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Archive for March 2014

Parliament: Protection from Harrassment Bill (Pritam Singh) – 13 March 2014

Mdm Speaker, in the middle of 2013, the Government introduced a new licensing regime that sought to align online media platforms with the regime that governed mainstream media licensing. In the second half of 2013, there was a concern that the Government was going to draw up laws to address online accountability, a prospect which was met with alarm by many Singaporeans. There was a very real concern that legitimate criticism and fair comment, even if made anonymously, and the websites which hosted such content, were the real target of new laws that were being considered by the Government.

I am wary of any attempts, either legislative or non-legislative, to tinker with online commentary for the principal reason that it remains one of the most important nation-building platforms for a free ranging debate by members of the public without censorship, be it anonymously or otherwise. This is especially in view of the significant power of the mainstream media in determining the contours and the content of public discourse, and the out-of-bound markers it has to operate within.

In the main, the Bill deals with harassment per se and seeks to harmonise our laws pertaining to harassment into an omnibus regime by re-enacting sections 13A(2) to 13B of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, and introducing a new law against unlawful stalking, amongst others.

After this Bill was tabled on 3 March 2014 and scrutinised, I am considerably less disturbed by the prospect of the Bill serving as an impediment to legitimate criticism and as a backdoor mechanism to curtail freedom of expression online for three reasons.

Firstly, section 15 of the Bill on false statement of facts which is of immediate interest to netizens, serves to remind Singaporeans that, whether anonymously or otherwise, a basic level of responsibility must be exercised when comments about any person, either online or offline, are made. This is a legitimate expectation of the law.

Secondly, the courts are granted with the powers to assess whether it is just and equitable for any party to make offending harassing statements of fact on a balance of probabilities. In tandem, the powers of the court are drafted to order the cessation or correct the publication of such false statements of fact.

Finally, the Bill does not operate to prohibit anonymous postings, even if the individuals behind the posts are subject to the Act, and rightfully so.

One of the more common questions about the Bill is how harassment is defined. While the new illustrations in the Bill from the re-enacted sections under the MOA are helpful in giving examples of what constitutes harassment, the Bill has taken a broad approach and continues in the direction of the MOA, with the precise contours of harassment left to the courts to determine.

In view of rapidly changing technologies and the possible subjectivity of what constitutes harassment, this is a reasonable position, as it allows a court to assess not just what could be defined as harassment but the effect of such conduct as well. This is important as exemplified in the case of Chee Siok Chin and others vs Minister for Home Affairs, where Justice Rajah, as he was then, held:

“Caution, of course, has to be exercised in the employment of subsection 13A and 13B of the Miscellaneous Offences Act. They will often involve issues of acute factual inquiry coupled with the delicate calibration of conduct. Imprecise lines will have to be drawn between boisterous and abusive conduct; between freedom of expression and insulting or abusive conduct; between freedom of assembly and harassment. It cannot be gainsaid that there can be a point where legitimate conduct may cross the Rubicon and become harassment. This will always be a matter of degree and the actual concatenation of circumstances.”

It is evident that the application of sections 3 and 4 of the Bill that cover intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress; and harassment, alarm and distress respectively, may not be so straightforward to apply in practice, notwithstanding egregious conduct. For this reason, I hope prudence is the guiding principle of the authorities in the exercise of its powers under this Bill and I welcome the Minister’s remarks that the strong arm of the law will be employed only in egregious cases.

On definitions, I seek some clarification whether “persons”, as used in the Bill, is to be broadly read to include corporate entities as under section 2 of the Interpretation Act or whether our courts will be left to determine this point. I ask this as there is case law from the UK, which in applying the UK Protection from Harassment Act, ruling that on a proper construction of the term “person”, the Act does not embrace a corporate entity.

I wanted to ask the Minister what were the thought processes of the Ministry that led to a change in the maximum sentences under the MOA covering the new sections 3, 4, 5 and 6, but I note from the Minister that this was partly in response to the feedback from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Conference on Harassment and public opinion on this point.

But I do note that with regard to the relevant provisions under the MOA and the sentences of the sections under this Bill, section 41 of the Criminal Procedure Code already provides additional legislative muscle to address violators of sections 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the Bill through the execution of a bond proportionate to an accused person’s means, with or without sureties, for a period not exceeding two years.

