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Parliament: Budget Speech 2019 – Navigating towards a Strong and United Singapore

Introduction

Mr Speaker, this year’s budget caught the eye for its strategic purpose – to build a strong and united Singapore. Singaporeans from different walks of life would inevitably have different ideas on how best to achieve this with perspectives and views shaped by one’s values and sense of justice and equality. To that end, the Workers’ Party is no different. Apart from the strategic objective of budget, three statements resonated strongly for me, albeit each in a different context. These were – first, developing our people on a lifelong basis, second, taking care of not just this generation but our children and their children’s generation, and finally, that the changes ahead will be deeper and faster. My speech will use this overarching statements to cover areas where the Government should consider and reassess its approach to build the strong and united Singapore that all Singaporeans, not just the Government must navigate towards.

First, “developing our people on a lifelong basis.”

Mr Speaker, on this broad idea, I will share my thoughts about the Merdeka Generation Package. The ground feel is that even though it helps our senior citizens with their medical bills albeit less generously than the Pioneer Generation Package (PG), there are also quarters who conclude it is pungently timed with the election cycle, giving off the odour of an unfair advantage aimed at the electoral prospects of the PAP.

Another feedback I received about periodic benefits like the PG and the Merdeka Generation packages is the inherent inequity for some of our senior citizens who, by virtue of their year of birth, stand to miss out on a few years of medical benefits because of the interval between one-time packages. Similarly, senior citizens who missed out on the more substantial PG package when they were between the ages of 60 to 64 in 2014 also feel that the eligibility age of 60 for the Merdeka Package is inconsistent with the Pioneer Package.

To address such feedback, the Government should introduce a basic level of medical benefits through a universal and permanent senior citizen healthcare package from the age of 60. Quite rightly, the Merdeka Generation Package announcement has led some Singaporeans to enquire whether our budget can support such a package for our senior citizens. There is good reason to opine that it can.

Firstly, the introduction of Temasek into the NIRC framework from 2016 brings an additional $5b a year into the mix instantly and about $25b across a 5-year term starting from this term of government. Notwithstanding the greater spending needs of the Government going forward, the 35%-odd increase in the NIRC from 2016 goes some way to explain the healthy accumulated surpluses accrued to this term of government from the opening of parliament in 2016. Secondly, with the Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s announcement this year of new modalities of development funding through borrowing, does this development free up revenue to fund recurrent spending? If it does, it would appear that funding such a universal and permanent healthcare initiative for our seniors cannot be dismissed as dishonest, unreasonable or imprudent. Instead it can and should be viewed as the key pillar of a strong and united Singapore.

To begin with, the centre-piece of such a scheme should be aimed at alleviating the out-of-pocket expenses for primary healthcare, so as to address cost of living for all Singaporeans from the age of 60. Here, the additional subsidies for common illnesses and chronic conditions for outpatient care and meaningful discounts off subsidised bills at polyclinics and specialist outpatient clinics should be its central features.

The additional components of both the Pioneer and Merdeka generation packages such as top-ups to PAssion Silver Cards, Medisave top-ups and other specific enhancements such as the participation incentive to join CareShield Life or other unmet healthcare needs, can turn on the fiscal position of the Government. This would also provide a sufficient buffer to allow each government to look into addressing more unique healthcare needs of specific cohorts or categories of workers. They would include those that had taken up gig-economy jobs, or for example, to address the CPF shortages of workers who made sacrifices when the Government moved to cut the employer contribution of their CPF in 2003 to keep Singapore economically competitive.

In addition, it is axiomatic that immigration is a permanent feature of Singapore for the foreseeable future. A permanent and universal senior citizen medical package would also represent a critical symbol of integration between all Singaporeans who hold the red passport and it would follow that the eligibility age into such permanent schemes should be dispensed with. This is particularly so as about 20,000 new citizens are added to the pool of Singaporeans on a yearly basis.

Mr Speaker, when Minister speaks of “developing our people on a lifelong basis”, this House should not underestimate the peace of mind a permanent and universal medical package can give not just to senior citizens above the age of 60, but to all Singaporeans throughout their lives. Indeed, to be constantly reminded that a covenant exists between state and citizen vowing to assist all Singaporeans equally with their medical needs in their silver years augurs well for a confident and assured society without compromising the work ethic.

This is especially so as living in a developed country with one of the highest per capita GDP in the world comes with costs, particularly for the sandwiched middle-class. As all Singaporeans commit their best years and pay taxes like the GST to the state throughout their working lives, a permanent package that helps our seniors manage their cost of living issues in their golden years will inject a powerful message of unity into Singaporeans of all ages. My colleagues Dr Daniel Goh, Mr Faisal Manap and Mr Dennis Tan will speak more on the Merdeka package in the course of this debate.

