Mdm Speaker, in between the fist and second reading of this Bill – a period of two and a half months – two stories about foreign worker accommodation in particular, caught the public eye. Both stories unwittingly put the importance of this Bill and the scope of the work ahead to better manage and look after the well-being of our foreign worker population, into acute perspective.
On the ground
On 6 December 2014, the New Paper reported that four Malaysian foreign workers who were employed as cleaners died in a fire at a Geylang Lorong 4 shophouse, in Singapore’s worst fire in 10 years. Two firemen and eight other individuals suffered injuries from the blaze. The unit in question – reported to be an area only slightly bigger than 1,300 sq ft – had nine rooms, each equipped with bunk beds, a tiny kitchen and a toilet. The Malaysian Star newspaper, STOMP and a Today article reported that premises was occupied by some 100 foreigners from China, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia, partitioned into 11 units of rooms each occupied by about 10 people. The local Chinese paper Shin Min Daily News on the other hand reported that the affected unit of the three-storey walk-up apartment had eleven rooms, each occupied by up to eight workers, which makes for a total of about 88 people in a single apartment.
In a separate piece of news on 29 Dec 2014, the New Paper reported that eight blocks of HDB managed flatted factories at Tampines Industrial Park A, comprising of workshops, furniture manufacturers and warehouses – were operating as a (I quote) “secret dormitory” (unquote) for 1000 foreign workers, in clear violation of HDB rules.
While these stories were headline-grabbing, other articles pertaining to our foreign workers continued to make the news. On 21 November 2014, the Straits Times reported that a spot check by the Migrant Workers’ Centre found more than 50 construction workers from Bangladesh and India crammed in two small apartments in Selegie Road with the report adding that the “men slept shoulder to shoulder, amid rotting food and soiled clothes”. The same article reminded readers that the paper had raised several reports on unhygienic and overcrowded foreign worker housing recounting one an incident of a Punggol HDB construction site where hundreds of workers had to use choked and broken urinals, and another story covering the plight of about 5000 workers living at Tuas View Square in factory-converted dormitories infested with rats and mosquitos.
A Business Times story the same month reported that of the 770,000 work permit holders, only 200,000 stay in purpose built dormitories that this Bill will regulate, with requirements for a little less than double the amount. The rest of our foreign workers stay in a variety of places like the putatively illegal dormitories in Geylang and Tampines, in HDB flats in some cases, and at temporary housing at construction sites all unregulated by an omnibus act of parliament – notwithstanding the spaghetti bowl of guidelines and restrictions governing such accommodation from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), Public Utilities Board (PUB), the Building and Construction Agency (BCA), National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Housing and Development Board (HDB).
Better foreign worker dormitory employment standards for all foreign workers
During the second reading of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Bill in 2012, the Minister informed the House that in 2011, MOM conducted close to 800 inspections of premises used as foreign worker housing and that in 2009, enforcement action was taken against 1,800 employers for housing their workers in unacceptable conditions. A recent Business Times article reported that the first half of 2014 saw 360 inspections. However, the large number of these continuing violations and inspections suggest that Singapore, a first world economy by any stretch, does not host a robust enough framework governing the housing of foreign workers, even as this Bill is a step in the correct direction.
Mdm Speaker, the explanatory note of the Bill defines “foreign employee dormitory” to mean a premise that provides accommodation for more than 1000 workers. By this threshold, the Bill does not address the sort of accommodation at the centre of the Dec 6 Geylang fire and “secret dormitories” such as those in Tampines. I would like to ask the Minister what plans are envisaged to reduce this threshold number within the context of this Bill since it is explicitly suggested in the explanatory note and separately, how this figure of 1000 was arrived at in the first instance, in view of the need for greater oversight, regulation and enforcement across this industry, than is currently the case.
Separately, a Straits Times report of 19 August 2014 reported, rather oddly, that there were at least 5,000 empty beds still available at purpose-built dormitories that will be covered by this Bill. The reason for this sudden turn of events was put down to more construction firms being permitted by the authorities to set up foreign worker quarters on the sites of major building projects, including LTA and HDB sites.
I recognise that manpower proximity to the workplace helps reduce costs for businesses particularly construction contractors. To this extent, government policy should support such considerations wherever possible. However, rendering such operational flexibility for business would have been an opportune time to introduce clear licensing requirements, regulatory standards and a penalty framework for such temporary foreign worker quarters. This would have greatly supported contractors on the one hand, and improved the living conditions of the foreign workers on the other.
In drafting this Bill, I would like to enquire if the Ministry considered for example, introducing a separate category or categories of licencing for premises that operate as smaller foreign employee accommodation below the threshold number, so as to bring many more dormitories and places of accommodation for foreign workers under a licencing framework? Such a broad strategy would be aligned with the purpose of the Bill, as spelt out in clause 4, which seeks to establish certain accommodation standards for the foreign employee dormitories; for the appropriate mechanisms to ensure adherence to those very standards, and to promote the sustainability of and continuous improvements in the provision of services at foreign employee dormitories.
One possible way to support SMEs, and small businesses and contractors on the one hand, and our foreign worker community on the other, is for the Government to consider building and managing some dormitories for our foreign workers. For example, companies that employ 100 or less foreign workers, being more sensitive to cost pressures can be eligible to house their workers in Government-built and operated dormitories which set the standard for the entire industry. The entry of the Government into this sector can be modelled along the entry of Ministry of Education into the kindergarten business, which is to provide good pre-school education and more importantly, to catalyse improvements in this sector. If deemed appropriate, a fraction of the foreign worker levy can be used to establish such dormitories with a subsidy for small companies that show real and sustained productivity improvement in their operations.
Who is ultimately responsible for the health and safety of foreign workers?
Madam Speaker, Part 5 of the explanatory statement of the Bill states that the Minister by way of subsidiary legislation, can determine that several buildings on different parcels of land be regarded as a single boarding premises and whether all the beds therein are to be counted to determine if the total threshold number is attained. This is a positive move as it would prevent savvy operators who would nonetheless operate assiduously to work around the 1000 bed threshold by all means, effectively negating parliament’s intent for example, by creating sister companies thru family and friends. I would like to ask the Minister whether the Ministry has determined how many additional dormitory operators are likely to come under this scenario as spelt out in the explanatory note and how many more beds, so to speak, will come under the licencing framework as a result of this envisaged subsidiary legislation.
This Bill’s intention to determine that several buildings on different parcels of land can be regarded as a single boarding premises, should also interest potential investors. As recently as 2008, Avery Strategic Investments, an entity that was then 97% controlled by Morgan Stanley Real Estate bought three foreign workers’ dormitories for $153m when Jurong Town Corporation offered to sell three dormitories comprising a total of 13,544 beds. An officer of the minority shareholder, Averic Capital Management, was then quoted as saying, “as the Singapore economy grows, likely so will the dormitory business. We’re hopeful the economy remains robust; then there’ll be more opportunities to invest in this asset class.”
