Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Parliament: Strengthening Singapore’s fight against Drugs – Motion (Pritam Singh) – 4 Apr 2017

Introduction

Mr Deputy Speaker, like most Singaporeans of my generation, having been born here and socialized to uncompromising anti-drug messages throughout my growing years, I have not experienced the reality commonplace in other countries where drugs are available to teenagers in schools or in bars and university campuses without too much difficulty. Singapore’s small size, tough laws and the dedication of the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) to their mission have made this possible. But Singapore is an outlier.

The reality of governments in other parts of the world is very different. At best, this has to do with being a larger polity and the difficulty in ensuring that the writ of the state extends across hundreds and thousands of kilometres, different political cultures, different social circumstances and different norms that govern individual freedoms and liberties. At worst, it is a self-evident reality that the worldwide war against drugs has failed. Whichever perspective one takes, these realities have precipitated a new and different approach now taken globally to deal with the drug problem. A major plank of the new approach calls for the legalization of drug use, particularly medical marijuana on health grounds and in some jurisdictions, the legalization of recreational drug use per se.

Legalization around the world and in Southeast Asia

As many Americans went to polls in 2016 to decide between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton as their next President, a parallel vote took place on the legalization of marijuana. This resulted in 9 states, including California, Florida and Massachusetts passing laws that allowed for either regulated medical or recreational marijuana use. Today, 44 states in the US have legalised some form of drug use.

In 2001, an Economist article titled ‘The Case for Legalization’ argued that a legal market for drugs would be the best guarantee that drug taking would be no more dangerous than smoking and drinking, even as it acknowledged that legalization would not easy. Fast forward just about 15 years and the first sentence of a piece on the legalization of drugs in the same publication went like this – “The argument for the legalization of cannabis has been won.” Insofar as global trends are concerned, the movement to legalize drugs is now effectively mainstream.

Mr Deputy Speaker, there is a belief that the movement towards legalization is a Western phenomenon. But such an assumption would be a wrong.

Closer to home, attitudes are shifting too, mainly with a view to get a better handle on the drug problem and to undermine organized crime. The Senior Vice Chairman of the Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation, Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye in a piece titled ‘Consider less Severe Punishment’ in the New Straits Times last year, noted that despite punitive laws against illicit drugs, capital punishment and spending millions to address the problem, the number of addicts in Malaysia was growing. He called on the Malaysian authorities to consider the road less travelled and to decriminalize drug use and possession, and to treat drug addiction as a medical problem. The writer also reflected on countries like Portugal which adopted less punitive policies towards drug possession more than a decade earlier, and in doing so had not experienced any significant increase in drug use, drug related harm or crime compared to countries with punitive laws.

Separately, late last year, the Thai cabinet approved a proposal to allow hemp, a plant which is part of the cannabis family, but with lesser amounts of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, to be grown as a cash crop as part of a project to use narcotic plants for medical purposes. Prior to the Cabinet decision, Thailand’s then Justice Minister General Paiboon Koomchaya was quoted in the Thai media as saying that he was firm in his aim to remove marijuana from the narcotic drugs list and to treat it as a medicinal herb.

The Arrival of Medical and Recreational Marijuana

The movement towards the gradual acceptance of some drugs, chiefly cannabis for medical purposes is a powerful catalyst in the case for the legalization of drugs, even if medical authorities have not ruled definitively in this area and medical practitioners argue that there are realistic alternatives to medical marijuana. Nevertheless, an international industry has already taken form and a stronger lobby is likely to follow. Late last year, the International New York Times reported that Israel has been a leading player in medical marijuana research as early as the 1960s and that 25,000 of its citizens today hold permits to use medical marijuana to ease symptoms of cancer, epilepsy and other diseases with the number expected to grow rapidly. In fact, the Guardian has also reported research in Israel will transform the medical marijuana industry into and I quote, “a serious endeavour of pharmaceutical research, producing new strains and drugs able to alleviate the symptoms of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, insomnia and other conditions.” (unquote) With advances in technology, many Israeli companies are working to develop medicine that can deliver precise doses of THC so as to regulate its psychoactive effects with a view to bringing relief to those in chronic pain.

What is being repeated around the world where fierce debates about legalisation are taking place and have taken place, is the emotionally powerful argument that medical marijuana has eased the suffering of those in pain.

It is also fathomable that the research into medical marijuana will have a direct bearing on the use of recreational marijuana for which precise doses could also correspondingly be marketed as a safer means of drug consumption. To that end, a recent Business Monitor Online article notes that with the growing legalization of marijuana for recreational use, entirely new industries for consumer-related companies will be created, including transport and through social media. It assessed that while medical marijuana will be an important part of the market, recreational use of marijuana will create new opportunities for consumer industries especially food and beverage with derivatives of marijuana potentially added to beer, chocolates and candy.

What is also likely to accelerate the legalisation of drugs worldwide is the potential of regulation and taxation with recreational usage potentially killing off the profits earned by drug cartels and moving them into state and corporate coffers – the challenge being setting the appropriate tax rate. I would hazard that the attraction of taxation may prove irresistible for those governments that have not been able to successfully keep drugs out of mainstream society in the same way Singapore has been able to.

Singapore – Preparing for the Future

What the global trends suggest, and I turn to the language in the motion, is that Singapore will find it even more difficult to keep drugs out of the country and in the consciousness of our children and people in view of the seismic cultural shifts in attitudes towards drug use for medicinal and recreational purposes in many jurisdictions around the world. Our tough laws will continue to serve as a deterrent for some drug traffickers but I am concerned we will find it increasingly difficult to persuade younger Singaporeans particularly those who venture overseas for studies or business about the dangers of drug abuse. The somewhat emotionally persuasive argument about medical marijuana, in spite of currently more established medical opinion, will make this even harder.

At this point, Singapore can and should stick to its time-honoured position of a strong ant-drug policy, in view of the still evolving global environment, of our unique circumstances, and because we have been able to get a handle on the drug problem and successfully kept drugs out of our schools. However, with a large population of foreigners, many of whom are transient residents living and working in Singapore and a significant number of overseas Singaporeans who may have a very different cultural attitude towards drugs, the argument for a drug-free Singapore may increasingly come under strain.

Nonetheless, we should and must begin preparing for a much tougher environment in the immediate term, and this not only if the research on medical marijuana turns decidedly positive. As drug syndicates are put out of business because of legalization, some drugs traffickers or abusers may paradoxically choose to target Singapore from the safe confines of other countries if there is money to be made here. Those who will fall foul of our tough drug laws will not be the kingpins, but the couriers, many of whom seek to make a quick buck.

We also may expect to see a rise in the number of marijuana abusers. In fact, a Facebook page titled Singapore Cannabis Awareness has already generated close to 4000 likes and it makes a point to track changing norms about the legalization of cannabis around the world, recently posting a story about the state of New South Wales in Australia funding the world’s first clinical trial for the use of cannabis in alleviating chemotherapy induced vomiting and nausea. This is not fake news, for such trials are indeed ongoing, but the practical effect of such developments around the world I fear will likely result in a more relaxed attitude towards the usage of cannabis.