Secondly, I seek to share my views on Minister’s exhortation that the Government seeks to “not only take care of this generation but our children and their children’s generation.”

Mr Speaker, there is little to quarrel with such a statement. It coheres with the values many Singaporeans hold dear, regardless of race or religion. But looking after the next generation puts the question of inter-generational equity on the table. During the course of his speech, Minister confirmed the Government’s intention to pursue a differentiated fiscal strategy – one for major infrastructure investment and another for recurrent social and security spending. But this strategy also implies that there is a limit to how much the current generation should pay for the benefit of our children and their children too.

To this end, when speaking of specific infrastructure investments envisaged, Minister only spoke of funding Changi Airport’s expansion through borrowing, while speaking more generally about how the Government funded our first MRT line through borrowing as well. In comparison, at last year’s budget, four separate infrastructure prongs were highlighted (page 40), and these include the expansion of our MRT lines, regional redevelopment including the Jurong Lake District, Punggol Digital District, and Woodlands North Coast, the rejuvenation of our HDB flats and associated infrastructure and finally, Changi Airport T5, the Tuas Megaport and the now postponed HSR.

I have a few clarifications in this regard – first, can the Minister clarify if borrowing from the market for infrastructure development is only limited to Changi’s expansion or does it extend to the other long-term infrastructure plans shared by Minister last year? Secondly, and as a consequence, how will the differentiated approach announced this year impact future budgeting and more specifically revenue available for recurrent spending?

Mr Speaker, leaving a sustainable Singapore for our future generations would mean planning infrastructure for climate change and rising sea levels, a subject Minister Heng spent some time on.

At the Committee of Supply debate in 2016, I filed a cut on rising water levels and shared with members a video of waves breaching the foreshore along a beach at the East Coast Park, flooding the back shore. The prospect of raising our roads, port areas amongst others, sounds like a massive undertaking both in effort and expense particularly when one doesn’t just imagine raising road levels, but thinks about building kilometres of dykes and so forth. Minister shared that while it was difficult to project such spending, some preliminary estimates had been carried out – could Minister provide a sense of these estimates, the financing approach and the infrastructure required for this purpose?

Continuing on the effects of climate change, how little is recycled and how much food waste is generated in Singapore, it is apparent that the conversation Singaporeans need to have on conservation has to be elevated. This objective should be an explicit goal of the Waste Masterplan. I look forward to the Masterplan and hope Singaporeans are sufficiently moved to action by it. In fact, like the Government’s successful water story, closing the waste cycle would be a significant chapter of the Singapore story and provide a blueprint for other cities to consider.

Minister also mentioned in his speech that greening is an important public policy given our dense urban environment. A few weeks ago, Channel News Asia ran a one-hour documentary on the effect of rising temperatures in Singapore with an emphasis on not just climate change in general, but the perils of greater urbanisation identifying the urban heat island effect, with the loss of open areas and secondary forests like Tengah likely to have an immediate impact on the liveability in future. Researchers posited that greening, it and of itself, contributes little to mitigate the urban heat island effect. How does the Government and the upcoming URA Masterplan accommodate the drawbacks of greater urbanisation particularly rising temperatures, and how does it gel with our desire to leave a liveable Singapore behind for our children and their children’s children? If the Government is not finished building Singapore, how will it ensure that this effort will not come at the expense of our green spaces? I hope the Government addresses this matter clearly and actively welcomes a future where we place far greater emphasis on environmental impact assessments and its attendant social issues with a view to leave a sustainable Singapore for future generations of Singaporeans.

Finally Mr Speaker, Minister shared that the “changes ahead will be faster and deeper”.

In this regard the Bicentennial offers a unique opportunity to reflect on the colonial experience, both the good and the bad, the choices made, and where we are headed as a people. As Singaporeans of the Pioneer Generation grew up through the 1950s and as the Merdeka generation grew up in the years after self-government, the colonial masters in the UK had earlier taken a leap of faith, ambitious and bold even if imperfect – implementing a universal healthcare system for about 50m people as the flag of the empire was lowered across the colonies. The 50-odd years since decolonisation saw newly independent societies and governments fashioning their countries to improve the lives of their peoples. Not all succeeded to the same degree – the vast majority had to contend with extreme poverty and problems on a far greater scale and with a much larger population than Singapore’s.

As we move past the Bicentennial bonus and into unchartered terrain, our challenges will be far more unique and complex than before. The availability of good jobs for Singaporeans first, will be at the heart of many conversations. Employers and SMEs, many of whom have delivered phenomenal economic success to Singapore in the past, will have to adjust and effect real change at the workplace for the benefit of Singaporeans. This would include redesigning jobs for older and more experienced Singaporeans, more part-time or half-day or work from home opportunities so as to better support our workers from mothers to senior citizens and gig-economy workers. On its part, the Government must be prepared to do more to support businesses that do so with tax relief or rebates so that the economic transformation many businesses are undertaking is directly dovetailed to jobs for Singaporeans. My colleague, Workers’ Party Chair Sylvia Lim will speak more on the employment landscape tomorrow.

