Sunday 31 October 2021

HDB Prime Location Public Housing (PLH) Model: Keeping public housing in prime locations affordable, accessible and inclusive for Singaporeans

Subsidy clawback, 10-year MOP for new prime location HDB flats to keep them affordable, inclusive
By Michelle Ng, The Straits Times, 27 Oct 2021

Future Housing Board (HDB) flats built in prime, central locations will be subjected to a 10-year minimum occupation period (MOP) and additional subsidies will be clawed back by the Government upon their resale.

These are among the key measures under a new prime location public housing (PLH) model, aimed at keeping prime HDB flats affordable and inclusive, announced by National Development Minister Desmond Lee on Tuesday (Oct 26).

The first Build-to-Order (BTO) project under this model will be located in Rochor and launched next month.

The pool of resale buyers of these prime HDB flats will also be limited to households who earn not more than $14,000 a month and at least one applicant must be a Singapore citizen.

Under the PLH model, fewer flats may be set aside under HDB's Married Child Priority Scheme, which gives priority to applicants whose parents or children live in the same area.

Currently, up to 30 per cent of new flats are set aside under this scheme for families buying a flat for the first time.

At a media briefing on Tuesday, Mr Lee said the new model is to keep public housing in prime locations affordable, accessible and inclusive for Singaporeans, both at the initial purchase and at subsequent resales on the open market.

The PLH model will apply only to future public housing in prime locations and not to existing flat owners.

There will be at least one prime location public housing project launched each year, but the exact proportions will differ year on year, as it depends on site availability and the overall supply of flats across all towns, said Mr Lee.

In order for HDB to launch these prime flats at affordable prices at the BTO stage, it has to provide additional subsidies on top of the those provided for all BTO flats, said Mr Lee.

All subsidies are factored into flat prices when they are launched as BTO flats.

"But the concern is whether this would lead to the lottery effect, excessive windfall gains and whether it would be fair to BTO buyers in other parts of Singapore, who would not get these additional subsidies," he said.

A record number of HDB flats have changed hands for at least $1 million this year.

In the first nine months of this year, there were 174 million-dollar HDB flats, compared with 82 for the whole of last year, which raised eyebrows and set off concerns about home affordability.

They came on the back of a buoyant HDB resale market, in which resale flat prices also hit a record high in the third quarter of this year.

To address these concerns, the Government will claw back additional subsidies provided to PLH flats.

Flat owners will pay a percentage of the resale price to HDB when they resell their home on the open market for the first time, he said.

This will apply only to those who bought the flat from HDB and not to subsequent resale transactions.

The exact percentage will be announced at the launch of the Rochor BTO project next month, which is the first site under the PLH model, and may be adjusted for other projects in the future, he said.

Other prime locations for public housing include the future Greater Southern Waterfront.

However, buyers who want one of these flats on the resale market will have to meet the prevailing eligibility conditions for buying a flat directly from the HDB.

These include having at least one applicant who is a Singapore citizen, meeting the household income ceiling of $14,000 and not holding a private property or sold any in the last 30 months.

Singles above 35 years old will not be allowed to buy these PLH flats. This is in contrast to current rules that do not place limitations on singles above the age of 35 buying resale flats.

"Without such restrictions, the resale prices of these homes in prime locations may rise beyond the reach of many Singaporeans over time," said Mr Lee.

These conditions on the resale pool will also act as safeguards to prevent sellers from adding the subsidy recovery to their asking price in the hopes of trying to maximise gains, he added.

“Buyers will be a circumscribed group of people who meet BTO eligibility requirements, so that means not anyone can buy. And buyers will also have to bear in mind the impositions on subsequent resale on him or her,” he said.

“So that will ensure that the moderated market for the prime location public housing flats is functional.”

To ensure buyers are genuinely buying the flat to live in, instead of hoping to flip it for a windfall, the MOP for prime location HDB flats will be extended to 10 years, up from the current five.

Owners will also not be allowed to rent out their whole flat at any point in time, even after the MOP is over.