About two and a half years later, Morgan Stanley sought to exit the dormitory business citing a dearth of sites made available for dormitory development by the government, preventing them from enlarging their portfolio to spin-off the business into a dormitory real estate investment trust. It was reported that the entity received expressions of interests ranging from $375 million to $450 million, a whopping $100 million more than the total cost of the assets it purchased a mere three years prior.
Madam Speaker, it is not in doubt that the market is the lifeblood of any society. However, for industries and sectors that have significant socio-cultural implications for an urban and high-density society like Singapore, the market approach should go hand in hand with responsibility towards our foreign workers. Away from the dizzying dollars churned by the financial industry and the heady world of mergers and acquisitions, the concern of many Singaporeans and members of this house by virtue of this Bill, is primarily over the health, security and safe lodging of our foreign workers.
To this end, in the Ministry of Manpower’s press release on the Bill dated 4 November 2014, under the section covering penalties – it was stated (and I quote) “that the holder of the dormitory licence will be the dormitory operator responsible for the day-to-day running of the dormitory. Nonetheless, the premises may be owned by a separate proprietor who either sublets the premises to the operator for use as a dormitory; or appoints the operator to manage the daily operations on his behalf. In such instances, (the Ministry) would hold proprietors accountable where they, rather than the operators, have more control, for example, in making repairs or alterations to the premises.” (unquote)
I seek some clarifications on this point in the press release since the Bill does not make specific reference to the degree of control as apportioned between for example, the ultimate owner of a foreign employee dormitory and the licensed operator in the event of an infraction. For example, how far would an owner or a corporate entity be held liable if it can prove it had no control in making repairs and alterations to a boarding premises? Does that mean it is not responsible should foreign workers be found living in unsatisfactory conditions?
The interpretation section of the Bill defines a proprietor as “including the owner of the premises who is the lessor or grantor of the licence to occupy.” Specifically, I would like to ask the Minister, how far does ownership extend by this definition? Would it cover financial institutions and funds that are the ultimate owners and who seek to unlock value in such investments? In keeping with the purpose of the Bill as made out in clause 4, would it not be less ambiguous and keeping with the parliamentary intention of the Bill to make the licence holder and the owner or owners, regardless of their shareholding, jointly and severally liable for any infractions committed by the licence holder? A clarification of this point, in view of the Ministry’s potentially ambiguous press release of 4 November 2014 would be appreciated.
Madam Speaker, if this Bill is about providing for certain standards of accommodation and to promote the continuous improvements in the provision of services at dormitories, then I would argue that a firm enforcement regime that emphasises responsibility for foreign workers up and down the value chain be enshrined by this Bill and enunciated by the Minister. This is especially so since big corporates can potentially come on board and purchase strategic stakes in foreign employee dormitories as investors. The benefits of such a prospect should not be solely to unlock shareholder value – I would argue that benefits should flow back to the industry and to society, and align itself with the purpose of the Bill. In some cases, the financial heft of big corporates and holding companies and their ability to undertake independent risk assessments puts them in a good position to be the quasi-regulators of this industry, by virtue of ownership, alongside the Dormitory Association of Singapore.
In conclusion Mdm Speaker, while I support the Bill, which seeks to regulate some aspect of foreign worker accommodation in Singapore, I fear it may be a half-measure and rendered otiose if there is no parallel strategy to better regulate foreign employee accommodation per se – targeting not just big dormitory operators but the small-time contractors and businesses as well. Such as approach would be fairer and serve regulators and business better too, as it would not unwittingly penalise honest businesses which operate large dormitories that this Bill will regulate who play the game by the rules, and who do many Singaporeans a great service by improving the lot of our foreign workers. If Singapore manages to scale up its standards of foreign employee accommodation, our businesses are likely to attract high quality workers and significantly lower the risk of another tragic and senseless fire in Geylang or potentially wanton violations of statutory regulations as evidenced by the secret dormitories in Tampines.
Workers’ Party opposes the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill
Madam Speaker, the Workers’ Party opposes the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill.
The Workers’ Party is uncomfortable about the appointment of short-term Senior Judges who can be re-appointed after 65. The renewal of these short-term positions are contingent on whether renewal is recommended by the Prime Minister and concurred by the President. The new Article 95(2) provides that a person who is 65 years of age of older may be appointed as the Chief Justice, a Judge of Appeal or a Judge of the High Court for a specified period. The Workers’ Party position is that this weakens a concept critical to judicial independence, namely, the security of tenure.
Democracy and Judicial Independence
According to the former Chief Justice (CJ) Mr Chan Sek Keong:
[T]he “freedom to choose one’s Government is a hallmark of democracy” and that the “governors and the governed must respect the law and all are equal before the law. But respect for and subjection to the law can only be sustained if a neutral institution exists to ensure that the law is respected and enforced against all. That institution, in all democracies, is the Judiciary” and it is “the lynchpin of a democratic society and the rule of law.” Critically, the former Chief Justice notes, “the ability of the Judiciary to fulfil such a role is by no means automatic or assured; this is heavily contingent on it being an independent institution.”
Madam Speaker, these observations of the former CJ appeared in a Singapore Academy of Law Journal article in 2010 titled,Securing and Maintaining the Independence of the Court in Judicial Proceedings. The former CJ’s thesis was that the independence of the Judiciary hosted a theoretical and practical component.
The theoretical component noted that judicial independence can be secured by surrounding judges with a protective wall against pressure from political appointees, parliamentarians and pressure groups with specific agendas. This protective wall can be categorized according to what secures independence “to individual members of the judiciary and those that secure the independence of the Judiciary as an institution.” According to CJ Chan, protection afforded by this wall gives the Judiciary the impetus to carry out its Constitutional role and gives judges unfettered freedom to adjudicate disputes without fear or favour and according to law.
Now what are the components of this wall for individual judges? They include lifelong security of tenure and remuneration, immunity from civil suits, adequate remuneration and pension rights.
What are the components of the wall for the judiciary as an institution? Well they include, a fair process for judicial appointment, adequate funding and support for the Judiciary and, respect and support for the Judiciary in general.
Lost opportunity to strengthen Judicial Independence in Singapore?
Madam Speaker, the Workers’ Party is of the firm belief that this amendment to the Constitution offers the Government an opportunity to strengthen and reinforce the protective wall around the Judiciary to carry out its Constitutional role.
In accordance with our manifesto, the Workers’ Party is of the view that the Constitution should be amended to extend the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 65 to 70 years with no prospect for extension by the Government thereafter. While extensions and short-term appointments are administratively convenient, it is the Workers’ Party view that they weaken the protective wall that upholds judicial independence.
