Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Archive for February 2012

Parliament: Budget 2012 (Pritam Singh) – 29 February 2012

Mr Speaker, Sir, I support many of the initiatives proposed by the Government, particularly measures directed at the social well-being of Singaporeans, especially the elderly and the disabled. I am going to speak on two issues covered in the Minister’s speech.

Firstly, the measures introduced to unlock the wealth older Singaporeans hold in their HDB flats. I note the Finance Minister’s concern about the older generation of Singaporeans who have very limited cash savings and low CPF balances because wages were much lower 20-30 years ago, and because of the lower Minimum Sum then. I would however caution that low CPF balances ought to remain a permanent concern of the Government as future wage increases look likely to be moderated by inflation and the cost of living.

More importantly, the high cost of public housing relative to wage growth is likely to result in mortgages that are marked by a longer pay-back period, inevitably compromising the ability of Singaporeans to grow their nest-egg. Nonetheless, I commend the Government for raising CPF contribution rates. While I empathise with SMEs who already face short and medium term difficulties with regard to labour-related overheads, the national interest dictates that the post-retirement well-being of all Singaporeans, including those very employees that keep SMEs competitive, must remain a primary social objective of any Singapore government.

I am encouraged by the Silver Housing Bonus of $20,000 which will be extended to older Singaporeans who wish to sell their existing flats and downgrade to other flats. I do ask that the Government consider extending the policy to all HDB households, so as to give retiring Singaporeans more options. Equally, it is also noteworthy that the Government has sought to make the Lease Buyback Scheme more attractive by doubling the incentive from $10,000 to $20,000.

I see the enactment of policies that allow older Singaporeans to monetise their flats as a central pillar in ensuring Singaporeans live out their retirement years with reasonable dignity, as they stand to receive a larger CPF LIFE payout.

Like many Singaporeans, I am disturbed when I see older Singaporeans having no choice but to work because they cannot afford to retire. Their health may not allow them to stay on their feet for hours on end, but they have no choice, as they need the money to survive. While I admire the drive, determination and self-respect of such Singaporeans, I feel the Government need to introduce more policies that ensure as many of our elderly live out their retirement with a sense of accomplishment, with full-time post-retirement employment – a choice and not a necessity. For that reason, I think the Government has done well with the Silver Housing Bonus and the Enhanced Lease Buyback Scheme.

However, I am not certain how these two schemes will work out in practice. In fact, I note that the initial response to the HDB Lease Buyback Scheme was not encouraging. Introduced in March 2009, the take-up rate has been low – in fact, according to HDB statistics, it stands at 2% of all total eligible households, or 446 households. Mr Speaker, Sir, the Government may want to keep an extra close watch on both the Silver Housing Bonus and the Enhanced Lease Buyback Scheme and consider publicising a yearly report card on the take-up rate of both initiatives. The public character of such a report card, apart from signalling a robust attitude to accountability, would also reinforce and institutionalise the importance of the Government’s elderly policy in the public consciousness.

Greater awareness of the Government’s elderly policy is also likely to have positive effects on nation building and our national identity. If the take-up rate is poor, it would be clear that the Government would need to do more, and I for one would support the Government wholeheartedly in this endeavour. If the take-up rate is good, it would simply reflect positively on the Government’s 2012 Budget. I sincerely hope both the Silver Housing Bonus and the Enhanced Lease Buyback Scheme are closely tracked as their success potentially portends how Singaporeans can expect to live in their retirement years, especially in terms of financial security, in a Singapore that is already one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Moving on to the second issue, Mr Speaker, I would like to register my concern for the Bus Services Enhancement Fund, as announced by the Minister. No one I have met since the Minister’s Budget Speech really disputes the benefits of additional buses on the road, particularly if, in the Minister’s words, it will serve to reduce crowding and waiting time. But there nevertheless remain some very serious questions about this $1.1 billion “one-time” commitment to help fund the purchase of 550 buses.

