Hougang ActiveSG gym. She believes the free access will encourage more seniors to start exercising. She has been working out at the gym since 2004, and goes there at least four times a week.

"I have to keep myself healthy. When you're old, you must exercise. If not, it'll be worse when you fall sick," said Ms Gan, who mostly uses the treadmill and cross-trainer.

"Our Hougang gym has a lot of seniors. If there's free entry, it's better for us - we save a lot of money because at this age we're not working, and we won't be so worried."

Existing gyms are progressively being retrofitted with senior-friendly equipment and all ActiveSG gyms will also be inclusive by 2026 in a move to cater to people of all abilities and ages.

Ms Fu also announced three new Sport-in-Precinct facilities in Sengkang South, Pasir Ris East and Dover, achieving the ministry's target of initiating 20 of these projects - which provide a wider range of accessible sports facilities in residential neighbourhoods - by this year.

Another five ActiveSG facilities - Ang Mo Kio and Yishun swimming complexes, Queenstown, Yio Chu Kang and Yishun sport centres - will be rejuvenated by 2022.

These are part of the $1.5 billion Sports Facilities Master Plan to strengthen the sporting landscape and provide Singaporeans with a venue to play and exercise within a 10-minute walk of their homes by 2030.

Aside from seniors, the Government will also increase opportunities for the young to pursue sport in and out of school to develop a sporting culture.

Under the Nurture Kids programme initiated by national agency SportSG in 2017, more than 5,000 children from 125 pre-schools were last year taught fundamental movement skills such as jumping, throwing and balancing in a safe and fun way. This will be doubled to 250 pre-schools this year.

The School Sports Partnership Programme, piloted by SportSG in 2018 and introduced in five schools, was expanded to 20 primary and secondary schools last year.

Following a review, 10 sports - athletics, badminton, basketball, floorball, football, gymnastics, netball, swimming, table tennis and volleyball - have been selected and this menu of options will be used from this year as SportSG reaches out to more schools.

Which charities to donate to? New index to help public decide at a glance
To be rolled out by next year, it aims to help donors make more informed choices
By Melody Zaccheus, Housing and Heritage Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2020

Charities in Singapore could be graded by next year to help donors narrow down and decide more easily which organisations to donate to.

Work is under way to design this new regulatory compliance indicator, and the aim is to roll it out on the charity portal by next year.

The initiative was announced by Senior Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann yesterday.

She said her ministry is simplifying the process of searching for charities' information on the charity portal to help donors make informed choices.

"Each charity's profile page, starting with those that are Institutions of a Public Character (IPC), will feature information about how well the IPC is governed, for example, its level of regulatory compliance."

The new indicator is intended to reveal at a glance whether a charity has met the minimum 80 per cent compliance prescribed in the Code of Governance for Charities and IPCs, and whether the audit opinion in the independent auditor's report on the charity's financial statements has been qualified.

The Commissioner of Charities (COC) will be piloting this initiative with Singapore's 600 or so IPCs, which form a subset of the 2,277 registered charities as of end-2018.

IPCs are able to issue tax-deduction receipts for qualifying donations made to them, and are held to a higher standard in terms of both regulatory compliance and governance.

The COC said that this staged implementation approach will give other smaller charities more time to improve their governance and compliance.

Currently, the portal presents a charity's profile and track record across four tabs.

The COC will be conducting consultations with charities and members of the public in the second half of this year to glean feedback on how the data can be presented in a useful way.

In addition, a national initiative will be rolled out in the second half of the year to encourage legacy giving - the planned donation from a person's assets.

To make it more convenient for the public, the Community Foundation of Singapore will be introducing an online pledge system for such gifts. Currently, donors make pledges to the Community Foundation of Singapore in writing.

At present, some ways to donate to charity include adding a clause in an individual's will or nominating the Community Foundation of Singapore or another charity as the beneficiary of an insurance policy. Individuals can gift Central Provident Fund monies through a nomination as well.

The Community Foundation of Singapore noted that there is a general lack of awareness and established structure to support legacy giving in Singapore.

Since the Community Foundation of Singapore's inception 11 years ago, donors have donated more than $160 million, of which just about a third were contributions to legacy funds.

The foundation said legacy giving is more commonplace in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. For example, in 2018, British charities received more than £5 billion (S$9 billion) through gifts in wills and in-memory motivated giving.

Community Foundation of Singapore chief executive Catherine Loh said: "There are donors interested in making legacy gifts, but they want more knowledge to make informed choices. They want accountability for their gifts and trust is important before they are willing to donate."

New grant to support Malay/Muslim kids' pre-school education
It will help needy parents save money in Child Development Account
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2020

Low-income Malay/Muslim parents will get more help to save money for their children's pre-school education, with a new grant that will quadruple their savings.

The grant, set up by self-help group Mendaki and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), is open to Malay/Muslim families with children aged six and under, and with a monthly household income of $650 or less.

Grant recipients will receive a matching top-up from community funds when they save in the Child Development Account (CDA), which the Government will further co-match - up to a cap of $360 per year.

This means that if a parent saves $30 in the child's CDA, the Mendaki-Muis Preschool Grant will top up another $30, and the Government will add $60 to the account.

Announcing the grant yesterday, Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad noted that some vulnerable families need extra support beyond existing schemes.

"For our young children, we want to equip them with a strong foundation so that they can achieve in life," he said during the debate on the budget of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Mr Zaqy, who is Mendaki's deputy chairman, was responding to MPs like Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) on plans to support the pre-school sector.

In a fact sheet, Mendaki said the grant is being piloted from January this year to December 2023 for 100 pre-schoolers.

ost of these children will be identified through its Preschool Outreach Programme, which promotes the importance of pre-school education to lower-income families and works closely with them to ensure their children attend school regularly.

A Mendaki spokesman told The Straits Times the group is setting aside $164,000 over the four years for the new grant.

Mr Zaqy also said several changes will be made to Mendaki's tuition scheme, which sees more than 7,000 primary and secondary school students attend extra lessons by volunteers.

Mendaki said these changes, which follow a review last year, will include restructuring tuition centres and introducing cluster principals to oversee the tuition scheme.

Science classes will be introduced for Primary 3 pupils, and subject-based banding will be included in Mendaki's tuition centres.

A volunteer-run mathematics coaching programme will also be piloted under the tuition scheme.

During the debate, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli also gave an update on a series of new community engagement platforms called the CiptaSama@M³, which was announced late last year.

These engagements aim to gather feedback and come up with solutions to improve the Malay/Muslim community, he said.

He added that such discussions have already been taking place with volunteers of the M³@Towns initiative, which brings community programmes to the heartland and creates opportunities for people to volunteer in their neighbourhoods.

"We have started the conversation with the leaders and volunteers of the M³@Towns and we look forward to engaging members of the community from all walks of life in the coming months," he said.

Debate on ministries’ budgets: Health

Prepare for significant increase in Covid-19 cases, and for it to stay long term, says Gan Kim Yong
Infections outside China growing at alarming rates, posing high risk of importation of cases
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

Singapore needs to prepare to live with Covid-19 for a long time, and brace itself for significantly more new cases, Parliament was told yesterday.

A prolonged outbreak could also delay significant projects like Changi Airport's Terminal 5.

Touching on how difficult it is becoming to keep the virus at bay, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said infections outside China are growing at "alarming rates".

"This is worrying as they pose a high risk of importation of cases into Singapore," he said. "Even amongst our closest neighbours, the situation is evolving. Therefore, it is likely that this disease will stay with us for a long time."

Singapore will keep adjusting its response to the changing situation, he said.

As more countries face infections, it will become increasingly difficult to stop the virus at the borders "as we cannot ban visitors from every country and shut ourselves out from the world", he added.

Speaking at a workshop organised by the International Air Transport Association, Senior Minister of State for Health and Transport Lam Pin Min said the current precautions were not sustainable.

In the case of a pandemic, travel restrictions might have to be replaced by measures like rigorous screening at airports so that life can go on, Dr Lam said.

Singapore currently does not admit visitors who have been in China, South Korea, Iran and northern Italy within the last 14 days.

In reply to Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC), Mr Gan said there is a high risk of importing cases even though Singapore is doing swab testing at the borders on people who are ill. But people may enter without showing symptoms and fall sick while here, he added.

"We do expect to see a significantly higher number of cases in time to come," said Mr Gan. "And with higher number of cases in Singapore, the risk of community spread will also increase."

But every outbreak is different, he said in reply to queries from Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) on preparing better for the future. "We must always expect the unexpected."

Measures Singapore takes may need to be adjusted to factor in a long-term outbreak, as it will take some time for vaccines and treatments to become available.

What is critical is the ability "to mount a swift and effective response", including mobilising the resources of all relevant government agencies so those fighting the outbreak can "assess, decide and execute our response quickly", he said.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said a prolonged outbreak may also delay some major transport infrastructure projects such as Terminal 5 at Changi Airport and the expansion of the MRT network, as it may disrupt the supply of construction equipment and materials.

Mr Gan pointed out that "it is important to be transparent and share the information we know as soon as possible" in order to preserve the trust between the people and the Government, which is essential in the fight against Covid-19.

It is equally crucial to counter and respond decisively to fake news "to avoid diversion of our resources and prevent disruptions to our efforts", he added.

Mr Gan praised the SG Clean campaign, which encourages all Singaporeans to adopt good personal and environmental hygiene habits and calls on organisations to adhere to sanitation and hygiene checklists by the authorities, for picking up momentum as that plays an important role in stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

Everyone has to play their part in the fight, and good hygiene practices must become a way of life, he added.

New hospital in the east; Alexandra to be expanded
Integrated hospital and first phase of Alexandra redevelopment should be ready by around 2030
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

More hospitals and polyclinics, innovative models of treating patients and use of artificial intelligence are in the pipeline as the Government aims to provide medical care in the face of rising demand from an ageing population, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament yesterday.

Singapore's 12th public general hospital will be a new integrated acute and community hospital in the east, targeted to be ready around 2030, and will ease the load on Changi General Hospital.

Mr Gan did not give its exact location, but said that on top of the normal range of general hospital services, it will be run by SingHealth and include services and facilities people living there would like.

A new hospital in Woodlands, which faced some construction problems, may still meet the target of opening progressively from 2022, he added.

Meanwhile, Alexandra Hospital will be redeveloped with more land to allow entry from Queensway, making it more accessible to patients, and with more built-up space to trial new models of care. A tender for medical planning consultancy services will be called soon, and the first phase should be ready by 2030.

Announcing these investments in healthcare infrastructure, Mr Gan said: "The healthcare demand has grown substantially as a result of population growth and ageing."

The national healthcare expenditure went up from $13 billion in 2012 to $22 billion in 2017. That was an 11 per cent increase every year.

Mr Gan said 5 percentage points of the increase was due to higher use of facilities and services. While some of the demand comes from an ageing population, increased outlay "is partly the result of making care more accessible and affordable to all, and partly due to earlier diagnosis and closer monitoring and follow-ups for medical conditions".

The higher cost of drugs and medical devices accounted for another 2 percentage points of the increased cost. "The range of treatment options has also expanded as the frontiers of medicine advance, increasing utilisation, but at the same time improving lifespans and the quality of life," he said.

Dr Lam Pin Min, Senior Minister of State for Health, announced that two more polyclinics - bringing the total to 32 by 2030 - will be built in Bishan and Bidadari. Three new polyclinics will open this year in Bukit Panjang, Eunos and Kallang, and one in Sembawang next year. Another six will open by 2026. These are in Khatib, Tampines North, Serangoon, Kaki Bukit, Tengah and Yew Tee.

Replying to Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC) on the use of technology in healthcare, Mr Gan said Singapore continues to explore how technology and telemedicine can improve care. "To date, 25 public healthcare institutions and 39 community care partners have started video consultation pilot services."

Artificial intelligence and robotics will also be used. For instance, a system called Selena+ checks for diabetic eye disease, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration - common age-related diseases.

It grades retinal images and flags only those that show abnormalities, which human graders then assess. The machine doing the first cut means more time for humans to analyse complex cases.

Use of Selena+ may go further, said Mr Gan. "A predictive risk assessment model for cardiovascular disease will be developed so doctors can accurately identify high-risk patients and conduct more timely interventions to save lives and achieve better outcomes."

Pre-packaged sugary drinks to carry A to D grading by end-2021; bubble tea to follow suit
Measures will apply to freshly prepared drinks next; more water dispensers to be installed
By Timothy Goh, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

From end-2021, pre-packaged non-alcoholic drinks with a high sugar or saturated fat content will be required to display a nutrition label with grades from "A" to "D", with "D" being the unhealthiest.

Retailers will also be banned from advertising grade "D" drinks on all media platforms.

The same measures will next be applied to freshly prepared drinks, such as those from bubble tea chains, traditional medicine halls and smoothie chains.

These moves, announced yesterday by Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong - along with the installation of more water dispensers in public spaces to coax people to drink plain water - are part of Singapore's war on diabetes.

About 19,000 people here are diagnosed with diabetes each year.

Mr Tong, speaking during the debate on his ministry's budget, elaborated on the rules on labelling and advertising restrictions.

Known as "Nutri-Grade", the nutrient summary label will have four colour-coded grades from green to red, with letters reflecting the sugar and saturated fat content. The sugar content will also be displayed.

Drinks with "A", the healthiest grade, must have 1g or less of sugar and 0.7g or less of saturated fat per 100ml, and contain no sweetener. These include water, skimmed milk and unsweetened teas.

Drinks with "D", the unhealthiest grade, have more than 10g of sugar or 2.8g of saturated fat per 100ml. These include juice drinks, soft drinks and energy drinks.

The rating is accorded to the highest content of the specified ingredients. For instance, a drink with less than 1g of sugar but more than 2.8g of saturated fat would be rated "D" despite its low sugar content, but a drink with more than 10g of sugar and less than 0.7g of saturated fat would also receive a "D" rating despite its low fat content.

The label is mandatory for drinks with a "C" or "D" grade. About 70 per cent of pre-packaged drinks in Singapore fall into this category.

Advertising of grade "D" drinks will be permitted at retail points of sale, but nowhere else.

The labels and advertising restrictions were first announced by Mr Tong last October, without an implementation date. Neither did it encompass freshly prepared drinks.

But such drinks have become "a substantial and growing source of sugar intake for many Singaporeans", he noted.

