Monday 22 February 2021

A class apart? Meritocracy, social mixing and effects on national unity

By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Feb 2021

A friend told me that having lived in a condominium all her life, she grew up thinking she was poor.

"You see, all my classmates lived in landed houses," she said.

Like her, going to a top school was, for me, an eye-opener. Some of my peers seemed to inhabit a different world - one where it was possible to have never set foot in a hawker centre, or visited a classmate in his HDB flat.

Do Singaporeans of different socio-economic backgrounds now mingle more readily? Or do they live in distinct bubbles that have drifted further apart?

What can be done to encourage diverse social networks, and how do they affect national identity?

These are questions that a new book by National University of Singapore associate professors Vincent Chua and Tan Ern Ser, Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh and urban planner Drew Shih seeks to answer.

Paradox of meritocracy

Titled Social Capital In Singapore: The Power Of Network Diversity, it draws insights from fieldwork involving some 3,000 Singaporeans.

It begins with the observation that for a country with no natural resources, meritocracy has been the best way to grow Singapore's human capital. As founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said: "We treat everybody equally. We judge you on your merits... If you can perform, you get the job."

The alternative is a system based on social connections.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah said at a conference in 2019 that meritocracy was adopted as an antidote to corruption and nepotism. "Doing away with meritocracy would be an invitation for those ills to resurface and weaken our system."

But the paradox of meritocracy is that its winners and losers increasingly enter their own social orbits, with little mixing between them.

Early on, meritocracy brought people of different socio-economic backgrounds together in common settings such as elite schools. As this meritocracy matured, and the positions of earlier winners and their descendants became more entrenched, it has become more class-segregated.

Former Raffles Institution (RI) principal Chan Poh Meng put this across starkly at the school's Founder's Day six years ago, saying that the school "can no longer afford the comfortable illusion that RI is truly representative of Singapore".

He said its students must lend a hand to those who need help, such as foreign workers, the elderly and the poor. "I put it to you that this is our wider duty... to serve as a social glue between parts of the community that have little or no contact with each other."

Thursday 18 February 2021

Singapore Budget 2021: Emerging Stronger Together

$11 billion set aside to fight COVID-19, $24 billion to help Singapore emerge stronger from crisis
DPM Heng Swee Keat unveils Budget to tackle current crisis, with eye on future challenges as well
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 17 Feb 2021

Against a backdrop of global uncertainty amplified by the pandemic, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday delivered a Budget finely balanced between providing immediate help to sectors under stress, and investing in Singapore's long-term future.

The $107 billion plan - the first full Budget in the Government's new term - includes an $11 billion Covid-19 Resilience Package. This will help safeguard public health and support the workers and businesses that need help, with extra money going to the hardest-hit sectors, such as aviation and tourism.

The Jobs Support Scheme, which helped stave off retrenchments last year, will be extended until September, but in a more targeted and tapering way. This will cost $700 million.

Job seekers also got a helping hand, with another $5.4 billion set aside for a fresh injection into the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package. This is on top of the $3 billion set aside last year and will support the hiring of 200,000 locals through the Jobs Growth Incentive and provide up to 35,000 traineeship and training opportunities this year.

In addition, Mr Heng pledged to allocate $24 billion across the next three years to enable Singapore's firms and workers to emerge stronger from the crisis.

The country's investments to equip its people to seize opportunities and help businesses innovate are what distinguish it from others, said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

"While last year's Budgets were tilted towards emergency support in a broad-based way, this year's Budget will focus on accelerating structural adaptions," he added in a speech that lasted just over two hours and underscored the need to make the country's businesses and workers future-ready.

Mr Heng announced that the salaries of nurses and other healthcare workers, who have been on the forefront of the fight against Covid-19, will be enhanced, with details to be disclosed later.

He also unveiled a $900 million Household Support Package of utility grants and GST and cash vouchers to help all families, but targeted most at lower-to middle-income households.

And in line with Singapore's long-term goal to become a more sustainable society, measures will be introduced to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles, with green bonds to be issued on select public infrastructure projects.

In a Facebook post last evening, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "While grappling with the pandemic, we must not neglect the future. Hence the Budget has many items that build our capabilities and competitiveness. When the sun shines again, we must be ready to seize the new opportunities."

All these measures mean that Singapore will see a Budget deficit of $11 billion, following last year's deficit of $64.9 billion.

Running a fiscal deficit to support targeted relief is warranted in the immediate term, given the unprecedented impact of Covid-19, Mr Heng said. But Singapore's recurrent spending needs in areas such as healthcare will continue to rise, and the country must meet these needs in a "disciplined and sustainable way", he said, adding that beyond this crisis, "we must return to running balanced budgets".

