Budget 2016: Fiscal Prudence and Sustainability – Deepening the Discussion
Madam Speaker, this is the first Budget that allows the Government to tap on Temasek’s Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) alongside the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), presenting the Government with a cumulative total of $14.7b. This is a substantial increase of about 48% from the NIRC of $9.9 billion at the Government’s disposal last year and has given this Government more leeway and flexibility to implement its plans, with a $3.4b surplus as well.
Madam Speaker, the focus of my speech is to persuade the Government to consider a deeper discussion of fiscal prudence and the trade-offs in determining our budget priorities. By doing so, we can have a richer discussion on the budget and my speech will seek to provide some suggestions on the contours of such a discussion.
A misplaced fear of Welfare?
As with almost all budget announcements made over the last few years in particular, it is usually followed by a discussion in some quarters – especially in commentaries and forum pages – about whether the government is turning populist, or if welfare is taking root in Singapore, or a combination of similar themes. Very seldom are fears of welfare accompanied by a look at the overall fiscal state of affairs both in the short and long term.
The additional details in this Budget about the Silver Support package exemplify a recognition by the Government that there are many Singaporeans – more than 140,000 of them in fact – who are not adequately equipped for retirement and live precarious lives, perhaps not only physically, but more significantly, even mentally. The total expenditure for this year’s budget comes up to $73b.The $330m (0.4% of the total budget) expended on the Silver Support package will rise in the years to come because of our demographic profile. To put things in some perspective, the state collects $2.2b a year in gaming revenue. Our vulnerable elderly deserve to retire with dignity. That must be a central social objective of the Singapore system.
No discussion of financial prudence can escape the important behavioural question of ensuring our society retains a positive work ethic with permanent schemes like Silver Support and Workfare. However, this question should be posed with a sense of not just perspective, but also proportion, in view of the demographic transition in Singapore and the structural changes that come with economic transformation, both of which will become more apparent in the years to come.
More details to better understand sustainability
How can we better approach a discussion on the budget going forward?
Firstly, the evolution of technology and data analytics ought to make discussions on budget projection generate more light rather than heat. In the same way MINDEF human resource planners can project with sufficient granularity the number of men that will serve National Service in about 20 years time, and as a consequence determine force size and structure to a reasonable degree, a richer public debate on permanent schemes like Silver Support can take shape if we assess the sustainability of such schemes with a longer-term perspective in mind. This would help the public to better understand the overall costs and sustainability of such schemes rather than leave it conjecture.
For example, a more coherent and holistic public debate on the pros and cons of potentially expanding Workfare can also take place if the public is presented with tools to better understand how much such permanent initiatives are likely to cost years down the road. Many Singaporeans have in the past suggested tweaking Workfare to raise the cash component. Currently, a 50 year-old employee earning $1800 on Workfare gets an additional $9 in cash and $13 in CPF contributions every month, with the amount payable every quarter, subject to the number of months he or she remains employed.
However, an important consideration in the context of fiscal prudence, and understanding such permanent schemes better could be, for example, an exercise that compares raising the WIS pay-out amounts as compared against the initiative announced in this year’s budget which increases the income eligibility threshold from $1800 to $1900 (Erratum: from $1900 to $2000). How many additional Singaporeans would benefit by this threshold rise and is there scope to further raise the payouts under WIS, and if so, what would be the specific impact on the budget, and would it be wise? Such enquiries will make the public better appreciate trade-offs and operationalise the meaning of fiscal prudence.
Companies and businesses on “Welfare”?
A second trend that often repeats itself prior to the budget debate are the wishes of specific industries or industry leaders who call for more reliefs or taxpayer support. What we do not see much of in the mainstream media is a debate about whether some companies have grown to expect the equivalence of constant assistance or “welfare” from the state, without the same scrutiny extended to permanent schemes for the needy or less well-off.
Like permanent schemes that help individual Singaporeans, a fuller public discussion on fiscal prudence should also extend to companies and industries, and enquire whether budget initiatives indeed achieve the policy outcomes they were intended for. For example, it would be helpful for the Government to set out how much the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme (PIC) has actually improved national productivity numbers or even spurred innovation, even as this year’s budget heralds a reduction of PIC pay-outs going forward. This is relevant, as even the Government has acknowledged that some companies have used their PIC credits to buy equipment they do not need. Fiscal sustainability would also require accounting for the extent of such leakage and unintended consequences as well.
The lessons learnt from the shortcomings of the PIC scheme should be transferred to the budget’s announcement of the three-year $400m Automation Support Package, specifically with regard to grants, which assist in the rollout of new automation projects and investment allowances. This would ensure that technologies introduced actually improve productivity as envisaged.
Incentivising the Industry Transformation Programme
Moving forward, and specifically on the budget’s announcement of the $4.5 billion dollar Industry Transformation Programme with 20 sectors earmarked for development, it would be worthwhile to consider how companies and sectors that do the most to raise productivity, improve skills and innovation as well as promoting internationalization can benefit more from taxpayer dollars than those that do not. One way to effect this differentiation is to consider a higher cap on corporate income tax rebates than the current $20,000 cap for companies that record real productivity gains. For example, the cap can be progressively lowered or even removed completely for companies that do not meet the policy objectives of the scheme.
It would also be important for any exercise in fiscal prudence to distinguish and incentivize activities that actually create something tangible that have a real trickle-down effect as opposed to economic initiatives that just (I quote) “rotate around the high-finance microcosm enriching the 1% as they buy and sell existing assets to one another, bidding up their value, while failing to invest in research, products, jobs or innovation.” (unquote) – an apt descriptive which I read in a recent TIME magazine article that reviewed a new US primetime TV show, titled Billions.