Small businesses with one or two stalls, like those in hawker centres, will not be affected by the regulations initially, but this may change as the situation develops, he said.

The Health Ministry and Health Promotion Board will continue to engage the industry in the coming months to better understand the issue and determine how best to implement the measures, he added.

To give consumers a healthier alternative, the Government has been increasing the number of water dispensers across the island. By the middle of this year, water dispensers will be available at all hawker centres here, as well as more than a dozen bus interchanges and terminals.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said the grading system "will clearly send an indication to the industry that there's a need to reformulate so their drinks don't fall into the unhealthy bands of 'C' and 'D'". "But equally, there'll be a signalling to the public, to remind them which products are healthier and less healthy."

However, it is not the final instrument. "If after a couple of years of evaluation, the situation doesn't improve, there may be a need to implement a sugar tax... something governments (elsewhere) have done."

Higher Medisave withdrawal limit for patients with complex chronic conditions from January 2021
By Amrita Kaur, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

From January next year, patients with complex chronic conditions such as diabetes, stroke and dementia can withdraw up to $700 from their Medisave accounts each year for their treatment, up from $500, said Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong yesterday.

But the higher limit is only for patients with two or more conditions under the Chronic Disease Management Plan (CDMP) or one CDMP condition with complications.

The limit stays at $500 for all other Medisave account holders, including those with only one CDMP condition without complications.

The new limits "increase flexibility for patients with complex chronic conditions, as they are likely to incur higher costs for their CDMP treatments", Mr Tong said during the debate on his ministry's budget.

He was replying to MPs such as Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), who had called for greater flexibility in the Medisave withdrawal limits, especially for seniors with significant balances.

Another change he announced was that the withdrawal limit will be set according to per-patient basis instead of per-account basis.

This means a patient is eligible to withdraw only up to the $500 or $700 limit, regardless of how many family members' accounts he had used for his treatment.

Previously, patients who tapped family members' accounts could have their withdrawal limits raised, depending on the number of accounts they used.

Mr Tong said the changes are set to benefit 176,000 people, and his ministry is working to increase the flexibility of Medisave. One way is allowing Medisave savings to be used for more treatments and services.

Currently, it can be used for inpatient and day surgery at acute hospitals, outpatient treatment and some screening tests such as mammograms and colonoscopy.

Another potential move is letting people with severe disabilities withdraw cash, which is set to be part of the upcoming Medisave for Long-Term Care scheme. "With cash withdrawals, patients will also have greater flexibility to choose appropriate care options," said Mr Tong.

Within schemes, patients are also benefiting from greater flexibility, he added, citing the lowering of the age threshold of the Flexi-Medi-save scheme in 2018 from 65 to 60.

The scheme lets these citizens withdraw up to $200 of Medisave each year to pay for outpatient treatments at public-sector specialist outpatient clinics and polyclinics, among others.

"These enhancements are designed to strike a balance between current medical expenses and future healthcare needs," he said.

Free vaccinations for Singaporean children, subsidised for adults at polyclinics and CHAS GP clinics
By Amrita Kaur, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

By the year end, Singaporeans under the age of 18 will receive free vaccinations listed on the National Childhood Immunisation Schedule (NCIS).

Similarly, childhood-development screenings are free at polyclinics and general practitioner (GP) clinics on the Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas).

These moves were announced by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Health Amrin Amin yesterday in Parliament, during the debate on his ministry's budget.

The NCIS includes eight types of vaccines, including those to guard against tuberculosis, hepatitis B and pneumococcal infections - which can lead to pneumonia, meningitis and blood infections.

Adult Singaporeans will also be eligible for means-tested subsidies for vaccinations under the National Adult Immunisation Schedule (NAIS).

These include seven types of vaccines, including those for influenza, the human papillomavirus and pneumococcal infections.

At polyclinics, eligible lower-to middle-income Singaporeans will get 75 per cent subsidy.

Other eligible Singaporeans will get 50 per cent subsidy for the vaccinations.

Pioneer Generation seniors will get an additional 50 per cent off, while the Merdeka Generation will get another 25 per cent.

"We are studying ways to help those who may have difficulties going to polyclinics and Chas GPs, such as nursing home residents, to benefit from these subsidies," Mr Amrin added.

He also announced that the Health Ministry will introduce caps on fees for subsidised NAIS and NCIS vaccinations administered at Chas GP clinics.

Details will be released at a later date.

Replying to Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, Mr Amrin said the coverage for most childhood vaccinations in Singapore exceeded 95 per cent in the past five years.

With the rollout of the subsidies, he hoped more adults will take up the vaccines as he aimed to increase the coverage to more than 50 per cent by 2025.

Debate on ministries’ budgets: Transport

Major transport projects such as Changi T5, new MRT stations could be delayed if Covid-19 outbreak drags on, says Khaw Boon Wan
By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

Major transport infrastructure projects such as Changi Airport Terminal 5 and new MRT stations could be delayed if the coronavirus outbreak drags on, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday.

Mr Khaw told the House his ministry has been tracking the impact of the outbreak on infrastructure projects. "For now, the delay to project timelines is still manageable," he said.

"But if the outbreak drags on, it could disrupt the supply of construction equipment and materials. This could impact the timeline for Terminal 5, Tuas Port, new MRT stations and the next-generation ERP system," he added.

New MRT lines are scheduled to be completed at various points in the next 10 years, while Changi Airport's T5 is expected to be ready in the 2030s and the Tuas Port set to be fully completed in 2040.

Mr Khaw noted that new trains for the rail network are being built in China, where the sprawling industrial sector has slowed to a crawl amid tough measures put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

New trains that are manufactured in China include those for the Thomson-East Coast MRT line and the Bukit Panjang LRT network.

In the short term, the coronavirus is "wreaking havoc around the world", Mr Khaw said.

Within Singapore, public transport operators have been hit hard, he said during the debate on his ministry's budget.

"As fear grips, people telecommute more and go out less. Along with reduced tourist arrivals, our bus, rail, taxi and private-hire car ridership has fallen by about 20 per cent," he added.

Airlines have cancelled more than 20 per cent of their scheduled flights and passenger volume at Changi Airport has plunged by 25 per cent, with a further drop expected.

The cruise and ferry sectors have also been "devastated", said Mr Khaw.

But he also noted that the impact of the coronavirus outbreak has been cushioned by government measures to support various transport sectors, and thanked front-line transport workers for keeping the transport system going during this time.

He added: "The Covid-19 outbreak will burn out. Sooner or later, our economy and our industries will recover.

"While we attend to the immediate needs, we should also focus on the eventual recovery and make full use of this lull period."

Companies can use this opportunity to transform and grow, while the Government can press on with its construction projects in the infrastructure sector, he said in response to Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir).

"On the domestic land transport side, we stand ready to speed up over $100 million worth of cycling path and road construction projects by up to three years," he said.

$60 billion to expand and renew rail network in next decade
Investing in good operations and maintenance is key: Khaw
By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

More than $60 billion will be invested to expand and renew the rail network over the next 10 years, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.

The sum will fund upcoming projects such as the Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL), the Jurong Region Line (JRL) and extensions to the North East Line and Downtown Line, he told the House during the debate on his ministry's budget.

As for renewal projects, he noted that the renewal of the oldest North-South and East-West lines will be completed by around 2023.

A Transport Ministry spokesman said the $60 billion sum is the projected cash flow for the next 10 years. Based on current projections, more than 70 per cent of the amount is expected to go towards building new rail lines and stations, while the remaining sum will be for works such as renewals and upgrading, the spokesman said.

In his speech, Mr Khaw said ageing train stations will also be suitably refurbished and upgraded, especially the toilets and escalators.

"In time, we will also need to renew the next oldest lines - North East Line and Sengkang-Punggol LRT," he said in response to Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC).

"The hard lesson learnt from the problems earlier faced by SMRT is that we must invest in good operations and maintenance," he added.

"As noted by Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC), this means engineering capabilities, as well as the timely renewal of old MRT and LRT lines. There is no free lunch."

On ongoing rail projects, Mr Khaw said Stage 2 of the TEL will be completed by this year.

But subsequent phases of the line are unlikely to be expedited, as it is a complex project with many engineering and safety considerations, he said in response to Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), who asked if the fourth phase of the line - from Founders' Memorial to Bayshore - could be completed before 2023.

Meanwhile, extensions on the North East Line to Punggol Coast, and the Downtown Line to Xilin and Sungei Bedok, will be completed by 2023 and 2024 respectively.

The Circle Line will be a complete circle in 2025, when the sixth stage to link HarbourFront to Marina Bay is ready. "This final stretch at Keppel is the most challenging to build and also the most costly. But when completed in 2025, it will significantly raise the resilience of our MRT network and the travelling experience of our commuters," he said.

The JRL will be completed in 2028, and phase one of the Cross Island Line by 2029.

Mr Khaw did not give an update about a proposed new MRT line in the latest Land Transport Masterplan, which the Land Transport Authority said it was conducting feasibility studies on. The proposed line could run from Woodlands to the Greater Southern Waterfront, potentially serving estates such as Seletar, Sengkang and Whampoa.

In 2010, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced a similar $60 billion budget to improve the rail network. During his National Day Rally speech that year, he said the Government would spend some $60 billion over the next decade to double Singapore's rail network and add more trains to ease overcrowding. He said then that a major part of the expenses would go towards doubling the MRT network to 280km in 2020.

Singapore's current rail network stands at about 230km. The Transport Ministry has said that it aims to expand the network to about 360km by 2030. Should all plans come to fruition, the total length of Singapore's rail network will extend to almost 400km by 2040.

All new public buses will be electric or hybrid, says Janil Puthucheary
This is in line with Govt's goal to have fleet of public buses run on cleaner energy by 2040
By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

Singapore will eventually ditch public buses which run solely on diesel power.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Janil Puthucheary said the Government will buy either electric or hybrid buses from now on, adding that this is in line with its goal to have its fleet of public buses - numbering around 5,400 now - run on cleaner energy by 2040.

The Straits Times understands the hybrids are likely to be diesel-electric models, as these are most widely available. Both types will cost more than conventional buses.

Dr Janil said Singapore has deployed 50 diesel-electric buses on the road since March last year.

"We have also bought 60 fully-electric buses and will be deploying them progressively this year," he told the House yesterday, adding that new bus depots will be designed to support electric buses.

He also encouraged taxi operators to switch to electric cabs.

Mass market electric taxis will require "the minimum Additional Registration Fee of $5,000", he noted. As at end-January, only 133 out of 18,528 cabs were electric.

Nanyang Business School Adjunct Associate Professor Zafar Momin said bus operators will need to make adjustments to accommodate such changes in their fleet. "Other than training more drivers for handling new bus types in the fleet, they will need to adjust the infrastructure and technical skills of their maintenance and repair staff," he said.

While electric buses may be easier to maintain as they have fewer parts, hybrids "may be more complicated than conventional buses and perhaps as costly to maintain".

Beyond buses and taxis, Singapore plans to phase out all vehicles which are solely powered by combustion engines by 2040, a move Dr Janil described as ambitious.

"This means that after 2030, we should see no new purchases of internal combustion engine vehicles," he noted.

With around 900,000 combustion engine vehicles on the road now, he said "this will require an extensive transformation of the fleet, significant changes in commuting and consumer behaviour and the development of the necessary supporting infrastructure".

On infrastructure, the Government will work with the private sector to roll out more electric vehicle (EV) charging points, notably in public carparks. By 2030, there will be 28,000 points, up from 1,600 now.

To pave the way for more electric vehicles to be imported, Dr Janil announced that the Japanese Chademo fast-charging standard will be allowed here. This 120kW system can charge an electric car in about 30 minutes, and is compatible with the Nissan Leaf, the world's top-selling electric car, which was launched here last year.

He also outlined steps to cope with the increase in electricity demand arising from EV adoption.

He said Singapore will ramp up its power generation capacity, reinforce its grid network, and apply smart charging and energy storage solutions "that store energy from the grid during off-peak periods".

New tax incentives announced during the Budget will kick in next year, to nudge consumers towards EVs. Valid till 2023 and estimated to cost $71 million, they are meant to close the wide price gap between combustion engine cars and EVs.

Dr Janil expects EVs "to reach cost parity with internal combustion engine vehicles by the mid-2020s". As existing EV owners did not benefit from the new tax rebates, they will not have to pay a new annual lump sum tax up till end-2023.

Mr Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang GRC) asked if the 2030 target to have no more new combustion engine vehicle sales was realistic.

"In 10 years' time, almost 100 per cent of the new cars sold will be EVs or clean energy vehicles, but now we are at 0.1 per cent," Mr Yee said. "How do we move from 0.1 to 100 per cent in 10 years' time?"

Dr Janil replied that with the new incentives, more will be encouraged to switch.

"We hope that over the next 10 years, there are increasing reasons for choose to buy an electric car. We hope that somewhere around 2030 we will have the last sale of an internal combustion engine (vehicle), and then over a 10-year cycle, by 2040, we will have an entire cleaner and greener fleet here."

Asked if combustion engine vehicles will be banned in 2040, a Transport Ministry spokesman said talk of a ban is "premature".

More right-turn arrow junctions and Silver Zones to improve road safety
By Wong Kai Yi, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

Some 1,200 traffic junctions will be fitted with red-amber-green (RAG) right-turn arrows by 2023 to improve safety for motorists and pedestrians.

There are currently more than 300 junctions, out of the 1,600 here, with this traffic scheme which prevents motorists from making discretionary right turns at junctions.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Baey Yam Keng gave this update yesterday, in response to a question from Workers' Party MP Png Eng Huat (Hougang).

Mr Png had asked if the Government could "take the guesswork out" for pedestrians who are crossing such a junction.

As per the name, cars can make right turns at such junctions as long as there is a suitable gap in oncoming traffic.

However, two fatal accidents in 2018 involving vehicles making discretionary right turns spurred calls for right-turn arrows to be installed at more traffic junctions. RAG arrows make turnings safer and more controlled, but has the potential to slow traffic down.

If it is not feasible to outfit a junction with RAG arrows, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) noted that it will look into other features like turning pockets, lighted road studs, integrated pedestrian countdown timers, dashed pedestrian crossing lines and "Give Way to Pedestrian" signs.

Separately, Mr Baey also said 15 more Silver Zones will be built in estates such as Tampines, Ang Mo Kio and Hougang by 2023 to cater to seniors.