Singapore will tap its reserves to fund the $11 billion Covid-19 Resilience Package. But Mr Heng pointed out that the nation expects to utilise only $42.7 billion of past reserves for the last financial year, against the $52 billion that had been provided for.

This means the total expected draw over two years will amount to $53.7 billion - a net increase of $1.7 billion from what Singapore expected to draw from its reserves to respond to the crisis. President Halimah Yacob has given her in-principle support for the draw, he added.

Singapore's spending needs mean the impending GST hike, slated to take place some time between next year and 2025, will happen "sooner rather than later". Its exact timing will depend on Singapore's economic outlook, Mr Heng said, adding that the country will not be able to meet rising recurrent needs without the increase. He reiterated that $6 billion has already been set aside under last year's Budget to defray the impact of this tax hike on the majority of Singaporean households by at least five years.

Petrol duties have also been raised for the first time in six years, and take place with immediate effect, with road tax rebates in place to cushion the impact of this hike.

From January 2023, GST will also be extended to low-value goods to ensure a level playing field for local businesses to compete effectively.

In order to finance long-term infrastructure such as new MRT lines that will benefit both current and future generations, the Government will also issue up to $90 billion in new bonds under a law to be tabled later this year.

On the topic of foreign manpower, Mr Heng said foreigners with the right expertise are a welcome complement to Singaporeans in areas where the country is short on skills. But foreign worker quotas will be tightened in the manufacturing sector, where the local workforce has to deepen its skills.

"The way forward is neither to have few or no foreign workers, nor to have a big inflow," he said. "We have to accept what this little island can accommodate."

Singapore expects its revenues will be able to support projected expenditure from all proposed measures as the economy recovers.

But this assumes the global Covid-19 situation comes under control by next year, said Mr Heng. Otherwise, the Government will seek the President's consideration to again tap past reserves.

"We have carefully thought through the different scenarios. While we expect recovery in Singapore and globally, there is a wide cone of uncertainty," he added.

"Even if the economic and fiscal situation turns out to be worse than expected, we must still press on to invest in new areas, so as to ride on the structural changes, transform and emerge stronger as an economy, and as a people."

Monday 15 February 2021

Singapore Green Plan 2030 to change the way people live, work, study and play

Singapore poised to take green leap forward
New sustainability initiatives launched to change how people work, study and play
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 11 Feb 2021

Singaporeans look set to lead much greener lives by 2030, with new sustainability initiatives launched to change the way they work, study and play.

The Singapore Green Plan 2030, released by five ministries yesterday, will chart the country's way towards a more sustainable future, "building back better" as it recovers from the fallout of Covid-19.

The plan seeks to inform all aspects of development here - from infrastructure, to research and innovation, to training programmes.

"The comprehensive plan will strengthen Singapore's economic, climate and resource resilience, improve the living environment of Singaporeans, and bring new business and job opportunities," said the ministries in a joint statement. The Ministries of Education, National Development, Sustainability and the Environment, Trade and Industry and Transport are driving the initiative.

Under the Green Plan, at least 20 per cent of schools here will be carbon-neutral by 2030.

Adults, too, will work in greener buildings, since there are plans to raise the sustainability standards of buildings. People will be encouraged to commute in a less carbon-intensive way - cycling paths will triple in length by then, and the rail network will be expanded to 360km, up from the 230km today.

This infrastructure will be built within a city cloaked in green, with more initiatives to help nature seep into the heartland.

For instance, more nature parks will sprout up over the years. By 2030, there will be a more than 50 per cent increase in nature park land where people can go hiking or birdwatching.

Even the fossil fuel haven of Jurong Island will be transformed into a "sustainable energy and chemicals park".

Behind the scenes, research and innovation in low carbon alternatives will continue, even as programmes such as the new Enterprise Sustainability Programme are rolled out to help firms develop capabilities in this area.

More details on these initiatives will be given during the Budget next week, and in the subsequent Budget debates.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post that the Green Plan will build upon Singapore's past sustainability efforts.

"We need to ensure a Singapore for our future generations. All of us have to work together, and make Singapore a bright green spark for the world," said PM Lee.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

4,600 public rental-flat families became HDB home owners over the past 5 years through various housing schemes, grants and Home Ownership Support Team

By 2023, around 1,000 families will be offered the same help by HDB
By Michelle Ng, The Straits Times, 8 Feb 2021

About 4,600 families in public rental homes have become home owners of Housing Board (HDB) flats over the past five years through various housing schemes and grants.