Keeping Singaporeans at the core of the budget’s priorities
Madam Speaker, even as our businesses are incentivized to transform, they must keep Singaporeans at the centre of their efforts. To this end, the Industry Transformation Programme should identify and thereafter prejudice firms that are what the Ministry of Manpower calls double-weak firms – weak in having a Singaporean core and weak in their commitment to fair hiring practices and the development of Singaporeans. Likewise, these companies should be restricted from benefitting from corporate income tax rebates or tapping on the grants that go up on the business grants portal that is to be established in the fourth quarter of this year. An inclusive Singapore must be underwritten by Singapore-based companies that support the employment prospects of Singaporeans.
In conclusion Madam Speaker, a in recent book titled, Industries of the Future by Alec Ross, the former innovation adviser to Hilary Clinton portends a future where medical technology, robotics, coding, big data etc. will make many jobs redundant, amongst other interesting predictions. In this context, a deeper and more sophisticated public discussion on fiscal prudence, sustainability and accountability of budget expenditure in a more ambiguous future becomes more, not less urgent. It would also have the parallel effect of engendering a more inclusive citizenry that is rooted to Singapore’s long-term success.
Madam Speaker, I support the budget.
Parliament: National Environment Agency (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill (Pritam Singh) – 1 March 2016
A central aspect of this Bill is the inclusion of volunteers to assist the NEA in its efforts to make Singapore a clean, and not cleaned city.
The Workers’ Party supports the principle that underpins this Bill – which is to rope community volunteers to preserve and upkeep the environment and the cleanliness of our home. This is the philosophy that appears to underpin the NEA’s Community Volunteer Scheme introduced a mere three years ago. Under this scheme, volunteers replace the presence of NEA officers on the ground and promote a more educative approach with law-breakers, while nonetheless retaining the authority to take down an individual’s details before forwarding them to NEA for further review and investigation. These volunteers act to supplement NEA officers who cannot be everywhere, all the time.
Volunteers with “Enforcement” Powers?
Clause 5(c) of the amendment allows for the appointment of auxiliary officers, who may be volunteers with potentially wide-ranging powers to enforce the Act. However, this short Bill also extends the powers of volunteers to include powers of arrest, including search and seizure as determined by the Chief Executive of the NEA. This represents a manifest escalation of the concept of not just the current Community Volunteer Scheme, but crucially, the very concept of volunteerism as well. In fact, certain extreme powers such as forced entry, search and seizure and arrest should not be given to volunteers under any circumstances at all, but only to NEA officers and auxiliary officers who are subject to organisational discipline and whose careers are tied to the adherence of these norms.
The Bill also seeks Parliament’s approval to extend extensive powers ordinarily held by state employees to volunteers and for the Chief Executive of the NEA to limit these powers accordingly. Mdm Speaker, the Workers’ Party is of the view that the extent of such extraordinary enforcement powers and the degree to which they are limited, should be rightfully determined by Parliament and not the Chief Executive of NEA. Otherwise, the Parliament’s role is relegated to that of a mere rubber stamp.
I have five queries on the potential appointment of volunteers as auxiliary officers for the Minister.
First, who qualifies to be a volunteer?
As mentioned earlier, the NEA launched a volunteer program with trained a group of volunteers from various NGOs namely, the Public Hygiene Council, Waterways Watch Society, Singapore Kindness Movement, Singapore Environmental Council and the Cat Welfare Society. The MInister has confirmed in his second reading that this will now be extended to non-NGOs as well. Can I confirm with the Minister what criterion must any or even a new organisation fulfil to be considered?
Second, will volunteers be paid?
The Pioneer Generation Package allows for every Pioneer Generation Ambassador to receive a $10 allowance when they visit each pioneer. This can come up to be a significant sum for a volunteer and I understand that some volunteers have earned a few hundred dollars a month visiting pioneers, a sum that goes well beyond defraying the costs of food and transport. Will a volunteer under these amendments be paid, how much would a volunteer receive for each assignment, and is the pay out determined by the number of volunteer hours or the number of summons issued or some other determinant?
Third, volunteers with enforcement powers -will it upset our multi-racial community?
Apart from the uncomfortable nexus between volunteerism and paid work, has NEA considered the behavioural aspects of volunteer enforcers on the wider community? With volunteers extended enforcement powers, neighbours can potentially sign up as innocuous and well-meaning volunteers, but who would then have to exercise their enforcement powers to summon some friends and neighbours in some cases while issuing a warning in other cases, and exercising compassion in yet another series of cases depending on each situation. This flexibility which enforcement officers are endowed with, has a real risk of inadvertedly promoting a toxic environment in our communities. It can be construed by non-volunteer neighbours as blatant favouritism or worse, as an attempt by some volunteers to create power or patronage network – networks that cannot be actively policed. If parliament is not apprised how the enforcement powers under this Bill are scoped, there is a real risk this Bill will become a victim of unintended consequences – consequences that can irreparably harm a harmonious multi-racial society.
Fourth, volunteer numbers and deployment
How many auxiliary officers and volunteers does the Ministry have in mind to assist NEA for the tasks at hand? How does NEA plan to deploy these volunteers and will they be evenly spread out across Singapore or concentrated in areas which attract a large number of volunteers? Can the Minister assure this house that there would be an even deployment of volunteers with greatly scoped powers across the country to ensure that no areas are left out by a shortage of volunteers. In the alternative, if there are not enough volunteers in one particular area, will there be a corresponding increase in the number of NEA or auxiliary officers deployed to areas where the volunteer pool is small? If this is not done, in all likelihood, there may be pockets of areas that remain problematic hot spots. To this end, the Minister should consider a global approach to the deployment of NEA officers, auxiliary officers and volunteers with properly scoped powers.
Fifth, NEA volunteers in Opposition Town Councils
Does the NEA intend to require volunteers to work with Town Councils to jointly identify problematic areas? If volunteers are drawn from the the People’s Association Grassroots Organisations, how are they envisaged to work with opposition Town Councils – would there be regular meetings chaired by the NEA for the Town Council to share information on problem spots as it would also have a better feel of the more frequently littered areas and common areas which are potential dengue hot-spots? This is relevant as there is currently no institutional forums like monthly CCC meetings for the PA GROs and Town Council representatives to meet; a state of affairs compounded by the fact that PA GROs like Resident’s Committees are averse to pro-actively partnering opposition Town Councils to deliver outcomes for the community at large.