That will bring the number of Silver Zones islandwide to 50. There are 17 zones now, with another 18 by next year.

The Silver Zone scheme involves building traffic-calming measures and senior-friendly road safety features in areas that have a high proportion of senior residents, as well as in areas where there have been past accidents involving seniors.

These zones are also located near amenities such as medical centres so seniors can access them more easily and safely.

Mr Baey said Silver Zones have reduced the number of road accidents involving senior pedestrians by 80 per cent.

Speed limits will also be lowered at certain Silver Zones in future to improve safety, he added.

The speed limit at such zones is 40kmh.

LTA said last November that it would begin a one-year trial next month to reduce the speed limit at the Silver Zones in Bukit Merah View and Jurong West Street 52 to 30kmh.

Debate on ministries’ budgets: Social and Family Development

Call for more Singaporeans to help others in society
Individuals and organisations can partner Govt to run programmes, says Desmond Lee
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

Many companies, volunteers and groups have stepped forward to help their neighbours and others in need of assistance over the past year, and Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee hopes more Singaporeans will do so.

"Our society is stronger and more resilient when all Singaporeans come together, when we look out not only for ourselves, but our families, neighbours and fellow Singaporeans in need," Mr Lee told Parliament yesterday.

Speaking during the debate on his ministry's budget, Mr Lee outlined several initiatives that individuals and organisations could come together to partner the Government on.

One is the Youth Mental Well-being Network, which will bring together people who are keen to help those with mental health issues. Over 700 individuals and organisations have expressed their interest.

Mr Lee said: "I hope many Singaporeans will partner us to jointly develop solutions for a healthier and happier society. Our young people deserve the best start in life."

Another initiative is the Community Capability Trust - a new fund for social service agencies to improve their capability and capacity - that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had announced in his Budget speech last month.

Contributions from the Government, the Tote Board and the community could add up to $480 million, with the Government and the Tote Board initially contributing $200 million. The Community Chest will give $30 million, said Mr Lee.

The minister acknowledged that capability-and capacity-building can sound abstract, and cited the example of Angsana Home, a welfare home managed by Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society in Pelangi Village.

The home has implemented an artificial intelligence-enabled sound recognition and motion detection monitoring system so that its staff can be quickly alerted when residents need attention. This new system is an example of what the fund can support, said Mr Lee.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Dr Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC) had asked how the Ministry of Social and Family Development works with different community agencies to support those in need in a coordinated manner.

Mr Lee said his ministry's approach is to work with these agencies "as equal partners right from the get-go".

Over the past year, local work groups comprising social service agencies, schools and pre-schools, government agencies and grassroots members went door to door to engage families with young children. They also held discussions to better understand the families, and link them to the right agencies for support and interventions.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) had asked how the ministry helped those with homes who are sleeping in public due to family problems.

Mr Lee cited the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers network as an initiative where different partners have come together to collaborate on solutions.

He said as a result of the trust between government agencies, charities, religious organisations and community groups through the network, "we were collectively able to support more rough sleepers in finding longer-term solutions, than if each of us were to work alone".

Mr Lee also hoped more people would step forward to help children from lower-income households as part of the Growing Together with KidStart movement launched in September last year. So far, over $800,000 has been raised and there are about 250 volunteers.

"If you join us, you can partner families, the community and the Government to provide extra resources and support, and watch these children grow up," said Mr Lee. "Let us work together to make Singapore a place where those in need are better supported, and where Singaporeans have the chance to pursue their dreams, regardless of their starting points and what they may have encountered as they progress in life."

More support for pre-school and student care needs
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

Low-income families with young children will soon receive more financial support in terms of subsidies, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim told the House yesterday.

Families with pre-schoolers living in HDB rental flats or receiving ComCare assistance will automatically qualify for the maximum pre-school subsidies from August - meaning they could pay as little as $3 a month for full-day childcare, depending on the operator.

This will save time and hassle for families, who will not have to provide additional supporting documents to apply for the subsidies.

Newly enrolled children from these families will also receive financial support more quickly for enrolment costs such as uniforms, under the Start-Up Grant.

To provide children from lower-income families with greater accessibility to extra development activities such as speech and drama programmes and excursions, the Preschool Opportunity Fund will be extended for three more years.

Eligible operators who want to carry out such projects can apply to this fund, with a cap of $1,300 per child for the project. The number of children who have benefited from the fund increased from 900 in 2014 to 2,400 last year.

Associate Professor Faishal said: "We want to ensure that children from low-income families can access developmental opportunities at their pre-school."

He estimated that about 2,700 children will benefit each year, in the coming three years.

He also announced that from this year, all pre-school centres will be closed on Teachers' Day to show appreciation to their educators.

Meanwhile, lower-income families with older children aged between seven and 14 who need student care services will also get more financial support.

From July 1, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) will raise the amount of subsidies so that eligible families will receive up to $60 more in Student Care Fee Assistance monthly. The existing qualifying monthly household income ceiling of $4,000 will be raised to $4,500 and the per capita income ceiling will be raised from $1,000 to $1,125. Both moves are expected to help around 9,000 children.

Families in the lowest gross household income tier of $1,500 a month or less will receive up to 98 per cent in subsidies, capped at $290, and pay as low as $5 a month.

Over 400 student care centres in schools and neighbourhoods are registered with MSF to administer the Student Care Fee Assistance.

The subsidies have been a source of relief for Mr Mohammad Noor Saiful Mohammad Sari, 30. He and his brother Amirul Firdaus, 26, take care of their 11-year-old sister, Nurlaila Aaqilah. Their mother died of cancer in 2018.

Mr Saiful, who is between jobs, said his sister enjoys going to the PPIS Student Care Centre in Bedok daily after school. She has been enrolled there for about three years.

He said: "She really likes the excursions and interacting with the other children, and will always tell us excitedly what she did that day."

The additional subsidies are welcome as the family's finances have been tight. "The subsidies allow us to spend the money instead on food, transport and extra activities to benefit my sister," he added.

More subsidies for children with disabilities at special student care centres
By Theresa Tan, Senior Social Affairs Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

Families with disabled children who are attending special student care centres will get more fee subsidies, and more will qualify for help as the income criteria are expanded.

With the extra help, most families will, on average, pay between 30 and 80 per cent less in fees. For example, a family with a total monthly household income of $4,000 will pay $142 a month when the subsidies kick in - about 75 per cent less than the $582 they had to pay previously.

Meanwhile, the eligible household income for means-tested subsidies will be raised from $4,000 to $9,200 a month.

Special student care centres provide after-school care and supervision for children with disabilities aged between seven and 18.

The changes will take effect on July 1, Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sam Tan said in Parliament yesterday.

Responding to Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) on the affordability of such care centres, Mr Tan said they are "particularly essential" for caregivers who need to work or care for other dependants and themselves.

There are currently five special student care centres located in or near special education schools, with about 130 students enrolled.

Madam Valerie Lim, 43, a single mother with three children, said her daughter, Kylie, has benefited from attending the Raintree Special Student Care Centre run by Minds, a charity helping people with intellectual disability.

Kylie, 17, has intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder.

"Kylie is better at communicating now and she is more cheerful as she has made friends at the centre. When she is happy, she is better able to learn to be more independent," said Madam Lim, an accounts and administrative assistant earning less than $3,000 a month. She is thankful for the higher subsidy as she needs to pay only $35 a month, instead of $106.

SG Enable, set up by the Ministry of Social And Family Development (MSF) to support people with disabilities, has launched a new online resource called the Enabling Guide. It is a one-stop website to help people find information on the various disability schemes and services.

From Oct 1, SG Enable will be the single touch point for disability services here. It will take over the administration of disability programmes currently run by the MSF and the National Council of Social Service. This includes the funding administration and management of services by special education schools and adult disability homes.

Mr Tan said: "Bringing different functions under one roof will improve efficiency, oversight and co-ordination of services. In addition, it will provide clear direction for the many helping hands involved."

He also gave an update on the three work groups that are looking into employment, independent living and inclusive pre-schools.

Since they were formed last year, the work groups have consulted more than 200 people with disabilities and their caregivers as well as over 40 social service agencies in the disability sector.

The groups will release their recommendations later this year.

Debate on ministries' budgets: Education

Schools to help students navigate the digital world
Each Sec 1 student to have a personal learning device by 2024; more lessons in cyber wellness
By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

Every Secondary 1 student will have a personal learning device for e-learning by 2024, and schools will devote more time to teaching students about cyber wellness.

These moves to equip students with the skills and values to navigate the digital world come as the usage of social media among young people continues to grow.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung yesterday set out in Parliament how his ministry plans to boost digital literacy, and ramp up cyber wellness and mental health education.

Personal devices are as essential for e-learning as paper and pen are for a traditional lesson, he noted.

He said these devices - which could be a tablet, laptop or Chromebook - will be affordable, and students can pay for them through their Edusave accounts. Students from lower-income households will get further subsidies to ensure they do not have to pay any cash.

Students can use the devices to access an online learning portal with materials such as videos and other assessments.

The move is part of a national digital literacy programme the Ministry of Education (MOE) will roll out to guide students' use of technology, as part of a "Learn for Life" movement that began two years ago.

Students will also be taught digital literacy in a way that helps them, instead of becoming a distraction.

They will be taught to "find" data from digital sources in a safe and responsible way.

They should then be able to "think" about this data and use it to solve problems systematically.

Most importantly, they should be able to "apply" digital resources productively to learn and work.

Finally, they should be able to use technology to "create", whether that means coding a program or developing an app.

At the same time, in an acknowledgement that the impact of technology on children can be complex, the MOE will ramp up cyber wellness and mental health education.

In his speech, Mr Ong asked: "How do we ensure that our young make the right choices and survive well in an online world?

"In an online world, you can be anonymous, and there are no policemen, no editors, no verifiers. A child can choose to be nasty and then get away with it, with very little consequences.

"Whereas in the real world, it is not as easy to say something nasty to your friend to his face."

He pointed out that instilling values and morals in students will be key to guiding them as they use technology.

To this end, the new character and citizenship education (CCE) curriculum will devote more time and resources to discussing issues such as social media and cyber bullying. In particular, schools will pay closer attention to the mental well-being of students, which is closely related to cyber wellness.

Elaborating on these efforts, Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah said secondary schools will cover mental health education in the CCE syllabus so that students understand mental health issues and learn to have empathy for those with such conditions.

The aim is also to develop a peer support culture in all schools by 2022 so that students will know how to look out for each other, and flag to teachers and counsellors any cases of peers who need help.

"Research has shown that having a sense of affiliation among peers, positive vibes and feeling supported by one another, all contribute to positive well-being," said Ms Indranee.

The changes to come in CCE, said Mr Ong, are meant to reinforce the teaching of values in children from as young as possible. "Digital world problems require analogue world solutions. It goes back to our values, our morals, our humanity."

All sec school students to have personal learning devices by 2028
By Jolene Ang, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

All 280 Secondary 2 students at Orchid Park Secondary School have had a Chromebook since last year, as part of a pilot programme using personal learning devices.

Over the next four years, more students across schools will similarly have a device in hand, on which they can access the Singapore Student Learning Space (SLS) - an online learning platform with educational tools and resources - in class and at home.

It will start with Secondary 1 students, but by 2028, every secondary school student will have his own device, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday during the debate on the ministry's budget.

This is part of a national digital literacy programme the Ministry of Education (MOE) is rolling out.

Bulk tender will be used to lower the price to "probably a few hundred dollars", Mr Ong said, and all students will get an Edusave top-up of $200 to support the purchase. Students from lower-income households will get further subsidies so that their out-of-pocket cost is zero.

Teachers can assign work through SLS and monitor students' progress in real time. They can also see which questions students are struggling with and quickly address any misconceptions.

During a media visit to Orchid Park Secondary last Wednesday, The Straits Times observed a mathematics teacher using a "heat map" to show students' answers to various questions.

The teacher could see a list of students' names and, next to them, a row of boxes that changed colour in real time. Green and red indicate a right and wrong answer respectively, while yellow could indicate a student was unsure. This clued the teacher in to which students needed help.

More schools have adopted this online learning platform since it was rolled out in 2018 by MOE.

Besides such in-class work, teachers can use SLS to curate resources such as YouTube videos.

Mr Aaron Loh, MOE's divisional director of educational technology, told ST that resources are continually developed and updated.

There is also an SLS Community Gallery where teachers can share lessons with the teaching fraternity, "creating a rich pool of teacher-initiated resources that their peers can use and learn from", said Mr Loh.

Orchid Park Secondary's head of information and communications technology Tan Yaw Jin, who is also a Chinese language teacher, said students have become more expressive in their views when sharing opinions online.

An option to post anonymously "makes them more open to share their views without worrying about embarrassing themselves or sounding superficial".

Teachers can still use the answers for class discussions and get students to speak up to build their confidence.

The school's principal, Mr Shawal Hussin, said: "(With the personal devices), students understand topics better through visual and audio aids. At any time, they can revise their work and are not restricted by the old ways of learning."

There are also ways to control usage and screen time, such as blocking gaming apps or programming the devices to switch off after midnight.

Mr Shawal said the school has not stopped students from accessing social media platforms. Cyber wellness programmes teach them to navigate such spaces responsibly, he said. "There's no point bubble-wrapping them... We can teach them how to use (social media) properly and inculcate good values in them."

Sec 2 student Vincent Tse, 13, said he frequently uses his Chromebook to take notes in class as it is quicker than writing.

"It's a privilege to have such resources... it makes class more interesting so we can stay focused."

MOE will also expose more children to computational thinking. Starting this year, all primary schools will offer a 10-hour Code for Fun enrichment programme for upper primary pupils.

From next year, more secondary schools - 30, up from 22 - and junior colleges - 10, up from eight - will also offer O-and A-Level computing to boost the computing talent pipeline.

A revised lower secondary science syllabus will be rolled out next year to give students a better understanding of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.

The institutes of higher learning also aim to build a foundation in basic digital competencies for its students.

They will expose students to skills such as quantitative reasoning through new or enhanced modules.

Students in fields that require more advanced digital skills, such as the finance and cyber security sectors, will be able to pursue such competencies at higher levels.

Schools to place greater emphasis on cyber wellness
More time devoted next year to help students cope with pressures
By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

The teaching of values will be revamped from next year to help students better handle new pressures stemming from the popularity of social media and smart devices.