The faster and deeper changes premonitioned by the Minister would no doubt include the irreversible advance of the smart nation, the rapid evolution of technology and its disruptive and dislocative effects on jobs. But what this prospect also means is that Singaporeans must commit themselves to participate in so in civic affairs if we are to be united and strong. Mr Speaker, Singaporeans have been referred to as champion grumblers. I disagree. Singaporeans criticise because we care about the country, and we care about the direction it is headed. But we also care about ourselves and our families and friends and do not want to be short-changed.

A strong and united Singapore will not be built with some Singaporeans being made to feel that they must conform or support the Government’s narrative with little room for alternative views. This is a sure way of heralding not just a divided and insecure population, but a divisive conversation about the choices we have to make collectively.

Increasingly, as we move into the future, the Government will not have all the answers. Since the days of decolonisation, numerous countries have introduced some form of legalisation that promotes greater transparency and accountability. If fact, out of the 110 or so countries in the world today which host some form of a freedom of information law, about 80 introduced such legislation only in the last thirty years or so. While such laws are no panacea or silver bullet they are but one piece of a larger citizen-centric ecosystem, which move the needle forward on civic participation. If change is indeed going to be faster and deeper, then Singaporeans must be ready to become active participants of this process with the Government facilitating conversations by sharing more information. For example, insofar as the budget is concerned enough well-meaning Singaporeans do not just want to take the Government at its word, but want to crunch the numbers themselves and better understand policy trade-offs – but they are not necessarily able to do so today.

Last year, an article in the Business Times put this quandary in stark perspective – it was appropriately titled, “Lack of data on Singapore’s reserves limits discussion on its use”. With about 20% of our budget financed by proceeds from our reserves, one can understand why this issue is a relevant one. Mr Speaker, there are many well-meaning Singaporeans who want to consider different roads for Singapore, without losing sight of the hard truth of being country without any natural resources and with our human resource of fellow Singaporeans as the only substantive competitive advantage. The bicentennial offers us an opportunity to imagine the richness and breath of conversations about the Singapore we are entering into in the years to come – a Singapore that is not just economically successful, but socially and culturally confident too with Singaporeans of all stripes proud to call it home.

Conclusion

In conclusion Mr Speaker, many of the values that we hold dear – the importance of family, prudence, hard work and discipline are all-weather values and must stand the test of time. These values must run through whatever future we envision for our children’s generation, wherever the winds of Global-Asia lead us and wherever we lead them. They must stand the test of time even if change comes thick and fast. They are at the foundation of the Singapore we all want.

But each generation must also be given the freedom to shape the future they seek and to feel that they are an integral part of the country. The budget should reflect and facilitate this. The need for a confident population as opposed to an insecure one will be the “X” factor that determines how united and strong the Singapore of tomorrow will be – A confident population being one with more choices to determine its destiny; a society that accepts that it is only as strong as its weakest links and its most vulnerable; and a people – both employers and employees – all rooted to the Singapore that will always be home for us as we transit into our golden years.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

26/02/2019 at 9:59 pm

Parliament: National Service – Training Safety, Operational Readiness and the Will to Fight (Adjournment Motion)

Mr Speaker, it has been a difficult few weeks for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). The death of Corporal First Class (CFC) (NS) Aloysius Pang and other servicemen before him has provoked one of the most wide-ranging public debates about National Service in recent memory. As suggested in the title to this adjournment motion, I will speak on three distinct but interlinked themes – training safety, operational readiness and the will to fight, before concluding on some areas that MINDEF should consider to improve the safety architecture in the SAF.

Training Safety

First, training safety. Members would know that the women and men in uniform in the SAF perform tasks that are inherently risky. They operate heavy machinery and weapons in difficult conditions. The work demands that they can function at the physical, psychological, and emotional limits of human endurance during both training and operations. The ability to perform under pressure during training can help bolster effectiveness during operations. Hence the time honoured military saying for soldiers in training, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war”. However, the risky nature of such work demands, particularly for a predominantly conscript army, that extra care and attention be devoted to safety and the management of risks during training.

Human lives are at stake when unnecessarily risky and unauthorised training is carried out in the SAF. Injury and death of personnel during training decrease the operational effectiveness of our military. To the extent that women and men in uniform and the public do not believe that the SAF manages such risk to acceptable levels, there will be negative consequences for morale, performance and the institution of National Service. Therefore, training safety must always be of the utmost importance for MINDEF.