By 2023, around 1,000 families will be offered help by HDB to do the same.

Among the 4,600 households, three in four bought a flat directly from HDB while the remainder bought a resale flat on the open market, said HDB yesterday.

More than half of these rental households bought a three-room flat while a quarter bought four-room flats, it added.

About two-thirds of the rental households that bought a flat had tapped housing grants such as the Enhanced CPF Housing Grant (EHG), which was introduced in September 2019 and dispenses up to $80,000 in grants to eligible buyers.

Others had also tapped the previous Additional CPF Housing Grant and Special CPF Housing Grant, which gave up to $40,000 in grants each. These two grants have been replaced by the EHG.

Families with at least one child below the age of 18 who live in public rental flats, and who had previously bought a subsidised flat, can also buy a two-room flexi flat through the Fresh Start Housing Scheme.

Close to 100 families have been placed on the scheme since it started in December 2016, the Ministry of National Development said in a written parliamentary reply last Monday.

There are currently around 50,000 households living in public rental flats.

By 2023, around 1,000 rental households, preliminarily assessed to have the potential and are ready to buy a flat, will be contacted by HDB's Home Ownership Support Team (HST), said HDB.

Factors such as income stability and the household's ability to afford a flat are taken into consideration when HDB makes such assessments.

The HST was set up in 2019 to guide public rental families through their home ownership journey, from planning and budgeting their flat purchase to the time they collect the keys to their home.

As at the end of last year, the team had contacted 654 rental households.

Of these, 50 families have booked flats and 177 families should be ready to apply for a flat in the next one to two years.

The remaining households are in the process of assessment or are not ready to apply for a flat in the near term.

The team will continue to track the progress of the remaining households and help them move on to home ownership, where feasible, said HDB.

Technician Jumali Remin, 43, is among the 4,600 families who are now HDB flat owners.

He and his wife, a childcare educator, and their five children aged between one and nine years old, moved into a four-room HDB resale flat in Punggol last month. They had sought guidance from the HST early last year.

"Initially, we were a little hesitant about whether we could afford a four-room flat, but after working out our finances and budget with the team, we were glad to learn that we could afford one," he said.

"We never imagined we would one day be able to own a flat… It was something we have dreamt about for a long time."

Madam Mehroo Nisha Banu Mohamed, 33, who works part-time as a SafeEntry officer and her husband, a security officer, have booked a three-room Build-To-Order flat in Tengah which will be ready in 2025.

Until then, the couple and their three children - aged seven, 11 and 14 - will live in their two-room rental flat in Bukit Merah.

She said: "Initially, we were not sure whether we could afford to buy our own flat… But with the (HST's) assistance, we understood where we stand and what we could afford."

Friday 5 February 2021

Singapore approves Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine; first shipment to arrive around March 2021

Health Sciences Authority's review of clinical data shows it is 94% effective
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2021

Singapore has approved American pharmaceutical company Moderna's coronavirus vaccine for local use, with the first shipment expected to arrive around next month if all goes according to plan.

The vaccine will be progressively rolled out for individuals aged 18 and older, said the Ministry of Health (MOH) yesterday.

Singapore is the first Asian country to approve Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine, which is the second one to be given the green light here after the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved last December.

More vaccines from both companies will continue to arrive over the course of the year, MOH said.

In a separate statement, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) said its review of the clinical data has shown that the Moderna vaccine is 94 per cent effective, with the benefits outweighing the risks.

In other words, the vaccine led to a 94 per cent reduction of symptomatic Covid-19 infections in vaccinated individuals, compared with a similarly sized group of unvaccinated people.

This data was based on a clinical trial of 30,000 people conducted in the United States. Trial participants ranged in age from 18 to 95 years.

The Moderna vaccine requires two doses administered 28 days apart, while the Pfizer vaccine's two doses are taken 21 days apart.

The Moderna vaccine can be stored at a regular freezer temperature of minus 20 deg C, whereas the Pfizer vaccine must be stored at minus 70 deg C.

Both vaccines "teach" the cells in the body to make a protein that triggers an immune response to produce antibodies to fight the virus. Reported side effects from both vaccines are similar and include pain, swelling at the injection site, fatigue, headache, muscle ache, fever, chills, vomiting and joint pain after vaccination.

These reactions are generally associated with vaccinations, and typically resolve on their own after a few days, HSA said.

The vaccine has received interim authorisation under the Pandemic Special Access Route, which means Moderna has to monitor the longer-term efficacy of the vaccine in order to determine how long it protects against Covid-19. It must also follow up on the safety of the vaccine for a longer period of time.