The rise in the arrest of cannabis abusers as reported in the CNB’s drug situation report of 2016 may portend such a trend. For those who believe a more permissive environment for recreational consumption of drugs in Singapore would not necessarily be hazardous, I would say, be careful about what you wish for. The research-based evidence is sobering. According to Lancet Psychiatry, in a 2015 article which reviewed annual and repeated cross-sectional surveys on medical marijuana laws and adolescent marijuana use in the US from 1991 to 2014, almost a 25-year period, it found territories which decriminalised illicit drugs or where the laws were generally permissive saw an increase in drug abuse amongst teenagers and young adults. And that prospect – should there be arguments made about a drug-tolerant regime in Singapore – is scary and wholly unwelcome. As it stands, the argument for the legalisation of drugs in Singapore in particular, is not compelling or persuasive at all.

Conclusion

To conclude Mr Deputy Speaker, strict laws can only do so much, even if they host a deterrent effect. Stepping up rehabilitation is the right thing to do. However, in view of the new global approach towards drugs, the Government would have to significantly step up education about the slippery slope of drug abuse. In my ward of Eunos in Aljunied GRC in years past, I have worked with the Central Narcotics Bureau and conducted preventive education talks at our local mosque with the permission of the mosque committee and I thank them for their support. At schools and tertiary institutions in particular, we will have to significantly step up preventive education to prepare our children and young adults for the world of tomorrow where access to drugs will become more commonplace than ever before and firmly in our mindshare. The Government would also have to focus more squarely on the permissive attitudes that are hardening in favour of supposedly softer drugs like cannabis. There is nothing soft about cannabis. It is harmful to one’s health and not every citizen will have ready access or support from family members to rehabilitative resources. As is usually the case with illegal drugs, the poor and low-income will be the hardest hit.

We must all say no to drugs.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

04/04/2017 at 7:18 am

Parliament: Town Councils (Amendment) Bill – Scrutinizing the Opposition (Pritam Singh) – 10 March 2017

Introduction

Madam Speaker, this amendment Bill does not seek to review the original objective of the Town Councils Act. That is not on the Government’s agenda. We are debating this Bill with a view to improve the existing Act. I do not oppose that objective per se, but as an opposition MP, my experience is that Town Councils operate very differently by design in PAP and opposition wards and as such, are inevitably judged by different yardsticks.

The Workers’ Party does not oppose raising governance standards for Town Councils. But we have a specific concern on the new Part VIA of the Bill gives intrusive oversight powers to the Ministry of National Development, directed by political office holders of any incumbent Government, not only the PAP. We believe an independent entity or inspectors not appointed by the Government should resolve disputes if and when they occur between MND and the affected Town Council, a point Ms Sylvia Lim will build upon. Let me reiterate, the additional scrutiny on Town Councils is not objectionable. It is the identity of the scrutiniser that warrants scrutiny.

Objectives of Town Councils

According to then DPM Goh Chok Tong, there were two philosophical objectives behind the original Town Councils Bill. Firstly, it purported to transfer some power from the HDB to the MPs and grassroots leaders. It gives the MPs and the residents, greater power and responsibility to manage their own affairs and to participate in their estate’s development. Secondly, because MPs will have increased authority and responsibility, voters will be more likely to vote carefully and sincerely to choose honest and effective MPs.

However, the transfer of power from the HDB to the MPs and (I stress) grassroots leaders is only partial in an opposition Town Council as the grassroots are by design, not part of an opposition Town Council’s firmament. This is because the Government cannot reconcile that an opposition MP and by extension an opposition Town Council would support the Government’s plans. It is also instructive that nowhere does the word grassroots, Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) or People’s Association appear in the Town Councils Act, yet, the grassroots were acknowledged as a conspicuous and central part of the Town Council system when the Bill was debated in 1988. This is because the Town Council Act was legislated to serve a dominant one-party state, and to that end, government sanctioned grassroots organisations do not work with the elected MPs in opposition Town Councils. This remains a fundamental omission viz-a-viz the operation of Town Councils in opposition wards.

I have spoken on how the grassroots have a significant say on estate upgrading via CIPC funding in this House previously and will not repeat those points here. The same can be said about the political control of critical Town Council Management Systems and software by politically-influenced entities. One can just compare the amount of state resources extended via the CIPC Committee through the grassroots in PAP Town Councils compared to opposition Town Councils. Certainly, lesser taxpayer funds to opposition Town Councils will inevitably lower the esteem of the opposition-run Town Councils, with attendant political ramifications. While I believe this should change and a fairer system ought to take form, as a political realist, I can see why the ruling party would rather institutionalise the status quo.

What will make for a better Singapore?

In view of some fundamental disparities between opposition and PAP Town Councils in practice, the Workers’ Party will approach this amendment Bill with the words of then DPM Mr S Dhanabalan in his round-up speech on the original Town Councils Bill some 30 years ago. He said and I quote, “The question really is not whether or not there is a political purpose. The question is: is the purpose a good one for Singapore? Will it make for a better Singapore? Will it make for a more stable and secure Singapore? Will it make for a better life for our citizens? That is the question we ought to ask.” I would like to state for the record, that the Workers’ Party is under no illusion that the purpose of the Town Councils Act is undeniably political and since 1988, PAP politicians have come out openly to say so. So that point has been settled. But the former DPM’s subsequent questions remain relevant today.

To that end, the Workers’ Party does not oppose five of the six amendments proposed in the explanatory statement to the Act, namely to promote and strengthen effective and efficient governance and accountability of Town Councils, to foster a culture of personal integrity and accountability for administrative officials of Town Councils, to ensure sound financial management, promote better governance and to clarify the role of Town Councils in emergency planning. However, the introduction of oversight mechanisms and monitoring powers over the Town Councils that are in the hands of the Government has the potential for abuse. This would not necessarily ensure good outcomes for Singapore, but rather politically good outcomes for the ruling party.

Original purpose of the Act

Central to the working of the Town Councils is the powers of the elected MPs in relation to the MND. Critical to the success of the Town Councils is the protection of the MPs’ autonomy, guaranteed as a political space for the MPs to work with local residents so that the same residents voting in the general election can judge the MPs’ performance. If we return to the speech of then DPM Goh Chok Tong during the 1988 debate, he raised three important points. First, it was not the original intention that HDB should become the management corporation for 80% of the population. Such an over-centralisation is undesirable. Second, when our people become too dependent on HDB, they will lose self-reliance and responsibility for their own surroundings. In this sense, they will expect the HDB to fix and do everything. Third, as such, to preserve the political autonomy of the MPs and self-reliance of the people, HDB should only intervene when there are hazards to public health, public safety and public order.

In principle, Clause 24 of the Bill is problematic on these three points by reversing and diminishing the political autonomy of the elected MPs in relation to MND which overseas HDB. If citizens know that MND will intervene when the town is not run effectively, then whether the candidates standing for election are honest and effective enough to run a TC potentially become irrelevant. As envisaged by the Town Councils Act originally, voters are responsible for the MPs they choose to run their towns and represent them in Parliament. If they do not like what they see, they can vote the under-performing MPs out in the next election.