Mdm Speaker, the illustrations to a number of sections in the Bill cover the acts of school children with section 4 and 7 featuring prominently. It is evident that the Bill was drafted to also address the issue of bullying in schools. Research by the Singapore Children’s Society in 2006 and 2007 on school students revealed that bullying is not infrequent, with about one in four secondary school students and one in five primary school pupils having been bullied by their peers.

In a previous parliamentary reply to the hon Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Laurence Lien, the Senior Minister of State for Education replied that schools educate students on bullying through the formal curriculum as well as school-based programmes, and students are also taught skills to handle challenging situations. The new Character and Citizenship Education curriculum also teaches students to report cases, seek help and to care for others. Anti-bullying awareness programmes, organised in many schools, empower students to help themselves and support their peers who are bullied.

While I applaud these efforts, I would like to ask the Minister if these initiatives are applied with equal vigour across all schools. I ask this question not to knock these initiatives but to state my opinion that bullying in both the real and online world, is best addressed through sustained and aggressive educational efforts both at home and in schools. It is my view that hard law will not succeed in altering norms and behaviour among school-children as compared to sustained education efforts in schools where each student knows how to respond to cases of bullying and harassment instead of being overcome with feelings of guilt and suffering in silence. In the converse, education should also allow students to instinctively identify when his/her conduct is unbecoming and causing distress to someone else.

While I acknowledge the work done by MOE and other groups in this regard, in the main, I do hope we can address the issue of bullying in schools outside the legal domain, with this Bill employed as a last resort on students who are at a stage in their life where mistakes are made and poor judgment is exercised, a reflection of youthful folly.

Section 7 of the Bill covering unlawful stalking is probably the most challenging area as it breaks new legislative ground and is potentially open to much interpretation when applied. Section 7(3), which lists examples of acts or omissions associated with stalking are generally identical to section 111 of the UK Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which explicitly added new sections on stalking to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

The potentially problematic nature of a stalking law has been seen in the application of the UK Protection from Harassment Act, which created an offence of “pursuing a “course of conduct” which amounts to harassment of another. For example, a UK newspaper reported that in 2001, the UK Protection from Harassment Act was employed to prosecute protestors outside a US base who were deemed to have distressed American servicemen by holding up a placard that said “George W Bush? Oh dear!”

In 2004, police in Kent arrested a woman under the Act for sending two emails to an executive at a drugs company begging him not to test his products on animals, and in 2007, the residents of a village in Oxfordshire were injuncted from protesting against a power company’s plan to fill their lake with ash, in case they caused alarm or distress to the company’s big-sized security guards. In fact, anti-stalking laws may conceivably be used against political activists, market researchers and religious organisations, especially if individuals or organisations are not fully appraised of the meaning of “course of conduct”, as established by section 7(10) of the Bill.

Mdm Speaker, while these examples are extreme and perhaps fleeting, it is not too far-fetched to imagine section 7 of the Bill being used for purposes that stretch Parliament’s intent, far beyond the illustrations provided in section 7 of the Bill, which have to do with an individual repeatedly sending emails, flowers and circulating revealing photographs, notwithstanding the Minister’s point that the illustrations are only some examples of the wide application of the Bill.

While this issue does not offer straightforward solutions, the point remains that the law against unlawful stalking may also find itself to be a victim of unintended consequences. I would like to seek the Minister’s assurance that this Bill will not be used for such purposes.

In fact, it is not too difficult to envisage a wide range of situations in the local context. I remember visiting a wake at my ward in late 2011 over a period of time when there was a spike in the number of deaths at the Bedok Reservoir, with the media wondering why this was so. In my case, the family of the deceased was rather distressed that some journalists were keeping a watching brief of the number of people who came and left the wake before approaching them for a sound bite. By “watching brief”, I also mean hiding behind pillars and taking active steps to avoid detection. This information inevitably made its way back to the distressed family, and as the law is drafted, would the Minister comment on the possible employment of section 7 against journalists and investigative reporters?

Section 7 of the Bill makes the offence of unlawful stalking subject to reasonableness. However, this is likely to be a challenging moral and ethical exercise made even more challenging by a lower standard of proof in civil matters. I am concerned that the Bill may be subject to abuse, especially by individuals who seek to use the law as a weapon, as seen by the UK examples and, on the other extreme, for illegitimate reasons, like avoiding or strategically delaying public scrutiny which some journalists or bloggers may seek to pursue.