Mr Speaker, many Singaporeans are asking why the shareholders of our publicly listed bus operators are being extended this unusual generosity by the Government. According to both their 2010 Annual Reports – both of which are available online – SBS Transit has a market share of 75% and around 3,000 buses on the road, while SMRT has slightly less than 1,000 buses. In the case of SBS Transit, the top five shareholders of the company hold 83% of all shares of that company. The largest shareholder of SBS Transit is ComfortDelgro which owns 75.11% of the company, while the four next largest shareholders of SBS Transit are BNP Paribas Securities Singapore, DBS Nominees Private Limited, United Overseas Bank Nominees Private Limited and Citibank Nominees Singapore Private Limited.

The public unhappiness over the Bus Services Enhancement Fund since Minister Tharman’s Speech has been very apparent. Part of the reason for this, I hazard, is because this Government has traditionally been quick to urge Singaporeans to choose the path of self-sufficiency, reminding ordinary Singaporeans that there are no free lunches and no one owes us a living. It would be useful for this House to remember that both SBS Transit and SMRT pay their top management market-rate salaries, pay their shareholders regular dividends, while operating in near-monopolistic conditions. By any stretch of the imagination, these are not broken-back companies.

In particular, the SBS Transit 2010 Annual Report also stated the company’s intention to purchase new buses in addition to funding additional capital expenditure. For that purpose, it launched a note programme in May 2010, issuing a $100 million fixed rate note, which is due in 2015. So not only is the company not a broken-back entity, it clearly knows how to raise money too. And in FY 2010, SBS Transit paid it shareholders dividends amounting to $27 million, while SMRT paid out $102 million to its shareholders. SMRT, as I mentioned earlier, 75% of its operations comes from rail operations so that dividend figure probably needs to be put in perspective.

Unsurprisingly, discerning and sensible Singaporeans have been quick to eschew the Government’s $1.1 billion windfall for SBS Transit and SMRT Corporation. While I appreciate the Government’s intentions to put buses on the road quickly, I would urge it to claw back the $1.1 billion of taxpayer money expended on these bus operators over a fixed period of time, but after consultation with SBS Transit and SMRT. There ought to be nothing unusual about clawing back taxpayer money as the Government already extends many direct and indirect financial subsidies to both these profit-generating private operators.

For example, they are exempted from bidding for Certificates of Entitlement, and they are also exempted from the Additional Registration Fee, the main vehicle tax and the duty on diesel. In addition, both these operators are allowed to keep their buses on the road for 20 years, twice as long as almost all other vehicles. They are also charged a nominal rent for space their interchanges take up, while reaping the profits their advertising revenue generates.

Mr Speaker, Sir, I am reminded of a resident who runs a SME, who spoke to me at one of the Aljunied Constituency Committee’s Lunar New Year Dinner celebrations earlier this month. He implored me to petition the Government in Parliament to reduce or subsidise the COE of goods vehicles for SMEs. As Members would know, the COE for goods vehicles and buses are classified under Caegoryt C COEs. While our two profit earning operators do not pay a cent for their COEs, this small time businessmen will pay in excess of $50,000 for his COE based on today’s market rate. While this is not an apple for apple comparison, I would say. It does say something about the perception the man on the street has about this Government’s apparent lack of desire to communicate why our bus operators are being extended this $1.1 billion gift. I understand the Transport Ministry will address this issue in the upcoming COS debates and I certainly hope it fully addresses the genuine misgivings many Singaporeans have over the Bus Services Enhancement Fund.

Mr Speaker, Sir, I have a second query about the figure of $1.1 billion for the Bus Services Enhancement Fund. I had to learn from the media that the figure includes the total operating cost for the vehicles for 10 years, and it also includes the salaries of bus drivers. According to the 2010 SBS Transit financial report again, in that Financial Year, SBS Transit placed an order for 600 buses, more than what the Government has committed to, comprising 300 award-winning Euro-5 compliant Mercedes Benz low-floor single deck buses and another 300 Volvo double-deckers, all for the price of $268 million. Taking into account inflation over the two last years, I hope this Government gives the public a detailed breakdown of the operating costs and the salary component that was set aside for the Bus Services Enhancement Fund, in addition to all other components that may not have been publicly revealed so far. Too much of this dispensation of taxpayer dollar to these two profit generating quasi-monopolies is currently unknown to the public beyond the big figure, and some transparency would be very helpful.