Depoliticised oversight

MND having oversight over TC does not mean just over-centralisation, but it also leads to two political pervasions. First, it risks the politicisation of the public service, where MND risks becoming the tool of the ruling party of the day to fix the opposition. Second, it causes the elected MPs to answer to the unelected bureaucracy, subordinating the elected mandate of MPs to the executive branch.

I would suggest to the House there is a better way to move forward on this point while retaining the proposed oversight powers sought by this Bill that will at the same time preserve the central feature of Town Councils – the political autonomy of MPs. Those oversight powers should be in the hands of independent parties not linked to the Ministry or the Government in general. This is critical to preserving the Town Councils as the ballast to our democracy.

Conclusion

To conclude Madam Speaker, as late as 2009, a Straits Times report quoting then Senior Minister Goh noted that in spite of the Town Councils existence, residents did not seem to take a great interest in the estates they lived in. It was noteworthy that one public poll commissioned by the Straits Times in 2013 found that close to 80% of those polled wished to have the HDB replace Town Councils in the provision of services to residents. In fact, the same call was made more recently in the public consultation to this Bill. It would be helpful if the Government looked into why many Singaporeans are not as enthusiastic about Town Councils in spite of its objectives, not all of which are necessarily objectionable. I do think there is much value in getting MPs involved in the local politics and the nitty-gritty of constituency work. In spite of the different realities on the ground in the treatment between opposition and PAP Town Councils particularly as a result of the role of the grassroots and by extension losing PAP political candidates through the People’s Association, the Workers’ Party is determined to make the best of a less than equitable situation, managing it not with the cards we wished we had, but with those that are in our hands.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

11/03/2017 at 7:30 am

Posted in Parliament

Parliament: Budget Speech (2017) Pritam Singh – 28 Feb 2017

Water – Understanding how it is priced in Singapore

Mr Deputy Speaker, this year’s budget has brought the focus on cost of living issues by way of an increase in water prices. This increase comes on the back of a 15%-odd increase in HDB car park charges, higher electricity and gas charges and the announcement of higher Service and Conservancy rates all in the space of about three months. The Straits Times noted that the government feedback channel REACH, had identified cost of living as a key pre-Budget concern among Singaporeans.

I have a few questions for the Minister so as to understand the decision-making processes around the latest round of increases in water prices. The last time an announcement was made to raise water prices in 1997, prices were raised by 120% for households and 30% for industrial and commercial users over a four-year period.

Singapore’s Water Pricing Principle – Long Run Marginal Cost

The Government has stated in previous parliamentary replies that its prices water according to its Long Run Marginal Cost or LMRC. To this end, the water tariff, water conservation tax and used water charges or waterborne fees are priced to reflect the cost of producing the next drop of potable water, which is (I quote) “likely to come from desalination and NEWater.” (unquote)

In announcing the opening of the 5th NEWater plant last month, the Minister for Environment and Water Resources noted that there has been upward pressure on costs because of increases associated with asset replacement, energy and manpower. Can the Government share details on how the components of Long Run Marginal Costs for water pricing are computed by the Public Utilities Board (PUB) and how it assesses when to increase the price of water? Can the Government also clarify if the maintenance and upkeep, and the associated manpower costs of current PUB assets, including thousands of kilometres of transmission networks etc. would have already been factored into the calculation of LRMC before the latest round of price hikes? Even so, it would be helpful to understand which variables of LRMC have changed from 1997 when the last price hike was announced, what is the range within each variable, and how often is the LRMC determined or re-determined. Can the Government also share how much it costs each desalination and NEWater plant to produce water today, especially since some of these plants operate on a private-public partnership basis? How do they compare with plants run directly by the PUB?

Finally, when the PUB refers to the long-run in LRMC, what sort of time horizon is used for projection purposes and what are the population parameters for these projections? Are we looking at 2061 when the Water Agreement with Malaysia comes to an end, or is it when the PUB expects a doubling of Singapore’s consumption in absolute terms for a much larger population and when 85% of our needs are projected to be met by NEWater and desalination? If this is so, what are the projections for expected water price hikes as the population grows?

It is noteworthy Mr Deputy Speaker that PUB was able to bring down the cost of NEWater production from 2002 to 2004 from $1.30 to $1.15 per cubic metre as a result of more competitive membrane technologies. In 2003, a Straits Times article quoted then Prime Minister Goh assuring Singaporeans that (and I quote) “the price of PUB water, which now costs $1.52 a cubic metre, would stay below $2 for some time, reversing all earlier projections. The sums were redone because desalinating sea water was cheaper than thought; and NEWater, even cheaper to produce.” (unquote) The same year, it was also reported that the Tuas desalination plant desalinates water at the cost of $0.78 per cubic metre. This compared very favourably against about $0.90 per cubic metre produced by the Ashkelon desalination plant in Israel, considered in 2003 to be the one of the cheapest producers of desalinated water. In 2008, Sembcorp, which secured the bid to design, build, own and operate the fifth and largest NEWater plant submitted a first-year price of about $0.30 to produce a cubic metre of NEWater. A 2011 Business Times report also noted that Singapore would produce the world’s cheapest desalinated water by 2013. How does the PUB adjust its Long Run Marginal Cost projections with the advent of new technology so as to keep the prices of water affordable and to keep its profits within reasonable limits, on an ongoing basis?

From parliamentary replies in the past, it would appear that energy is the real cost variable that can be difficult to track with a sufficient degree of accuracy. In view of the lower cost of producing water over the years, can the Government reveal how much NEWater and desalination costs have fluctuated over the years as a result of energy prices? In 2008, the Siemens Water Technologies Team was awarded a $4m grant from the Environment and Water Industry Development Council (EWI) for successfully designing a more energy efficient desalinisation technique which produced a cubic metre of drinking water on 1.5 kWh of power as compared to PUB’s current desalination method uses 3.5 kWh. In addition, the 2015 PUB annual report highlights PUB’s collaboration with a US water technology company which has piloted electro-deionisation technology which has achieved reductions in energy consumption in the desalination process by more than 50%, and this pilot would be expanded in 2016. Can the Government share details of this project and its prospects going forward?

The Linggiu Reservoir Factor

Separately Mr Deputy Speaker, the announcement of an increase in water tariffs bookends a two-odd year period when Singaporeans were repeatedly reminded of water scarcity issues as a result of very low water levels in the Linggiu reservoir in Malaysia, a water supply source five times the size of all of Singapore’s reservoirs. At the start of each respective year, the water levels were at 84% in 2015, 49% in 2016 and 27% in 2017. We have been informed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs in response to a parliamentary question in January this year that there is a significant risk of the water levels in the Linggiu Reservoir falling to 0% this year should there be a dry spell in Johor.

In view of the low water levels in the Linggiu Reservoir from 2015 onwards in particular, how often has Singapore drawn less than the 250 million gallons a day it is legally entitled to under the 1962 Water Agreement and what has been Singapore’s average daily rate of abstraction from the Linggiu Reservoir since 2014? To that end, what role, if any, have the low water levels in the Linggiu Reservoir played in the latest water price revision especially since the Government’s position as late as 2013 confirmed no need to raise water prices?