In conclusion, Mdm Speaker, while the Workers’ Party supports the principle of engaging the community to keep our neighbourhoods clean and the Community Volunteer Scheme, we cannot support Parliament extending broad and sweeping powers to volunteers without a clear scoping of these very powers. Therefore, the Workers’ Party recommends that this Bill be committed to a Select Committee for review, otherwise, we will not be able to support the Bill in its current form.
The benefits of the Home Protection Scheme (HPS) struck close to home when I lost an uncle more than a decade ago. He passed away in a motorcycle accident and did not have any HPS coverage. A sizeable mortgage remained outstanding and it was left to my aunt and cousins to commit significant resources to continue making mortgage payments on top of their own commitments. At that time, I thought HPS non-coverage was a rare occurrence, but years later, it was heart-breaking to find out that some of my own residents, albeit a small number, found themselves in exactly the same position as my aunt and cousins when the sole-breadwinner passes away unexpectedly.
To that end, I wish to acknowledge the compassion shown by the CPF Board and HDB staff to try their best to assist affected families by retrospectively reinstating HPS coverage in certain cases, so that the other family members do not face hardship. In my last term, one particular family benefitted from the CPF and HDB’s thoughtfulness and were profuse in their appreciation to me for pursuing their matter. But all the appreciation should rightfully go to the agencies concerned.
Amendments to the Scheme
According to the CPF, as of 2013, about 70% of all HDB flat owners were covered by the Home Protection Scheme (HPS). In 2012, a total of 1,074 claims amounting to $89.8 million dollars were made to HPS policyholders.
At the 2014 Committee of Supply debates, I spoke on the HPS, requesting the Ministry to require HDB flat owners who were paying for their mortgage in cash, to sign up for the HPS as a matter of course. More generally, the cut requested the Government to step up education on the importance of the HPS especially for low to middle income households. Separately, the statistics pointed to an increase in the number of members who had lapsed in their HPS premium payments or who were no longer insurable for medical and other reasons. It was 1.7% and 2% respectively in April 2011; And by October 2013, the percentages had increased to 2% and 3%.
To this end, I welcome the current amendments to allow co-owners – who could be family members and not just spouses, to help pay for the HPS premiums. This should mitigate or reduce the number of lapsed policyholders going forward. However, for greater clarity, can the Minister give the House a primer on the regulations the CPF has in mind to issue in reinstating HPS insurance cover or pay claims when it is not liable to do so?
Improvements to the Scheme
While I welcome all the HPS related amendments, I have three suggestions to make to strengthen the scheme.
A. Covering Singaporeans with pre-existing illnesses
In 2011, the HPS scheme was improved by allowing for portability, so in the event the home owner who purchased a new HDB flat was no longer in good health, he would be remain insured under the scheme by way of earlier participation. This amendment acknowledged that a member in ill-health could yet be covered so as not to prejudice him/her.
With the induction of Medishield Life by the Government, the seminal change differentiated it from the old Medishield scheme was the inclusion of members with pre-existing conditions, albeit with a 30% increase in premiums payable. The philosophical basis of this move was in concert with aim of making Singapore an inclusive society.
Similarly, HPS coverage for Singaporeans with pre-existing illnesses will buttress this aim. The Government has raised its concerns about such an expansion specifically on premium affordability in the past, and this is not an irrelevant consideration – however similar misgivings were overcome in the move from Medishield to Medishield Life.
In August 2015, CPF paid out more at least $400 in HPS rebates to each of the 470,000 Singaporeans and PRs. This came up to almost $1.9b, and with yet many thousands of other homeowners receiving less than the $400 but received a rebate nonetheless. The last time such rebates were paid out was in 2006. In between, in 2011, HPS premiums were lowered by an average 12% for about 80% of members. The remaining 20% were already paying low premiums.
With these numbers in mind, it would appear that there is some scope to relook the prospect of covering members in poor health under the HPS. I hope the Board can commit itself to look at this seriously to cover Singaporeans with pre-existing illnesses.
B. Plugging gaps for lapsed policyholders
While HPS is compulsory for all members who use their CPF to pay for their HDB flats, subject to HDB’s approval, members can choose to opt-out should they take up a similar mortgage reducing insurance (MRI). In 2015, it was made known that 43,610 flat owners had been given permission to do so by HDB. However, my understanding is that CPF does not monitor these members thereafter, allowing them to opt out of the MRI shortly thereafter. In such a case, these households effectively fall through the crack. Can the Minister confirm if the CPF will consider plugging this hole in future, and require them to sign up to the HPS in the event the lapse of their MRI.
I understand the CPF sends a two reminder letters to the policyholder in the event of premium non-payment – in an effort to highlight the importance of the scheme can I confirm if these notifications are by ordinary post or registered mail? In addition, early reminders to the policyholder of low CPF balances for HPS premiums may be a powerful signalling tool that can prompt members to top up their OA accounts, or at the very least seek assistance early if they have other financial problems.
In conclusion Mdm Speaker, when I spoke on raising the awareness of the HPS in the 2014 Committee of Supply Debates, the Minister of State replied that the HDB issues a booklet upon the purchase a property to educate home-buyers of the scheme. With a rising senior citizen population and constant reminders in the press about how Singaporeans do not plan well for retirement, the Ministry should step up its efforts to constantly inform home owners of the benefits of the scheme every few years, through brochures and pamphlets as they service their mortgages, and seriously look at including Singaporeans with pre-existing illnesses to improve the scheme further.
Mdm Speaker, I support the Bill.