Under the existing regime, which this Bill re-enacts, it is conceivable that a judge past the retirement age may be retained by the Government because his or her judgments are “safe” ones and acceptable to the Government, even as the Judiciary remains a separate organ of state. While I am not suggesting that this has occurred, such judgments may well be read as a signal by other judges who have not reached retirement age, as a factor that might determine the prospects for future judicial employment past the statutory retirement age or for a permanent appointment in the case of Judicial Commissioners. Such a prospect could threaten to breach to the protective wall upholding judicial independence and confidence in the Judiciary.
It is apposite to note, as CJ Chan did in his article, that there was also a practical component to judicial independence – namely, that each judge must believe in and maintain the integrity that the judicial office requires of him or her, and that no protective wall can maintain judicial independence should judges be unwilling or unable to exercise personal independence in discharging their duties and functions.
Future-Proofing Judicial Independence
Madam Speaker, we have a first class Judiciary. There is no reason to doubt the integrity of our judges. However, judicial independence as an institution may well take centre-stage and remain in the spotlight in the years to come as our polity becomes more plural and as our citizens turn to the court to adjudicate or clarify disputes covering administrative action and social norms. Before that happens, the Government would be well placed to institutionally strengthen the protective wall of judicial independence so that confidence in the Judiciary remains high. Relooking at concept of security of tenure is good place to start.
In fact, there are some signs that the Government is working to buttress the concept of judicial independence. In the Prime Minister’s speech to Legal Service Officers (LSOs) on the 20th of March 2014, it was announced that a separate judicial track would be created for LSOs. While the structure of the Legal Service remains an integrated one – hence retaining room for improvement – this change is an improvement from the current situation where legal officers rotate between appointments in the State Courts as Magistrates and District Judges, and as Deputy Public Prosecutors in the Attorney-General’s Chambers heightening the prospects of a conflict of interest and a potential lack of judicial independence.
The creation of a separate judicial service at the State Court level is a better measure to guard against members of the Executive from influencing the career and advancement of Judges at the State Courts, since the judicial officers career track will now be assessed by the Judicial Branch Personnel Board and not the Legal Branch Personnel Board. In effect, what this change as announced by the Prime Minister does is to play some small, but not imperceptible, part in strengthening the protective wall of judicial independence. Even if this may not be the stated intention of the Government, it ought to operate as such.
Mdm Speaker, this amendment to the Constitution would have been a good opportunity for the Government to address judicial independence with an acute focus on the future of the Judiciary in Singapore. To make it better and to reinforce that protective wall. Along with the prospective introduction of a judicial service at the State Courts, it would have also been an opportunity for the Government to address judicial independence globally, across the courts in Singapore.
Other Constitutional Changes Proposed
On the other changes proposed by the Bill, the Workers’ Party does not object to setting up of the International Commercial Court and the creation of the post of an international judge as it is not envisaged to have direct ramifications on areas of sovereign domestic law which remain the domain of local judges and because it has the potential of making Singapore a key centre for legal work in Asia.
I have a clarification for the Minister about the government’s thinking behind the possible appointment of multiple Deputy Attorney-Generals. The AGC already accommodates for the appointment of a Solicitor-General and a Second Solicitor-General. Could not taxpayer money have been better utilised to strengthen the middle ranks of the Attorney-General’s Chambers if a heavier workload is the reason for the creation of the office of one or more Deputy Attorney-Generals?
Finally, I seek clarification from the Minister about the replacement of pensions with gratuities for members of the Public Service Commission, the Auditor-General and the Attorney-General going forward.
Madam Speaker, in 2012, when parliamentary pensions were abolished, DPM Teo said that “the removal of pensions will further strengthen the principle of a clean wage and align the retirement scheme of office-holders and Members of Parliament to the Central Provident Fund system.” There was no replacement of parliamentary pensions with any gratuity, and rightfully so. Indeed, the concept of a clean wage goes hand in hand with good governance and transparency.
In a parliamentary reply to a question in April 2013, DPM Teo stated that for judicial and statutory appointment holders, the proposed gratuity plan is essentially of the same value as the pension and is taken into account in the overall salary levels when carrying out salary comparisons. It would therefore appear that there is a lack of consistency in the Government’s approach towards the concept of a clean wage, if indeed a gratuity is seen to replace a pension.
In principle, because of the competitive salaries already received by civil servants, I seek the Minister’s clarification about the current rationale behind paying certain civil servants a gratuity and why it would it not just be simpler and more consistent to have a clean wage.
Madam Speaker, I oppose the Bill.
8 Mr Baey Yam Keng asked the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (a) how will the unsatisfactory condition of the National Stadium pitch affect the international reputation of Singapore given that planned international events have been cancelled or rescheduled; (b) besides payment to SportsHub Pte Ltd being withheld, how are the interests of the Government and public protected in the Private-Public-Partnership arrangement; and (c) apart from the commercial events, what other planned events will be affected and how will these event owners be compensated.
9 Mr Pritam Singh asked the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth what steps will be taken to avoid a repeat of the episode where the National Stadium pitch was deemed to have fallen short of international standards during the soccer friendly between Brazil and Japan on 14 October 2014.
Under the public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement, Sports Hub Pte Ltd (SHPL) designed, built, financed and operates the new Singapore Sports Hub for 25 years. The intent of the PPP is to leverage the private partner’s expertise and network to create a vibrant mix of sports and lifestyle activities that would be accessible to all. SHPL is required to make available the various facilities in the Sports Hub for public and private use, according to the specifications and standards detailed in the Project Agreement between SHPL and Sport Singapore.
Now, developing a major sporting venue in land-scarce Singapore does present several unique challenges. Many stadiums around the world are designed for a specific purpose and they are not used intensively all year round. This is perhaps possible in countries which do not face space or land constraints. In Singapore, it is a luxury we cannot afford. As such, SHPL was asked to deliver a multi-purpose Sports Hub, which could accommodate a vibrant calendar of sports and entertainment activities. By and large, I would say that the expertise brought in by SHPL has helped to make the Sports Hub an integrated sports and lifestyle destination for Singaporeans to enjoy.
However, it has faced problems with the National Stadium pitch because of several reasons. For one, SHPL had taken three months longer than expected to complete the National Stadium, and this meant that there was not enough time to allow the grass on the pitch to take root and stabilise. In addition, SHPL misjudged the impact that the intensive events schedule would have on the pitch. It had carried out testing before deciding on the hybrid Desso GrassMaster pitch. This is a hybrid pitch which is primarily natural turf anchored by artificial fibres. It procured a cover that was designed to allow activities and concerts to take place on the pitch with reduced impact on the grass. This had been tested but it did not work out as planned, and in part because the grass was not anchored deeply enough. It did not have time to grow and anchor itself deeply enough, and so, as a result, the repeated use and coverage of the pitch ended up damaging it.