In the middle of last year, on the back of the Singapore International Water Week, a PUB official stated that should the Linggiu Reservoir fail, there ought to be no cause for panic in Singapore as there were new and indigenous capacities in Singapore to meet such a contingency in the form of NEWater and desalination. However, the Minister of Foreign Affairs last month stated that the failure of the Linggiu Reservoir would cause severe problems for Singapore and Malaysia. Can the Government elaborate what are its contingency plans in the event of such an eventuality – do these contingencies include the possibility of another rise in water prices, especially the water conservation tax since its policy rationale is aimed at reminding the taxpayer about the importance of saving water and separately, to account for the Long Run Marginal Cost of desalination and NEWater? That would also prompt a corollary question as to whether the latest water price revision was set with a view to account for the complete failure of the Linggiu Reservoir.

Even so, in the middle of 2016, it was reported that Johor was studying plans to divert water from two rivers into the Linggiu Reservoir. The first proposal was to build a low wall to channel about 50mgd of water from the Sayong River catchment area at the cost of about RM$250m. The second plan called for the building of a dam at the Ulu Sedili Besar River to transfer about 110mgd to the Johor River at the cost of RM660m. At the end of the last Leaders Retreat between Prime Ministers Lee and Najib in December last year, it was reported that Malaysia was looking at measures to increase the supply of water at the Linggiu Reservoir. Can the Government comment, in the event Malaysia successfully diverts water to the Linggiu Reservoir allowing Singapore to draw its full entitlement of 250mgd or more, would such an outcome end up reducing the price of water for consumers in Singapore? If so, would Singapore consider co-funding the diversion of the two rivers or renegotiating some aspects of the Water Agreement with a win-win prospect in mind especially since Singapore has not hesitated to supply Malaysia with more treated water than it is required to in its time of need particularly during times of drought and over the Ramadan period last year?

Is Water Scarce Or Not?

This brings me to my final point about the public messaging on water conservation policies and the outcomes the Government seeks from the water conservation tax and how these outcomes can be improved. About a month before the 2015 General Elections, the Prime Minister said and (I quote), “In Singapore, water will always be a precious resource. Never take it for granted or waste it.” (unquote) In the middle of last year, on the back of the Singapore International Water Week in a piece titled How Singapore Will Never Go Thirsty, the PUB CEO announced that Singapore, in spite of being water-poor, had (I quote) “significantly overcome the challenge of water scarcity” and later on that “Singapore is not short on water” (unquote). While I understand the PUB official was showcasing to an international audience the good work over many decades of our water specialists, there is a risk that over amplifying self-sufficiency can have a dampening effect on efforts to encourage water conservation. The fact is that self-sufficiency comes at a high price for the consumer.

In fact, Singapore’s per capita water consumption rates have been dropping steadily from 2005 when it was 162 litres per day to 151 litres per day today. It would appear that the answer to the question of whether we can reduce consumption without price increases is a yes – perhaps not as resounding a yes as the experts would wish for – but a yes nonetheless. Even with our hot and humid climate and cultural practice of not using dishwashers, perhaps as result of the spices, sauces and seasonings in Asian cooking, progress on water conservation has been steady and continuous. Rather than to look solely at water pricing to promote conservation, the Government should look at new policies to further tighten regulations on the sale of sanitary appliances such as mixers and shower heads which discharge excessive water so as to nudge consumers to use more water-saving appliances.

Some experts have also proposed pricing strategies used elsewhere like Spain which hosts a pricing structure that provides for a 10% rebate should a household’s water consumption pattern show a 10% decrease compared to the year before. What these creative pricing strategies suggest is the prospect of a different approach towards water conservation taxes to promote a more efficient usage of water. We already see PUB nudging Singaporeans in this direction by informing consumers of the consumption patterns of their neighbours and the national average in our monthly bills. What may truly push a renewed commitment to a water conservation drive is to significantly alter consumer behaviour towards a tax regime that differentiates between efficient and inefficient usage of water by lowering taxes for consumers who use less water.

For example, a household of four which meets the national average consumption can have their water conservation tax remain at the current 30% of the tariff rate. Depending on additional usage, PUB could establish an ascending and descending scale relative to consumption. This has better prospects for water conservation as real savings would be given to individual households, building on the current two tiered approach set between households that consume more or less than 40 cubic meters of waters. This approach would also be more targeted and would cohere with the objective of saving water as opposed to the budget announcement which bluntly increases the water conservation tax from 30% to 50% or 35% to 65% for all households.

Conclusion

To conclude Mr Deputy Speaker, a piece in the Straits Times last week argued that the water price only reflected the reality of increasing water stress worldwide and that bigger hikes were needed to curb wastage. The comments to that story were unexpectedly, rather animated. I believe a deeper explanation from the Government about how it prices water and its long-run cost imperatives would enable the public to better understand and rationalise this water hike in addition to improving public understanding on this issue. This would be important as the water price hikes occurred on the back of many other municipal prices increases which could arguably have been better phased to reduce the impact on the average Singaporean for whom cost of living issues are an increasing concern. There remain concerns among Singaporeans who fear the knock-on effect of the water price hike on daily necessities and I hope the Government will address this point too.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

28/02/2017 at 7:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Parliament: Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill – Reserved Elections for the Presidency: Does Form follow Function? (Pritam Singh) – 6 February 2017

Introduction

Madam Speaker, the Workers’ Party opposes this Bill. The Workers’ Party believes that Singapore is best served by an appointed President and a system that would allow the Government to appoint a President, regardless of race or religion.

One of the most significant aspects of this Bill is the establishment of the Community Committee that ensures that in a reserved election, only persons who see themselves as belonging to a particular community for which the election is reserved, qualify to stand for the Presidential election.

As the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC), and by the extension the Community Committee’s decisions are not justiciable in a court of law, Parliament is effectively the last place for Singaporeans to gain some insight into how the Community Committee will operate in practice. The decision-making processes of the Community Committee and it sub-committees will be the focus of my speech.

Considering oneself a part of a minority community: How are minority applications assessed?

Clause 8(G) is scant on detail as to how the relevant Community Committee sub-committees would assess a potential candidate as to whether he or she is a member of a particular minority community.

With the prospect of reserved elections for minorities, it should be reasonable to assume that the Government expects form to follow function. It cannot be the Government’s intention that a bare declaration stating that a candidate considers himself or herself to be part of a particular community as stated in clause 8(F), would carry overwhelming weight for candidature to the highest office in the land.

To this end, Clause 8(G)(4) states that the Committee must be guided by the merits of the application by a prospective Presidential candidate. But what defines a meritorious application and on what basis will an application be deemed so? What factors are assessed to determine if an applicant sees himself or herself as a member of a particular community?

Is language a relevant consideration?

To begin with, and in step with the Government’s decision to institute reserved elections, the Government must concede that language is an important criteria that is intricately tied to race. To that end, does a minority applicant’s language abilities in his or her mother tongue matter to the relevant Community sub-committees, the same way it does for Singaporean students through their educational journey?

Would an applicant be expected to have passed his or her mother tongue at the ‘O’ or ‘A’ level? For example, should a Presidential candidate who sees himself as part of the Indian community pass muster if he or she can barely get on by in Tamil or the other MOE-recognized Indian languages for example? Can the Minister confirm if language proficiency is a consideration of the Community Committee? And if it is not, why not?