These conditions will apply to all flat owners who purchase BTO and resale flats under the PLH model.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Living with COVID-19: New domestic, border measures announced on 23 October 2021

Singapore cannot lock down indefinitely but also cannot 'simply let go and let things rip' in COVID-19 fight: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 23 Oct 2021

New measures were announced on Saturday (Oct 23) by the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 to help Singapore live with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The announcements came after the task force said on Wednesday that the tighter curbs currently in place - including restricting group sizes for dining in to two people - will be extended for a month till Nov 21.

The new measures are:

1. Only fully vaccinated employees can return to workplaces from next year

From Jan 1, 2022, only employees who are fully vaccinated, or have recovered from Covid-19 within the past 270 days, can return to the workplace.

Unvaccinated employees will not be allowed to return to the workplace unless they have tested negative for Covid-19 before returning, and they will need to pay for the costs of these tests, MOH said.

This should be a pre-event test at an MOH-approved Covid-19 test provider, and must be valid for the duration that the employees are required to be present at the workplace.

2. Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine to be included in the national vaccination programme

The Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine will be included in the national vaccination programme, following the Health Sciences Authority's interim authorisation of the vaccine under the Pandemic Special Access Route (PSAR).

All individuals who have received two doses of the Sinovac vaccine will be regarded as fully vaccinated for four months after the second dose, or Dec 31 this year, whichever is later.

However, the full regime for Sinovac should include three doses, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, with the third dose given 90 days after the second.

The Sinovac vaccine will be administered for free from the Ministry of Health (MOH)-assigned vaccination centre at Raffles City Convention Centre, on top of the 11 selected Public Health Preparedness Clinics and private clinics that have already been approved to provide the vaccine.

MOH will also offer the three-dose primary series regime of Sinovac under the programme to those who have not completed their full course of vaccination, including people who had only received one or two doses of Sinovac previously.

But Sinovac will not be offered as a booster for people who had already completed two doses of an mRNA vaccine (Pfizer-BioNTech/Comirnaty and Moderna) and did not develop allergies or severe adverse reactions.

These measures take into account the relatively lower vaccine efficacy of Sinovac compared with mRNA vaccines, as recommended by the Expert Committee on Covid-19 Vaccination, MOH explained.

The vaccine has also not been approved for general use for individuals aged 12 to 17 years. But for those in this age band who are medically ineligible to complete a full two-dose regime of the Pfizer-BioNTech/Comirnaty vaccine, MOH will offer a three-dose primary series using Sinovac under a dedicated public health programme.

3. Concessions for those medically ineligible for vaccination

MOH will make a special concession to exempt some people from the vaccination-differentiated measures, if they are certified to be medically ineligible for all vaccines under the national vaccination programme.

This means they will be able to enter premises such as shopping malls and hawker centres and participate in some activities from Nov 1.

More details on the medical criteria and timeline for this exemption will be provided later.

4. Pregnant Covid-19 patients can recover at home

The Home Recovery Programme, which is now the safe and default option for the majority of Covid-19 patients, will be extended to pregnant Covid-19 patients. They must also be fully vaccinated, and are below 35 years old and less than 26 weeks pregnant.

These patients would be clinically assessed at selected hospitals to be suitable for home recovery before commencing the programme.

5. Fully vaccinated seniors to resume community activities

The People's Association will organise activities for fully vaccinated seniors according to prevailing safe management measures.

These activities for fully vaccinated seniors will be held in a safe manner at specific sites and dedicated timings, MOH said.

The People's Association will release more details at a later date.

MOH also announced updates to Singapore's border measures. They are:

1. More fully vaccinated domestic workers can enter the country

MOH will facilitate the entry of more fully vaccinated domestic workers to meet urgent domestic and caregiving needs of local households, while regulating the numbers carefully as the global situation evolves, it said.

2. Review of countries or region categories

All travellers with a 14-day travel history to Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka prior to departure to Singapore will be allowed to enter and transit through Singapore from 11.59pm on Oct 26.