Finally, while I do believe the law is a positive step forward in terms of putting a symbolic focus on harassment and society’s abhorrence of such behaviour, I do query what the effect of the law is on alternative dispute resolution means, such as community mediation, especially in the case of neighbour disputes, and separately, the number of prosecutions and civil cases with the passage of this Bill.

I do understand from the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth during the Committee of Supply this week and comments published in the mainstream media on the 9th of March that a new tribunal may be set up in the second half of the year with powers to issue orders to disputing neighbours, an added recourse for aggrieved individuals from the current community dispute resolution system which is wholly voluntary.

Nonetheless, I hope this Bill will encourage businesses and schools to draw up dedicated anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies and procedures so that employers, employees and students are clear on the general boundaries of personal conduct, both online and offline, rather than resort to the law at the get-go.

Schools in particular can take some reference from Oxford University’s Policy and Procedure on Harassment and Bullying, while the Tripartite Alliance on Fair Employment Practices could look at advising employers on the importance of such policies. Employers in particular should be minded to draw up these policies in view of the diversity of Singapore population and our privileged position as a meeting point between East and West and the different cultural values that intersect at the workplace, where a hug or a pat on the shoulder may be misinterpreted by some employees, intentionally or otherwise, as sexual harassment.

Finally, I welcome the clarification of this Bill on the law covering harassment in Singapore in view of the case in AXA Insurance. Mdm Speaker, my concerns about the potentially wide-ranging application of section 7 notwithstanding, I support the Bill.

Written by singapore 2025

13/03/2014 at 8:27 am

Posted in Parliament

Parliament: Committee of Supply 2014 – Transport Issues

Rapid Transit System between Johor and Singapore

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Madam, I would like to ask the Ministry for an update of the feasibility study into the Rapid Transit System connecting the upcoming Thomson Line with Johor Bahru, and to explain Malaysia’s contribution to the study, reported by the mainstream media in Singapore as one of the most expensive commissioned LTA studies, with Singapore quoted to be footing two-thirds of the cost. I would like to enquire how this co-funding was determined and when the findings of this study are likely to be released.

Mr Lui Tuck Yew (Minister for Transport): Before I conclude, let me quickly update Mr Pritam Singh and other interested Members of this House on the Rapid Transit System (RTS) link to Johor Bahru. The preliminary engineering study with Malaysia has been completed. We are working with Malaysia to finalise the alignment and the station location in Johor, and then to commence the second part of the study which will focus on the detailed design of the system. The second part of the study, like that of the first phase, will be equally co-funded by both sides.

Illegal Parking near Places of Worship

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Madam, in 2013 circular to professional institutes on the review of parking requirements for places of worship, LTA noted that the worshipping patterns have changed over time with greater congregation sizes and the concurrent use of ancillary prayer halls. This resulted in a shortage of parking facilities and greater reliance on short-term parking along roads causing inconvenience to the surrounding community.

The regulations of better meeting the parking needs for new places of worship have taken effect, however, managing the parking woes at existing places of worship continue to challenging. I am concerned that our racial and religious bonds in the society get strained when commuters have to deal with congestion around places of worship. I get particularly concerned when news remarks are made about the problem concerning one faith every Friday and other faiths with have their day of worship or celebration on the weekends and, yet, other uncalled for remarks about clan or cultural association dinners.

I would like to ask the Ministry if it would consider launching a tolerance campaign with a view to encourage greater understanding between both road users and worshippers, with each party recognising that it has a duty to the other. Worshippers should be mindful of the neighbouring community and take extra efforts to avoid causing an obstruction in deploying marshals as is done in some places of worships. Road users should be encouraged to exercise some patience around places of worship knowing that worshippers do not seek inconvenience the larger community.

I believe targeted public campaign of this nature would also have the unintended positive effect of generating greater harmony and supporting efforts at building greater understanding between the races.

Mrs Josephine Teo (Senior Minister of State for Transport): I will now address Mr Lim Biow Chuan’s and Mr Pritam Singh’s questions on parking…..