Ought the President’s spouse be a member of the same community?

Secondly, the President’s spouse is, for all intents and purposes a customary but central part of the Presidency, reflected most vividly with the portraits of both President and First Lady prominently displayed in all government buildings. Former Speaker of Parliament, Mr Abdullah Tarmugi put it differently when he told the Straits Times about his possible candidacy in the upcoming reserved Presidential elections (and I quote), “I’d be lying if I say that friends have not been asking me about it….if you look at the people who qualify, it is not that big a pool…..I have got to think of my own preferences, my life, my family and my privacy. This is not a journey I take myself.” (unquote) The last point is worth repeating and needs to be stressed, “this is not a journey I take myself.”

On that note, has the Government deliberated whether the background of an aspiring President’s spouse is a factor for Community Committee’s consideration in assessing whether the applicant is a member of a particular community? For example, in the case of an interracial marriage, what if the spouse of the applicant does not see himself or herself to be a part of the Indian community whereas the aspiring Presidential candidate does? What if a spouse has converted to Islam in order to marry but does not partake in the practices of the faith? Madam Speaker, these questions are central to the symbolic role of the President as a unifier of the country, and even more so after the Government has determined that some Presidential elections ought to be reserved for specific races. Should there be residual doubts about how Community Committee makes its decisions, the Presidency could be anything but a unifying office not just for Singaporeans in general, but the respective minority race in particular.

Is prior community work a requirement of candidature?

A third aspect of this Community Committee I wish to clarify with the Minister is whether the Community Committee would expect an applicant to be active in community work and what this entails. This expectation has also been referred to by one academic who was quoted in the media as saying that if an applicant has not been (and I quote) “in the public eye and is not active in community work, it is much harder to make the case for seeking election to the highest office of the land.” (unquote) What are the expectations of community service among the candidates and if so, are the expectations the same with regard to all four classes of candidates, namely the public sector track, public sector deliberative track candidate, private sector or private sector deliberative track?

A National Service requirement for male candidates?

Fourthly, during the recent debate on the Constitution, one PAP MP suggested that the presidency ought to be reserved for individuals born in Singapore. The Government did not address this point during the debate but perhaps it can today. Can the Government at least affirm that the Presidential Elections Committee shall not issue a certificate of eligibility to any male candidate who has not performed his two years of national service? This would be in line with the reality that National Service brings Singaporeans of all races together towards a common purpose and would serve as an important foundation for the life experience of any future President.

Not lowering the bar for minority candidates: the public sector deliberative track

Fifthly Madam Speaker, I take the position that because minority candidates are likely to be few to begin with, many candidates are likely to enter Presidential elections through the public sector track or public sector deliberative tracks rather than the more stringent private sector track with its $500m threshold. This may render hollow the Government’s claims that it is not relaxing the criteria to make it easier for minorities to assume the Presidency as a result of the latest constitutional changes. If so, the more accurate statement would be that the stringent private sector requirements simply do not apply for public sector track or public sector deliberative track candidates, minority or otherwise. What this point does reiterate however, is the importance of the Government sharing what criteria will be used by the PEC to determine if a public sector deliberative track minority candidate qualifies for candidature as President in the first place.

What happens when a minority MP steps down from a GRC?

Finally, the very idea of race poses other considerations in certain cases of reserved elections involving public sector track or public sector deliberative track candidates. For example, in the case of Madam Speaker, should the Honourable Speaker decide to stand as a candidate, what happens to the very existence of the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, which by law requires a Malay MP as one of its political representatives in parliament? Should it be passed, does this Bill herald a new precedent in marked contrast to the scenario in Jurong GRC some years ago when the late PAP MP Mr Ong Chit Chung passed on? Does the Bill, and the prospect of reserved Presidential elections change the Government’s thinking on this question: Would a by-election be called in a GRC when the minority member of a GRC steps down to contest in a Presidential election? Can the Government set its position out on this matter in light of the introduction of reserved Presidential elections?

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

06/02/2017 at 7:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Parliament: Active Mobility Bill (Pritam Singh) – 10 Jan 2017

Introduction

This Bill aims to regulate the use of public paths, in response to the popularity of Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) and Power-Assisted Bicycles (PABs). While the evolution and use of such devices has been rapid, there is no doubt that a set of easily understandable rules needs to be implemented to govern the use of such devices for the safety of all. While I am supportive of this Bill and its objectives, I seek a few clarifications with regard to some clauses of the Bill and will raise them in chronological order.

Clarifications on Specific Clauses

On clause 2, the intention of using the noun “pedestrian” in the Bill appears to separate faster-moving individuals from those who are slower, so that the ‘pedestrian-only path’ is in some ways protected from bicycles or other vehicles. But in day-to-day life this may cause confusion, especially when skateboards are classified as PMDs while people on inline/roller skates are classified as pedestrians. People on inline/roller skates can move fairly quickly and potentially cause harm to other pedestrians as well. How did the Ministry settle on the definition of who is a pedestrian and who is not?

Under clause 15, a potential jail term for riding on pedestrian-only paths appears excessive, especially if reasonable judgement has been exercised to ensure that the path is clear of pedestrians (e.g. late at night or in places with less human traffic), and the rider is not speeding/riding recklessly. While this may be a matter of judgment and the Ministry wishes to be unambiguous about the seriousness of such violations or facilitate uncomplicated interpretation, would not a more incremental legislative approach starting with fines, represent more communicative and educative policymaking so as to allow people to understand the rules and to allow a passage of time to pass before Parliament determines whether or not to review sentences based on the ground feedback? Such an incremental approach would also help to reinforce a safety culture for PMD and PAB users over time.

Clauses 26 and 27 state that the proprietor or occupier of any land can be required to install and maintain signages at their cost and they will be guilty of an offence if they are not compliant. Would it not be administratively more efficient for the relevant authorities, specifically LTA and NParks for example to bear the costs of erecting and maintaining signages? This would also be administratively convenient as there would be a clear standardisation of such signs? If proprietors or occupiers have to purchase signages from officially approved agents, would it not be better to have the relevant authority take charge instead?

Clause 30 states that any person/business selling non-compliant PMDs “must ensure that no customer or member of the public can see any non-compliant PMD from inside or outside of the premises” or they could be jailed. Would it not be enough for businesses to remind customers about which models are compliant or not before the purchase, which is provided for in the warning notices specified in Clause 30. Anecdotally, the legality of models is a big concern for people looking to buy PMDs. It would appears excessive to potentially jail sellers for failing to keep non-compliant PMDs out of sight of customers. The same concerns are relevant for Clause 31, which call for a fine and jail term for advertising non-compliant PMDs. If this indeed is a serious concern, can the Minister share why it would not be a better idea to just restricting the import of non-compliant PMDs altogether, tackling the problem upstream rather than having to deal with the problem at the retail level.