However, MINDEF’s recent message to make and I quote, “zero-training deaths the norm” is not only unrealistic but also wishful, considering the inherent risks in training a military force that must be ready to defend the country at a moment’s notice or whenever called upon to do so. As a result of the expectations created, every time a training fatality occurs, the public pressure on MINDEF and SAF commanders down the leadership chain takes on a very corrosive edge. This damages not just the SAF, but the institution of National Service too.

In the aftermath of Corporal Pang’s passing, MINDEF’s narrative appears has shifted somewhat to I quote, a “zero-accident mind set” unquote. NSmen and those who are familiar with the SAF understand what MINDEF wants to achieve when it speaks of striving for zero fatalities – that MINDEF takes safety seriously.

But the word the public the focuses on is zero, and the end-state of zero accidents or fatalities is a goal that cannot be achieved even in industries with notoriously strict safety standards and compliance requirements like aviation. For example, in October 2015, maintenance engineers did not follow established procedures to insert landing gear pins before troubleshooting a landing gear fault causing a Singapore Airlines A330’s nose-wheel to collapse at the boarding gate resulting in multi-million dollars’ worth of damage. It was not a minor miracle no fatalities ensued as passengers waited to board the aircraft and a technician stood just a few meters in the front of the plane.

Mr Speaker, no organisation let alone one that is in the business of war and defending Singapore’s sovereignty can realistically promise zero fatalities or training incidents even as the public must insist on the strictest training safety parameters for the SAF, and MINDEF strives for the same.

Operational Readiness

Second, operational readiness. Like other organisations with a requirement to be operationally ready at a moment’s notice, military personnel must be able to complete their assigned tasks safely and effectively. But, more so than other type of organisation, militaries like the SAF must also stress discipline and hierarchy. This enables the organisation and its members to become a lethal fighting force that can call upon a whole suite of weapons to kill the enemy and those that seek to do Singapore harm.

To reach such a level of proficiency, training has to be tough and realistic. But tough and realistic training must strike a balance between discipline, hierarchy, risk management and safety, so as to prepare the SAF to be operationally ready for different and difficult circumstances. As much as I support the safety review currently being undertaken by the SAF, it must not lead to a public perception that the SAF has gone soft. While requirements, expectations and the training methodology must adjust to each generation of NSmen and the equipment they operate, the SAF should be mindful not to swing to an extreme where realistic training is compromised.

In this regard, the public response to the death of Corporal Pang has been far from one-way, dominated by doubts cast over MINDEF and the necessity of National Service. It has also prompted a significant counter-perspective – one that is shared by many NSmen, including amongst those who are currently fulfilling or have completed their NS commitments. They asked – in spite of the training incidents that occur from time to time, can Singaporeans envision a safe and secure Singapore without operationally ready NSmen and an operationally ready SAF?

On the latter point, the recent bilateral spat between Singapore and Malaysia was raised as an example of the possibilities that could be imposed upon Singapore if not for the strong SAF that any potential adversary has to contend with. Many online commentators focused on the Mahathir factor as a reason why the sharp deterrent edge of the SAF represents a central pillar for our existence as a sovereign nation. However, the need for a strong SAF is not personality-specific or for a particular moment in time. It is in fact, far more fundamental.

The key determinant that necessitates a strong SAF is founded in our geopolitical realities. We are a small country of under 6 million surrounded by much larger neighbours in ASEAN where our two closest neighbours in particular are represented by about 300 million people combined. Putting race, religion and other fault lines aside, we live in a world where larger countries are wont to lord over the small and powerless, throwing laws and legal norms out the window particularly when there is no real price to pay for doing so. Combine this with Singapore’s peculiar circumstances – chief of which is that we are geographically very small – the need for a capable and resolute SAF becomes abundantly clear regardless who our neighbours are.

In such a context, Singapore’s need for a strong operationally ready deterrent force that means business and can promise and deliver a bloody nose on any adversary becomes not just acute, but critical. The public must never forget that the institution of National Service which underpins a strong SAF stands at the delivery end of that promise.

The Will to Fight

Finally, the will to fight. Mr Speaker the will to fight is an important concept that unites SAF personnel and NSmen, regardless of rank. It embodies our sense of national identity, why we regard Singapore as home, and why we will be steadfast and resolute in defending the country. Building up the will to fight in a country which is not ethnically homogenous, generally affluent and where immigration is an important Government policy, is no mean feat and always challenging. It requires constant attention and reflection. As a result of the recent incidents, some of the discussions in the aftermath of Corporal Pang’s passing have the potential of damaging the institution of National Service unless MINDEF steps in to decisively address broader misgivings that are simmering in the minds of some Singaporeans.