For places of worship, LTA exercises flexibility when enforcing illegal parking during praying hours or special events, as long as the vehicles do not cause obstruction or pose safety concerns. This is the approach regardless of religion. Most of the religious organisations proactively do their part to manage the traffic and advise their worshippers not to park indiscriminately. Nevertheless, when there are complaints about indiscriminate parking that endangers other road users, LTA will take strict enforcement action.

Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS) [budget speech proposal]

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Finally, the Minister spoke of extending the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS) until June 2015 with a view to continuing the scheme thereafter. The Minister stated that more than 50% of new cars received CEVS rebates, an improvement over 2012 when only 40% of new cars were in the rebate bands.

However, in assessing the efficacy of the CEVS scheme against the environmental sustainability and climate change, it is worthwhile to consider that the neutral zone where no rebates are attracted and surcharges levied lies between 161 and 211 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre. Even in 2011, about 60% of cars sold in Singapore already fell in this zone, so it is debatable how far the CEVS scheme as it stands, is going to encourage a larger green footprint in Singapore.

While the CEVS scheme is positive policy, there is scope for the Government to review the carbon emissions standards so as to alter behaviour in favour of greener policies through a scheme of clearer and sharper incentives and disincentives. As the reality of climate change becomes ever more apparent, there is considerable scope for Singapore to increase its soft power by establishing itself as a leader in embracing green technologies in view of our small size. Mdm Speaker, I support the Budget.

Mrs Josephine Teo (Senior Minister of State for Transport)On suggestions to do more to mitigate carbon emissions, we have done so with the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS). Since the implementation of the surcharge in July 2013, the percentage of high-emissions models registered has halved to less than 7%, compared to the first half of 2013. In the second half of 2013, 59% of the models were in the rebate bands, compared to about 40% in 2012 had the scheme been in place then.

The CEVS has been extended to June 2015. This was announced during the Budget. We will consider Mr Pritam Singh’s earlier suggestion during the debate to sharpen the incentive and disincentive structure when the scheme is up for review.


Written by singapore 2025

11/03/2014 at 6:24 am

Parliament: Budget 2014 (Pritam Singh) – 3 March 2014

In the Workers’ Party 2011 National Day message titled “Honouring our First Generation”, the Party made a special tribute to our Pioneer Generation, the first generation of Singaporeans who built Singapore during the early decades of Independence which was a message in gratitude to our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, elderly cleaners, the retired civil servants, teachers and the first National Servicemen.

This special group embodied the Singapore spirit, the determination to work hard and to overcome odds to crave up a better life for all Singaporeans today. Indeed, they are a shining example for generations of Singaporeans to come.

In 1960, my father boarded the SS Rajula in India, a British-India steam navigation company passenger and cargo steamliner of Singapore, to join my grandfather who worked in the old Outram prison. Coincidentally, the SS Rajula was the same ship that various troops from India to Singapore before the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941.

This migrant story is not an uncommon one amongst many Singaporeans, particularly Indians who came to Singapore and Malaysia after World War II. Although my grandfather and many pioneers have already passed away, the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP) is a welcomed recognition to the efforts and struggles of these peers who are still alive today and who embodied the Singapore spirit — the determination to work hard, to overcome the odds and to carve out a better life for their children.

The emphasis of the package in the area of healthcare will give our pioneers some peace of mind even as the Government should be remain mindful of pioneers who may not be able to afford co-payments because of their chronic conditions and the high cost of medication.

I will speak on three issues that were covered in the Budget – transforming the economy through changing our social norms, the CPF rate increase and the Carbon Emissions-Based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS) scheme.

While Budget 2014 is likely to be remembered for the recognition given to our Pioneer Generation, the point the Finance Minister made about changing our social norms, in the long term, may well prove to be as emphatic, if not more empathic than the appreciation generated by the PGP.

The Finance Minister spoke about changing our social norms in three broad areas. At the workplace, there was a call for a workplace culture where employees are appreciated and valued so as to engender an empowered workforce with real knock-on benefits on productivity. This was closely associated with a call for Singaporeans to aim not just for competence but excellence. Equally important, there was a call on employers to understand that doing the job well was the goal, not the long hours on the job. Finally, the Finance Minister urged all of us as consumers to change our habits, become at ease with self-service facilities, and treat service staff with respect.