Mr Speaker, Sir, a third concern I note that dominated the online media in particular, concerns the unspoken of implications of 800 additional buses on the road. The routine questions are – is the Government planning for another spike in immigrant arrivals, if so how many are being planned for? And what sort of planning parameters is the Government working with? Is this $1.1 billion a harbinger of things to come, in terms of an even larger population size? It would be apposite for the Government to answer these queries because there is already a sense of an over-crowded Singapore where public space is at a premium.

Other questions also dominate the public realm about this $1.1 billion. What will this cash injection do for bus fares going forward? Are both operators going to use the profits generated and invest them overseas? Should Singaporeans anticipate similar ostensibly one-time gifts to other publicly-listed entities or companies of national consequence such as companies in which Temasek Holdings or GIC own a stake? And can the taxpayers now demand greater transparency from all companies like SMRT and SBS Transit which receive taxpayer injections? Beyond just educating the public on how their taxpayer dollar is spent, I believe such accountability would generate greater trust between citizens and the Government.

Mr Speaker, Sir, $1.1 billion is a whopping sum by any stretch of the imagination. This Government should clearly set out how the figure was arrived at and what this policy move of extending cash injections to publicly-listed entities that perform a public function implies for policy-making going forward. Mr Speaker, I support the motion.

Written by singapore 2025

29/02/2012 at 9:24 am

Posted in Parliament

Parliament: Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill – 14 February 2012

hank you, Mr Speaker. Firstly, I would like to thank the Ministry for re-considering the original amendments in light of public feedback and the legal fraternity’s reservations to some of the proposed changes to the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill.

It is noteworthy that the Ministry has decided to delete the proposed amendment to section 35 after public feedback, in light of one of the central pillars of arbitration – party autonomy; in recognition of the fact that clients should be free to choose whoever they believe is best suited to represent them in arbitration proceedings. I understand many in the arbitral community welcome this view, and the Law Ministry should be commended for doing away with this proposed amendment.

Mr Speaker, it leaves me to pass some views on the ad hoc admission of Queen’s Counsel. According to the MinLaw public consultation paper on the amendments, the original manifestation of this amendment called for a proposed licensing scheme that would give rights of audience in the local courts to a small number of ‘independent counsel’. This purpose of this licensing scheme according to the consultation paper was to address the shortage of Senior Counsel in commercial and financial disputes. However, after feedback MinLaw noted that preference was for Queen’s Counsel to be admitted on an ad-hoc basis, rather than through the Licensing Scheme.

But while the current amendments ostensibly seek to make it easier to admit QCs for commercial disputes, it also statutorily raises the threshold for the admittance of Queen’s Counsel from criminal cases to other areas of domestic law such as family, constitutional and administrative law. What this suggests is that the freedom of Singaporeans to choose the appropriate counsel for legal is going to be statutorily curtailed as clause 4 amends section 15(2) to say “any area of law prescribed for the purpose of this section” rather than just criminal matters as it currently stands. Effectively, the amendments set out two standards, both of which are clearly not spelt out in the bill, but are understood to be those stated in the consultation papers.

There was some opposition to the amendment to section15 from the public, I understand, and the Ministry replied noting that the Court still had the discretion to decide whether to admit Queen’s Counsel on a case-by-case basis, effectively stating that such Counsel can still be admitted in cases involving domestic areas and that the factors taken into consideration in such an application would be a matter for the court to decide. This position from the Ministry then begs the question why there is a need to amend section 15, especially since any application to admit a Queen’s Counsel remains a matter for the court to decide?

Mr Speaker, Sir, perhaps the desire of the Ministry to open the door to QCs in commercial matters is an opportune time to consider whether the courts should be left to decide whether the admittance of QCs would be necessary or not. It is noteworthy that public confidence in our judicial system is not low. Insofar as the proposed amendment to section15 is concerned, the changes effectively operate to narrow the scope of the judiciary’s flexibility to allow the admittance of QC and statutorily sets an even higher threshold for family, administrative and constitutional matters amongst others. A more propitious course of action would be to allow the judiciary to assess each case, regardless what the area law – commercial or otherwise – on its own merits, and to assess whether the questions of law or fact, necessitate the admittance of a QC.