Other well-meaning Singaporeans have also asked fundamental questions about National Service. One of the more well-reasoned ones has sought to question why MINDEF cannot evolve to employ an all-regular force. These questions and other similar ones do come up from time to time and it would be important for the MINDEF to establish why such an outcome is or is not realistic. Some years ago, on the back of a Committee of Supply cut, I proposed that MINDEF publish a detailed defence white paper outlining the strategic imperatives of the SAF. Amongst many useful purposes, such a document could serve as an important reference for all segments of the public, including our neighbouring countries, to appreciate and understand why Singapore needs a strong and world-class military that is able to defend the sovereignty of the country.

Mr Speaker doubts about the necessity of National Service weakens not just the very institution but our collective will to fight. More insidiously, the ubiquity and ever-present nature of the online media is such that an adversary can weaken our will to fight without even firing a single shot in anger by identifying the pressure points in our society’s psyche. Undermining public confidence in our citizen army is a ripe and ready strategy an adversary will employ to fulfil its national aims. Should the public lose its confidence in the SAF and support for National Service is undermined, the force over-match that our military currently enjoys will be rendered irrelevant in the face of a divided public. While Singaporeans should never shy away from sharing their views and opinions on matters of public interest even if they are not mainstream, we should not lose our sense of perspective and proportion. In spite of earlier surveys highlighted in this House about the public’s support for National Service, the recent spate of training deaths remind us how the status quo can be shaken very quickly.

To that end, Minister’s earlier reply to my parliamentary question on how the current safety review in the aftermath of Corporal Pang’s unfortunate passing is different from earlier ones is to be welcomed.

Nevertheless, it is not possible to rule out the likelihood that there could be a number of shortcomings in the SAF training system that disrupt the balance between safety and operational readiness. Specific areas should be looked into from a fresh perspective.

Relooking the System

One approach MINDEF should consider is stretching the retirement ages of the officer and WOSE corps. Compared to many militaries around the world, there is an argument to be made that our officers are made to retire a little too prematurely with many valuable years of experience potentially lost to make more long-lasting and valuable contributions to the organisation. The importance of deep experience for our regular commanders in foreseeing the risks of high-intensity training, mitigating for them and being better prepared to deal with unprecedented mishaps was perhaps put best by Chesley Sullenberger, the captain of the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River on 15 January 2009 after a catastrophic bird strike that destroyed both of plane’s engines putting 155 lives at risk. Instead of returning his stricken plane the airport, Sullenberger made a decision to ditch the aircraft in the river, a decision that was later extensively scrutinised but proven to be ultimately sound. He said and I quote, “…for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

Mr Speaker, extending the time our senior commanders remain in their command appointments so that they are able to acquire deeper operational knowledge would have positive spin-offs in anticipating and preventing training incidents. In this regard, the SAF should also pay particular emphasis on retaining officers and WOSEs after they retire. It should consider individuals who have previously left active service to take up competitive and well-paying appointments as members of the safety inspectorate or other safety related outfits in the SAF.

A second area of consideration for MINDEF deals with the point that in the run-up to 2030, the cohort of 18-year olds enlisted for National Service is going to get smaller. With less manpower to execute MINDEF’s mission, machines are likely to become more important with soldiers and troops transiting to more lethal motorized and mechanized platforms with even unmanned platforms becoming a weapon of choice. Such a shift would require a soldier to be familiar with not just soldiering fundamentals but require a mastery of the new weapons and machines under his or her charge. The type of accidents that can occur may also change with risks of electrocution becoming more real than collisions and similar mishaps. This development inevitably points towards more time required for training, live-firing and maintenance-related duties. NSmen may also need more time to re-familiarize themselves with their equipment during ICT and before exercises with more oversight from safety coordinators and training facilitators – something the NS training system would have to accommodate. To this end, the SAF may have to throttle back on non-core, non-training related duties, and even national ones to focus more squarely on its core mission.

A final area of review must include a change in tone and culture towards safety and this must begin at the very top. From a legislative perspective, a qualitative way to facilitate this must include a review of the Government’s position on Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act. The argument that removing the right of a soldier to sue MINDEF would weaken the SAF or cause commanders to hesitate to push their troops must be broadly reconsidered against armies which have removed similar laws.

The UK for example has done so, and their military is not just involved in peacetime training, but significant combat operations. To drive home the centrality of safety for the SAF’s peacetime mission, there is room for the Government to inject greater accountability into its protocols and processes by creating a specific carve out for wilful disregard of safety factors under Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act. Such an exception would cease to extend immunity to MINDEF or to a negligent commander in the event of an egregious breach of safety.