A new Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum will place greater emphasis on cyber wellness and mental health education, giving students more space to discuss these topics.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, in his reply to several MPs, including Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC), said yesterday that more attention on cyber wellness is needed.

"The young of today are different from previous generations in one major aspect, which is their exposure to technology," he said. "Technology presents children with the influences, choices and decisions previous generations never had to contend with."

The changes in the CCE curriculum are a result of a review that started in 2016, said Mr Ong during the parliamentary debate on his ministry's budget.

The new curriculum will be progressively implemented in all primary and secondary schools from next year. Schools will spend about 50 per cent more time discussing cyber wellness issues with students.

In secondary schools, mental wellness will be part of the refreshed CCE syllabus. The mental well-being of youth in Singapore has emerged as a key concern in the past few years, with more seeking help for mental health challenges.

Later in the debate, Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah said schools will help students develop resilience, as they learn to manage their relationships, emotions and conflicts.

Schools will also select peer support leaders to take on a more active role in looking out for their peers. By 2022, all schools will have these peer support structures, Ms Indranee added.

Similarly, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education have worked with the Health Promotion Board to develop mental health resources for their students.

Said Ms Indranee: "The smallest, simplest gestures can make a difference. Anyone can do it. That's what makes peer support so powerful."

By 2022, every secondary school will also have specialised CCE teachers, to meet the more complex needs in values education.

Mr Ong said CCE will be further weaved into lessons and activities, such as co-curricular activities and cohort camps.

For lower primary pupils, primary schools will focus more on imparting moral values in mother tongue languages. For upper primary pupils, the weekly form teacher guidance period will be broadened to cover topics in national education and citizenship.

In secondary schools, contemporary issues such as bullying, online media, and race and religion will be discussed in CCE lessons at least once a fortnight.

"(Some of these topics) are sensitive to discuss but they are important to help students better understand the complexities of our country and of life," said Mr Ong.

"Teachers will guide students to listen attentively, converse respectfully and be open to differing perspectives."

Digital literacy will be one main focus of schools going forward, he said. "Students will learn to critically evaluate what they read online, be able to tell genuine news from falsehoods, and not rely on social media 'likes' for validation.

"They need to be able to say 'no' to bad influences, protect themselves from cyber bullies and predators."

Mr Ong added: "Values are what distinguish us from computers and machines, (are) what we cannot abdicate to technology. We apply our moral and values system whether we are offline or online."

More help in school for students with special needs
By Jolene Ang, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

From July, teachers in mainstream schools will get access to bite-size online learning modules that will better equip them to teach students with special educational needs (SEN).

Around 80 per cent of students with special needs are taught in mainstream schools, while the remaining 20 per cent with higher needs go to special education (Sped) schools.

In announcing this move yesterday, Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah said that funding for Sped schools has risen by about 40 per cent in the past five years, but "we can and will do more".

Three new Sped schools will be opened, she said, on top of the 19 existing schools.

Of the three, one is for students with moderate to severe special needs who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disability.

The other two are for students with moderate special needs with ASD who can access the national curriculum.

The Ministry of Education is also recruiting more non-teaching staff to provide learning and behavioural support to students with special needs.

Last July, it increased the number of training places for these allied educators from 60 to 600 a year.

These educators support children who have learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, as well as counsel and guide them on integrating into mainstream schools.

Now, there are around 2,000 allied educators, with about 600 specialising in learning and behavioural support working in primary and secondary schools.

Other types of allied educators include school counsellors, outdoor adventure educators and student welfare officers.

Ms Indranee, in her reply to Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) and Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC), also said that the SEN Fund will be extended to students with learning and language difficulties, such as dyslexia, and social and behavioural difficulties like autism.

From next month, students can tap the fund to buy assistive technology devices - such as a reader pen for someone with dyslexia - for up to a maximum of $5,000.

When the fund was set up in 2014, it was for polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students with physical or sensory impairment, such as deafness or blindness.

The autonomous universities will extend the same support to their students with special needs, Ms Indranee added.

She said: "Feedback on the SEN Fund has been positive. It has helped students to keep up with academic learning and improve day-to-day interaction with peers."

Debate on ministries' budgets: National Development

HDB to scrap Re-Offer of Balance Flat exercises; single unwed parents can buy new 3-room flats in non-mature estates
More balance flats to be offered for open booking earlier
By Michelle Ng, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

To help home buyers get flats more quickly, the Housing Board will scrap the existing Re-Offer of Balance Flats (ROF) exercises.

All unsold Build-To-Order (BTO) flats will first be offered through Sale of Balance Flats exercises, and those that remain unselected will be directly offered for open booking, instead of going through another round of balloting.

The move was among various measures that National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced yesterday, to meet the housing needs of different groups, including unwed parents and seniors.

He noted that more balance flats will be offered for open booking earlier by cutting out ROF exercises.

The HDB had rolled out an open booking option last June for unselected flats left over from ROF exercises, to allow buyers to apply for a new flat all year round, instead of waiting for semi-annual sales exercises.

"Now that we have some experience with this open booking system, we are ready to extend it further," Mr Wong said. "This will enable home-seekers with urgent needs to access flats more quickly."

Help is also at hand for vulnerable groups such as unwed single parents and seniors.

Unwed single parents aged 21 and above will be allowed to buy new three-room flats in non-mature estates, on top of the existing two-room flexi flats in non-mature estates and resale flats, said Mr Wong.

"For those who have insufficient finances and need a place to stay, we will continue to consider them for public rental if it is in the child's best interests," he told the House.

Unwed single parents who need help have to approach the HDB.

Mr Wong also announced improvements to existing schemes that aim to help more seniors monetise their flats to fund their retirement.

The Silver Housing Bonus, a cash bonus given to older flat owners who meet certain requirements when they buy a three-room or smaller flat, will be increased to $30,000 from $20,000.

Introduced in 2013, the bonus helps elderly households supplement their retirement income. But to qualify, they have to sell their current flat and top up their Central Provident Fund Retirement Account with the sales proceeds.

To make the scheme more attractive, seniors will be required to top up their account with only a flat sum of $60,000, with no other top-ups required.

Seniors also no longer have to sell a larger flat and move into a smaller one to qualify for the bonus.

They can sell any existing flat as long as they buy a three-room or smaller flat.

The Lease Buyback Scheme bonus will also be increased by 50 per cent, up to a maximum of $30,000.

Owners can get a maximum cash bonus of $30,000 for three-room and smaller flats, $15,000 for four-room flats and $7,500 for five-room and larger flats.

The scheme allows flat owners aged 65 and above to sell part of their leases back to the HDB, regardless of flat types.

They need to sell at least 20 years of their lease, while still having 15 to 30 years of the lease left after the sale, depending on their age.

The improvements to both schemes took effect yesterday.

Mr Wong also said his ministry will share more details in the coming year on a new model for BTO flats in prime locations.

He noted that in some prime locations, the prices of resale HDB flats are beyond the reach of many young couples just starting out.

"If this trend continues, it will mean that certain public housing estates become exclusive areas that only a few can afford, and will lead to social stratification.

"So we have to do something about this," he said.

The basic idea behind the new model is to sell such flats at more affordable prices, but impose tighter conditions, he added.

This is a major change that has to be carefully studied as it will also have an impact on the resale market, he said.

Singapore's 2030 goal: More gardens, park connectors
Move to enhance Republic's natural capital to turn it into a city in nature, says minister
By Melissa Heng, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

Singapore will transform into a greener city in the next 10 years, with more plant life and nature integrated into urbanised areas, in a move to transform it from a "city in a garden" to a "city in nature".

In announcing the new vision yesterday, Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said the project is strategic as it will enhance and extend Singapore's natural capital.

"(It will) provide Singaporeans with a better quality of life, while coexisting with our flora and fauna. Indeed, with climate change, more extreme weather conditions, increased urbanisation, we must do more," he told Parliament during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Work will be carried out by the National Parks Board (NParks) in four key steps, he added.

These are: extending the Nature Park Network, intensifying nature in gardens and parks, restoring nature into the built environment and strengthening connectivity between Singapore's green spaces.

The nature park network, which covers 350ha, will get an additional 200ha by 2030. These parks serve as buffers to protect nature reserves from the impact of urbanisation and human activities.

Singapore's four nature reserves - Bukit Timah, Central Catchment, Labrador and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve - protect primary and secondary rainforests and are core habitats for native biodiversity.

Mr Lee said: "Singaporeans can look forward to more places like Rifle Range Nature Park for nature-based recreation, such as hiking and bird watching."

For example, a 40ha nature park will be established in Khatib Bongsu, a rich mangrove and mudflat habitat on the north-eastern coast of Singapore.

Nature lovers can also expect 140ha of new gardens and parks in the next five years.

These parks will have more greenery with natural landscape designs and a wider variety of plants. Waterways and water bodies in parks will also be naturalised.

This had been done in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park and Lakeside Garden, where concrete canals were transformed into natural rivers that help shield against the rise in sea levels and flooding.

Thirty therapeutic gardens designed for seniors and those with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dementia will also be built by 2030.

The new move will also see more greenery in urban areas.

Singapore now has 115km of nature ways, which are the forest-like structures and green corridors along the roads. They help to keep the streets cool and resilient to the effects of urbanisation.

NParks aims to have an additional 185km of nature ways by 2030.

There will also be more greenery in the industrial estates, with another 100,000 trees to be planted in Tuas Industrial Estate and Seletar Aerospace Park, among others.

Connectivity between Singapore's green spaces will be increased as well.

Singapore has 340km of park connectors islandwide and this will be increased to 500km by 2030.

By then, all households will be within a 10-minute walk from a park, said Mr Lee.

Singaporeans will be engaged to help achieve a greener city.

NParks will launch a One Million Trees movement in the next 10 years. About 100 people and more than 100 groups and organisations have pledged their support for this.

NParks also aims to grow its volunteer pool from the current 48,000 to 70,000 by 2030.

Said Mr Lee: "We want a whole new generation of Singaporeans to carry on this responsibility to keep planting and nurturing trees, for the benefit of future Singaporeans."

New grant of up to $30,000 for residents living in HDB flats with no direct lift access
By Michelle Ng, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

A new grant of up to $30,000 will be available to residents with medical or mobility issues, who live in HDB blocks without a lift that stops on every floor.

This lift access housing grant will be offered to those who live in blocks that are ineligible for the Housing Board's lift upgrading programme, to help offset the cost of buying a new or resale flat with direct lift access.

Announcing the grant yesterday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said there remain about 150 blocks across Singapore where lift upgrading is not possible, either due to excessive costs or existing technical or site constraints.

He was responding to Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC).

For some of these blocks, lift upgrading is "just not technically feasible, regardless of the cost", Mr Wong said.

For many others, the costs far exceed the cost cap of $30,000 per household, he noted.

"We're talking about costs that can be more than $200,000 per household, as Mr Png Eng Huat said, enough to buy another HDB flat," he said.

While HDB will explore new technical methods to bring down costs, it is more cost-effective for residents who urgently need direct lift access to move to another flat, he added.

The issue of lift upgrading for blocks without direct lift access came up earlier this year, when the Singapore Democratic Party lobbied for it at blocks 115 and 119 in Marsiling Rise.

In a Facebook post, Mr Ong, the ward's MP, said he remains optimistic that government agencies can find a way to overcome present constraints.

Debate on ministries' budgets: Environment and Water Resources

Singapore to take steps against shock waves of climate change
Nation needs all hands on deck, including households, to cut carbon footprint: Masagos
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

Singapore is pulling out all the stops to buffer its small and open economy against the shock waves of climate change, from ramping up efforts to curb heat-trapping emissions to protecting its coastlines and growing eco-awareness in homes.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) Masagos Zulkifli yesterday gave an overarching view of how the nation aims to cope in a warming world, by putting sustainability at its very core.

"Only by living and practising sustainability together can we mitigate the impacts of climate change and secure the resources needed to take Singapore into the future," he told Parliament.

One critical way of doing this is by reducing harmful greenhouse gases. "Every country, large or small, must do its share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," he said.

Last month, Singapore announced a new long-term target of halving the emissions it produces from their 2030 peak by 2050, with the aim of achieving net-zero emissions as soon as viable in the second half of the century.

In the nearer term, Singapore wants its emissions to peak at 65 million tonnes by 2030. This means that even if the economy grows, the emissions produced should not.

To do its part in support of the Paris Agreement - a climate pact among almost 200 nations in 2015 - Singapore will take additional steps to reduce its emissions on top of existing schemes such as the carbon tax, said Mr Masagos during the debate over his ministry's budget.

Singapore will be implementing more measures to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in various sectors, including households. For instance, it will introduce a new Commercial Vehicle Emissions Scheme for new light goods vehicles, which make up the largest proportion of commercial vehicles.

Efforts will also be made to reduce the release of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), greenhouse gases that have greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas driving climate change. HFCs can be found as refrigerants in refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment, and could leak during installation, maintenance and disposal.

Measures include a new course to train and certify technicians to handle refrigerants properly, and mandating the proper recovery, reclamation and destruction of spent refrigerants from next year.

MEWR will also take the lead in cutting its carbon footprint, said Mr Masagos, by aiming to generate sufficient energy from waste incineration and solar systems to power all of his ministry's needs.

For example, national water agency PUB's five water treatment plants - Choa Chu Kang, Bedok, Chestnut, Lower Seletar and Woodleigh, as well as Marina Barrage - will be powered fully by renewable energy once the floating solar photovoltaic system on Tengeh Reservoir is built.

To involve households in the quest to cut the nation's carbon footprint, the Government will introduce a $24.8 million Climate-Friendly Household Package. Households in one-to three-room Housing Board flats will receive a one-off $150 voucher to purchase more energy-efficient refrigerator models.

Singapore will also be taking steps to adapt to the changing climate.

This year, the Republic will start its first coastal protection studies to determine the type, feasibility and extent of measures required to protect it from rising seas, Mr Masagos said.

And to improve local agriculture so the nation is resilient to disruptions in the global food supply, the Singapore Food Agency will study how farming on land and in the sea can be increased, he said.

Tackling climate change requires all hands on deck, he stressed.

"Let us all play our part and work together, as one people, to ensure that Singapore remains a liveable home for our future generations."