Mr Speaker Sir, over the years, albeit in a handful of significant cases, some local lawyers have found it difficult to engage senior local lawyers to act in cases where there were political overtones. Like the admission of Queen’s Counsel for complex commercial and financial disputes – which is what this Bill ostensibly seeks to address – in the same vein, there is a concern that the door to entry for QCs should not be restricted for politically-charged cases either because senior local lawyers are reluctant to accept such briefs, or that only very few are willing to do so.

Sir, there are, of course, many pros and cons to keeping the door ajar for a Queen’s Counsel. A natural response would be that opening the door to them could take away work for local lawyers. This concern should not be taken lightly. But to mitigate this, any individual or corporate who seeks redress in a local court should expect to make clear to the bench why he or she needs a foreign lawyer, regardless if the case involves commercial law or local law – my view, Sir, is that it is simply a case of one standard for all, with the courts, not parliament determining that standard and applying it equally across all legal practice areas.

This would result in greater consistency insofar as the development of Singapore law as a whole, rather than the current proposed amendment which could portend a bifurcation in the development of Singapore law in the years to come – a highly up-date common law on commercial matters to the benefit of businesses, but a regime that could be behind the curve on local jurisprudential matters to detriment of Singaporeans, as the brightest international legal brains have many more hoops to negotiate before being allowed to take on a domestic matter. To a lesser extent, the diminished prospects of local lawyers being invited to advise clients in foreign jurisdictions on non-commercial matters or penning cutting edge academic commentary on local law could also be apparent over time when compared against their commercial colleagues.

Mr Speaker Sir, in light of the fundamental changes to the local legal landscape over the past few years, especially with the entry of foreign lawyers and law firms, some local lawyers fear that the government has gone too far in its drive to liberalise the legal sector, and that the qualified entry of QCs for commercial matters is but evidence of this – an about-turn in view of the judicial impetus to develop Singapore law from the 1990s and the appointment of local Senior Counsels to practically remove necessity of QCs.

To some Singaporeans, there is a concern that opening the door for QCs in commercial matters is myopically driven by economic interests alone as the international corporates may seek to extract quid pro quo from the government- i.e. if you want us to come and invest, we want to bring our own lawyers. Mr Speaker, this emotive can be quite strong in small and medium sized firms. Opening the door to QCs especially in areas of law that are financially lucrative, is perceived by some to further prejudice the prospects of small and medium sized firms who cannot compete.

To conclude, like the response of the Ministry in cancelling its proposed amendment to section 35 on arbitration issues, perhaps the Minister could review the proposal to admit Queens Counsel, in a holistic manner rather than solely from the perspective of a shortage of Senior Counsel to advice on commercial and financial matters. I am of the view that the judiciary and not Parliament is best placed to decide if any case heard locally warrants the admittance of a QC, regardless what the area of law. Parliament need not over legislate, but allow the judiciary space to shape the contours of Singapore’s legal development in an independent way, keeping in mind the interests of local and foreign lawyers, and of course the local Bar. With that, Mr Speaker, thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

14/02/2012 at 9:27 am

Posted in Parliament

Thank you Dr Toh Chin Chye. RIP.

The older generation of Singaporeans tend to lament than the younger generation does not appreciate the toils and sacrifices of the country’s founding fathers. But perhaps it is because the national narrative portrays our leaders too clinically, simply as founding fathers.

Dr Toh was also a man of principle – the sort or principle that could withstand even a tsunami. These values are perhaps those that the younger generation should reach out and aspire to. Dr Toh’s opposition to the PAP’s graduate mother’s scheme resulted in him defying the party whip and he abstained from voting on the issue. He also strongly opposed the use of CPF for Medisave as he believed that healthcare was a government responsibility. And there are yet other parliamentary speeches worth a read. It makes you wonder, albeit with 20/20 hindsight, whether the current questions some of our leaders ask; Are we a city or a country? Or the discomfort and national identity crisis we now sense and feel with large numbers of immigrants, could have been tempered somewhat if there was a little more soul, and critically, principle injected into the so-called politics of “pragmatism”.

RIP Dr Toh. Many of my generation never knew you. But we can sense your principles, for they will live on.


Excerpt of an interview with Dr Toh Chin Chye, published in ‘Leaders of Singapore’ by Melanie Chew, 1996. First seen on a facebook note shared by Martyn See on 4 Feb 2012.