Saturday 9 October 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong's address on COVID-19 situation, path to new normal, 9 October 2021

Treat COVID-19 seriously, but no need to live in fear: PM Lee

Zero-COVID strategy no longer feasible due to highly infectious Delta variant

Singapore's COVID-19 'new normal' expected to be 3 to 6 months away

Travel restrictions eased, health processes simplified, as Singapore stays the course on living with COVID-19

COVID-19 quarantine orders scrapped, simpler rules to be rolled out in Singapore from 11 October 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong, ministers thank healthcare workers for bearing brunt of pandemic

COVID-19 booster shots for those 30 and above, and healthcare, front-line workers

Singapore must press on with strategy of living with COVID-19 and not be paralysed by fear: PM Lee
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 9 Oct 2021

Travel restrictions will be eased and health processes simplified as Singapore stays the course on living with Covid-19, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The Republic will press on with its strategy of living with the virus, with a "new normal" expected to be between three and six months away. Right now, the crucial step is to update mindsets on the virus, PM Lee said in his ninth address to the nation since the pandemic began.

This means treating Covid-19 as a serious adversary without living in fear of it, and adjusting healthcare and recovery measures to prioritise those at greatest risk of severe illness, he told the nation in an address on Saturday (Oct 9).

Singapore will also "drastically simplify" its healthcare protocols, said Mr Lee, who acknowledged people's concerns and frustrations about keeping up with new policies and changes to measures.

"No more complicated flow charts. People must be clear what to do if they test positive, or if they come into contact with someone who is infected," he said in the live broadcast.

To this end, home recovery will become the default for almost everyone in Singapore from Sunday, except the very youngest and oldest of patients and for those above 50 who are unvaccinated, the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 announced on Saturday.

Testing and isolation protocols have also been streamlined to three pathways that the task force said will apply to the vast majority of cases. The revised protocols and simplified time-based discharge approach - most patients will automatically exit home isolation after 10 days - will take effect from Monday.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said that authorities had reset these Covid-19 protocols as the Delta variant causes high viral loads early in an infection that can be caught by a rapid test, and balanced against the unsustainability of restricting large numbers of people for prolonged periods to try and catch every case.

“A system like that is less watertight than today’s quarantine system, but it can significantly and substantively manage the risk,” he said at a multi-ministry taskforce press conference that followed Mr Lee’s address.

Unlike last year, when the consequences of infection were serious, widespread vaccination here has meant that more than 98 per cent of cases now have mild or no symptoms and can recover well at home just like if they had contracted the flu, said Mr Lee.

Only 2 per cent or fewer developed serious illness, while 0.2 per cent, or two out of every thousand cases - have died or needed intensive care unit (ICU) treatment, he noted.

"In other words, Covid-19 is no longer a dangerous disease for most of us," he said.

Now, the threat of Covid-19 is mainly to seniors - those aged 60 and above who are not vaccinated, or 80 and above even if they are vaccinated, said Mr Lee.

A disproportionate number of cases with poor outcomes were unvaccinated seniors: While they account for barely 1.5 per cent of the population, they made up two-thirds of cases that needed ICU care or died.

"The remaining one-third were vaccinated seniors," said Mr Lee.

"We feel every single loss keenly. My deepest sympathies and condolences to all the families."

Mr Lee urged unvaccinated elders to get their vaccines, while those who have been vaccinated should go for their booster shots. The third jab reduces a senior's risk of severe infection by more than 10 times, he said.

"Or to put it in another way, to the virus, the booster shot makes a vaccinated 80-year-old look like a much younger vaccinated 50-plus year-old," he said.

Noting that 142 people have died so far with six deaths on Friday alone, Singapore’s director of medical services Kenneth Mak said vaccination remains the key strategy in reducing the risk of developing severe infection.

“This is a sad statistic and we should not be numb to the fact that when a person develops a severe Covid-19 infection, he does have a high risk of dying from that infection,” he said.

From Saturday, the booster shots regime will be expanded to healthcare and front-line workers, staff in settings such as aged homes, and to people aged 30 and above.

Living with Covid-19 also means reconnecting Singapore with the world and global supply chains so as to preserve Singapore's hub status, said Mr Lee.