SHPL recognises that the poor condition of the pitch and the changes in the event schedule have brought about negative publicity to the project. This is also not in the consortium’s own interests, and hence it has stepped forward to take ownership of the issue. It has acknowledged its own shortcomings and it has embarked on the necessary remedial actions to improve the condition of the pitch.
Earlier, SHPL had procured growth lights at its own cost to enhance the growth of the grass. And after the recent Brazil-Japan match, the Asia Pacific Dragons – Maori All Blacks rugby match was cancelled and the Jay Chou concert postponed and this was done to give the pitch more time to stabilise before the coming AFF Suzuki Cup in November. SHPL is bearing the costs arising from the cancellation and postponement of these events.
With the freeing up of the events schedule and the measures put in place so far, we have already seen improvements in the pitch conditions. At the same time, SHPL has been engaging local and overseas experts to fundamentally re-examine its earlier assumptions and models for the use of the pitch. They will assess if the current pitch solution is viable beyond the Suzuki Cup, or whether more extensive changes are needed in the medium to longer-term to ensure a consistently robust pitch. These are still being studied, and SHPL intends to put in place longer-term measures after the Suzuki Cup.
Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines): Thank you, Madam. I would like to ask the Minister how was the Government involved in deciding the type of pitch used for the National Stadium? Was the Government consulted before this hybrid was decided? In resolving this issue now, how is the Government working with SHPL to settle this issue and what is the time frame that the Minister expect this pitch to be restored to the expected standard?
My last question is the Minister mentioned that as part of the PPP, the Sports Hub has to cater for public use. So, during this period where the pitch is not satisfactory, what are the public events that would be affected and how would this affect this PPP arrangement and how would SHPL be taken to task for not fulfilling its end of the agreement?
Mr Lawrence Wong: Madam, as I have mentioned earlier, the requirement is stated in the project agreement that spelt out between Sports Singapore and SHPL. SHPL is required to deliver on certain outcomes, so it has to take upon itself the responsibility of ensuring the pitch allows for multi-purpose usage and is robust enough to withstand that usage.
In the course of coming up with the present solution, SHPL had done a series of tests and these test results were shown to Sports Singapore to show that these tests were done and that the proposed solution that was eventually put in place was the best solution that they had based on the conditions that they had tried out earlier. This, of course, as I have mentioned we know now that it has no worked out as planned, not necessarily because the proposed solution is not the desired one but perhaps there were other extenuating circumstances – as I had mentioned the project was late, and the grass itself had not had time to stabilise before it had to deal with a very heavy event schedule.
The current arrangement or presently, even with the postponement of the events in the coming months, and the time that has taken to allow the grass to grow, we have already seen significant improvements in the pitch. This is something that is being done for the interim, for the Suzuki Cup. Beyond that, there is now a process of going through some of the earlier test results all over again – just to ensure that the solution that is being proposed is truly robust. And this is again a process which we have asked SHPL to undertake. They will do a series of experiments and tests to assure all stakeholders that they have a robust solution for the medium and long term. They will be sharing the results with the Government, with Sports SG. We are also asking our own experts, for example, from the National Parks to look at the results and to satisfy ourselves that whatever the solution as proposed by SHPL is a robust one.
On the private and public use, the public use will pertain to events like the National Day Parade, for example. Not that it is going to be happening next year in the Stadium, but if something like that were to happen, that would be an event that is for public usage. So, in the near term — between now and December or early next year — we have no public events that are in the calendar.
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): I would like to thank the Minister for his reply. Mdm Speaker, page 58 of the Ministry of Finance’s Public/Private Partnership Handbook states that the misallocation between the PPP provider, in this case, SHPL, and the Government procuring entity namely Sports Singapore, is complex and Sports SG must be careful that operational risks are not passed back to them.
Separately, there was also the media statement from Sports Singapore suggesting non-payment if the condition of the pitch does not improve – I believe this was issued shortly after the Brazil-JapanFriendly match.
I have three supplementary questions for the Minister. First, what is the annual payment that Sports Singapore pays to the Sports Hub under the PPP framework and how are the payments structured over the re-payment period? Secondly, under what circumstances can Sports Singapore contractually withhold annual payment to the Sports Hub and how much can it withhold for non-performance? And finally, in view of the Suzuki Cup ticket prices that were released yesterday, what role does Sports Singapore and the Sports Associations play to determine the pricing of events with potential mass appeal and what recourse does Sports Singapore have to ensure that ticket prices are not out of reach for the mass public?
Mr Lawrence Wong: Madam, with respect with the questions, on the annual payment, I do not have a figure at hand but I would say that the annual payment is over a stream of a period of time which eventually would amount to the overall cost of the project. The overall cost of the project is something at a region of $1.3 billion.
As a PPP, instead of forking out $1.3 billion upfront, the Government does not do that. It is done by the private sector but we instead, pay an annual stream of payments over the 25-year period for the usage of the stadium; of the facilities within the Sports Hub. That is how it is designed and constructed.
Within the project agreement, there is indeed a provision for deductions in the availability payment in the event of non-performance or non-availability of use. And this is quite standard in a PPP arrangement. Even in a mature PPP in other countries, you will often find deductions being made in the event of a non-performance by the private partner. This is something that Sports SG will carry out in accordance with the provisions in the project agreement.
On ticket prices, that is something that would be set by event organisers, not necessarily by Sports Hub itself because the events that are taking place in the Sports Hub may be put up by a National Sport Association, it may be put up by Sports Singapore, it may be put together by a private events promoter. These are not regulated prices; these are left to the market. So, the property owners and the event organisers, which are usually commercial organisers, would then have to decide what is the appropriate price range to set these prices.
I would say if you look at the experience so far, and compare with what we have seen in Jalan Besar Stadium, what we have seen in the old national stadium for the events and for the sporting activities that we have had in the Sports Hub, I think they are within a comparable range. For example, the Brazil-Japan match ticket prices were comparable to what was in the old national stadium when Liverpool came to play in the old national stadium. We have had many sporting events within the new Sports Hub organised by our National Sports Associations where ticket prices are very affordable and accessible to all Singaporeans.
This Bill comes four years after the Singapore Academy of Law’s Law Reform Committee released a report on online gaming in Singapore in July 2010. The Law Reform paper noted that Singapore had begun to host gaming and gambling events with more frequency referring to the Betfair Asian Poker Tour, and through statutory exemptions to the Common Gaming Houses Act for organisers of private events to organize gambling activities in Singapore. In the words of the report, these developments suggested a more open state policy towards controlled and revenue-generating gambling activities, with similar implications for online gambling, even though the local Courts have generally taken a more conservative approach with regard to the public policy considerations about gambling.