My colleague Dennis Tan had raised this proposal in 2016 following the tragic death of PTE Dominique Sarron Lee. Minister responded by suggesting that the removal of immunity may compromise training and prejudice commanders who, for example push their soldiers to complete IPPT or strive for higher performance. To address such legitimate concerns, a possible exception to Section 14 on the grounds of training safety would only apply if a commander behaves recklessly, maliciously or displays a wilful disregard for safety considerations. For example, if a commander had deliberately chosen to cancel a safety briefing, disregarded training safety regulations, had not catered for sufficient rest before or between training and missions without adequate reason or risk mitigation approved beforehand by a more senior commander, then the blanket immunity provided under Section 14 should not apply. It would follow that a court of law should be left to determine whether MINDEF or the commander in question must be held liable.

In many ways Mr Speaker, such a legislative change would represent an important bellwether for the evolution of training safety management in the SAF more than fifty years after the introduction of National Service. But the significance of this proposal to tweak Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act does not lie in the fact that MINDEF or and any irresponsible commander can be sued. Paradoxically in fact, such a change – legislatively determined – would serve to protect the institution of National Service by making it more accountable instead of undermining it. It would buttress public confidence in the importance of National Service, why safety is critical, and the lengths MINDEF and any Government of the day would go to protect the institution, even if it means putting MINDEF’s own reputation and that of its commanders on the line. In doing so, MINDEF would send a clear and unambiguous message – which the buck stops at the top.

Conclusion

To conclude Mr Speaker – whenever any soldier falls, we all feel a collective pain, for a life that holds so much hope and promise. We also share in the loss of their family members who live with the grief and regret of losing a son or daughter in peacetime and in service of the nation. But the question in the wake of the training deaths experienced by the SAF over the last 17 months and the years before that, is whether this House can assure mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and loved ones that SAF personnel will be safe when they enlist for National Service, when they are called up for In-Camp-Training or when they serve the SAF. The answer must be an unequivocal yes. As a core value of the SAF, there should be no doubt that the SAF takes this safety seriously precisely because we are a largely conscripted force. There are potential safety gaps that need to be considered and improvements which need to be made. I hope that these can be swiftly and thoughtfully instituted with the professionalism the SAF is known for, so that Singaporeans can rest easy knowing our military women and men are operationally ready to keep Singapore safe and secure at all times.

Written by singapore 2025

11/02/2019 at 10:03 pm

Parliament: Calibrated Rehabilitation – Giving repeat drug addicts a better way out (Misuse of Drugs [Amendment] Bill)

Mr Speaker, the proposed amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act represent an important philosophical shift to some aspects of the fight against drugs, while reinforcing the uncompromising stance against drugs in Singapore.

Almost 20 years ago, the Ministry took a very specific approach towards hardcore addicts through the Misuse of Drugs Act – initiating long-term mandatory imprisonment and caning for hardcore drug addicts – a hardcore addict being defined as one caught more than twice for drug consumption.

Back then, the priority was not on framing drug addiction as a social issue afflicting drugs addicts, but behaviour that had to be criminalised. Addicts who consumed drugs for the third time faced up to seven years imprisonment and five strokes of the cane, while addicts caught four or more times faced up to 13 years imprisonment and 12 strokes of the cane.

In introducing the Long-Term (LT) regime, the-then Minister moving the amendments noted that the proportion of hardcore addicts among the total Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) population had increased from 65% in 1994 to 71% in 1997.

In the then-Minister’s second reading speech, such hard core addicts were referred to by the Minister as “bad people” who were likely to become drugs pushers and traffickers too. It revealed a state philosophy that was focused on an uncompromising stance towards hardcore addicts with rehabilitation openly seen as having its limits. In the words of the then-Minister I quote:

“Sometimes, despite all the good-heartedness, the love and the hard work put in by volunteers in half-way houses, some of these volunteers do feel disheartened that these addicts just do not have the discipline to take the treatment. But the Government will do what it can to help them, ie, both these recovering addicts as well as the half-way houses. In terms of financial support, I think if they can justify a case to ask for more money, we will look at it, but the Government does not just spend money, throwing good money after bad money to people who do not want to change.” (unquote)

One of the main amendments proposed today is to fine tune the LT1 and LT2 regimes in circumstances where the drug addict does not have concurrent criminal charges. In parallel, the amendments raise the time an addict can spend in the DRC from three to four years, along with a longer supervisory window from two to five years to submit himself or herself at random to the authorities for a urine test or to provide a hair sample.

Mr Speaker, I am supportive of the aforesaid changes and commend the significantly more enlightened attitude taken by policy makers to shift the focus on helping selected repeat drug offenders in a surgical manner through the calibration of the Misuse of Drugs Act rehabilitation regime. This is no mean feat given the risk that some may erroneously construe this shift as a relaxation of attitudes towards hardcore addicts.