Parliament: Debate on the President’s Address, Empowering our Future through Parliament (Pritam Singh) – 29 Jan 2015
Thank you Mdm Speaker.
Much of the attention surrounding the President’s speech at the opening of parliament concerned the upcoming changes to the political system. The President’s speech intimated that an inclusive Singapore is a clear objective of the government, and I will speak on one aspect of our political system that I believe can play very significant role to improve both politics and policies in Singapore – and that is through Parliament and the institutions it offers.
Parliamentary Select Committees
Madam Speaker, Woodrow Wilson was quoted to have said “it is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.”
To this end, Select Committees that meet regularly when Parliament is not in session are a fundamental pillar of many parliamentary democracies. Erksine May on Parliamentary Procedure, the signature reference book used by parliaments in the Commonwealth including Singapore, notes that Select Committees (I quote) “have become over recent years the principal mechanism by which the House discharges its responsibility for the scrutiny of government policy and actions.” It goes on to say that, “Select Committee members have been able to acquire significant levels of expertise in the specific areas for which their committee is responsible. This, together with the resources available to them, has reinforced the authority of their reports” (unquote).
Mdm Speaker, Select Committees are also an important means by which MPs build a public record and communicate with other MPs, civil servants, activists and the general public. It is my view that the processes afforded to Select Committees are helpful because the testimony of witnesses who could be private sector individuals, civil servants or implementing agents on the ground. This would lead to greater information sharing and the acquisition of greater knowledge on specific policies by all Singaporeans, not just parliamentarians. In addition, an appreciation of trade-offs in a more complex Singapore and a more complex international environment beyond SG51, would in my estimation, significantly mature our political discourse, level up knowledge, and serve to unify our people. It would also encourage Singaporeans not just to look into an issue more deeply, but to understand why what may be a solution to some, has to be balanced with other demands – all of which must confront the question of financing, a question a small country with no natural resources cannot avoid.
The depth of knowledge of policies and their trade-offs enabled by Select Committee hearings and reports can also be a strong insurance against the dangers of retail politics, and political aspirants who irresponsibly make promises in hope of winning votes. Fast forward to the next fifty years, any conversation with Singaporeans cannot only be about seeking feedback from the people before policy crafting and implementation. Instead, it has to involve Singaporeans along every step of the way, including during execution so mid-course corrections, reviews and assessments can be made.
Select Committees in the UK and in Hong Kong
In September last year, as members of this House were busy at the hustings, the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills received evidence on the UK government’s Productivity Plan. This plan sought to address the main causes of low productivity in the UK. The select committee sought to determine whether the Government’s policies were likely to achieve their desired results. Ordinary citizens were able to submit their evidence to the committee through the UK’s parliamentary website. There was also the prospect of giving oral evidence at hearings that are open to members of the public and companies. As an example, some of the companies that gave evidence at the Productivity Inquiry included Rolls Royce and Virgin Atlantic, hence providing a lot of scope for a deeper understanding of the problems of the day surrounding productivity from a wide canvas of citizenry.
Even Hong Kong’s Legislative Council carries out significant policy work behind the scenes. The Hong Kong Legislative Council hosts 18 different panels to deliberate on issues relating to specific policy areas and also give views on major legislative or financial proposals before their formal introduction into the Council or Finance Committee. These panels also examine important issues of wide public concern as referred by the Council or as raised by the panels themselves. These include the development of elderly care services, retirement schemes, studies into free kindergarten education, animal welfare and cruelty to animals and even hawker policy.
Select Committees: Subject Matter and Scope
In practice Mdm Speaker, our parliament does not need to mirror the UK system, Hong Kong system or any other system in its entirety, nor do we need to establish an excessive amount of Select Committees for the sake of it. However, there are a number of issues that would clearly keep the Government and the opposition occupied in the years to come. In view of the longer experience and size of the UK, they host an extensive A-Z of Select Committees. Our parliament on the other hand, can establish Select Committees for the key issues of the day as determined by Parliament. What could be some of these issues?
First, there is the prospect of a Singapore where the number of elderly Singaporeans is expected to double in the next decade. It will have an attendant impact not just on our healthcare system but on families too with more children having to take more time off to look after their parents to see to it that they age well and gracefully. An Active Aging Select Committee would be helpful in this regard to understand what gaps need to be plugged, in addition to where deficiencies continue to exist in the system, the reasons for their existence and how they can be overcome.
Secondly, there is the difficult Population policy issue, for which the Government has announced a mid-course review around 2020. A population Select Committee could potentially start hearings on this issue early allowing Singaporeans to understand the decisions taken thus far, and outline what other policies need to dovetail closely with our population strategies. It could also flesh out the different perspectives of Singaporeans with regard to trade-offs between the dwindling of the Singapore core and the economic strategies required for Singapore to not just survive, but thrive in the next lap.
A SkillsFuture Select Committee of Parliament
Mdm Speaker, this House can endeavour to establish just one Select Committee in the immediate term as a pilot Select Committee, and that is a SkillsFuture Select Committee. In his speech, the President’s clearly emphasised the importance of SkillsFuture to the economy, how important it is for SkillsFuture to be a success and how it must become a national movement. There are many dimensions of SkillsFuture – P-Max, career guidance, Sectoral Manpower Plans, Earn and Learn, Credits, Individual Learning Portfolios amongst others, across the age spectrum.
Then, there is the issue of productivity. As I noted in my Budget Speech last year, the National Productivity Council also comes under the purview of the SkillsFuture. For many advanced economies, including Singapore, improving productivity is a serious matter. Even in Singapore, we have not achieved the productivity aims set by the Economic Strategies Committee Report of 2010 of 2-3% each year, and our numbers continue to look weak.