As part of this reopening, the Government announced on Saturday that Singapore will allow quarantine-free travel to eight more countries - including the United States, Britain and Canada - from later this month and South Korea from Nov 15.

Minister for Transport S Iswaran who was also at the press conference said that together with Brunei and Germany (which are already on the scheme), the 11 countries account for about a tenth of pre-Covid-19 annual passenger arrivals at Changi Airport.

“While still a far cry from where we were pre-Covid, this is a significant step in the reopening of our borders and crucial to reclaiming and rebuilding our status as an international aviation hub with global connectivity,” he said.

The next few months will be trying as daily cases continue to rise for a few more weeks, but the surge will level off hopefully within a month, said Mr Lee.

Everyone has a part to play in ensuring that the healthcare system does not get overwhelmed, he added. This includes cutting back on social activities, and not rushing to hospitals' accident and emergency (A&E) departments if they have mild symptoms, so that bed capacity is reserved for those who need it most.

"Unity of purpose and hearts is crucial to get us through the next few months," he stressed.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said that while some have called for a faster relaxation of the rules, others have expressed concerns about the health and well-being of their elders and the safety of their young children.

He said the Government is taking all these considerations to heart as it develops Singapore’s Covid-19 response and strategy.

“We want to ensure that we will always have the ability to provide medical care to anyone who falls seriously ill from Covid-19,” he said. “And that’s why we will ease out of our stabilisation measures in a calibrated manner.”

People will know when the new normal has been reached, said Mr Lee: Restrictions will largely be lifted, with only light measures in place; daily new cases will be stable at hundreds a day without growing; and hospitals will be able to go back to business as usual.

"We are in a much better position now, than a year or even six months ago," he said.

"Sometimes it may not feel like it, but we are making steady progress towards the new normal."

How much money do households in Singapore need to achieve a basic standard of living?

Family of four needs $6,426 a month for basic standard of living in Singapore: Minimum Income Standards Study 2021
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 Oct 2021

A family of four, with parents, a pre-teen and a teenager, needs at least $6,426 a month to afford a basic standard of living, a study on household budgets has found.

A family of two, with a single parent and a toddler or pre-schooler, meanwhile, needs $3,218 a month.

But a substantial and concerning proportion of working households in Singapore - about 30 per cent - do not earn enough to meet these needs.

The study was done by National University of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Its findings were released in the report Minimum Income Standards For Households In Singapore (2021), and were disputed by the Ministry of Finance (MOF) in a statement on Friday (Oct 8).

LKYSPP senior research fellow Ng Kok Hoe and NTU head of sociology Teo You Yenn, two of the study's six authors, said that the study on how much people need to achieve a basic standard of living in Singapore has exposed some gaps in society.

Using the figures as a benchmark and comparing them against existing income data as well as public schemes show that some segments of the population are not able to meet their basic needs, added Dr Ng at an event presenting the study's findings held over videoconferencing platform Zoom.

But the MOF said "the conclusions may not be an accurate reflection of basic needs largely due to assumptions used", pointing to the limitations of the Minimum Income Standards (MIS) approach used.

The study defined standard of living as one in which Singaporeans can afford housing, food and clothing, and also have opportunities for education, employment and work-life balance, as well as access to healthcare.

It should also enable a sense of belonging, respect, security and independence and afford the choice to participate in social activities and cultural and religious practices.

Based on this definition that emerged from focus group discussions, researchers then convened more focus groups for people to come up with lists of items people from different stages of life will need.

The researchers went to shops or websites mentioned by the participants to find out the real price of each item. These lists were then combined to form the budget of various configurations of households.

Dr Ng said a critical pillar of the MIS approach is to ensure that each focus group is economically diverse, so the budgets resulting from the discussions are not just for particular segments, say the rich or poor. Instead, these budgets apply universally for all Singaporeans, he added.

A total of 196 participants of different genders, ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds took part in 24 focus group discussions.