I however see it as a example of rational and sensible policy-making. In fact, this policy shift is significant considering the LT regime was introduced a mere twenty years ago and amended to cover even more offenders when the Act was amended in 2006. Notwithstanding my support on this point, I have some clarifications I seek from the Minister.

The first clarification is a request for information. In 1998, the then Minister in introducing the LT regime shared that more than 73% of hardcore drug addicts have some form of criminal record. I had originally intended to ask how have these percentages changed over the years and the figures were today and how many drug addicts imprisoned under the LT1 and LT2 regimes currently faced concurrent criminal charges when they were sentenced to long-term detention? Minister noted in his second reading speech that this number was about 50% today. Minister also spoke earlier about easier access to funds and a general rise in access to drugs in the region. In view of the latest statistics provided, would Minister be able to share the family background and income levels of those with criminal charges and those without, under the current LT1 and LT2 regime.

Separately, to give the public a better sense of the rehabilitation task ahead, can the Minister share – out of the inmates committed to DRCs how many are first-time and how many are repeat offenders?

My second clarification – while the amendments do not foresee any increase in public expenditure, how much more support will be given to counsellors and half-way house employees and volunteers to help keep recidivism numbers low? The reality when we speak of rehabilitation and the new calibrated approach is that someone somewhere will be on the delivery end of the outcome sought – far fewer repeat drug addicts than today.

So the proposed changes are likely to put an acute focus on the people behind the rehabilitation of drug addicts as they endeavour to get drug addicts out of a dangerous situation for good. What sort of training and support will these individuals undergo so that they do not feel disheartened about addicts who do not respond well to treatment such that they can continue plugging away at this hugely important task of rehabilitation? This is likely to become more significant as a large part of rehabilitation involves reintegrating the addict into the community, and in gainful employment, something that may be even more challenging in this age of disruption. It is vital that maximum support is extended to the volunteers, workers and supporters throughout the drug rehabilitation chain from DRC staff to uniformed officers and to families and parents that need help and assistance to help their loved ones kick the habit for good.

Clause 3 of the Bill introduces a number of new laws that are far reaching and reflective of the State’s uncompromising and hard stand against drugs. Amongst other things, it criminalises acts of contamination which facilitate or promote drug use including actively introducing a drug trafficker to another person, knowing the trafficker is likely to supply him with drugs. A person shall also be guilty of a contamination offence if he teaches, instructs or provides information to another person on how to cultivate, manufacture, consume, traffic, import or export controlled drugs such as cannabis for example, knowing or having reason to believe that the other person intends to carry out these activities. It makes it an offence for an adult to leave drugs or drug utensils within easy access of a child he/she, knowing that a child (defined to be below 16 years of age) is likely to be in proximate range of the drugs or drug utensils.

Mr Speaker, what is needed is for knowledge of these new laws to be widely disseminated within the community so that they help send a strong deterrent message. I would like to ask the Minister what measures will be taken to make these new laws well-known, particularly amongst foreigners who may not be familiar with the minutiae of our various laws on drugs and among high-risk individuals like former addicts.

I would suggest that more preventive eduction across platforms on these amendments on contamination as introduced in clause 3 would be particularly important because of the rising permissiveness across the region on drug consumption, and a general relaxation of the laws against drugs throughout the world.

Mr Speaker, I support the proposed amendments to the Act.

Written by singapore 2025

11/01/2019 at 10:08 pm

Parliament: Careshield Life Motion

Mr Speaker, I would like to acknowledge the contribution and work of the Eldershield Review Committee under the Chairmanship of Mr Chaly Mah into framing a new long-term care plan for Singaporeans. The current Eldershield scheme has seen around 40% of eligible Singaporeans opting out because of a perception of low payouts, amongst other reasons. Making Careshield compulsory and universal, and separately collecting premiums earlier from the age of 30 represents a fundamental rejigging of Singapore’s long-term care insurance scheme.

At the outset, it is important that the Government not underestimate the extent of misinformation surrounding the scheme. The recent WhatsApp messages which the Government has sought to debunk through the mainstream media about it allegedly profiting from Careshield Life, can be put down to some perceived pain points and public education gaps.

Many of these find their roots in a lack of knowledge about the principles behind long-term care schemes such as Eldershield, but also in the use of statistics and data that are based on projections for which little detail and clarification has been provided thus far.

In particular, the question of ever escalating premiums after transitional subsidies end and Careshield Life’s likely loss ratio, given the Eldershield experience has created considerable unease in the public mind. While the use of Medisave to pay Careshield premiums was recommended by the Committee, this has also raised the prospect of a further depletion of CPF members’ Medisave accounts towards another compulsory scheme after the recently announced Medishield Life, a scheme whose transitional subsidies are only going to be phased out in 2019. In the case of Careshield Life, the effect of technological disruptions on permanent jobs, the gig economy and more contract jobs in the workplace creates insecurities which impact sustained participation in compulsory schemes, particularly when future premiums are going to increase.