This Bill will clarify the law on online gambling especially since the four key statutes that govern gambling in Singapore, namely, the Common Gaming Houses Act, the Betting Act, the Private Lotteries Act and the Betting and Sweepstakes Duties Act do not adequately address the legal regime surrounding online or remote gambling. With regard to online gambling till date, the Common Gaming Houses Act and the Betting Act are generally differentiated with the former dealing mainly with casino-style online gambling and the latter with sports-type online betting.
The Bill targets all forms of remote gambling activity – and it covers individuals and corporate entities from gamblers to betting agents and operators. The law will apply so long as part of the gambling activity takes place in Singapore, regardless of where the bet is placed or where the remote gambling operator is located. It also gives authorities the power to block payments between illegal gambling sites and financial institutions and block local access to gambling websites that facilitate or advertise remote gambling. All of these are very far-reaching measures.
The Bill’s Key Issue: Exemptions
Madam Speaker, a reading of the Bill in isolation sends a signal that the state subscribes to a restrictive and socially responsible attitude towards remote gambling. This is however only until the exemptions from clauses 26 to 30 to the Bill kick in and this aspect of the Bill is the focus of my speech.
The Minister can issue a certificate of exemption to any operator if it is in the public interest to do so. Clause 28 lists the conditions that the Minister may refer to when deciding to issue a certificate, although these are not exhaustive, and because the Minister has wide powers to add to, delete or modify the conditions governing the issuance of a certificate of exemption.
I have a few clarifications for the Minister in this regard. While I am supportive of a clear legal regime to deal with remote gambling, I am concerned that the prospect of a certificate of exemption issued to one or more local operators will increase the prospect of gambling in Singapore per se, as there is no clarity as yet on the means by which an operator would seek to contain and control the potential of remote gambling to cause harm to all Singaporeans not just to young persons and vulnerable persons. I will cover four main areas in my speech.
First - Is it inevitable that a total ban will cause remote gambling to go underground?
It was noteworthy that in the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) consultation exercise report on the regulation of remote gambling dated 6 March 2014– some stakeholders advocated a complete ban on remote gambling on the grounds that there were sufficient gambling outlets available to Singaporeans, and to prevent easy access to remote gambling especially among youth who are usually more tech-savvy and potentially at greater risk.
The often-heard argument about remote gambling is that a total ban will drive activities such as internet gambling underground. This is often is the same argument used for the regulation of other vices. In the absence of relevant data and information, I am not convinced that these concerns wholly apply to remote gambling precisely because gamblers can still get their fix at land-based outlets and some remote gambling options provided to gamblers by operators currently, and it is not as if gambling per se is being banned. If so, wouldn’t that suggest that rather than gamblers going underground and operating illegally, most gamblers would just go to the existing land-based outlets such as authorised 4D/TOTO shops which are completely legal and regulated? Separately, even if some remote gambling does go underground, there is already some acknowledgement by the Minister that even with the passage of this Bill into law, there remain loopholes such as Virtual Private Networks or VPNs that can be set up to circumscribe the some restrictions in this Bill and gamblers could still get their fix through international online gambling sites. I would be grateful if the Minister could inform this House whether his Ministry will be open to look into the efficacy of a total ban on online gambling and not issue a certificate to any operator, especially since the public does not know how restrictive or liberal the remote gambling regime will be in practice, or whether it will increase the prospect of compulsive gambling in Singapore.
Second – Information on Remote Gambling in Singapore
The NCPG consultation exercise report on the regulation of remote gambling saw some stakeholders calling on the Government to commission more local research on remote gambling to study the nature and extent of remote gambling in Singapore. I am of the view that access to this information would better equip members for this debate, rather than to rely on analyst reports projections from third parties. I hope the Minister can share more information on remote gambling in this regard, for example, details on the numbers of the remote gamblers in Singapore, the frequency of their betting activities and preferred betting activities i.e. sports betting or conventional casino-styled gambling, so that parliament can ensure that the social safeguards with regard to remote gambling are set at an appropriate level.
Third – Remote Gambling exempt operators: Taxation and Proceeds?
In a USA Today editorial dated 25 Sep 2014, it was reported that the state of New Jersey was looking to the Courts to allow sports betting and the concern was that online sports betting would follow suit accordingly. This may not just mean bets on the eventual results, but live-betting as well (such as the number of red and yellow cards in soccer game for example), raising the prospect of attendant social ills such as increased sophistication in match-fixing for example. The fear is that if pressures begin to mount of the bottom-lines of exempt operators and even the state as a tax partner, there may well be a desensitization towards relaxed remote gambling restrictions as a solution. The Bill gives wide powers to the Minister to decline or revoke the issuance of a certificate and I hope the Minister can let this House know what measures are in place to ensure that such a slippery slope does not occur.
In addition, the NCPG consultation exercise on remote gambling proposed that the proceeds of remote gambling products offered by not-for-profit entities should go towards charitable and community causes. This point is made in clause 26 on the factors the Minister may consider before issuing a certificate of exemption. I would like to ask the Minister if the Ministry has determined what percentage of proceeds from remote gambling would go towards such causes and the operators respectively, and how remote gambling will be taxed. Will this figure will be made public in due course, and would an expectation of a percentage of proceeds be a criteria for the issuance of a certificate, in addition to the conditions specified in clause 28?
Fourth – Responsible Gaming Regulations for Remote Gambling
According to a speech made by the Minister at the 3rd Singapore Symposium on Casino Regulation and Crime last year, the total revenue of the global remote gambling industry in 2012 was estimated at US$35b, with an expected annual growth rate of about 9% – about five times the expected growth for conventional land-based gambling.
The Minister for Social and Family Development – in a reply to a parliamentary question on the implementation of responsible gaming measures adopted by the two Integrated Resorts in October 2013 with respect to the Casino Control (Responsible Gambling) Regulations which came into effect on 31st May 2013 – said that a casino operator must submit its responsible gambling programme to the authorities for prior approval with some measures including whether the operators had committed a dedicated committee to oversee responsible gambling efforts, set-up a pre-commitment facility for patrons to limit their gambling expenditures, and other broad measures such as responsible gambling ambassadors providing patrons with information and to assist those who display signs of anxiety or distress.