Wednesday 6 October 2021

FICA: Singapore passes law to counter foreign interference

Risk of foreign interference 'far greater' than risk of Govt abusing its powers: Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Oct 2021

A law against foreign interference was on Monday (Oct 4) passed by Singapore's Parliament after a 10-hour airing in the House, three years after it was first raised and three weeks after the extensive, hotly debated legislation was tabled.

"And these are important to ensure that Singaporeans continue to make our own choices on how we should govern our country and live our lives."

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or Fica, aims to tackle foreign meddling in domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns and the use of local proxies.

During the debate, 16 MPs from both sides of the aisle surfaced criticisms and concerns raised by lawyers, experts and civil society activists in recent days, including over the law's broad language and lack of judicial oversight.

These resulted in a parliamentary petition to delay its passage put forward by Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, a raft of proposed changes tabled by the Workers' Party (WP), and recorded dissent from opposition MPs at the final vote - but the ruling People's Action Party's supermajority meant Fica's passage was a given.

At around 11.15pm, the Bill was passed with 75 MPs saying "yes", 11 from the WP and Progress Singapore Party objecting, and two Nominated MPs abstaining.

WP chief Pritam Singh had called for a division in which each MP's vote is recorded.

Some proposed amendments to the Bill by the WP were accepted by the Government, including to expand the list of defined politically significant persons to include a member of the executive committee or similar governing body of a political party.

Another accepted modification was to make it obligatory to publicise the designations of these persons, as well as some stepped-up countermeasures against them.

The party had also suggested additional provisions allowing appeals to the court and a public registry of politically significant persons among other changes, which it said would lower the likelihood of abuse of power and lead to greater transparency.

Other MPs had also suggested for greater checks and balances to be incorporated into the law, citing "extensive" discretion granted to the authorities.

Mr Shanmugam offered a biting response, noting that "rhetoric alone doesn't solve problems".

"Parliament is not just a forum for reading out speeches with an intent of putting it out in social media eventually… without offering real suggestions. We need to engage on the issues," he said.

Mr Shanmugam agreed that while executive powers must be subject to checks and balances, the questions are in what form and what are the appropriate and best solutions for Singapore's context.

Earlier, in a speech running more than two hours long to kick off the debate, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore's interracial and inter-religious mix was easily exploitable by foreign actors, who have been steadily building up covert, clever narratives to try an condition Singaporeans' thinking.

"In my view, this is one of the most serious threats we face, and our population and I think most MPs are not really aware of this," he said.

While international media regularly identifies Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as perpetrators, the United States and other Western countries have similar, or in the case of the US, even superior capabilities, added the minister.

He also said foreign interference and the need for legislation have been extensively discussed and debated for more than three years now, dating back to 2018, when a select committee set up to study the issue of fake news gathered detailed evidence on the seriousness of the threat.

Mr Shanmugam also described Fica as offering a more calibrated approach for the Internet age in contrast to blunter levers in other laws, and argued that the risk of rogue foreign interference was far greater than the risk of a rogue government abusing its power.

He also noted that the scope of Fica was narrower than that of laws in America and Australia on political activity by foreign persons or entities, and rejected suggestions by the WP to classify senior civil servants as politically significant persons.

And to protect sensitive information, appeals against directions issued should be heard by an independent reviewing tribunal instead of the courts, he said.

Mr Shanmugam also addressed the law's impact on trust in public institutions.

"Let's get real… Trust doesn't depend on putting in a series of legislation, just copying other (jurisdictions) whose trust levels are abysmally low."

High trust levels in Singapore can be attributed to its performance, probity, leaders' behaviour and exercise of powers, he said, adding that trust would also dissipate quickly in the face of abuse and corruption - particularly in a small place like the Republic.

The minister admitted that in the process of drafting Fica with his officers, there were parts he wished had turned out differently.

"But the threat we face is people armed with bazookas, and I describe this legislation as a toy gun," he said.

"Singapore believes in the law, so we give ourselves legal powers. But in reality the kind of threats we face, the kind of adversaries and the resources they have in terms of manpower, are far greater than what we have.