Singapore's expert committee on Covid-19 vaccination, which carried out an independent review of the Moderna vaccine, said yesterday that it is satisfied with the vaccine's safety and efficacy.

Its safety profile is consistent with the standards set for other registered vaccines used in the immunisation against other diseases.

However, the committee cautioned that pregnant women and severely immuno-compromised people, as well as those under 18, should not take the vaccine yet.

Singapore aims to have enough vaccines for citizens and long-term residents in the country by the third quarter of this year, although it may take until the end of the year to get the whole population inoculated. Vaccination is voluntary and free.

Singapore has signed advance purchase agreements with Pfizer, Moderna and Sinovac, and is in confidential talks with other companies.

MOH said more than 175,000 people had taken their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine as at Tuesday, with around 6,000 in this group having taken the second dose. "In two weeks' time, they will be adequately protected against Covid-19," it added.

The ministry urged locals to get vaccinated in order to protect themselves and their loved ones, as well as those in the wider community who cannot be vaccinated due to medical reasons.

The expert committee also pointed out that Singapore remains at risk of a surge in coronavirus cases even though the local virus transmission rate is low.

"Therefore, it is important that we achieve as comprehensive a coverage of Covid-19 vaccination as possible across the entire population," it added.

Tuesday 2 February 2021

How we fool ourselves - from forgeries to COVID-19 denial

How is it that top art experts or millions of voters can fail to spot outright fakes? Consider the power of wishful thing.
By Tim Harford, Published The Straits Times, 1 Feb 2021

They called Abraham Bredius "The Pope", a nickname that poked fun at his self-importance while acknowledging his authority. Dr Bredius was the world's leading scholar of Dutch painters and, particularly, of the mysterious Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

When Dr Bredius was younger, he'd made his name by spotting works wrongly attributed to Vermeer. In 1937, at the age of 82, he had just published a highly respected book and was enjoying a retirement swan song in Monaco, when former Dutch MP Gerard Boon paid a visit to his villa.

Mr Boon, an outspoken anti-fascist, came to Dr Bredius on behalf of dissidents in Mussolini's Italy. They needed to raise money to fund their escape to the United States, he said. And they had something which might be of value.

He unpacked the crate he had brought out of Italy. Inside it was a large canvas, still on its 17th-century wooden stretcher. The picture depicted Christ at Emmaus, when he appeared to some of his disciples after his resurrection, and in the top left-hand corner was the magical signature: IV Meer.

Johannes Vermeer himself! Was it genuine? Only Dr Bredius had the expertise to judge.

The old man was spellbound. He delivered his verdict: Christ At Emmaus was not only a Vermeer, it was also the Dutch master's finest work. He penned an article for The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs announcing the discovery: "We have here - I am inclined to say - the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft. Quite different from all his other paintings and yet every inch a Vermeer."


He added: "When this masterpiece was shown to me, I had difficulty controlling my emotions."

That was precisely the problem.

Christ At Emmaus was a rotten fraud, of course. But although the trickery was crude, Dr Bredius wasn't the only one to be fooled. Mr Boon had been lied to as well: he was the unwitting accomplice of a master forger. Soon enough, the entire Dutch art world was sucked into the con. Christ At Emmaus sold to the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam, which was desperate to establish itself on the world stage. Dr Bredius urged the museum on and even contributed. The total cost was 520,000 guilders - compared to the wages of the time, well over US$10 million (S$13.3 million) today.

Emmaus drew admiring crowds and rave reviews. Several other paintings in a similar style soon emerged. Once the first forgery had been accepted, it was easier to pass off these other fakes. They didn't fool everyone but, like Emmaus, they fooled the people who mattered. Critics certified the forgeries; museums exhibited them; collectors paid vast sums for them - a total of more than US$100 million in today's money. In financial terms alone, this was a monumental fraud.

It is also a puzzle. Vermeer is revered as one of the greatest painters who ever lived. He painted mostly in the 1660s, and no more than 40 of his paintings were thought to have survived. The discovery of half a dozen new Vermeers in just a few years should have strained credulity. But it did not. Why?

The paintings themselves provide no answer. If you compare a genuine Vermeer with the first forgery, it is hard to understand how anyone was fooled, let alone anyone as discerning as Dr Bredius.

Emmaus is a drab, static image. The yellow-sleeved arm of a disciple seems more attached to a table than to his body, like a prank prosthetic. Christ's eyelids are droopy and strange - distinctive markers of the forger's style. And yet this picture fooled the world.

Why were people so gullible? And, as we gaze back through time at an entire community falling for an obvious con, is there a lesson we should learn today?