Local production key to food security: Masagos
Singapore Food Agency to study possibility of expanding land and sea farming
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

Increasingly, erratic weather owing to climate change may cause disruptions in the global food supply, but Singapore will work on multiple fronts to ensure its food security.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli told Parliament yesterday Singapore has three "food baskets" to ensure its food security.

These include having a diversity of food sources, as well as growing food overseas and locally.

Diversification has been a key strategy for Singapore, which imports more than 90 per cent of its food from over 170 countries and regions.

While this enables Singapore to reduce the impact of food supply shortages and price changes, Mr Masagos noted that, ultimately, prices are determined by a combination of other factors, such as import prices, exchange rates and profit margins which suppliers can command.

Local production is also important to buffer the country against global food supply shocks.

"Our vision is to locally produce 30 per cent of Singapore's nutritional needs by 2030, from less than 10 per cent today," he added.

To achieve this, the Government will look at how it can expand Singapore's food production areas on land and in the sea.

Lim Chu Kang could well become the nation's food bowl, with the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) embarking on a study this year on how the larger Lim Chu Kang agriculture area can be redeveloped to enhance food production.

The study will look at the possibility of centralised facilities and services to reduce the cost of food production, said Mr Masagos.

It will also look at how circular economy principles can be introduced, so that the by-product of one farm can be used as an input for another, he said. This could include using animal waste as fertiliser, for example.

SFA will also look at how to unlock the potential of farming at sea. The agency is studying expanding sustainable fish farming in the deeper southern waters of Singapore.

"We will ensure that such aquaculture is productive and environmentally responsible," Mr Masagos said.

Currently, most of Singapore's offshore fish farms are located in the Johor Strait, north of Singapore.

"Like land, every space at sea that can be used for food production must be judiciously managed," he said.

To supplement the increase in local food supply, the Government will encourage Singaporeans here to buy local produce.

This year, for example, has been designated as the Year of Singapore's food story, said Mr Masagos.

There will be more opportunities for Singaporeans to grow their own food, he added, noting that in the coming months, SFA will tender 16 rooftop spaces on Housing Board multi-storey carparks across the island, totalling over 30,000 sq m.

"As we grow our agri-sector, let's get involved in growing food in our own backyards," he said.

Mr Masagos said that amid growing awareness of how the livestock sector is contributing to climate change, alternative proteins are poised to become game-changers.

To ensure the safety of these "novel foods", SFA last year implemented a new regulatory framework requiring companies to seek approval and undergo a scientific pre-market assessment before placing novel foods in the market.

To support its assessment of novel foods, SFA will set up an international expert working group to provide scientific advice on food safety, said Mr Masagos.

Coronavirus outbreak: New cleaning norms for schools, hawker centres
Law to be amended to require such places, and childcare and eldercare facilities are disinfected regularly
By Vanessa Liu, The Straits Times, 5 Mar 2020

Amendments to the Environmental Public Health Act will be made this year to lay down mandatory baseline cleaning standards at places such as schools, childcare and eldercare centres, and hawker centres.

Managers of these premises will have to set out an environmental sanitation programme, and follow a regime for proactive and thorough cleaning and disinfection at prescribed minimum frequencies. These include areas away from the public, like bin centres.

The new rules will be progressively implemented from next year, starting with premises with high footfall and higher-risk occupants, said Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) launched the SG Clean initiative last month to raise public hygiene standards amid the coronavirus outbreak, starting with hawker centres.

"SG Clean seeks to turn the current crisis into an opportunity, by uplifting the standards of public hygiene and sustaining them," Dr Khor told Parliament during the debate on her ministry's budget.

"It is to be a whole-of-nation movement to instil a national 'keep clean culture' for the long term, beyond the battle with COVID-19."

Under the scheme, hawker stalls that meet cleanliness requirements get an SG Clean quality mark. Hawker centres are given the mark for meeting hygiene standards in aspects such as toilet cleanliness and pest management.

"Cleanliness and hygiene is a first line of defence against evolving public health threats," Dr Khor said. "We do not know how long COVID-19 will last. We are entering a new situation where enhanced personal hygiene habits and social responsibility have to be an integral part of our lives."

The NEA pointed out that the multiple incidences of gastroenteritis that affected pre-schools in 2018 highlighted the need for improvements to cleaning standards.

It said that as various sectors have different needs, standards and requirements would vary, and NEA will "calibrate the requirements to minimise compliance costs" for the premises' managers.

The Singapore Food Agency has also stepped up efforts on food safety.

Establishments serving vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly must keep retention samples that will be used to assist with investigations in the event of a gastroenteritis outbreak.

Those licensed to provide catering services will also be required to install closed-circuit television cameras in food handling areas.

Dr Khor also announced that about 14,000 hawkers will receive a 50 per cent waiver of their stall rental fees this month. They will get a 25 per cent rental waiver next month, and 25 per cent in May. The one-month rental waiver, with a minimum sum of $200, is expected to help tenants in 114 hawker centres offset the hit from reduced footfall.

Debate on ministries' budgets: Communications and Information

New '+' way to help consumers spot overseas spoof calls
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

All overseas calls will come with the "+" prefix by April 15 to help the users of more than nine million mobile phone lines here better identify possible scams.

Announced by Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary yesterday, it is one of several measures the Government will roll out to protect citizens and their personal data.

"Scammers based overseas sometimes spoof calls to look like local calling numbers to target our citizens, such as by spoofing numbers that start with '65'," said Dr Janil during the debate on his ministry's budget.

With the "+" prefix, it is hoped that consumers can better identify international spoof calls.

For instance, +6955 0221 and +4241 2345 are likely to be spoofed calls. Consumers are advised to be vigilant and not share confidential data over the phone if they are not expecting overseas calls.

The measure is in addition to rules requiring local telcos Singtel, StarHub, M1 and TPG Telecom to block commonly spoofed numbers, such as 999 and 995.

"The Government will continue to develop additional measures to combat scams so our citizens can be better protected," said Dr Janil.

Police statistics show China-official impersonation scams are one of the top 10 scam types here, alongside e-commerce, loan and credit-for-sex related scams.

The number of China-official impersonation scams - in which scammers trick victims to transfer money to their accounts or give out banking details - rose by 50 per cent yearly to 455 last year, with losses amounting to $21 million.

Local calls, including those from the authorities and legitimate organisations like banks, will not have the "+" prefix to help consumers better differentiate the calls. The limitations of this measure is it cannot be imposed on WhatsApp and Viber calls. But official calls also do not typically come via these platforms.

Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) and Mr Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang GRC) asked about measures to guard against the misuse of facial recognition technology to secure entry into buildings and for attendance-taking, given its popularity.

Responding, Dr Janil said the Personal Data Protection Commission and the Government Data Office, which oversees data management practices across the public sector, will publish guides on the responsible use of biometric technology later this year.

Also, data protection rules governing the public sector will be harmonised with those for the private sector later this year, in the first major revision to address longstanding criticisms that private firms are subject to stricter measures.

For instance, all public-sector agencies will be required to decide within 72 hours whether or not to notify affected parties about a data breach, a requirement not spelt out at present.

Low-income households to get faster Internet speeds
By Yip Wai Yee, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

Low-income households will be able to access faster Internet speeds and opt for a subsidised plan that offers a smartphone as an alternative to a tablet, under an enhanced scheme that takes effect next month.

The latest edition of the programme - Home Access 3.0 - will increase the minimum broadband speed from 300Mbps to 500Mbps at no additional cost to eligible households with a gross monthly income of less than $1,900.

Those who may need faster speeds can opt for a 1Gbps broadband plan.

The new scheme will also be extended to households with school-going children. Such households were previously able to apply for only a separate subsidised broadband scheme that comes bundled with a computer.

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann, who announced the enhanced scheme in Parliament yesterday, said that while technology can "empower our people", there are segments of the population who may feel lost in this digital society.

"Singapore must therefore focus on digital inclusion. We must overcome age, income and literacy gaps, so everyone can reap the benefits of the digital economy," she said.

Launched in 2014, the Home Access programme has provided more than 14,000 low-income households with subsidised fibre broadband connectivity and the option to own devices. The scheme aims to benefit 10,000 more households over the next three years.

Home Access 3.0 is one of several initiatives rolled out by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) to ensure every segment of society can properly navigate the digital world, as Singapore moves towards becoming an advanced digital economy.

Ms Sim brought up the success of digital clinics, where seniors can receive one-on-one assistance from volunteers on using their smartphones.

Held in locations such as libraries and community spaces since 2017, these sessions have benefited close to 15,000 participants with the help of some 3,000 volunteers, she said.

She also talked about some of the ground-up efforts to help children navigate the online environment safely, which is "important as they are increasingly exposed to technology from an early age".

For example, the Media Literacy Council is partnering tech giant Google to take a mobile interactive exhibition on online safety to primary schools this year.

Ms Sim said: "The digital future presents endless possibilities. MCI will persevere in our efforts to ensure every business, worker and citizen can seize digital opportunities.

"We will continue to nurture enduring partnerships to realise this vision, and leave no one behind."

Debate on ministries' budgets: Manpower

Government acts to protect jobs and wages for Singaporeans
The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

Amid the uncertainties arising from the Covid-19 outbreak, the Government's first priority is to prevent large-scale job losses and to make sure that the wage increases which low-wage workers have enjoyed do not get reversed.

Meanwhile, a concerted push is under way to ensure Singaporeans in their 40s and 50s can progress in their careers and access fair opportunities, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said yesterday.

Mrs Teo said the Government is investing about $1 billion to boost the employment prospects of Singaporeans over the next five years, through the SkillsFuture Mid-Career Support Package, SkillsFuture Enterprise Credit and enhanced Productivity Solutions Grant.

To assure Singaporeans that they have fair employment opportunities, the minimum monthly salary for foreign professionals to qualify for a new Employment Pass will go up from $3,600 to $3,900 from May 1, in line with improving wages of fresh graduates of local autonomous universities.

Older applicants must be paid more, said Mrs Teo, who also announced more support for groups like freelancers, low-wage workers and people with disabilities.

Future challenges are also being addressed, she added. "Beyond immediate relief, we must not neglect future challenges. In the longer term, we need businesses to transform and keep creating good jobs. We want wages at the lower end to move up more. We also need to help Singaporeans adapt to changing job requirements brought about by technology," she said.

Minimum monthly EP salary up $300 to $3,900 to ensure level field
By Choo Yun Ting, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

The salary criteria for hiring foreign workers on an Employment Pass will be raised from May, as part of efforts to assure Singaporeans that they are competing on a level playing field.

The minimum monthly salary for foreign professionals to qualify for an Employment Pass (EP) will go up from $3,600 to $3,900.

"This increase is in line with improving wages of fresh graduates of local autonomous universities," said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo in Parliament yesterday.

The salary criteria for older and more experienced EP candidates will also be raised - for example, an applicant in his early 40s will have to earn around double the new minimum qualifying salary of $3,900.

"This is only fair, considering the skill sets he or she is expected to have," Mrs Teo said. "It helps to ensure a level playing field for experienced local mid-career PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians)."

For EP renewals, the new salary requirement will take effect only from May 1 next year, "to moderate the impact on businesses".

The minimum EP qualifying salary was last raised in 2017, from $3,300 to $3,600 a month.

In addition, the minimum salary a local worker must earn to count towards a firm's quota for hiring foreigners on work permits and S Passes will be raised from $1,300 to $1,400 from July. It was raised from $1,200 last July, and has been regularly updated "to ensure that it keeps pace with rising local wages at the local end", Mrs Teo said.

She noted that most employers of foreign workers are not affected as they do not have local workers earning below $1,400, but those who are should receive some relief from the Wage Credit Scheme.

Employers should continue to ensure they have fair and merit-based pay practices that are in line with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, she added.

She said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is aware of firms that raise salaries of EP holders only to meet new salary criteria while freezing salaries of local workers, even if the locals are better workers. Such employers risk having their work-pass privileges curtailed and also undermine efforts to retain local employees, she said.

She also announced that MOM will be stepping up measures to ensure fair hiring consideration in the workplace. Under the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), which was updated in January with stiffer penalties for discriminatory hiring practices - particularly those against Singaporeans - employers have to advertise job openings on national jobs portal before submitting EP applications.

From May, this advertising requirement will be expanded to include jobs paying up to $20,000 a month, an increase from the current $15,000. "Positions that are more senior remain exempted as they are more likely to be market-sensitive," Mrs Teo said.

She highlighted that firms should not take the advertising requirement as a paper exercise, noting that MOM has started to use data analytics to scrutinise EP applications and actively follow up on leads provided by whistle-blowers.

Giving an update on instances of unfair hiring,she said about 1,000 firms have been put on the FCF watch list, up from 600 firms last year. Since the list was introduced in 2016, 3,000 EP applications have been rejected or withheld by MOM, or withdrawn by employers, while firms on the list have hired more than 4,400 Singaporean PMETs, she noted.

She added that MOM has also taken action against 18 more firms that violated Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices.

Govt steps up measures to boost careers of Singaporeans in their 40s and 50s
Companies will get more subsidies in hiring and training these workers
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

A concerted push is under way to ensure Singaporeans in their 40s and 50s can progress in their careers and access fair opportunities.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo yesterday detailed measures to help this group, amid a backdrop of uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus outbreak.

The outbreak would make it harder to keep unemployment down to the relatively low levels of recent years, she added.

The Government's first priority is to prevent large-scale job losses and a reversal of salary increases for low-wage workers.

"These unfavourable conditions demand a united response from all of us," said Mrs Teo.

At the same time, it must not neglect future challenges, she added.

Mrs Teo said the Government is investing about $1 billion to boost the employment prospects of Singaporeans over the next five years, through the SkillsFuture Mid-Career Support Package, SkillsFuture Enterprise Credit and enhanced Productivity Solutions Grant.

"They are a clear commitment to ensure Singaporeans have fair opportunities to progress at every stage of their working lives," she said.

She added that more than half of the 31,000 local job seekers placed in jobs last year through the Adapt and Grow initiative were aged 40 and above, and nearly a third were aged 50 and above. The share is even higher for rank-and-file workers.

Mid-career workers are being supported to close the skills gap. Since 2016, place-and-train schemes such as professional conversion programmes have helped nearly 14,500 Singaporeans, she added.