"Our people haven't even begun to realise what the problem is, and the nature of the problem."

Tuesday 5 October 2021

Can Ivermectin be used to treat COVID-19?

Grandmother hospitalised after taking drug for parasite infestations to ‘protect herself’ against COVID-19
She did so on advice of church friends, who told her to avoid mRNA vaccines as they were 'against God's will'
By Osmond Chia, The Straits Times, 4 Oct 2021

A 65-year-old retiree fell violently ill and has been hospitalised after taking a drug meant to treat parasite infestations on the urging of her church friends to protect herself from Covid-19.

Madam Wong Lee Tak had taken four 3mg tablets of ivermectin over two days. She became ill on Friday (Oct 1), believed to be her second day of taking the prescription drug.

She suffered a 39.3 deg C fever, inflammation on her joints and would "vomit violently" after eating food, said her daughter Vanessa Koh, 32.

"I couldn't get her to eat anything. She had some oats to eat before she took medicine, but she vomited everything violently. It just exploded out of her mouth," Ms Koh told The Straits Times on Monday (Oct 4).

She took her mother to Sengkang General Hospital on Friday (Oct 1), where she remains hospitalised in stable condition.

The family initially thought that Madam Wong was suffering from side-effects to her first jab of the Sinopharm vaccine that she took on Sept 23.

Ms Koh said it had taken months of heated persuasion to convince her mother to get vaccinated, as a group of close friends from the Church of the Risen Christ had urged her not to get vaccinated with the mRNA vaccines as it was against God.

"We got into quite a lot of quarrels because she didn't want to be vaccinated," said Ms Koh, who works in a bank.

"It was such a strain on my family as with all her conditions, (my mother) is a sure-hit if she gets the virus."

Madam Wong has diabetes and high blood pressure, which makes her vulnerable to severe illness, said Ms Koh.

In the end, her mother chose to get the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.

While it did not have the highest efficacy rate against Covid-19, it was better than nothing for her mother, said Ms Koh, who felt it was important that her mother get protected.

She said her one-year-old son was looked after by her mother during the day.

"My son could feel something was not right with my mum on Friday when she kept lying on the bed. When we didn't let him near her, he wanted to cry," said Ms Koh, whose father is now looking after her son.

"Today, he kept going to the study room, hoping to find her sitting there."

While looking after her mother when her symptoms first surfaced, Ms Koh found messages on her mother's phone, which revealed that a church member had taken orders for purchases of 1,000 ivermectin pills for $110.

A photo of a table recommending the drug's dosage by body weight for "prophylaxis and treatment of Covid-19" was sent by another member.

Ivermectin cannot be purchased over the counter but is usually prescribed by a doctor to treat head lice and other infestations. It is also used in large quantities to treat animals such as dogs and horses for heartworm and parasites.

A cautionary note on the packaging said the pills were not to be sold by retail without the prescription of a registered medical practitioner.

Ivermectin garnered attention late last year after early research indicated its potential in treating Covid-19, but the World Health Organisation in March warned that evidence was inconclusive and more studies were needed.

Ms Koh said she confronted her mother, who revealed she had purchased nine boxes of some 1,000 pills, which she hid in her study room.

"It was like carrying out my own mini drug raid. But when I asked my mother about why she is taking this, she can't tell me anything that is scientifically sound," said Ms Koh.

Her mother told her she had taken ivermectin as she believed the vaccine was useless.

"I know she just wants to say that vaccines are Satanic. She and her friends are not interested in science."

In Madam Wong's text messages, one church friend had told her, "don't allow Satan to win" and that the virus was a test of faith.

Ms Koh said she had never met the group members, and that they have not contacted her or her mother since she fell ill.

The group administrators have since removed her mother from the Telegram chats and erased all conversations with her, she added.

"They shouldn't pretend that they are experts. They told her to get ivermectin, but now my mother is suffering alone.

"(These friends) have been a pain to the family for a long time, but this time it was a step too far," said Ms Koh, who posted about her mother's ordeal on Facebook on Sunday, along with photos of her mother's text conversations with various church friends.