As productivity and the acquisition of new skills are closely linked, a SkillsFuture Select Committee of Parliament comprising MPs from all parties would be in a good position to pursue, and consider improvements and innovations to the Government’s strategies. This would ensure that SkillsFuture works well on the ground and how it can do more, and to account for the taxpayer dollar that is eventually expended on it. The presence of Select Committee members from all parties would not just be symbolic. In fact, it would be in step not just with the wishes of many voters, but would mirror the inclusive Singapore we all desire. More importantly, it would operationalize what the President meant when he said, (and I quote) “individual aspirations may differ, but we have to work together to create a common future.” (unquote)
Conclusion: Select Committees – Better Politics, Better Policies
In conclusion Mdm Speaker, the tremendous scope of Parliament and specifically, Select Committees to make our politics more accountable and better accessible to all Singaporeans should not be underestimated. This proposal to establish a SkillsFuture Select Committee can be read in two ways – the cynical view is that Select Committees could be used to secure information not in the public domain on Government processes and decision-making and to embarrass the Government. But there is another long-term perspective that ought to be considered. And that is – the in-depth granularity offered by Select Committees on vital issues affecting Singaporeans would contribute significantly to creating a culture of mastery and excellence, and for Singaporeans to take a deep interest in policies and to understand trade-offs surrounding policymaking. This theme of excellence and mastery, not just competence was covered in the Finance Minister’s Budget speech of 2014 – and that is exactly what SkillsFuture is about.
Parliament is a privileged position to reconfigure the relationship between the public and Government as we march towards SG100. A more public role for Parliament, and more time spent in it by MPs, offers greater scope to better our political system so that it governs effectively in the interests of all.
Madam Speaker, I support the motion.
Regulatory Approach of this Legislation
Madam Speaker, the Ministry of Health’s public consultation on the Human Biomedical Research Bill – carried out from November to December 2014 – states that the Bill is light-touch with minimal regulatory intervention. It envisages a system of self-accountability underpinned by risk-based audits and checks.
The Bill covers two major issues – firstly, the biomedical research framework and secondly, the framework governing the use and banking of human tissue.
Madam Speaker, I am concerned that with the light-touch regulatory approach, Parliament and Singaporeans will not be sufficiently informed about the nature of biomedical research carried out under the auspices of this Bill, leaving this House in little control over what members agree to once this Bill passes muster. I am also of the view that this Bill provides a unique opportunity to nudge members into exploring and expanding Parliament’s role, through additional scrutiny, to operationalise Parliament’s educative role in society.
At the outset, a vibrant biomedical research scene is in Singapore’s interest. The prospects of cure for cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s disease, correcting of congenital defects and a host of others medical breakthroughs are exciting, and I certainly hope many Singaporeans, and young Singaporeans in particular dedicate themselves to being at the forefront of these breakthroughs.
Nature of Permitted Research
What does this Bill allow, albeit under restricted conditions? Under the Human Biomedical Research Framework, and under the conditions established in clause 3, it allows for: (a) research involving human embryos; (b) human-animal combination embryos created by the incorporation of human genetic material or human cells or entities created as a result of the introduction of human cells into an animal foetus and; (c) the introduction of human neural cells into a post-natal animal and the introduction of human cells into the brain of a living post-natal animal.
Under the Bill, the Ministry of Health’s approval is required should the introduction of human genes into an animal embryo result in an entity that has human consciousness. These prospects can either cause the layman to look forward towards the future of human biomedical research with keen anticipation, or with an acute sense of dread.
The self-accountability framework underpinning this Bill allows for a research Institute, or a biotechnology company or even an SME to potentially set up Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to review and assess the work that is being carried out by its researchers. Consent from subjects is an integral aspect of this Bill before biomedical research is carried out, and rightfully so. However the Bill gives extraordinarily wide powers to the Chairman of an IRB, as exemplified by Part Two of the Fifth Schedule, to waive the requirement for appropriate consent to be obtained for human biomedical research involving human biological material or health information, should the research be reasonably considered to contribute to “the greater public good”, a term that would likely only to be determined affirmatively – and not without controversy – in a court of law.
No room for Parliamentary oversight?
In fact, clause 57 affords the Minister even greater powers by permanently exempting any biomedical research activity from this Bill. Equally of concern, clause 62 gives the Minister powers to amend any of the schedules to this Bill, effectively delegating all parliamentary oversight on the Bill to the Minister after its passage in this House, as the five schedules cover the essence of what this Bill seeks to legislate, namely (a) Human biological material excluded from the definition of human tissue; (b) Research, Studies and Matters excluded from the definition of human biomedical research; (c) Prohibited Human Biomedical Research; (d) Restricted Human Biomedical Research and finally; (e) Waiver of Requirements for Appropriate Consent by IRBs.
Should the Minister choose to exercise his powers by virtue of Clause 62, Parliament would have in effect, completely delegated its powers to the Minister to fundamentally alter the Bill in operation – should the scope of the Schedules as listed in the Bill be modified – without having to go through Parliament.
At the very least, should Parliament not place greater reporting requirements on the exercise of such extensive powers, even as we seek to allow our researchers and research institutions as much latitude as possible to produce cutting edge research work? Clause 62 would make Parliament little more than a mere rubber stamp with regard to human biomedical research in Singapore, as this Bill gives complete latitude to the Minister to change the parameters and scope of biomedical research in Singapore without an amendment bill, and without Members having an opportunity to debate any gazetted changes in Parliament.
Madam Speaker, I recognise that Clause 5 of the Act allows the Minister to establish an advisory committee to advise the Minister on any matter arising out of the administration of this act. In effect, the existence of this clause reinforces the point that we are heading into unchartered waters even for the Minister who oversees this legislation. Parliament and the general public should be kept well appraised of the research and controversies carried out under the auspices of this Bill, should Parliament decide to pass this Bill today.