In the past two years, more than 2,000 professionals, managers, executives and technicians were also reskilled and redeployed within the same companies before they could become redundant, she said in response to Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC).

The Government aims to double the number of mid-career workers who enter new jobs through reskilling programmes to around 5,500, by 2025, she added.

Mrs Teo said the Government will also ramp up train-and-place programmes, which do not require employers to commit to hiring trainees upfront, but equip participants with in-demand skills.

Place-and-train participants receive full salaries or allowances while they reskill.

To support employers, the Government will seek to bring down the cost of recruiting and training mid-career job seekers, said Mrs Teo.

From April 1, the Government will raise salary subsidies for all workers aged 40 and above on place-and-train programmes to 90 per cent, up from 70 per cent.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had already announced in the Budget statement a hiring incentive for bosses who hire workers aged 40 and above through certain reskilling programmes.

The Productivity Solutions Grant will also be enhanced to provide up to 70 per cent funding for companies to engage job redesign consultants to ensure jobs are more attractive.

Most of the remaining costs can be paid using the new $10,000 SkillsFuture Enterprise Credit, which was announced during the Budget.

Nominated MP Douglas Foo had flagged concerns from workers and bosses about setting aside time for training.

Mrs Teo said that for companies with a clear plan to transform their business, the Ministry of Manpower will consider allowing them to hire additional workers during a transition period.

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing also acknowledged the concerns of mid-career workers during the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday.

Those who are employed are worried about their job longevity, given the keen job competition, while those who have been retrenched are worried about being able to find a job that matches their skill sets and pay expectations, he said.

He urged tripartite cooperation in this area, with businesses offering more employment and upgrading opportunities, workers making an effort to reskill, and the Government supporting both groups.

Matched Retirement Savings Scheme (MRSS) to benefit lower-income seniors
It can boost CPF savings of those who have not met Basic Retirement Sum
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

Older Singaporeans who earn less than $4,000 a month on average and have not met the Basic Retirement Sum (BRS) can tap a new matching scheme to boost their Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings from next year.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said the Matched Retirement Savings Scheme (MRSS), which will be rolled out from next year to 2025, can benefit lower-income seniors, gig workers and caregivers.

About 435,000 Singaporeans will be eligible for the scheme each year, she said yesterday during the debate on her ministry's budget.

The scheme involves the Government matching every dollar of cash top-up made to a person's CPF Retirement Account, up to an annual cap of $600.

To qualify for the scheme, which is for those aged 55 to 70 who have not managed to set aside the prevailing BRS, one must have an average monthly income of not more than $4,000, which covers a majority of senior workers.

The annual value of their residence must not exceed $13,000, which covers all Housing Board flats. They must also not own more than one property, said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

CPF members can receive lifelong monthly payouts that can cover basic living expenses once they turn 65, after setting aside a BRS at 55. Those who make cash top-ups can get up to $14,000 in tax relief under the Retirement Sum Topping-Up Scheme. There are no restrictions on who can contribute.

Eligibility for the scheme is automatically assessed annually. Those who qualify will be notified by the CPF Board by the first quarter of each year, starting from next year, and there is no need to separately apply for the scheme, said MOM.

Upon a cash top-up being made, the matching grant for a given year will be automatically credited into the member's Retirement Account by the first quarter of the next year.

Nominated MP Walter Theseira had suggested improving the design of MRSS by asking people to commit to savings in advance, and out of future income.

For example, workers who receive government payouts such as the Workfare Income Supplement could be asked if they would agree to contribute part or all of their future payouts to their CPF accounts to qualify for the match, he said.

MOM will study the suggestion, Mrs Teo replied.

The ministry will also continue to review its policies to improve the retirement adequacy of Singaporeans, she said, citing new enhancements to the Silver Support Scheme that will benefit 100,000 more Singaporeans next year. The Silver Support payouts will also be increased by 20 per cent.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) asked for an update on the CPF Lifetime Retirement Investment Scheme (LRIS).

Mrs Teo said it is a complex endeavour to meet the multiple objectives of LRIS, which has to charge low fees, have a good chance of earning higher returns than the current CPF interest rates, and also provide some assurance against downside risks.

"Given the many issues that demand MOM's attention, I seek members' understanding that we need more time to get the fundamentals of LRIS right," said Mrs Teo, adding that the Government will provide an update when ready.

Grants for companies that support employment of seniors
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

Progressive companies that raise both their retirement and re-employment age ahead of the national schedule can receive up to $250,000 from a new Senior Worker Early Adopter Grant.

A separate Part-Time Re-Employment Grant will also provide up to $125,000 to companies that commit to providing part-time re-employment opportunities to eligible workers who ask for them.

These are among measures to support senior employment which Manpower Minister Josephine Teo detailed yesterday, during the debate on her ministry's budget.

They are part of the $1.3 billion Senior Worker Support Package announced in the Budget statement last month.

Mrs Teo said the package, which will run over three years until 2022, is expected to benefit about 110,000 companies and 570,000 workers.

The early adopter grant will give companies, which raise the ages by three or more years above the prevailing statutory ages, $5,000 per senior worker aged 60 and older, capped at 50 workers.

The funding is $2,500 for those who raise it by two years above the prevailing statutory ages, and $1,000 for those who raise it by a year.

Companies are also required to change their human resource policies and employment contracts, and communicate the changes to employees.

The statutory retirement age will rise gradually from 62 to 65 by 2030 while the re-employment age will move from 67 to 70. The first scheduled rise is on July 1, 2022, when the respective ages will go up to 63 and 68.

The part-time re-employment grant comes after the Tripartite Workgroup on Older Workers found that senior workers wanted to reduce their work intensity gradually as they approach retirement.

"They are also more prepared to remain in the workforce if they can undertake part-time work arrangements during the re-employment phase," Mrs Teo added.

Many employers, however, do not have work structures and processes to support part-time options, so the work group felt employers need to be encouraged to make changes, she said.

A total of $100 million has been set aside for these two grants over three years, Mrs Teo said.

The other two parts of the Senior Worker Support Package, announced in the Budget statement, are a Senior Employment Credit, which provides wage offsets of up to 8 per cent to employers that hire Singaporeans aged 55 and older, and a Central Provident Fund (CPF) transition offset scheme, which covers half of the increase in employer CPF contribution rates next year.

Employers will contribute either 0.5 percentage point or one percentage point more for workers aged 55 to 70 next year, based on the worker's age.

The move is to raise gradually during this decade the CPF contribution rates of those aged 55 to 70 until those aged 60 and younger enjoy the full CPF rates.

Mrs Teo also announced that the retirement age of auxiliary police officers and private-sector firefighters will be reviewed, suggesting that they could work longer if they wished to.

Her ministry will work with the Home Affairs Ministry, employers and unions on the review.

Her remarks come a day after Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament that the retirement age for Home Affairs uniformed officers, like the police, will be raised to 58 by 2030, up from 55 currently.

Measures to enhance employability of people with disabilities
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

A training grant for persons with disabilities (PWDs), as well as credits for their employers to offset wages, are among measures to be rolled out to enhance the employability of this group of workers.

Announcing this in Parliament yesterday, Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad noted that while three in 10 PWDs aged 15 to 64 have a job, the ministry wants to do more to give this group an added boost. "As more PWDs become economically active, the issues of financial independence, whether they enjoy fair salaries... will become more important," he said.

One enhancement is to boost the training grant under the Open Door Programme to provide more funding support for employers who send PWDs for training and for PWDs who want to upskill themselves. This programme helps PWDs to enter suitable jobs and better integrate into the workplace.

Course fee subsidies under the grant will be raised from 90 per cent to 95 per cent for eligible training courses curated by SG Enable, an agency dedicated to enabling PWDs.

Both unemployed and employed PWDs will receive a training allowance of $6 an hour, up from $4.50 previously. And they will receive another $100 when they complete the course.

Employers of PWDs will also get help to offset up to 20 per cent of the employee's salary, capped at $400 a month. This comes in the form of a new Enabling Employment Credit, which will replace the existing schemes that are expiring this year.

This credit will be given to employers who hire Singaporean PWDs earning below $4,000 a month, which will cover about four in five of current PWD employees.

Employers hiring PWDs who have not been working for at least six months will receive an additional 10 per cent wage offset, capped at $200 a month, for the first six months of employment.

In response to Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Ms Cheryl Chan (Fengshan) who asked about PWDs in the workforce, Mr Zaqy said: "Ultimately, the best way to safeguard the interests of PWDs is to ensure that they have many good job opportunities to choose from.

"This means more employers hiring PWDs, and giving them opportunities for career growth. It also means more Singaporeans welcoming PWDs as colleagues in the workplace."

Debate on ministries' budgets: Trade and Industry

Singapore must continuously enhance its value as connectivity hub to emerge stronger from challenges, says Chan Chun Sing
By Choo Yun Ting, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

Singapore has to continually enhance its value as a global connectivity hub to emerge stronger from current challenges, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing.

Besides the coronavirus outbreak, which has hurt the tourism and aviation sectors badly, the country has to deal with longer-term challenges such as the reordering of global supply chains and technological advancements which are disrupting well-established sectors here, he told the House.

"Beyond the immediate measures to address the challenges ahead, we must also aspire to emerge stronger, be one of the first to recover and seize the new opportunities," he said yesterday.

The Government's immediate priority is to help businesses stay afloat and workers stay employed, he said, highlighting the $4 billion Stabilisation and Support Package introduced in the Budget.

Mr Chan noted that the Singapore Tourism Board has formed a task force comprising private-and public-sector leaders to support efforts to rejuvenate the tourism industry.

The Government will also commit resources to support the upgrading of hotels and attractions during this lull period for the tourism sector, anchor a strong pipeline of leisure and business events during the recovery, and step up marketing efforts to reach new groups of tourists, he said.

He added that large-scale tourism projects such as the expansion of the integrated resorts and the rejuvenation of the Mandai precinct are making good progress, and will contribute to the growth of the tourism sector in the medium term.

Singapore has to also press on with efforts to transform the economy for the long haul, he said.

"We need to adapt to changing supply chains by expanding and upgrading our network of FTAs (free trade agreements)," he noted.

Mr Chan said Singapore's 25 FTAs are with economies that represent more than 85 per cent of global gross domestic product and have provided Singapore's businesses with access to billions of consumers abroad by reducing tariffs and lowering non-tariff barriers.

Singapore will help companies take advantage of trade agreements to go international, he added.

Responding to MPs, he outlined five ways in which the Government will support businesses in seizing opportunities abroad.

First, the enhanced 70 per cent support under the Market Readiness Assistance scheme will be extended for another three years till March 31, 2023.

The grant cap will be raised to $100,000 per new market, per company, over this period, to better support companies new to internationalisation or expanding into new markets.

Second, the Double Tax Deduction Scheme for Internationalisation will be extended for another five years till Dec 31, 2025. The enhanced scheme will also now cover certain expenses incurred for third-party consultancy and overseas business missions.

Third, the Grow Digital initiative will be launched to help small and medium-sized enterprises grow their business overseas via digital channels to reach new customers and markets.

Fourth, the Government will work with the Singapore Business Federation to launch an international advisory centre next month to provide support to companies new to internationalisation.

Fifth, greater support will be provided to young Singaporean graduates under the Global Ready Talent programme to take on work opportunities abroad, particularly in South-east Asia, China or India.

Singapore also has to do more to translate its research edge into an economic advantage moving forward, Mr Chan said, adding that the Government will also strengthen its partnership with trade associations and chambers to drive industry transformation efforts.

Debate on ministries' budgets: Foreign Affairs

Singapore hopes it will continue to have a 'constructive, mutually-beneficial' relationship with Malaysia, says Vivian Balakrishnan
Republic also hopes to resume discussions on ongoing issues, projects under new Malaysian PM, says Vivian
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2020

Singapore hopes that it will continue to have a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship with Malaysia under its newly appointed Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday in Parliament.

"We look forward to Prime Minister Muhyiddin forming his new Cabinet soon. He hasn't announced it yet, but we know many of the personalities who are potential Cabinet members and we know them from our prolonged engagement over decades, and we wish them sincerely all the very best," he said.

"We hope we will continue to have a constructive, mutually beneficial relationship with Malaysia, and we look forward to resuming discussions on the ongoing issues and projects," he added.

During the debate on his ministry's budget, Dr Balakrishnan also noted that Singapore has always sought a win-win approach with Malaysia in the many areas where both countries have common interests.

These include building the Johor Baru Rapid Transit System Link and the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Rail.

"These are mutually beneficial projects. But after the Pakatan Harapan government took office in May 2018, these projects were delayed," he added. "When that happened, we could have enforced our legal rights and sought full compensation from Malaysia."

Singapore did not do so "in the spirit of constructive bilateral cooperation".

Instead, at Malaysia's request, it agreed to temporarily suspend both projects through formal agreements, giving Malaysia time to review its position and propose changes to what was previously agreed on contractually, he said.

"However, these major infrastructure projects cannot be suspended indefinitely. At some point, we need to decide whether to proceed or not," he said.

"We look forward to hearing from Malaysia on these two projects, in particular, in the coming months."

Dr Balakrishnan also said both sides have continued to have constructive discussions on issues such as maritime boundary delimitation, and have cooperated in areas such as economic collaboration in Iskandar Malaysia.

Their health ministries have also set up a joint working group to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

He noted that Singapore has longstanding, broad-ranging relations with Malaysia. These are rooted in history, people-to-people ties and business links, he said.

"Many of us seated in this Chamber will have family members or relatives who are Malaysian or who live in Malaysia," he added.

Both countries are each other's second-largest trading partner and also important investment partners, he noted.

"Over the years, we have worked with successive Malaysian governments for the mutual benefit of both countries," he said.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) asked what the change in Malaysia's political administration could mean for bilateral ties.

Dr Balakrishnan replied: "We know all the people on the political scene in Malaysia and, in fact, we have taken extra effort to maintain those links and to build that reservoir of goodwill and trust. So, let's keep an open mind."

He added: "The second point I want to make is (on) the importance of consistency and a principled foreign policy. So, I hope this is a moment when Singaporeans will appreciate it is good to be boring and consistent."

Singapore ready to discuss water issue with Malaysia, although its legal stance stays the same: Dr Balakrishnan
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2020

Both Singapore and Malaysia have benefited from the 1962 Water Agreement, and must continue cooperating "effectively and urgently" to meet future challenges, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament yesterday.