Clause 33 states that a person shall be guilty of an offence if at the time of sale, “the person knows that or is reckless as to whether or not, the buyer intends to ride the PMD on a public road.” This clause sounds practically unwieldy. This clause would cover sales “at any premises or place”, so it can be assumed that it would cover private individuals selling their used PMDs on Carousell for example. How will the Ministry determine whether or not a seller is “reckless” as to the buyer’s intentions to ride the PMD on a public road? Is failure to ask the buyer specifically if s/he intends to ride it on a public road considered an offence? If the buyer says no but rides on the road anyway, is the seller guilty of an offence because s/he did not question the buyer further?

Clause 33 also states that it is not a defence for the accused to prove that warning notices were displayed in accordance with Clause 31. If so, what would constitute a defence, short of a written agreement or agreement that is captured on video? How many sellers or buyers would do this? Is the implementation realistic or practicable?

Conclusion

To conclude Madam Speaker, the Bill seeks to govern the behaviour of individuals who use PMDs and PABs. Members would be aware that not just Singaporeans, but many foreigners, especially those who live and work near industrial estates also use such devices. One key challenge would be to educate a large and transient foreign worker community of these norms. As with any transient group, this effort would have to be a continuous one. The effectiveness of this legislation on the ground will be directly correlated to the amount of effort that is put to educate all users, Singaporeans and foreigners alike of the code or codes of conduct that can be issued by the Minister under clause 24 of this Bill.

Madam Speaker, my request for clarifications notwithstanding, I support the Bill.

Written by singapore 2025

10/01/2017 at 8:06 am

Posted in Parliament

Parliament: Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill (Pritam Singh) – 8 Nov 2016

Madam Speaker, the changes proposed by the Government to the provisions that deal with the Elected Presidency in the Constitution by way of this Bill are uniquely significant. A key significance lies in the fact that a Constitutional Commission was formed to review the Elected Presidency – only the second time such a Constitutional Commission was formed in the history of post-independence Singapore. However, the deepest significance of the Commission’s findings I would argue Madam Speaker, lie in Chapter seven of the report which rest firmly outside the Commission’s Terms of Reference.

After reading 107 written submissions and receiving oral representations from selected contributors, the Menon Constitutional Commission was compelled to ask a critical question, which in the opinion of the Workers’ Party, all Singaporeans ought to ponder over seriously – and that is – Should the Presidency remain an elected office?

Having had many months to immerse itself in the genesis of the Presidency, its historical role, and the function and operation of the Elected Presidency, the Commission found it a critical enough responsibility and duty to pen its thoughts about a Singapore without an elected President and for the Government to consider undertaking a more fundamental change to the office. With this background to the Commission’s work in mind, my speech will cover four main points.

Firstly, as guiding principles, the Workers’ Party agrees that the President should not become an alternative centre of political power and an elected entity should safeguard the nation’s reserves.

In January this year, when the Prime Minister announced the setting up of a Constitutional Commission to study changes to the Elected Presidency, PM Lee said that the President cannot be an alternative centre of power. In September, when the Law Minister rebutted the Constitutional Commission’s alternative proposal to replace the Elected Presidency with an appointed council of experts, he said that the president must himself be elected to have the popular mandate to veto an elected government.

The Workers’ Party agrees with the Government on these two fundamental principles. First, the President should not become an alternative centre of power with the potential to undermine the sovereign authority of Parliament. Second, our national reserves need to be safeguarded and the body safeguarding the reserves would need to be elected to say the ‘no’ and to force a debate in Parliament.

This has been the Workers’ Party’s position when the Elected Presidency was first introduced in 1991. We believe that an Elected President should not fetter the supreme power of Parliament as the people’s representative. The Presidency should be a dignified ceremonial office and a President from any race should focus on performing his or her role in fostering national unity and representing Singapore to the world. We also believe that the past reserves should be safeguarded, but this custodial function should lie with elected representatives of the Legislature.

Secondly, the Workers’ Party believes that reviewing the Elected Presidency by strengthening the Council of Presidential Advisers to check the Elected President complicates the Elected Presidency further.

To that end, we disagree with the Government that the solution to the current problem is to tighten the qualifying criteria for the Elected Presidency and to strengthen the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) hereinafter referred to as “Council”.

In tightening the qualifying criteria for the Elected Presidency, the Government seeks to lessen the potential for the Elected Presidency to become an alternative centre of power by severely reducing the number of qualifying candidates and restricting the pool to the super-elite executives in the private and public sectors. This is based on the mistaken premise that a candidate from such a pool is immune to politicization and will not become an activist President.

The Government has refused to recognize that the problem is inherent to the Elected Presidency by virtue of a popular mandate. Unlike the typical Member of Parliament, the Elected President is elected by the whole nation to represent the country without any party affiliation. The competitive election process pitting individuals against each other compels candidates to offer platforms to attract votes. The outcome of such a popular election tempts candidates to use the percentage of votes garnered as an indication of popular endorsement and the elected candidate to claim a mandate beyond his or her constitutional powers.

The Government had recognized that even with existing discretionary powers, we run the risk in the Elected Presidency of placing too much power in one person to properly check a popularly elected Parliament. The Council was set up to moderate this risk, by endowing the Elected Presidency with a team of advisers so that his or her decisions would always have the benefit of a group of experts and/or experienced persons.

Again, in order to further moderate the risk of the Elected Presidency having too much power to clip the Government’s wings, the Government is turning to the unelected Council. By expanding the Council from six to eight members and obliging the President to consult the Council on all monetary matters related to the reserves and all key public service appointments, the Government is not merely strengthening the Council’s advisory capacity, but is changing the very nature of the Council beyond its advisory function.

In attempting to create another check, namely, the strengthened Council on the original check, namely the Elected Presidency, the Government’s approach will in effect create a third key for safeguarding the reserves. When the President disagrees with the Government, the strengthened Council will be empowered to settle the decision on the side of either party. This makes the Council another alternative centre of power. This approach risks politicizing the office of the Presidency further, by placing the Elected President in a situation where he will be caught in a three-way faceoff in making crucial custodial decisions. This approach also risks producing complicated three-way situations that could end in gridlock and the erosion of the legitimacy of the elected Government. An unelected Council should not have the power to create such outcomes.

The Government’s proposal to reserve an election for an ethnic community if the past five Elected Presidents did not come from that ethnic community does not solve the problem. Over a long period, our Presidents should come from the main ethnic communities to symbolize and express the multiracial fabric of our nation. However, to tie this important symbolic role with the electoral process risks politicization of the role. As the ethnicity of the candidates will be pushed into the glare of competitive elections in the case of reserved elections, this will inadvertently lead to the politicization of multiracialism and may even introduce communal interests into the contest.

Thirdly, the Workers’ Party proposes to revert to the Ceremonial Presidency and to establish an Elected Senate to fulfill the custodial role as the solution.

We studied and deliberated the Constitutional Commission’s report and agreed that the most elegant solution to the problem is the Commission’s alternative proposal to revert to an appointed ceremonial Presidency and to set up a group of experts to exercise the Elected President’s custodial role. However, as the body performing a check on Parliament should have a popular mandate, we believe this group of experts ought to be popularly elected.

With your permission Madam Speaker, I would like to distribute a two-page handout which presents two flowcharts – the first is titled Checks and Balances under Option A, which fleshes out the key details of how the Elected Presidency system with a strengthened Council of Presidential Advisers as conceived by the Government would operate. The second is titled Checks and Balances under Option B presents a streamlined system of checks and balances with an elected Senate as put forth by the Workers’ Party.