I make this suggestion because in researching for this Bill, I perused the newly released Ethics Guidelines for Biomedical Research, released in late June this year by the Cabinet-appointed Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC). I found it disconcerting that in the written response received during the public consultation period, the Managing Director of the Lily-NUS Centre for Clinical Pharmacology noted, and I quote,
“…I am quite concerned that there was not more of an effort to engage with stakeholders on this discussion. I was only made aware of the proposed changes when I chanced upon it in a press report, and a couple of investigators in other institutions I spoke with who conduct healthy volunteer research, were not aware of these proposals at all. I would urge a nuanced approach to this matter from the BAC.”
Unsurprisingly, the public consultation on these BAC ethical guidelines revealed that different groups had different views with regard to the conduct of biomedical research. In particular, the comments of the Buddhist Fellowship and the Catholic Medical Guild of Singapore reveal the difficulties in answering the fundamental question of when life begins, and at what point conscientiousness starts – questions that are central to specific aspects of biomedical research.
Regulatory Powers and Proposals
Madam Speaker, in view of the unique nature of this Bill and the significant powers it confers not just on the Minister, but biomedical researchers, institutions and IRBs, it is helpful that clause 63 provides extensive powers to the Minister to make regulations requiring the submission of information, returns and reports as the Director of Medical Services may order.
I would like the Ministry to consider publishing through the media or through Parliament, at regular intervals, the details of research projects rejected by the various institutional review boards and the reasons for their rejection. This is in addition to the details of projects that are submitted to the Ministry of Health for special approval, including details of serious adverse events as identified in clause 2. This is chiefly to keep the public informed and aware of the workings of the self-regulation framework, particularly since this is a highly specialized area that requires significant intervention for the effects of this Bill to be understood by the layman. More specifically, in view of the importance of clause 63 as a regulatory tool for this Bill, I would also like to ask the Minister how the penalty threshold of a $20,000 fine and 2-year imprisonment term was derived, which in my view is set at a rather low threshold.
Madam Speaker, the Workers’ Party is of the view that Parliament ought to form a select committee to better appraise members of what this Bill entails with specific scrutiny paid on the clauses that confer significant powers to various entities, in addition to a detailed primer into the biomedical research this Bill legislates. Secondly, it recommends that the Government commit to publishing details of the human biomedical research that will be carried out under this Bill’s auspices and recommends that reporting regulations to Parliament be placed upon research institutions and review boards that seek to carry out restricted research. As members have not had the opportunity to scrutinise this Bill closely, and in the event a select committee is not formed, the Workers’ Party will abstain from voting in favour of this Bill.
Head F – Parliament
Mdm Chair, I beg to move, “That the total sum to be allocated for Head F of the Estimates be reduced by $100”.
Mdm Chair, when a Member proposes that a Bill which will become law ought to be committed to a Select Committee of Parliament, it means that while the Member generally agrees with the objectives of the Bill, he or she is concerned about its implementation or its provisions.
The last time a Select Committee was formed in this House after the Second Reading of a Bill was in 2004 when the Building Maintenance and Management Bill came up for Second Reading. A variety of reasons were put forth by Members for the committal of the Bill. Some Members cited better representation of the interest of all stakeholders and to gain support for the Bill. Others highlighted the importance of the Bill by virtue of the number of people who would be affected by its enactment into law, hence, requiring further feedback. Another called for extensive consultations to ensure the relevance of the proposed law.
Over the last year, the Workers’ Party and the SPP, through Mrs Lina Chiam, proposed two Bills in particular for committal to a Select Committee. In both these cases, the Government rejected the calls as a consultation process through the Government feedback channel, or REACH, was deemed to have been sufficient.
Mdm Chair, I would like to request that the Government consider committing more Bills to Select Committees in future. Participation on such Select Committees is envisaged to take up more of a Member of Parliament’s time, and rightfully so. While I accept citizens have an opportunity to engage issues through the Government feedback channel, and this should continue to be encouraged, this should not mean that Parliament’s role in scrutinising Bills through a Select Committee is minified or rendered unnecessary.
In fact, in today’s day and age, Select Committees can add much needed civility to the public discourse through the active engagement of issues, as Select Committees are empowered to call for witnesses and for documents and records. They present a good opportunity for the Government to deepen discussions and generate greater public support for laws.
The Minister for Defence and Leader of the House (Dr Ng Eng Hen): Mdm Chair, the Government welcomes calls from Members of Parliament to increase engagement, and in the Member’s words, to deepen or increase the engagement when it comes to legislation in this House.
Indeed, that is what we have been doing over the last few years. Government agencies routinely conduct public consultation exercises with the public to facilitate and incorporate inputs from members of the public and relevant stakeholders before new legislation is introduced into this House. This process includes close engagement with Members of Parliament in this House through the Government Parliamentary Committees who provide valuable suggestions to improve proposed legislation. The extent of consultation varies depending on the issues involved. There are many Bills that are introduced in the House. Let me give some examples of Bills in recent times that have undergone extensive public consultation: the Human Organ Transplant (Amendment) Bill in 2009, Personal Data Protection Bill in 2012, Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill, Remote Gambling Bill and Public Entertainments and Meetings (Amendment) Bill in 2014, and most recently, the Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill and Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill in 2015.
Members will remember that in November last year, Nominated Member of Parliament Ms Chia Yong Yong proposed an amendment to clause 3 of the Pioneer Generation Fund Bill. She wanted to ensure that no means testing would be applied. Since it was never the intention to apply means testing to the PG package, MOF accepted her proposal and will introduce an amendment to the Bill at an opportune time to provide this certainty. Apart from the Government Parliamentary Committees, this is another positive example of how Members of Parliament in this House have contributed to improve legislation.
As Mr Pritam Singh had said, there have also been some occasions when the Government judged it necessary and beneficial to propose to this House to refer specific Bills to a Select Committee of Members of Parliament instead of the Committee of the Whole Parliament after the Second Reading. He has mentioned some, but let me give the list of Bills that have done so.