Stressing that water is one of many issues they collaborate on, he added: "We must not allow any single issue to colour the overall positive and multi-faceted relationship. We should look ahead to see how we can cooperate and resolve issues for mutual benefit, and for the benefit of future generations."

He said Singapore is prepared to discuss issues relating to the water agreement with Malaysia, including the price, yield and quality of water from the Johor River. But its legal position - that Malaysia has lost the right to review the price of water under the agreement - remains unchanged, he said during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad had expressed his desire to revise the price of raw water sold to Singapore on several occasions. Malaysia subsequently made proposals on a new price for raw water.

"In the spirit of bilateral cooperation, but without prejudice to our position that Malaysia has lost the right of review, we have been willing to listen to and discuss Malaysia's proposals, on the basis that there must be a balance of benefits for both sides," Dr Balakrishnan said.

He added that he had also held preliminary talks on the issue with Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, Malaysia's former foreign affairs minister, last December and in January this year.

Singapore has made it clear to Malaysia that any review of the price of raw water sold to Singapore will also mean a review of the price of treated water sold to Johor, Dr Balakrishnan added.

Both sides must also discuss the yield and quality of the water from the Johor River, so Singapore can continue to draw the amount of water it is entitled to under the water agreement.

Under the agreement, which expires in 2061, Malaysia provides 250 million gallons of raw water to Singapore daily, at a rate of 3 sen per 1,000 gallons. In return, Malaysia buys back the treated water from Singapore at a rate of 50 sen per 1,000 gallons.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that Malaysia has built two water treatment plants which are drawing water upstream of Singapore's Johor River Waterworks. The volume of water these plants draw from the river, in addition to Singapore's entitlement, exceeds the river's sustainable yield.

There have also been several pollution incidents in the Johor River, which have caused a temporary shutdown of Singapore's waterworks on multiple occasions.

To mitigate these issues, the Linggiu Reservoir was built in 1993 so that Singapore would be able to reliably draw its daily entitlement of water. Malaysia also built a barrage at Kota Tinggi, to keep seawater from intruding upstream.

"But more needs to be done urgently. Johor's own water needs are increasing, as its economy and its population grow," Dr Balakrishnan said, noting that Johor's own supplies have run short from time to time, forcing the state to impose water rationing and buy extra treated water from Singapore.

"Steps need to be taken and taken now to protect the Johor River from pollution, to enhance the yield of the river and to manage the total amount of water being drawn from the river," he added. "Singapore and Malaysia could otherwise end up in a very difficult situation down the road, especially in dry weather conditions and... climate change will make the situation worse."

There will be "grave consequences" if Malaysia cannot uphold its end of the agreement, he said, adding: "It would undermine the sanctity of the 1962 Water Agreement and severely damage our bilateral relationship."

Singapore is prepared to hold discussions with Malaysia to head off such an eventuality, without prejudice to its legal position, he said.

"We are even willing to discuss the possibility of Singapore sharing the cost of pollution control measures, and new schemes to increase the yield of the Johor River, since this is important for both sides."

Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore is exploring a "practical, durable and mutually beneficial solution" for both sides. But if they cannot reach an amicable outcome through negotiation, Singapore is then prepared to resolve the issue by arbitration on mutually agreed terms - similar to how other bilateral issues have previously been resolved.

This was agreed to by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Tun Dr Mahathir at their leaders' retreat last April.

"I have explained all this in some detail so that both Malaysians and Singaporeans will appreciate that we are taking a consistent, constructive and mutually beneficial approach to the development of water infrastructure in Johor," Dr Balakrishnan said.

He also hoped Singapore will be able to pick up where it left off when new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's Cabinet is formed, continuing their discussions on water and other outstanding issues.

Singapore to deepen ties with both US and China, rather than choose sides
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2020

Even as major power competition intensifies between the United States and China, Singapore has to avoid choosing sides and instead find ways to deepen and enhance cooperation with both parties.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said this yesterday, as he sketched out Singapore's foreign policy towards the world's two foremost powers during the debate on his ministry's budget. "We must find ways to deepen and enhance our cooperation with both China and the US, including in new areas of mutual interest, and encourage all parties to act in accordance with international law," he said.

While Singapore might find itself "squeezed in the middle", he emphasised that the country wants to be friends with both powers - and not be caught in the crossfire or seen as taking one side or the other.

"Both the US and China must know that although we want to have good relations with both, we do not do things at their behest," he said. "Ultimately, we act in a principled way and we will only do what is in the best long-term interests of Singapore citizens."

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) had asked how the Government would balance relations with both sides, given their intensifying rivalry. Replying, Dr Balakrishnan said the key variable in this equation was the bilateral relationship between the US and China.

Both countries are locked in a bruising trade war and although a phase one trade deal was inked in January, thornier issues relating to structural changes to China's economy have not been dealt with, and left for later.

Both sides have to make "strategic choices" moving forward, he said.

On its part, the US has to decide how it wants to deal with China.

"It can work with China in the global order, get China to participate within a rules-based system and compete with China on a fair basis, or the US can strive to remain the dominant power in all arenas, in all areas, at all costs and seek to arrange international rules so as to limit China's power and influence," he said.

China, on the other hand, has to decide whether it wants to be a "benign superpower, welcome and respected by other countries", as it seeks to increase its influence.

"If so, China must be willing to make adjustments to participate within the international rules-based system and give space to others, especially other small countries," Dr Balakrishnan said, adding that not doing so will seed resentment and pushback.

MPs such as Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) asked how Singapore would deepen relations with either side.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that the US has helped build a rules-based global order that has been a formula for peace and prosperity.

Singapore has been a "clear beneficiary" like many other emerging economies, and continues to believe in upholding such a rules-based system, even though it recognises that "some of the rules" need to be updated, he said.

The US continues to maintain its ties with the region and is the largest investor in Singapore, he said, noting that both countries had renewed a key defence pact last year.

As for China, both Dr Balakrishnan and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sam Tan pointed out that Singapore has been China's largest foreign investor since 2013. This year also marks the 30th year since Singapore and China established diplomatic relations, he said.

The deep relations between both sides are being kept up even as Singapore's 4G leadership takes over the reins. "I'm confident that our fourth-generation leaders are continuing to strengthen our friendship and trust between our two countries," Mr Tan added.

In his speech, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the US Department of Defence has made it clear that the Indo-Pacific is now its priority theatre because of China, which the US deems as a "strategic competitor" and "rival power".

It is putting that policy in practice, Dr Ng noted, by moving more ships, planes, other equipment and troops to its bases in Japan and South Korea, on top of the 78,000 troops already stationed there.

Meanwhile, the expansion of China's People's Liberation Army has gained momentum and its navy is now the world's largest in terms of number of ships, he said. The US' recent statements and moves are likely to accelerate, not slow down, the pace of PLA modernisation, he noted.

Singapore watches these developments closely, Dr Ng said, trying to preserve space for itself, to maintain its sovereignty and pursue its own interest. "We have no desire to take sides or be caught in the crossfire. So far, we have maintained independence and space for ourselves, but as contestation increases in this region, it will be increasingly difficult to do so."

Govt to do its best to look after citizens overseas
No one will be left behind' - Govt assures Singaporeans abroad amid Covid-19 outbreak
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2020

As Singapore focuses on containing and overcoming the Covid-19 outbreak at home, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday assured MPs the Government will do its best to take care of Singaporeans abroad who may be affected by travel restrictions or are at risk of exposure to the virus.

"We will leave no Singaporean behind. This is a 24/7 commitment," he said during the debate on his ministry's budget.

More Singaporeans are living, working and travelling overseas than before, he noted. This means "more Singaporeans will occasionally run into trouble overseas - be it personal crises, epidemics, natural disasters or political unrest".

On Jan 30 and Feb 9, 266 Singaporeans and their family members were flown back from Hubei province's capital Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Dr Balakrishnan said it was a "major, delicate, whole-of-government operation" that required his ministry to work closely with the Health, Transport and Home Affairs ministries, government agencies and airline Scoot.

Diplomacy was also "crucial", he said. Singapore's embassy in Beijing had to work closely with the central Chinese government and Hubei provincial government to arrange the repatriation.

Responding to a question from Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) earlier, Dr Balakrishnan noted that most of those evacuated had registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), making it easier to contact them and arrange their return.

More than 1,900 Singaporeans in China are registered with MFA, but the actual number of Singaporeans there is likely much higher, he added. He also said MFA was aware of one Singaporean who was infected and hospitalised in Hubei province. The Singapore embassy in Beijing contacted him to offer help and he has since been discharged.

In his speech, Dr Balakrishnan added that Singapore's decision around the same time to impose restrictions on travellers from mainland China was not an easy one to make.

"We recognised that this could impact bilateral relations with China. We therefore gave China a heads-up before making the public announcement, and we made a special effort to explain why we had to do this," he said. "When I spoke to a senior Chinese leader recently, he conveyed China's understanding of the actions that we had taken due to the unique circumstances faced by Singapore."

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Tan Wu Meng said Singapore will work with its partners to incorporate Covid-19 content into its health-related courses under the Singapore Cooperation Programme, and help countries in the region strengthen their pandemic resilience.

Earlier, during the debate on the Home Affairs Ministry's budget, Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo also spoke on the efforts to combat Covid-19.

She said the Home Team Science and Technology Agency immediately developed a test kit after Chinese scientists made the coronavirus genome public in mid-January.

The kit has been used to detect the virus at Singapore's land, air and sea checkpoints as part of the Home Affairs Ministry's BioSurveillance Programme. Under the programme implemented in 2009, the ministry's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives detection laboratories at Singapore's checkpoints screen for bio-terrorism threats, flu and other pathogens.

"Using a state-of-the-art system, which integrates laboratory functions on a small chip, our scientists can quickly adapt the system to detect new biological agents," she said.

Senior Minister of State for Defence Maliki Osman, speaking on Total Defence, said it is Singapore's best strategy against various threats.

"Singapore can and will overcome this Covid-19 situation if Singaporeans are psychologically resilient and support the Government and businesses to deal with this outbreak," he said.

The Defence Ministry and the People's Association are working together to strengthen community resilience against potential threats, he added. They will introduce a Total Defence Achiever Badge programme this year for the 2,000 grassroots and resident volunteers in the Community Emergency Response Team. They are specially trained to help fellow residents in emergencies.

Debate on ministries' budgets: Home Affairs

Shanmugam: People's trust in Govt crucial for strong security agencies
A police force can succeed only if it operates in a well-governed, functioning society, he says
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

Singapore's security agencies can only be as strong as the government in power, Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said yesterday, as he spoke on how proper governance must underpin peace and order.

Singaporeans also have to trust that the political, economic and social systems are fair and will benefit them, so that they will support the police force, he told Parliament.

Street protests had flared up around the world last year, erupting into violence in places such as Hong Kong, Santiago in Chile, and Lebanon.

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), citing global risk consultancy Maplecroft, said it is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of the world's 195 countries will experience civil unrest this year, while Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) wanted to know if the Home Team was prepared to prevent such unrest in Singapore.

They were among MPs who asked what lessons Singapore can draw against this backdrop, during the debate on the Home Affairs Ministry's budget.

Mr Shanmugam said one important lesson is that it is critical to get the fundamental politics and policies right. If they are unsound, he added, no amount of policing can turn the situation around.

He said safety and security is not just the responsibility of law enforcers, and the seven months of social unrest that battered Hong Kong were never just about security.

Instead, he added, it is good governance that is key to maintaining the effectiveness of the security forces.

A police force can succeed only if it operates in a well-governed, functioning society, where people trust that the government will do what is best for them, he said.

"You can have the best police force in the world; but you cannot deal with riots unless there are other things that are taken care of as well."

Elaborating, he said government leaders must be attuned to people's needs and be accountable to the public, and they must also develop policies based on sound principles and create a fair and honest system.

Strict laws alone will not be enough, he added.

Referring to Singapore, he said people often misunderstand that it is all about strict punishment, but underlying that is a system that strives to ensure progress for as many as possible.

When the majority benefit from such a system and feel it is fair, they will naturally support the police in dealing with the minority who choose to break the law, he added.

"But if a significant section of your population believes that the system is fundamentally unfair... and that it is set up to benefit a few at the expense of the majority, at the expense of the many, then no amount of strict policing and strict laws, are going to keep people off the streets," he said.

During his speech, Mr Shanmugam also said the police in Hong Kong had been set up for failure - to be the "fall guys" of a system which allows people to protest in droves, then expects the police to step in when violence breaks out.

This approach to maintaining public order is bound to fail because it becomes impossible to keep order when there are hundreds and thousands out in the streets and some among them intent on causing violence, he added.

"The actions of a disaffected few should not be allowed to threaten the right of the majority to live in a stable, peaceful society," said Mr Shanmugam, drawing lesson two.

This is why Singapore takes a zero-tolerance approach to illegal demonstrations and protests under the Public Order Act, he added. Instead, such activities are allowed at Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park.

Noting that Singapore has been criticised for this approach, he said there was a balance to be struck between the competing interests of providing adequate space for political expression while protecting the country's hard-earned peace and stability.

Also, he added, even countries that have traditionally upheld freedom of speech have clamped down on protests. He cited Denmark, where the police constructed 36 steel cages to hold protesters during a United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, and Britain, where police had banned the Extinction Rebellion climate protests last year and arrested 1,800 people after roads were blockaded and train services disrupted.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "The approach we took was the correct one of being strict about where you can protest. Otherwise, the best police force in the world would still not be able to handle it." He added that ultimately, "what you allow, and what you don't allow, must be for each society to decide".

He lamented that demonstrations in Hong Kong have severely damaged the relationship between the people and the police, once considered one of the finest and most-well-respected forces in Asia.

Even as the police tried to uphold public order, they had to deal with the increasingly violent tactics of protesters who set out to attack and provoke them, he added.

He said the one-sided portrayal of the situation in the international media - with the depiction of police as brutal and protesters as champions of democracy - has not helped.

"That the police were being attacked, their lives were frequently in danger, their families were being exposed - all that was ignored," added Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Teo Ser Luck (Pasir RisPunggol GRC), asked about trust in the police in the age of social media, with online posts usually showing half the picture or even purveying fake news.

Acknowledging that maintaining the public's trust is crucial, Mr Shanmugam said the Home Team has been doing well on this count.