We propose that a Senate be established within our Legislature as an Upper House to exercise the custodial functions that are now exercised by the Elected President. Eight Senators shall be elected from a list in periodic elections where non-partisan candidates will have to fit the qualifying criteria. A Senate Elections Committee will select the most suitable sixteen candidates to stand for the Senate election. Properly mandated by popular elections, the Senate will take over the custodial powers of the Elected Presidency. A Senate veto will return relevant bills to Parliament for debate which Parliament can veto with a ¾ majority. As part of the legislative arm of the State and not the executive arm, and mandated to fulfill a limited custodial role, Senators would be under no illusion of having any executive or policymaking powers. It is the Workers’ Party belief that such a two-chamber legislative system will minimize gridlock and enhance constructive politics.

With the establishment of a Senate, the Presidency shall revert to an office appointed by Parliament with no custodial role to perform. By focusing on unifying Singaporeans and representing Singapore to the world, the dignity of the office will be preserved and protected from the risk of politicization inherent in electoral competition and in checking Parliament and being checked by an appointed Council. Parliament shall consider the multiracial character of society and factor in multiracial representation when making the appointment. This way, the symbolic role of representing our coveted multiracialism will also be preserved and protected from politicization.

Fourthly, the Workers’ Party is of the view that the proposed constitutional amendments are major changes that should not be made with indecent haste and should be put to a referendum.

The amendments to the Constitution that the Government has proposed are far-reaching and wide-ranging, and deserve much more airtime where the changes can be subjected to proper and thorough public debate. Any changes made with indecent haste will expose the Government to suspicions and accusations that it is seeking to shape the terms and outcome of the election, when the country is on the verge of the next Presidential Election.

In the amendments proposed by way of the new Articles 5A, 5B and 5C, the Government has affirmed the utility, desirability and legitimacy of a national referendum in introducing controversial changes to presidential candidate eligibility. Given that the Prime Minister has acknowledged the proposed fundamental changes to the Presidency are controversial and potentially unpalatable to many members of the public,[3] we believe that a national referendum on these proposed amendments should be held after an appropriate period of public debate.

The public should be presented with a simple choice between the Government’s proposed amendments and the Workers’ Party’s proposal as outlined in this paper. The two options represent the main ideas mooted by the Constitutional Commission with minor modifications. As such, we believe the referendum questions should be marked in non-partisan manner as simply Option A and Option B, as explained by Ms Sylvia Lim earlier. A simple majority should suffice to decide the referendum.

In conclusion Madam Speaker, should this Bill be passed in its current form, the Elected Presidency, we will soon host a triple-weak situation. A weak institution that is structurally flawed in hosting different and contradictory objectives, weak public knowledge about the powers of the Elected President and finally an Elected President whose electoral mandate will be weakened as a result of the strengthening of the unelected Council of Presidential Advisers.

This House needs to focus its energies on the path that the Commission has laid for the future of the Elected Presidency. Instead of rushing this Bill through parliament in time for the next Presidential Elections, the Workers’ Party calls for the Government to delay any changes to Elected Presidency. The Government should do this not because it is has been suggested by Workers’ Party or the Constitutional Commission in varying forms but to protect the institution of the Presidency and to create a more accountable and robust system than the one we host today for the next 50 years.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

12/11/2016 at 7:17 am

Parliament: Preventing the Scourge of Online Gambling in Singapore (Pritam Singh) – Adjournment Motion – 7 Nov 2016

Preventing the Scourge of Online Gambling in Singapore

Madam Speaker, I am speaking on this adjournment motion as a result of the debate that took place during the second reading of the Remote Gambling Bill in 2014. I noted in my speech then that terrestrial and online gambling are two very different realms that would require different approaches to address the problems associated with gambling.

To this end I would like to refer to a section of the speech made by the then Minister of Social and Family Development, Mr Chan Chun Sing on online gambling and I quote: This is an evolving challenge. It is a difficult challenge. We need to stay vigilant to stay ahead of the threat and the challenges. We need to stay ahead and be prepared to strengthen our safeguards as necessary proactively and creatively. And we need concerted efforts by all – individuals, family and society – to keep our eyes on this issue. And we need to make sure that our measures are multi-pronged – upstream, midstream and downstream (unquote).

During the last session of Parliament, I directed some supplementary questions at the current Minister of Social and Family Development about these multi-pronged measures that the Government had sought to introduce to check online gambling. The answers did not suggest any specific initiatives introduced by the Government since the debate on the Remote Gambling Bill in 2014 to tackle the online gambling realm any differently from terrestrial gambling, even though the Government has acknowledged that its methods of outreach between terrestrial and online gambling have to be different. So I would like to ask the Minister again, what new upstream, midstream and downstream measures has the Government instituted to prevent the scourge of online gambling since the passage of this Bill in 2014? One would have thought that it ought to have been imperative for the Government to go public with these new initiatives well before granting exemptions to Singapore Pools and the Turf Club to offer online gambling services starting from October 2016.

Madam Speaker, the choice of the usage of the word scourge in my speech fulfils a specific purpose. Why do I call online gambling a scourge?

Impact of Online Gambling on the Young and Low Income

The American Psychiatric Association places pathological gambling in the same category as drug dependency and alcoholism in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It says that gambling “activate(s) the brain reward system with effects similar to those of drugs of abuse” and that “gambling disorder symptoms resemble substance use disorders to a certain extent.”

Numerous academic studies have found that online gambling is more addictive than other types of gambling, and that online gamblers have higher rates of gambling addiction than traditional gamblers. The Internet has greatly increased the accessibility of gambling. A 2015 study in Spain found a significant increase in pathological gamblers two years after the legalisation of online gambling in that country. The problem was found to be especially serious among young people – online gambling has become the main form of pathological gambling among people below 26 years old in Spain.

These results are unsurprising, since millennials are more comfortable using Internet technologies than their older compatriots.

Online gambling has another dark side. Problem and pathological gamblers can place bets using their smart phones without their friends and family members even noticing, unlike when they visit the casinos or go to the Turf Club. This removes a very important informal safeguard against problem gambling.

An important part of addiction treatment is for the problem gambler to avoid putting himself in situations which could tempt him to lapse back to his bad habit, for example, by avoiding casinos, jackpot rooms or other physical locations where gambling is available. However, it would be impractical to expect a problem gambler to refrain from using his mobile phone or computer as these are needed for modern day work and personal communication.

A longitudinal study of gambling and problem gambling in the U.S. between 1999 and 2013 found that problem gambling affects the poor more than the rich. The prevalence of frequent gambling is highest in the poorest one third of respondents and those in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and it declines dramatically as socio-economic status increases. This could be because some in the lower income group are motivated to gamble in an attempt to improve their financial status.

Raising Revenue from Gambling

The most common reaction I have heard from Singaporeans to the news of the issuing of exempt operator licenses is that the Government just wants to “make more money”. While am sure the Minister will refute this accusation vigorously, the fact remains that a large part of legalised gambling revenue goes into the state’s coffers. Is providing for exempt operators a way to redirect gambling spending away from illegal overseas operators to local operators, which are owned by the Tote Board? If so, this only fuels public speculation that the Government simply wants a piece of the huge global internet gambling pie, and that this is a revenue-raising exercise done at the expense of Singaporeans’ welfare.