The Bills which this House referred to a Select Committee include the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Bill in 1988, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill and the Administration of Muslim Law (Amendment) Bill in 1990 and 1999 respectively, the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill, the Maintenance of Parents Bill, and the Advance Medical Directive Bill in 1995 and 1996, and the Companies (Amendment) Bill, Goods and Services Tax Bill, and the Bankruptcy Bill in 1993 and 1995.
The reasons for Bills to be committed to a Select Committee are when the Government judges that a Select Committee will allow a smaller group comprising Members of the House to further examine the details of implementation for complex issues, or seek views from experts and other focus groups on matters related to the Bill.
On the whole, these public consultation exercises, Second and Third Readings in this House, and Select Committee for some Bills have allowed Government to obtain views from members of the public and Members in this Parliament, and pass legislation in a timely and responsive manner to meet the needs of our society.
Mr Pritam Singh: Mdm Chair, according to the revenue and expenditure estimates for FY2015/2016 on page 41, one of the desired outcomes under this Head is public awareness of the roles and functions of Parliament. I thank the Leader of the House for his reply. And I hope the Government can consider how this outcome can be furthered in future either through topical Select Committees, ad hoc Select Committees and so forth, covering even subject areas of interest. With that, Madam, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
A major theme of this year’s Budget revolves around preparing Singapore and Singaporeans for the future. The two aspects of the Budget that are the focus of my speech are SkillsFuture and more briefly, the inclusion of Temasek in the Net Investment Returns (NIR) framework. On both fronts, the government has considerable experience to call upon and Singapore is not starting from a zero base. First, SkillsFuture.
Skills upgrading before SkillsFuture
As a national philosophy, upgrading of skills and lifelong learning are not a new phenomenon. Almost 35 years ago, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew announced at the 1979 National Day Rally that a Skills Development Fund would set up compelling employers to pay a percentage of wages in to Skills Development Fund as recommended by the National Wages Council. A month later, Finance Minister Hon Sui Sen informed parliament that the introduction of the Skills Development Levy was a necessary intervention as the Singapore economy had to be upgraded and restructured promptly, for Singapore to move up economic value chain.
The Skills Development Levy Act of 1979 legislated skills upgrading primarily at low-level workers, but also included mid-level workers and managers too, with some, especially those involved in technology work sent overseas for training by the early 1980s. Since the Skills Development Levy was introduced in 1979, an entire ecosystem of training and skills upgrading has been part of the governance firmament in Singapore.
Lifelong learning since 2000
Lifelong Learning is also not new phenomenon. The Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund was first announced by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in the year 2000 to promote and support lifelong learning in Singapore and to provide assistance and opportunities for Singaporeans to meet the needs of a knowledge-based economy and cope with the threat of structural unemployment. Last year, during Budget 2014, it was announced that the fund would be topped up by $500m bringing the fund size up to a total of $4.6b.
A decade later by 2010, the National Productivity Fund (NPF) was launched with a $1b injection. This year’s budget will also see another injection of $1.5b into the fund.
Over the years, the Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) framework, a key component of the Continuing Education and Traning (CET) system allowed Singaporeans to improve their qualifications in various industries from certificate up to diploma level, and even graduate diplomas for certain industries. In industries where there has been an acute of shortage of skilled professionals, the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) has even introduced scholarships at the post-graduate level, thus providing opportunities for professionals who wish to upgrade themselves further. There are currently 34 WSQ frameworks covering the manufacturing and services sectors such as Precision Engineering, Aerospace, Retail, Hospitality, Community and Social Services, Financial Services, Infocomm and Logistics, some of which have also been identified under SkillsFuture initiatives, in particular Earn and Learn.
When the Skills Development Levy Act was amended in 2008 to cover all employees including those earning more than $2000 a month, in a functional way, the seeds were sown for SkillsFuture with the Skills Development Levy acting as the primary tool to better support the CET system supporting all workers, regardless of age, skill or education level, to upgrade and seize new opportunities as they progressed in their careers.
SkillsFuture – What makes it different from earlier schemes?
The long tail of experience surrounding retraining and lifelong learning makes it important for the Government to identify why and how SkillsFuture is different. How will it mark a critical shift away from the existing skills upgrading framework and what shifts in thinking among Singaporeans will be required for it to work? To this end, the identification of the starting point of the journey – in schools and the provision of career counsellors, commonplace in many Western countries like the US and Canada – is a good place to start. However, the challenge to convince hearts and minds, especially those of parents in an Asian society fixated on grades and a tuition culture will not be easy. To this end, I hope career counsellors in school work together with parents to identify the strengths and interests of students, with parents also playing their part in motivating children to aim for excellence, regardless of the paths they choose.
Even employers will need to imbibe a new mindset and to accept that skills upgrading is a fact of life. Employees are more likely to stay on in a firm if the firm also shows a readiness to upgrade itself too, and attempt to adopt work new processes. For example, appreciating the importance of work-life balance in the Singapore of today and tomorrow where the reality dual-income households can leave precious little time to raise young children and look after our elderly, to say nothing of pursuing other interests such as community volunteerism or the onset of a medical issue for a family member.
Born from the UK Leitch Review: SkillsFuture Credit
A new feature of our skills upgrading system is the creation of SkillsFuture Credit, which provides learning credits for all Singaporeans above 25 years of age, supported by regular top-ups. The SkillsFuture Credit largely mirrors the proposal made in the UK-government commissioned 2004 independent review by Lord Sandy Leitch to maximize the economic growth, skills and social justice by 2020. The Leitch Review of Skills proposed the establishment of a learner accounts as a centrepiece of what it called “adult vocational further education”. In fact, the “Earn and Learn” work-study program under SkillsFuture is also conceptually similar to the Leitch Review’s “Train to Gain” program with a focus on apprenticeships.