August 9, 1965

Dr Toh Chin Chye: I remember that morning very clearly. In the morning, I wrote a letter to Tengku. He promptly replied in the afternoon.

I stayed behind (in Kuala Lumpur) and Lee came back to announce to the public in Singapore that Singapore had become independent. I stayed behind to clear up the mess. The Malaysian Parliament was meeting the next day. Lee Kuan Yew told me to go to the Parliament. Can you imagine the uproar? I had no chance to face the members of the Malaysian Solidarity Convention to break the news. Their support for Singapore came to nothing.

When Lee Kuan Yew got back to Singapore, he invited the members of the Convention to attend his press conference. He was crying. I don’t understand him at all. On one hand, he worked so hard for merger. Having gotten the cupful, he shattered it. And then cried over it.

He held two successive press conferences, and in which both he cried. On the third morning I went to work, and saw the press boys again. I asked Lee Wei Ching, his press secretary, “Why are they hanging around here?” Another press conference! I told Lee Wei Ching, “You ought to tell the Prime Minister to go to Changi and take a rest. Call the press conference off! Another crying bout, and the people of Singapore will think the government is on its knees. So he went to Changi, staying at the government bungalow for six weeks.

One smart reporter noted this by going through Hansard. There was a big time gap in Hansard between our last parliamentary meeting and the next meeting. More than five months. One would have thought with such a big event, Parliament should be immediately summoned and the announcement made to Parliament. The opposition came at me. Why is there no Parliament sitting? So I had to hold the fort.

I was not appointed to act for him while he was away. When he went off to Changi, Parliament did not meet. So Singapore had a Parliament in suspended animation. Keng Swee and Lim Kim San saw me and asked me what was the constitutional position. Has he recovered? What if he does not recover? So what happens? I said I thought he was getting better, although I could not see him and telephone calls were not put through.

Q: So after the separation, you did not have Parliamentary meetings until December?

Parliament last met on June 16th, 1965 when Singapore was still in Malaysia, and recommenced only on December 8th, 1965 after we had left Malaysia.

Q: But the appearance of government was normal. The government was still carrying on. It seemed like business as usual.

Your point is taken. In a crisis there will be public spirited figures who will rise to the occasion, for better or worse.

Only the constitutional position was unclear, because according to the constitution it was the Yang di Pertuan Negara who appoints the Prime Minister, who in turn appoints the Cabinet. The constitutional position was not clear about an absent or an incapacitated Prime Minister, and Goh Keng Swee and Lim Kim San were both anxious.

Q: Mr Lee at that time was in a very emotional state?

Yes, he was. I knew he was. And was very worried for him. That is why I told Lee Wei Ching to call the press conference off.

Q: Was he in a very emotional state because he felt he had made a blunder?

You have to interview him on that. I cannot answer for him.

Q: Could his provocative speeches have been part of a deliberate strategy?

I do not know why he did that. But he was influenced by Alex Josey, who came from the Middle East where he had been a reporter. Josey fed him ideas about the Muslims. The “Mad Mullahs.” The “Ultras.” Lee used the term, “Mad Mullahs.” This was Alex Josey’s phrase. Alex Josey was his close friend, golfing friend and biographer.

Alex used to play golf with me. He was an operator. He used to pick me up as early as five a.m., because I had no one to play golf with at that time. He was an operator, feeding me stories of his experiences with the Arabs. I had suspicions about him. Now he’s dead.

Q: Lee Kuan Yew asked the Tengku to write to you to explain that it was Tengku’s decision to separate.

Yes, I think that was the purpose. To tell me that it was a decision made by the Tengku.

Q: Was it because he was afraid?

So the blame would be on the Tengku’s shoulder. Not on our shoulders. The Tengku was far sighted. However desirable it was to continue as one country, we could not do so. He wrote, “We cannot avoid a bloodshed if we remain.”

Tengku had been in charge of multi racial Malaya since 1957. He knew, better than any of us, what was possible and impossible. The 1969 riots in Kuala Lumpur proved him right.”

Written by singapore 2025

05/02/2012 at 4:13 am

Posted in Public Service

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