These measures have not been raised by this Bill but would conceivably be similarly raised in subsidiary legislation. However, as the drawing up of such legislation is not subject to parliamentary debate, it would be important for the Minister to flesh out the contours of responsible gaming regulations relevant to remote gambling in parliament, so that members can be assured that remote gambling options as offered by exempt operators do not end up making it more convenient to gamble as Singapore is already one of the most wired and connected countries in the world. There is also a legitimate concern that responsible gambling regulations specific to land-based gambling are not easily portable to the remote gambling realm precisely because land-based gambling outlets are viscerally better placed to introduce social checks and monitors, for example through entry levies. In view of the ubiquitous nature of remote gambling, the integrity and online security of gambler/gambling-related information and specifically, the greater difficulty to police and influence online activity, can the Minister please share what measures and regulations the Ministry deliberated upon to ensure that widespread online gambling does not begin to take root in Singapore because of online or remote mediums through regulated operators who have been issued a certificate of exemptions?
Separately, in its press release dated 29 Nov 2013 on proposals to restrict remote gambling, the Ministry stated that in addition to the changes promulgated in the Bill before the House today, the Ministry will also strengthen public education with regard to remote gambling and gambling simulation games. Can the Minister share how the Ministry intends to do so, how different its public education program would be for remote gamblers as opposed to the land-based gambling, and how it plans to gauge the effectiveness of such measures in view of the privacy afforded to a gambler by the Internet, and as iterated earlier, given the nature of the online medium in particular.
In conclusion Madam Speaker, a number of international studies warn how remote gambling activities can be more dangerous than conventional ones that are already present in Singapore. The British-based Global Betting and Gaming Consultants (GBGC) estimated that the remote gambling industry in Singapore will rake in US$416 million (S$526 million) in 2014, up by more than 50 per cent from the US$271.58 million in 2009. More worryingly, according to the Psychological Assessment Journal, it was reported that 40 per cent of online gamblers tend to overestimate their winnngs and underestimate their losses. Separately, NCPG statistics from 2011 showed that those who participated in online gambling were found to have the poorest self-control, gambling longer, more frequently, and spending more money than planned.
Mdm Speaker, the phrase, the devil is in the details is an often heard cliché. This Bill essentially sees the Government proposing a largely restrictive regime governing remote gambling which is a positive development in principle. To that end, I support the Bill. However, the Bill is also one where the details – of how the Government will ensure remote gambling through exempt operators will not lead to an increase incidence of gambling, especially among the vulnerable groups – are not sufficiently clear. As this is a significant aspect of the Bill with far reaching implications on gambling norms in Singapore, I ask the Minister to put this Bill before a Select Committee so parliament can receive additional feedback from Singaporeans, industry experts, and in particular, operators that would potentially qualify for a certificate of exemption, with a view to scrutinise clauses 26 to 30 of Bill more closely. Thank you.
I refer to the article published on 3 Sep 2014 and thank Mr Ye for his letter. Mr Ye would know that PAP MPs who participated in last month’s parliamentary debate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict on 5 Aug 2014, like me, also enquired about the prospects of Singapore taking a stronger position in the matter. Hence, I am puzzled by the title of the article, “MP should take into account national interest when taking a stand on international conflict”.
I would like to clarify that insofar as my support for Palestine is concerned, I support all initiatives that lead to a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict resulting in a just and internationally recognised settlement which creates a sovereign homeland not just for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but one which ensures the right of Israel’s existence as well. Until a final settlement is reached, I also support all humanitarian efforts to assist all those affected by the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In a Facebook post on 23 July 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also called on Singaporeans to keep the victims of the conflict in Gaza in our “thoughts and prayers”. The Prime Minister also encouraged Singaporeans to donate towards humanitarian assistance efforts in Gaza. Since then, many Singaporeans of all races and religions have contributed generously. Singaporean Malay-Muslims contributed more than $1.2 million through all the 68 mosques in the country.
Mercy Relief, a secular and well-known Singaporean organization only last weekend organized ‘Pause for a Cause’ in Orchard Road, to raise money towards the humanitarian fund raising efforts in Gaza. Mercy Relief also organized a charity playdate at Northstar@AMK and collaborated with a well-know yoga operator, Sadhna Sanctuary to raise funds for the same purpose.
At its recent Hari Raya celebration for Aljunied GRC residents held at Jalan Damai, Workers’ Party MPs and members who had also joined the call to raise funds for the humanitarian effort in Gaza, handed over a cheque to the Badan Agama Dan Pelajaran Radin Mas (BAPA) or Religious & Educational League Of Radin Mas, a non-profit social organization which was first formed in Singapore in 1957.
Mr Yap would appreciate that Singapore is an open society and because of our international trade connections and a more interconnected world today, Singaporeans, including younger Singaporeans, are likely to be much more engaged in international affairs in future, not less. This is also part and parcel of citizen participation in a parliamentary democracy.
I believe that as a people living together in a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious society for close to 50 years, we can understand each others’ sentiments and concerns, and even emotional responses to different events within our region and around the world. We should continue to respect each others’ views and allow one another the space to express views and feelings of happenings around us and the world, while being mindful of the sensitivities, and exercise self-restrain and tolerance towards each others as Singaporeans.
MP for Aljunied GRC
Original Letter by Mr Ye dated 3 September 2014
Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh recently called upon the government to take a stronger position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and had earlier openly expressed support for the “Save Palestine” movement
(I am not sure what ‘Save Palestine’ movement Mr Ye is referring to in this case. I assume it is for the letter of support I gave one of my resident’s who sought to hold a charity fundraising concert on HDB land in Eunos in aid of the humanitarian effort in Gaza, with proceeds from the concert going to Mercy Relief).
From my position of as an ordinary citizen, I am very curious to know in what capacity MP Pritam Singh is expressing his support. Is it in his personal capacity? Or does he represent all Aljunied MPs to do so?
According to press reports, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides had used firepower / aggressive methods to inflict casualties on their opponents.
Foreign Minister Shanmugam, in answering an oral parliamentary question in Parliament in August filed by Chua Chu Kang MP Zaqy Mohamad, emphasised that Singapore supports following international law will support sanctions/punishments in accordance with international law.
In the current complex situation, both Israelis and Palestinians are blaming each other. Frankly, they should be accountable to the blameless dead and injured civilians, and in seeking to achieve their political aims, they should not sacrifice the safety and lives of civilians.
Currently, despite the international community’s hard efforts through various channels, the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities continue, showing the limitations of the international community. Whoever is in the wrong, we should leave it from the UN Human Rights Council to investigate. Singapore has already publicly stated its neutrality, and supported an international resolution, but is more realistic about her own ability to influence the conflict, since neither Israel nor Hamas is dependent on Singapore.
I am worried about MP’s intention being misunderstood and misinterpreted in our multi racial and religions Singapore society. This might serve as a negative demonstration can cause social polarisation.
Reflecting further, if communities take sides in international conflicts which have yet to stabilise, will this cause tension among the different communities here? What purpose will be achieved by openly stating such positions? As a small country, what right does Singapore have to state its view in this conflict?