In fact, the creation of a SkillsFuture Credit along the lines of the UK model was also proposed in this house in 2010. However, the Government’s reply then was and I quote, “[i]nternational studies show that by providing a training account with monetary value may still not be the best and most effective way of motivating individuals to take up courses. What we have today in our system is a CET infrastructure that comprises a large number of training courses that individuals can go forward and sign up.” In view of this stated position of the Government five years ago, how does the Government envisage the provision of the SkillsFuture Credit as being enough of an incentive to motivate Singaporeans to take up courses to improve themselves?
In recommending the learner accounts, the Leitch Report noted that for about 20% of those who did not pursue upgrading in the UK, lack of funding was not a reason. In fact, high course fees, lack of childcare support and transport were some of the potential issues that workers had to take into account when deciding whether to upgrade their skills. In response, the UK government has sought to provide some basic courses for free, in addition to extending study loans repayable only after a worker exceeded a certain salary. It has also made an allowance for a support fund to provide assistance for costs such as childcare, transport, books, equipment that can mitigate the impact of financial problems workers face as they upgrade their skills. While some of these gaps are specific to the situation in the UK, in addition to applicability in the Singapore context or otherwise, there are nonetheless lessons for Singapore, and the Government should regularly review and identify reasons Singaporean workers may be hesitant to upgrade their skills, as it looks to make SkillsFuture a success.
Making SkillsFuture a Success
Madam Speaker, the SkillsFuture Council will have its hands full, as SkillsFuture cannot represent upgrading for the sake of upgrading. Minister mentioned in his speech that a key challenge of SkillsFuture is to help uplift the SMEs, and involve them in this process of skills development.
In the UK, a parliamentary Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills select committee, in wake of the Leitch Report, noted with concern that a conflation of skills and qualifications in targets could lead the UK Government to assume that a qualifications strategy is an adequate substitute or proxy for an overall skills strategy. The select committee noted that a qualifications-focused strategy which identifies the numbers of workers who have upgraded their qualifications would inadvertedly reinforce the skills gap if companies were unable to achieve high performance working practices and thereby raise productivity.
To this end, as SkillsFuture gets off the ground, it may be worthwhile for the Government to track the qualification and certification outcomes of SkillsFuture initiatives, especially for our SMEs, as to assess how the scheme has been effective in achieving the desired productivity increases and economic outcomes so as to better track the real value of the SkillsFuture initiatives for various industries.
Improving Productivity with SkillsFuture
The formation of the SkillsFuture Council has resulted in the devolution of CET oversight from the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council (NPCEC) to the SkillsFuture Council. With NPCEC renamed as the National Productivity Council (NPC) also headed by the Finance Minister, greater synergies and coordination between both councils can be expected. This administrative change should be a lot more significant that a mere change of nomenclature. This point is worthy of some reflection considering the large amounts of public funds that will be devoted to SkillsFuture. For example, $250 million dollars was set aside from the National Productivity Fund to improve productivity for the construction industry in 2010. Five years later, in view of the productivity numbers, there is some legitimate doubt as to how effective these huge investments have been. Once again, going forward, the provision of an institutionalised, dedicated and regular review framework can be helpful to arrest efforts and correct a course of action that does not appear to be engendering favourable results. This would be more critical over time as the reality of less fiscal room for manoeuvre becomes a reality, if it has not already.
Finally, some practical skills and qualifications are not learnt through skills upgrading, but in the course of National Service too where specific skills or credits can be relevant in the private sector. Repair and maintenance certification and operating of heavy machinery and vehicles and leadership skills are part of a lifelong learning skills framework and these can give our NSmen a leg up at certain workplaces. I understand a similar recommendation was also made by the Committee to Strengthen National Service, and I hope that skills and qualifications earned during the course of NS are constantly reviewed and incorporated into the SkillsFuture framework as far as practically possible.
Temasek’s inclusion in NIR
Madam Speaker, the increased spending on human capital for the future must mean increased Government expenditure. For this reason, amongst others, Minister has announced the inclusion of the expected investment returns of Temasek in the NIR framework. The move of our reserves held by MAS and GIC from to the NIR framework from Net Investment Income (NII) framework was the subject of an extensive Constitutional Amendment Bill debate in 2008. Then, Minister established that as Temasek was expected to make higher returns and was not encumbered from investing in high-risk assets, it would be difficult to project Temasek’s future earnings. Minister has stated in his 2015 Budget speech that Temasek’s equity-only portfolio will continue to be more volatile and subject to more pronounced investment cycles than the MAS and GIC portfolios. For this reason, a brief primer from Minister on the expected long-term expected real returns from Temasek’s inclusion in the NIR framework and its methodology would be appreciated. In reply to NCMP Gerald Giam’s parliamentary question in 2014, Minister stated that for FY2009 to FY2013 the government took in about 47% of the NIR, and that the NIRC has been able to supplement the Budget by $7 billion to $8 billion annually. I would like to enquire from the Minister, based on current projections, how much would subsequent Budgets be supplemented by with Temasek’s inclusion in the NIR framework?
In conclusion Madam Speaker, Minister spoke at the 2014 Budget debate about changing social norms, in three broad areas, at the workplace, in professional competencies and to change habits for the better. This was not hard policy per se, but related to important softer aspects which can be the critical factor that make the difference between a how successful or unsuccessful a policy is. SkillsFuture, requires social norms and attitudes towards education to change. A deep mind-set shift towards lifelong education must truly be a goal for all Singaporeans. With human capital as our only natural resource, a more forgiving attitude must be exercised towards people who may not have succeeded at the first instance either in an exam or at some other important career cross-junction. Equally important, the opportunity for skills upgrading and a second chance should be one every Singaporean must grab with both hands. SkillsFuture must be positioned as a key feature of the Singapore system. A large part of the continuing economic prosperity of Singapore should also serve as a report card for SkillsFuture. My recommendation to track the expenditure and to constantly review the implementation of SkillsFuture notwithstanding, I support the initiative and encourage Singaporeans to draw up, review and update their own skills upgrading and career objectives, and to tap on the initiatives will be rolled out under SkillsFuture.