Some have argued that the Tote Board gives money to many charities, which help the vulnerable in our society. This is a morally questionable argument that is akin to saying that it is okay to harm some people in order to help others. Since problem gambling disproportionately affects the poor, collecting revenues from online gambling is in effect a regressive tax on the most vulnerable in our society.

Prohibition is the Best Way Forward

The Minister said that the Government looked at a similar exempt operator regime in Hong Kong and Norway and found that the problem gambling situation did not worsen. I am not sure what these studies were or what the exact findings were. I hope the Minister will be able to share the details of these studies for Singaporeans to examine.

Did these studies prove that having an exempt operator regime reduces gambling harm more than a complete prohibition of online gambling? If not, was the Government too eager to rush to exempt operators before more conclusive results are found?

Madam Speaker, we should not be gambling with the lives of Singaporean families.

In the aftermath of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) dialogue with the Government, it was reported the carve out created for exempt operators to legally provide online gambling facilities were based on studies relating to the social impact of gambling that the Government had documented, and its assessment of possible scenarios with and without the ‘valve’ of controlled exempt operator. The NCCS noted that the research on this area is still new. To this extent at the very least, the Government should publish its research in this area especially since the Government will reportedly be meeting up with NCCS leaders in three to six months time.

The Minister has argued that exempt operators provide an “outlet” for gamblers and allow the government to manage crime associated with gambling. The assumption behind this argument is that gamblers who were gambling on illegal overseas gambling websites will switch over to the exempt operators’ websites or apps.

Has the Government found any studies to show that people will actually switch over to exempt operators? More likely, local gambling apps that have a stamp of approval by the government will attract people who have previously never gambled online. It may include many young people who may not relish queuing up at Toto outlets or going to the races at the Turf Club, but may experiment with gambling for the first time from the privacy of their phones. The legalisation of online gambling will thus expand the gambling market, rather than provide a safe outlet for existing gamblers. Once started, online gambling, like soft drugs, could be a gateway to more serious gambling addictions.

A Fait Accompli?

In its meeting with the NCCS, it was reported that the Government told the NCCS that it was not sending conflicting signals with the partial lifting of the ban on online gambling because the exemptions had already been written into the Bill back in 2014.

It would appear these exemptions were written specifically with Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club in mind. A quick review the timeline of events is as follows:

October 2014: Remote Gambling Bill passed.

July 2015: Singapore Pools and STC apply for exemptions.

July 2015: Straits Times reports that Singapore Pools had hired OpenBet to replace its website with one that can offer sports betting, and the contract is estimated to be worth $10 million.

15 September 2016: Singapore Pools and STC were reported to be running final tests on their new online betting websites.

29 September 2016: The Government grants exemptions to Singapore Pools and STC.

25 October 2016: Singapore Pools launches new online betting website, although this was not widely reported in the mainstream media.

$10 million is no small sum. It would be a huge gamble to sink $10 million into a contract without knowing it would pay off. Yet more than one year before the exemptions were granted, Singapore Pools appeared to have done exactly that. In the eyes of the public, it would seem that the yearlong evaluation of the applications was conducted with one outcome in mind – to find a way for Singapore Pools and the Turf Club to carry out online gambling operations. Was the process meant to determine whether or not the applications should be approved, or to determine how they could be approved? To this end, will the Minister inform this house under what circumstances the Government will review the exemptions granted currently to Singapore Pools and the Turf Club and how it plans to review them in an on-going manner?

During the 2014 debate, I asked the Minister to put the Bill before a Select Committee so as to scrutinise the exemption clauses. This request was turned down as the House was told that the Government had already engaged in consultations. However, in its recent meeting with the NCCS, the government cited its consultations with social service leaders and religious representatives as justification for the exemptions. Was the NCCS part of the “religious representatives” consulted in drafting the Bill? Did they agree to the exemptions? If so, why have they changed their position and if not, why weren’t they consulted before?

While feedback through the government channels should not be discouraged, we should remember that they are not subject to the same degree of parliamentary scrutiny in terms of the range of opinions consulted and the extent of public scrutiny. On Bills that provoke as much controversy as this one, should we not take the extra step to establish relevant Select Committees to go over the implementation and provisions with a fine-tooth comb? In exchange for a bit more time, we gain the opportunity to deepen public engagement and generate greater support for our laws.

Insufficient Safeguards

The Government says that there are safeguards in place to prevent gambling addicts from harming themselves and their families. These include self-exclusion and third party exclusion. However, self-exclusion is only practical for those who recognise that they have a problem. As for third party exclusion, a family member has to cross several difficult hurdles to get his or her loved one placed on the exclusion list. This includes being interviewed by a panel and having to show proof of the family member’s gambling addiction. The surreptitious nature of online gambling addiction means that such proof will be hard to obtain.

International studies have found that each problem gambler negatively impacts an average eight to 10 family members, colleagues and friends. Also, most problem gamblers do not seek help until they hit rock bottom – for example if they have wiped out all their family savings. These suggest that the numbers affected by problem gambling are much higher than official statistics show.

Unlike other vices like alcoholism and drug abuse, the costs associated with problem gambling are borne almost entirely by family members, who often end up paying off the debts of the gambler. The embarrassment associated with problem gambling means that the gamblers and their families rarely talk about their problems in public. Because of this, there is a tendency for policymakers to overlook the real social impact of problem gambling. As part of its on-going review of the exemptions, the Government should look into the implementing more stringent ‘circuit breakers’ – for example, tying expenditure and daily funding limits to an individual’s salary scale, deliberately set as a low percentage of one’s salary or removing the user-defined funding and expenditure limits. Separately, Singapore Pools and the Turf Club should be required to collect detailed statistics so that the Government and the public can better study the trends of problem gambling online. Anecdotally, many cases of loan sparking “runners” are linked to problem gambling. There should be better statistics gathered on such tragedies to better establish the extent of their links to problem gambling. This will enable a proper assessment of the impact of the exemptions on the rates of gambling and problem gambling.

We need to look further downstream to prevent gambling habits from taking root. Particular focus should be on young people. It would appear that many young men are introduced to the habit during their National Service days through army mates, or at their workplaces. More targeted public education is needed, especially among young people, if we are to prevent the scourge of gambling from spreading in our society.

The best safeguard is to lessen the avenues for Singaporeans to get introduced to gambling. Legalising online gambling is a step in the wrong direction.

Conclusion

To conclude Madam Speaker, there has been a glaring lack of clarity as to how the Government is making preparations to address the scourge of online gambling downstream, midstream and upstream in a directed and committed way. This is in spite of the Government open admission that the online gambling is, I quote, a “difficult challenge”. It would logically follow that the issue would demand significant attention from the authorities. However, one cannot help but to get the feeling that it is business as usual, and that online gambling is just another game to gamble on, or just another sport for the public to take a bet on. I am concerned that it is much more ominous than that.

Written by singapore 2025

08/11/2016 at 7:09 am

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