In a recent public perception survey, 91 per cent of respondents agreed that the Home Team is fulfilling its mission of keeping Singapore safe and secure, and 90 per cent said they trust Home Team officers to do their duties objectively and with integrity, he noted.

He said this trust is reflected in people's daily lives, with 94 per cent of people in Singapore indicating in a Gallup Global Law and Order Index last year that they feel safe walking alone at night, more than in any other place in the world.

He added that the police had achieved this with a lean force - the ratio of police officers to population here is 0.23 per cent, compared with London at 0.34 per cent and Hong Kong at 0.39 per cent.

That the police have achieved good outcomes without heavy policing is a testament to Singapore's law and order framework and people's support of it, he said, adding that this has allowed taxpayers' funds to be put to use efficiently.

"A whole attitude that is supportive of a law and order framework, shared by a vast majority of the population, has meant that people who want to break the laws are a very small minority," he added.

Retirement age for uniformed Home Team officers to go up to 58 by 2030
By Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2020

The retirement age for Home Affairs uniformed officers such as the police will be increased gradually to 58 by 2030, up from 55 currently.

The move would allow the Ministry of Home Affairs to tap the experience of more mature officers and help officers secure a meaningful second career after their retirement, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament yesterday, during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Heavy investment is necessary to enhance the capabilities of officers, to ensure the Home Team remains effective and operational in a changing environment, he said.

"We work with our partners to encourage our officers to engage in continuous learning and upskilling, just like the rest of society, from recruitment to retirement," said Mr Shanmugam.

He noted that this year is a particularly important year for the police force, which celebrates 200 years of policing in Singapore. The police force was formed in 1820, when Singapore was still a booming immigrant town with its fair share of social ills, such as piracy, secret societies and riots. There was an urgent need for law and order, and the first police force started with just 12 officers.

"We have seen the whole team grow from strength to strength," said Mr Shanmugam, highlighting key achievements such as the formation of the Riot Squad and the establishment of the police hotline after the Second World War.

The police took on a greater role in safeguarding society after Singapore's independence, he noted. And when the first neighbourhood police post was established in 1983, the police officer's image was transformed.

Police officers were not just seen as enforcers of the law, but were also viewed as members of the community who were helping people, he added.

"(The Singapore Police Force) is a highly capable, professional police force and is highly regarded. I think our SPF officers deserve our recognition and appreciation for their professionalism, their readiness and their sacrifice over the years," said Mr Shanmugam.

Debate on ministries' budgets: Defence

Singapore in final stages of acquiring four F-35s
SAF training facilities in Shoalwater Bay to be ready by 2024, and Greenvale by 2028
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2020

Singapore is in the final stages of acquiring four next-generation stealth fighter jets, which are scheduled to be delivered around 2026, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday.

He told the House that the United States government and Congress have approved the sale of four F-35s, with an option for Singapore to purchase eight more.

When the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters are delivered, they will be deployed in the US for training and in-depth evaluation, he added.

The F-35s are to replace the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) ageing fleet of F-16s, which face obsolescence beyond 2030.

Speaking during the debate on his ministry's budget, Dr Ng said Singapore has decided on the "B" variant of the aircraft, which can take off from a shorter runway and land vertically - "an important feature in land-scarce Singapore".

Responding to Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) on the problems the F-35 programme has faced, Dr Ng said the new planes will be evaluated fully - this will include cost and maintenance issues - before the Ministry of Defence commits to a full fleet.

Giving an update on training areas, he noted that for each Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) unit, effective training makes the "decisive difference".

"In an uncertain landscape, we must raise, train and sustain units within the SAF to deal with both conventional and unconventional threats," he added.

Dr Ng said the facilities being developed in Shoalwater Bay and Greenvale, under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Australia, have made significant progress and will provide best-of-class training facilities.

An ammunition storage building was completed last year, and combined arms air-land ranges are now being developed for the army and the air force to train together with tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, drones, artillery and other platforms.

An urban operations live-firing facility for air and combined arms live firing in an urban environment will also be built.

Construction at Shoalwater Bay is expected to be completed by 2024, and at Greenvale by 2028.

When these facilities are completed, the SAF will be able to conduct integrated training across all three services, involving up to 14,000 troops and for up to 18 weeks a year, he said. Currently, up to 6,600 Singapore troops conduct training in Australia each year for up to six weeks.

For the navy, its ships have ample opportunities to train overseas, said Dr Ng. For instance, the Republic of Singapore Navy will take on a key leadership role later this year in the world's largest multilateral maritime exercise, the Rim of the Pacific.

As for the air force, an agreement inked with the US last December to establish a training fighter detachment in Guam by the end of the decade will allow the RSAF to deploy its fighter jets and supporting assets there for training.

The airspace around Guam, together with training facilities, will allow the RSAF to conduct larger-scale as well as more complex and realistic air-to-air and air-to-ground training, Dr Ng said.

"At the same time, this detachment in Guam, alongside other fighter deployments in Australia, India and Thailand, will allow quick redeployment back to Singapore when required," he added.

In an interview, Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Tan, who led a training deployment of RSAF fighters to Guam in 2017 for four weeks, said having a permanent detachment there would mean more airmen can be exposed to training in such a large airspace.

The Guam airspace, which is more than 80 times the size of Singapore, allows weapons to be employed at stand-off, or the maximum range, to hone the airmen's beyond-visual-range skills, added Senior Lt-Col Tan, 41, deputy commander of the fighter group under the Air Combat Command.

"Our Singapore airspace, compared to Guam's, is a bit like fighting in a phone booth. Whereas when you go to Guam... you're able to employ to the full capabilities of your aircraft and weapon systems," he said.

"The airspace resource... allows us to maximise the capabilities of our platforms, it allows our people to train realistically, and it ensures that we are an operationally ready air force."

High-level committee to build integrated cyber defence force
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2020

A high-level committee will be formed to build an integrated cyber force to defend Singapore against cyber threats, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday.

This committee - led by the Permanent Secretary for Defence Development and the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) - will be examining ways to "recruit soldiers of the right aptitude, training and deployments", he added.

Dr Ng said: "In the SAF's history, this is as important as raising another service, just like the army, navy and air force, namely to build an integrated cyber command and force to defend our digital borders, especially against foreign cyber actors, both state and non-state, who seek to undermine our stability and/or pose a threat to our national security."

This Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) cyber command will have to provide threat assessments and early warning against cyber attacks, and respond accordingly, he said.

Speaking during the debate on his ministry's annual spending plans, Dr Ng highlighted three "clear and present" security threats - those in the cyber domain, as well as maritime threats and terrorism.

He noted that Singapore has succeeded in building a strong SAF that is recognised as a modern and professional military force capable of defending the national interest, because of steadfast commitment by successive governments and overwhelming support from MPs across party lines for each defence budget.

"Even so, to respond to a new environment of security challenges, the SAF must again restructure decisively to meet new challenges, to remain relevant, responsive and effective for our national defence," Dr Ng said.

He made the point that in many aspects, it is more difficult to make plans and execute them in the cyber domain than in the air, on land or at sea, and different types of units and force configuration may be required.

After the restructuring, which Dr Ng said will take "some years" to accomplish, the CDF will continue to be in charge of mission outcomes for the new cyber command.

The Chief C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence) will lead this force and report directly to the CDF.

Besides this new cyber command, Dr Ng said the Singapore navy's Maritime Security Task Force will acquire new purpose-built platforms that can enhance its capabilities to deal with threats such as the recent spike in sea robberies and intrusions into Singapore's waters.

For a start, four refurbished patrol vessels will be dedicated and deployed for "greater persistence" to protect Singapore's territorial waters, he added.

The Republic of Singapore Navy's Fearless-class patrol vessels had been in service for about 20 years before they were gradually replaced by littoral mission vessels.

At the same time, given the transnational nature of maritime threats, Singapore has reached out to Malaysia and Indonesia to propose that the Malacca Strait Patrol initiative be extended to other areas, in addition to tackling piracy, Dr Ng said. Discussions are ongoing.

The SAF is also restructuring its own military intelligence outfits so that counter-terrorism intelligence to detect, forewarn and respond to terrorist plots are now part and parcel of its core mission to protect Singapore, he said.

Mindef yesterday said one area of focus for the military intelligence restructuring is in building capabilities - to work with defence technology partners to acquire systems that can uncover, investigate and monitor threat concerns.

Another area is in strengthening partnerships by working closely with other national agencies as well as foreign military intelligence partners, it added.

These restructuring efforts come as Singapore enters a different phase in geopolitics, Dr Ng said, one that is messier, less predictable and with more unseen events.

The United States Department of Defence has made it clear that the Indo-Pacific is now its priority theatre because of China, which the US deems a "strategic competitor" and "rival power", he noted.

Meanwhile, China's People's Liberation Army has expanded, while European powers, too, want to position themselves in Asia. Asian countries have beefed up their militaries as well.

Singapore watches these developments closely, Dr Ng said, trying to preserve space for itself to maintain its sovereignty and pursue its own interest.

Despite the challenges, Singapore has managed to forge even stronger defence relations with the United States, China and key partners, he added.

Monthly allowance of all national servicemen to go up by $70 to $120 from March 2020
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

All national servicemen across all ranks will see their monthly allowance increase by $70 to $120 this month, said Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How.

This increase includes a minimum $50 vocation allowance that is given to all national servicemen in recognition of the different vocational demands, and applies to servicemen in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Police Force and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

The vocation allowance replaces the combat allowance, which was given to servicemen in combat vocations in the SAF, such as armour, guards and infantry.

National service allowances were last increased in December 2015 by $80, across all ranks. The latest increase means a recruit in the SAF or SCDF, who used to receive $560 a month, will now get $630.

This was among the moves to benefit national servicemen announced in Parliament yesterday during the debate on the Ministry of Defence's (Mindef) budget.

Other efforts include expanding a free gym membership scheme for pre-enlistees and increasing the number of courses that servicemen can take to prepare for life after NS.

The exercise programme Prep4NS, launched last November to give pre-enlistees free access to Safra gyms for a year, has about 6,000 applicants, Mr Heng said.

Mindef and the SAF are working with Sport Singapore to extend the trial to 24 ActiveSG gyms. More details will be provided later.

From next month, full-time national servicemen (NSFs) will also have more courses to choose from under the electronic pre-release employment programme, including credit-bearing courses from the National University of Singapore.

They will be able to choose from more than 4,000 courses, up from about 3,000 now.

To ease the transition to NS for pre-enlistees who are new citizens or permanent residents, coordinators in foreign-system schools and privately funded institutions will be appointed to assist them with questions on NS, Mr Heng said.

On adopting digital technologies, he said e-services will be improved so that pre-enlistees can complete most of their transactions online in one go, such as bond and exit permit applications. When the initiative is ready, they could be informed of their application outcomes up to 40 per cent more quickly.

In his speech, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen also announced the formation of a high-level committee to look at in-camp training and deployment of manpower. This will be chaired by Mindef's deputy secretary for administration and the Chief of Army.

The committee would also look into better matching the skills and aptitude of NSmen to their vocations, as well as ensure training is more focused on their operational roles, among other things.

Specific changes will be announced in due course, said Dr Ng.

Mindef and the Ministry of Home Affairs will also launch the Safra and HomeTeamNS family schemes by the second half of this year, to allow NSmen, their spouses and children to enjoy access to Safra and HomeTeamNS facilities and benefits at a single subsidised fee.

Debate on ministries' budgets: Prime Minister's Office/Finance -Prime Minister's Office

More training for public servants to become well-rounded
Broader skill sets and more private sector experience needed, says Chan Chun Sing
By Fabian Koh, The Straits Times, 29 Feb 2020

Public servants will have more training to develop a broader range of skills and also experience in the private sector, where they can absorb new ideas, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing yesterday, as he outlined plans to transform the public service.

Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the budget of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), Mr Chan, who is also Minister-in-charge of the Public Service, painted a picture of a new kind of public servant - one who is able to deliver the services of multiple agencies, having had the benefit of training and rotating through different domains in a more porous public service.

He said public servants today are expected not just to set policies, but also to translate them smoothly into operations, and be able to communicate them to the public, while being aware of things happening beyond the public service.

For businesses too, the public service will have to shift from ensuring compliance to helping them grow.

"With the change in public expectations, with the change in the job scopes, we will certainly need to change the skill sets of our public service officers," he said.

Responding to questions from various MPs, Mr Chan said the public service will structure training so officers will receive a boost in skills "every few years".

He said: "When we ask our public service officers to be agile, it can't be at the age of 40 or 50, it must be done systematically from the age of 20 and above."

Another change would see them being rotated more regularly across and within domains, so they have a greater understanding of how things are done in different places, making them more responsive and agile, he said.

Public service officers, especially those in leadership positions, will also have regular stints in the private sector, to expose themselves to the challenges faced there and to "bring back good ideas".

Mr Chan said there will be "greater porosity" within the public service, from recruiting people based on more than just academic qualifications, to the way they are developed and posted throughout the term of their service.

Citizens will have a public service that is more integrated and efficient, he said, with digitalisation also bringing about faster and cheaper delivery of services.

Officers will be equipped to deliver the services of multiple agencies, on their own.

"So someone who needs help, from financial assistance to housing and employment, can approach the same officer with the same understanding, so that he doesn't need to repeat the story over and over again," said Mr Chan.

To aid businesses, he said the public service will shift from simply ensuring businesses comply with the regulatory framework, to helping them develop and grow, which is "a very different mindset shift".

"When we work with a start-up, it is not about the start-up trying to fit into the current regulations. The regulators also need to change their mindset whereby they embrace a start-up culture, to see how regulations can evolve to become a key competitive advantage for Singapore," said Mr Chan.

Mr Chan also responded to a question from Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, on the national programmes under the purview of the PMO and why some are not housed under the domain ministries instead. Mr Perera noted that the PMO's budget had increased significantly from when he first entered Parliament after the 2015 General Election.

Mr Chan replied that programmes are housed under the PMO if they deal with strategic issues with long-term consequences, and if they require close coordination across many agencies.

He said programmes involving nascent new capabilities are also housed under the PMO, where they can incubate and develop before being passed on to a relevant ministry. He cited the Municipal Services Office under the Ministry of National Development as an example of an agency that began under the PMO, but later shifted to the purview of another ministry when its capabilities matured.

No comments:

Post a Comment