I hope when taking stand/s on foreign affairs, the MP can consider the impact it will have on our multi racial and religion society, and to consider carefully the message that is being sent out/conveyed when openly supporting any movements.
MFA Press Release: Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam’s reply to the Parliamentary Question and Supplementary Questions, 5 Aug 2014: http://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/media_centre/press_room/pr/2014/201408/press_20140508.html
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – Occupied Palestinian Territory: http://www.ochaopt.org
As a result of the angst this issue has created, some Singaporeans feel our Government should bear the blame for this by increasing Vehicle Exit Permit (VEP) charges in July this year, thus giving Malaysians an opportunity to respond in kind. The history behind this issue is a little murky so here is my attempt at shedding some light to the matter.
In 2008, it was reported that the Malaysian government had awarded a RM 1.2 billion contract for the Eastern Dispersal Link (EDL) to Malaysian Resources Corporation Berhad (MRCB), a company linked to the ruling UMNO party. Contract promoters saw it as a way to alleviate congestion in Johor Bahru city but the contract contained a lucrative 34-year toll concession for MRCB. The contract also called for the collection of this toll not on the road itself, but at the Malaysian side of the causeway.
On the EDL project information sheet for investors, the toll charges would range from RM$6.20 for cars to RM$12.40 for lorries, with rates to be reviewed every three years, peaking at RM$14.60 for cars, and RM$29.20 for lorries.
On 1 April 2012, the Eastern Dispersal Link finally opened to traffic but no decision was taken by the Malaysian Government about imposing tolls. Apparently, Malaysia did not take a decision on the matter largely because of their upcoming general elections, and the effect of such a toll on voters, especially on Malaysian businesses that rely on Singapore as a source of supply.
As early as 2012, the Singapore position has been clear. Any toll hike will be met by Singapore, on the basis of “some form” of a matching principle.
The matching principle originated when the Second Link was opened in Tuas in 1998. Then, the Government said it was entitled to charge a toll as it spent some $600 million dollars on building the second link bridge in contrast to the $200 million spent by Malaysia.
Today, this matching principle appears to have found itself a new basis – ‘we will raise if you raise, we will reduce if you reduce’. (see 2014 parliamentary exchange below).
But the basis behind this matching principle, if accurate, appears to be at odds with the Government’s public messaging about Iskandar Malaysia, an area of land about three times the size of Singapore in Johor, that has been vaunted as complementing Singapore.
In May 2014, PM Lee, at a Malay-Muslim business conference was quoted as saying that Small and Medium Entreprises (SMEs) seeking to venture abroad should seriously look at Iskandar:
“All SMEs want more foreign workers…..SMEs will have to turn away business because they cannot find workers….(SMEs) can take advantage of lower costs, and greater supply of land, while staying close to Singapore…..I encourage companies to consider this seriously.”
A month earlier in April 2014, at a joint press conference with the Malaysian Prime Minister, PM Lee was quoted as saying that Iskandar was a “strategic play” that can lift Malaysia above its global competitors and help Singapore maintain its competitive edge.
The contradictory forces generated by Singapore’s decision to match Malaysia’s toll hikes on the one hand and the complementary economic relationship of Iskandar to Singapore on the other aside, it would appear that Singapore’s coffers will see a windfall shortly (assuming conservatively that only 10,000 cars cross the causeway each day, on the basis of 30 day month, the government will collect around $23m a year).
Where did Iskandar figure in Singapore’s toll hike? Could it have considered a less steep hike in toll charges in view of the fact that Singapore did not contribute to constructing the EDL? Even so, if a decision had been taken by the LTA not to increase toll charges, it would inevitably have been read as a signal by some in Malaysia, that Singapore will not react to terms in contracts such as those that led to MRCB being awarded the concession for the EDL, with potentially more road construction in Malaysia ultimately funded mainly by Singaporean taxpayers. Perhaps this is what the Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo meant when she said in parliament, “there is no assurance that toll charges foregone by one side will be translated into lower total charges which benefit motorists.”
But in the meantime, the lustre of Iskandar has gone a little dull with no connection made by the Government of its decision to match Malaysian toll rates at the Causeway and in the same breath, its promotion of Iskandar to SMEs.
Malaysia is in the meantime looking into the prospect of introducing its own Vehicle Entry Permit for foreign cars (read Singapore and Thailand) in the near future, with some unverified reports touting figures of up to RM$50 per vehicle. It is not known what effect this would have on the Iskandar project, unless Malaysia has calculated that it can go it alone with capital from other investors such as the Middle East, at the same time concluding that a more crowded Singapore and increased business costs in the city-state in the years to come would guarantee enough Singaporean business and tourist visitors anyway.
In anticipation of the Singapore’s toll hikes, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) and the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (ACCCIM) met in Batu Pahat, Johor last month to solicit feedback on the issue. In their joint statement, both parties called for an “extensive study…to alleviate the burden on various parties.” This carefully-worded statement make it clear that the toll hikes go well beyond Iskandar.
Should more have be done by both Malaysia and Singapore to alleviate the burden of increased tolls on ordinary Singaporeans and Malaysians? One would have hoped so. But in the final analysis, Iskandar did not matter, both for Malaysia and Singapore.
Now with talk of a “Friendship Bridge” between Singapore and Malaysia mooted in April 2014 by PM Najib and PM Lee, the financing of such a link may well be the first issue for both Singapore and Malaysia to resolve.
1. PM Lee urges SMEs to consider Iskandar for expansion: http://www.todayonline.com/business/pm-lee-urges-smes-consider-iskandar-expansion
2. Iskandar strategic to Singapore and Malaysia, says PM Lee: http://www.singapolitics.sg/news/iskandar-strategic-singapore-and-malaysia-says-pm-lee
3. Parliamentary Question on Matching Toll Charges at the Causeway and Second Link (9 Sep 2014)
Parliamentary Question on Matching Toll Charges at the Causeway and Second Link
Mr Pritam Singh asked the Minister for Transport whether LTA plans to review its long-standing policy of matching toll charges at the Causeway and Second Link to those set by Malaysia in future; and (b) whether a Whole-of-Government study has been carried out by Singapore to assess the prospect of higher toll charges on Singapore businesses operating in the Iskandar zone in Johore.
Mrs Josephine Teo (for the Minister for Transport): Mdm Speaker, toll charges at the Causeway and Second Link were introduced by Malaysia in 1998. Our matching policy reflects the shared nature of the two crossings, and ensures a fair distribution of total revenues from the crossings. Without a matching policy, lower toll charges by one side may simply be offset by higher tolls levied by the other side. There is no assurance that toll charges foregone by one side will be translated into lower total charges which benefit motorists.