The cultural changes required to transform our economy would have to be deep and sustained with resources devoted to educative efforts, and in the appropriate case, a regime of incentives and disincentives to modify behaviour. We have heard of such forays before.

Two years ago, the NEA took the step of moving in this direction by kick-starting a process of getting individuals to return their trays at selected hawker centres with a view to alter individual behaviour. This initiative has been rolled out to 34 out of 107 more hawker centres in 2013. The results are likely to be progressive, with ups and down and but with the desire that ultimately, only a minority of individuals will be more resistant to change than others. But eventually, change will be optical in that we will be able to see the results of such initiatives and gauge how far we have come.

However, it is harder to gauge the effectiveness of measures such as a more empowered workforce where the views and contributions of employees are appreciated and valued. Our companies should be made to see the real benefit of such initiatives, supported by Government incentives to promote such cultural change. This may well include leadership training packages and incentives for employers and businesses to send their middle managers and decision-makers for skills upgrading and promoting, recognising and rewarding efforts to pursue such change.

Beyond how we are going to measure how our companies effect such change, a rigorous and sustained public education effort should be launched both for employers and employees. This cannot just be another campaign – it will have to be more fundamental and whole of Government – getting people to be more conscious not just about productivity, but to create a belief in their ability and power to effect positive change. This will mean putting more information in their hands, encouraging a spirit of inquiry in our people, and even relooking how we educate our children.

I would like to move on to the CPF rate increase. The raising of the CPF Medisave rate by 1% for all workers in this Budget was a positive announcement. However, it is difficult to appreciate this increase holistically until the impact of MediShield Life premiums is announced, even as the promise of a more flexible use of Medisave for outpatient treatment is welcomed.

It is nevertheless noteworthy that the new total CPF contribution rate of 35% for workers between the ages of 50-55, and 25% for workers aged between 55-60 have surpassed those proposed by the 2003 Economic Review (ERC) Sub-Committee on Policies related to Taxation, the CPF system, Wages and Land.

Nonetheless, I am concerned about the employment prospects of older workers in light of media reports that these higher CPF contributions would put a tighter squeeze on profits, and because of the fact that it is our SMEs that proportionally hire more older workers.

In fact, the 2003 ERC Subcommittee’s report referred to earlier justified reducing the CPF rate for older workers precisely to make them more employable. In 2003, then Minister Lim Boon Heng, on the back of the decision to slash the CPF contribution rate from 36% to 30% stated that having watched retrenchments carefully over the preceding 22 years, the invariable conclusion was that older workers are more vulnerable to retrenchments, and take longer to find a new job.

I hope employers do not resort to selectively shedding older workers because of the 2% CPF rate rise they will have to bear for workers aged between 50-55, and 1.5% for those between 55-65. The overwhelming majority of Singaporeans in this age bracket do not qualify for the PGP and would need to build up their Medisave and retirement balances in light of the higher MediShield Life premiums. I hope employers do consider this larger societal concern, even as they battle on to develop new productivity initiatives, and manage with fewer foreign workers, in addition to the ever-present business challenges of high overheads.

In light of feedback by some employers, it would be important for the Government to nonetheless monitor the reaction on the ground with regard to the employability of older workers in view of the CPF rate rise, so that our most vulnerable workers are not priced out of the workforce.

Finally, the Minister spoke of extending the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS) until June 2015 with a view to continuing the scheme thereafter. The Minister stated that more than 50% of new cars received CEVS rebates, an improvement over 2012 when only 40% of new cars were in the rebate bands.

However, in assessing the efficacy of the CEVS scheme against the environmental sustainability and climate change, it is worthwhile to consider that the neutral zone where no rebates are attracted and surcharges levied lies between 161 and 211 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre. Even in 2011, about 60% of cars sold in Singapore already fell in this zone, so it is debatable how far the CEVS scheme as it stands, is going to encourage a larger green footprint in Singapore.

While the CEVS scheme is positive policy, there is scope for the Government to review the carbon emissions standards so as to alter behaviour in favour of greener policies through a scheme of clearer and sharper incentives and disincentives. As the reality of climate change becomes ever more apparent, there is considerable scope for Singapore to increase its soft power by establishing itself as a leader in embracing green technologies in view of our small size. Mdm Speaker, I support the Budget.

Written by singapore 2025

04/03/2014 at 8:38 am

Posted in Parliament

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