Hence, in response to Malaysia’s Causeway tolls revision on 1 August 2014, we have announced Singapore’s intention to match Malaysia’s new and increased toll charges in due course.
The Government has limited information on the cost structures and market conditions of Singapore businesses operating in the Iskandar zone in Johore. But clearly, there will be some impact on their costs.
In this regard, we note reports in the Malaysian media that the Malaysian authorities will review the tolls. Should Malaysia reduce or do away with the toll charges, Singapore will follow suit. This would be welcomed, I think, by both Singapore and Malaysia businesses on both sides of the Causeway.
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Mdm Speaker, I would like to thank the Senior Minister of State for that very helpful clarification. I have three supplementary questions for the Senior Minister of State. First, did the Malaysian government forewarn Singapore their intention to raise toll charges at the Causeway on 1 August, and have there been any joint discussions about this round of toll hikes since 1 August so as to manage costs for Singaporeans and Malaysians travelling to and fro both countries?
The second question is: did the Singapore Government inform its Malaysian counterparts when it planned to increase VEP charges in July this year, and if not, does it plan to do so going forward?
Finally in view of the close relationship between Singapore and Malaysia, especially between the Prime Ministers in recent years, has the Government suggested to the Malaysian authorities to consider tagging the additional toll from 1 August along the Eastern Dispersal Link rather than at the CIQ, so as not to penalise drivers who do not use the Eastern Dispersal Link and only travel into Johor Bahru city?
Mrs Josephine Teo: Mdm Speaker, the answer to the Member’s first question is “No”. We were not informed in advance of Malaysia’s intention to increase the tolls at the Causeway. The answer to his second question is “Yes”. We informed our Malaysian counterparts in advance why there is a need to revise the VEP fees. As I have explained in my answer to the first question, is really because the cost of owning a Singapore-registered vehicle and using it on Singapore roads has risen, whereas the VEP fees which was meant to equalise the similar cost for a foreign-registered vehicle had largely remained unchanged. And so, yes. Our Malaysian counterparts were aware of the intention to raise VEP fees.
The answer to the Member’s third question is “Yes”. We very much would like our Malaysian counterparts to come to the discussion tables, and look at what are the better ways of managing this issue of the Causeway tolls. Our long-standing policy is well known to our Malaysian counterparts, and that means if the Causeway tolls levied by the Malaysian side were to be reduced or removed, we would do likewise.
Mdm Speaker, thank you for allowing me to speak on this Bill, which I support. Nonetheless, I seek clarifications from the Senior Minister of State on clause 14 in particular.
Clause 14 of the Bill re-enacts section 65B to cover all handheld devices which are designed or capable of being used for a communicative function. This extends an offence to the use of a device’s non-communicative functions such as surfing on the Internet, visiting social media platforms and downloading videos. The new laws are envisaged to apply to devices such as tablets computers and any communicative device, not only mobile phones. The proposed law does not explicitly ban the use of such devices if they are mounted on the dashboard or windscreens of vehicles or if they are used at traffic junctions. Some motorists have remarked this would mean it would not be illegal to type out an email on a device which has been mounted on the vehicle’s dashboard while driving along a busy road.
As far as the Bill stands, a driver could conceivably type out an email while driving as long as the device is mounted and he would not fall foul of section 65B. I am not sure whether this is necessarily a better way to reduce the number of distractions a driver can fall victim to, especially if Members consider the fast pace of life in Singapore and our increasingly crowded roads. To this end, a part-time taxi driver was quoted in TheStraits Times, musing, “What is the difference between holding the phone and mounting it in a holder? I have a holder and when I touch the phone on the holder, I am not concentrating. It is not an offence but it is still a distraction.”
While the taxi driver’s concerns are valid, a motorist could nonetheless fall foul of another section, namely, section 65 of the Act which metes out an offence of driving without due care and attention and without reasonable consideration. However, for an enforcement officer, in view of the broad “catch-all” ambit of section 65 of the Road Traffic Act, it would appear that it would take an egregious violator to result in a successful prosecution.
To this end, I would like to ask the Senior Minister of State: how many motorists have been summoned under the “catch-all” section 65 last year and the in first half of this year, with specific references to being distracted by mobile devices including tablets, for example?
Secondly, according to the National Safety Council in the United States, 23% of all crashes each year involve handphone use. I would like to ask the Senior Minister of State if the Ministry keeps similar statistics on the local situation and if he could share them with the House.
Mdm Speaker, while I welcome the clarity and updating of section 65B, this clause could have been more emphatic about the dangers of being distracted by communicative devices of any nature while driving a vehicle. Numerous local media reports since the Bill was first read in the House have noted that Singaporeans regularly use mobile phones and devices while driving, especially when waiting for the lights to change at traffic junctions. The President of the Automobile Association of Singapore, citing a 2013 American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah report, was quoted in TheStraits Times noting that the use of mobile devices could distract drivers in two ways: firstly, through inattention blindness, where drivers fail to visually process or remember what their eyes see; and secondly, through tunnel vision where drivers gaze centrally ahead instead of scanning their surroundings.
Foreign jurisdictions, in view of the danger surrounding the use of mobile devices while driving, host clearer laws with less ambiguity. It makes enforcement less subjective and more straightforward as well. For example, in the United Kingdom, it is illegal to drive using a handheld phone or similar device even if one has stopped at the traffic lights or is queuing in traffic. A driver can, nonetheless, use a hands-free kit, two-way radio or a satellite navigation device, but is nonetheless liable to be stopped and penalised if the Police think the driver is distracted and not in control of the vehicle. The laws are broadly similar in Australia. More fundamentally, under the re-enacted section 65B, an offence is only meted out if the motor vehicle is in motion akin to current legislation under the same section.
It would appear that this section’s re-enactment could have afforded the Ministry a better opportunity to send a stronger signal to the public on the dangers with regard to the use of communicative devices on the road per se.
To this end, I would like to enquire from the Senior Minister of State what deliberations took place in the Ministry when determining the amendments to section 65B on this point, especially when compared to the laws in foreign jurisdictions. What differences are present in foreign jurisdictions as compared to the local situation which merits our laws allowing the use of mobile devices and communicative devices now at traffic stops and junctions? Does this not encourage the continued use of the device should the signal change, perhaps just to type out the final line of an SMS or an email on a tablet mounted on the dashboard or, worse, send out an email while driving? If so, how effective is the law really in changing the behaviour of motorists on the road?
In conclusion, I certainly hope the amended section 65B arrests the prospect of errant drivers and, as a consequence, reduces the number of summons Singaporeans receive under section 65B. However, an approach targeted at behavioural change may well be more useful in getting motorists to improve their driving habits with the view to better road safety and separately, more straightforward enforcement as well. I hope the Ministry considers this going forward.