One major concern I have is on the statistic that the Eldershield Review Committee and many mainstream media outlets zeroed-in about 1 in 2 Singaporeans becoming severely disabled in their lifetime. From footnote 10 in the Committee’s report, this is a Ministry of Health estimate based on local data, supplemented by international data. This factoid which appears prominently in the Executive Summary of the Committee’s Report has raised eyebrows leading some to enquire whether it is unrealistically dire, legitimizing higher and earlier premium payments. I would like the Minister to explain this projection, specifically, how the Ministry came to this conclusion because many Singaporeans cannot visualise how it coheres with the reality they see around them today. More detail on this statistic would be welcome.

This in turn has led some to focus narrowly on the by now familiar statistic that Eldershield collected about $2.6b in premiums while paying out only slightly in excess $100m from 2002 to 2016. In fairness to the long-term care schemes, this point cannot be intuitively understood until one appreciates that Eldershield continues to provide lifetime coverage after one stops paying premiums and the scheme requires significant pre-funding to anticipate sufficient payouts for policyholders.

To this end, it would be important to reveal the actuarial principles and considerations behind both Eldershield and Careshield Life. In this regard, there are some questions I seek the Minister to shed light on.

When Eldershield was launched in 2002, the Ministry of Health made a specific provision in its ElderShield contract with the private insurers to return 50% of any accumulated surplus to existing policyholders, if the actual claims experience should turn out to be different from what was projected in 2002. In the first 5 years of the scheme, ElderShield claims have been lower than those projected in 2002. From a Parliamentary Question filed my colleague Daniel Goh in 2017, the Ministry confirmed that two Eldershield rebates have been given to CPF members enrolled in the scheme – one in 2007 and another in 2012 to the tune of $130 million in total.

On what basis did the Ministry set the rebate quantum at 50% when Eldershield was first introduced and is there a rebate quantum assigned for Careshield Life and if so, what is it, or is this a matter for the Independent Council to pursue?

Secondly unlike Eldershield, a significant aspect of Careshield Life envisages increased cash payouts over time, supported by regular adjustments over time to keep inflation in check. How often will actuarial principles be reviewed, a point that becomes very significant particularly for those who may have passed away but contributed significantly by way of premiums?

Mr Speaker, to arrest unnecessary speculation and misinformation about Careshield Life, the Government must commit to publish and be absolutely transparent about the actuarial principles and factors that drive premium hikes, including the investment returns on the Careshield Life.

To this end, the Committee‘ s Report calls for the set up of an Independent Council and calls on its recommendations to be made public. I would argue that it is in the Government’s interest to consider if it could go further before the Careshield Life Bill is introduced next year. In fact, I would call for the Government to consider implementing a Freedom of Information framework in its administration of Careshield Life and appoint an information officer to the Independent Council who would respond to public requests for information about any aspect of Careshield Life for a reasonable administrative fee.

There are good reasons for the Government to consider taking such an approach. First, such a commitment to openness would go hand-in-hand with Careshield Life’s universal and inclusive approach based on risk pooling which makes every Singaporean in each cohort, his brother and sister’s keeper. As all Singaporeans contribute to the risk pool, it follows that the Government should make it easier for Singaporeans to take ownership of the schemes they are enrolled into and make enquiries on any aspect of the scheme’s administration.

Secondly, as the Committees’ Report puts the onus on the Independent Council to regularly review and recommend premium and payout adjustments to the Government, this aspect of the Council’s work may come under scrutiny whenever premiums are raised. In all likelihood, more not fewer questions on future and previous long-term care projections will be raised, complete with misgivings, apprehensions and inaccuracies in the coffee shops and on social media. A pro-active approach to public education would minimize this prospect and an open information regime would go a long way to address criticisms pertaining to transparency and accountability.

Thirdly, the administration of Careshield Life presents an opportunity to pilot a fresh approach towards public education of government policies. Mr Speaker, we live in an era where inaccurate news can gain currency very quickly through social media and cloud people’s perceptions of policies. Even as some intentionally perpetuate misinformation about policy, there are yet many others who have genuine enquiries on various aspects of Careshield Life that they may be unsure about. A Freedom of Information regime with respect to Careshield Life can promote the Committee’s recommendation to better educate the public about the scheme. More importantly, the advantage of such an approach towards education is that the public discourse is less likely to be antagonistic but more data and fact driven.

To conclude Mr Speaker, my Workers’ Party colleagues and the Chairman of the Healthcare GPC have spoken about reviewing whether Careshield Life can be made gender neutral. I strongly support this call in the name of inclusivity and in parallel with the scheme’s philosophy of each cohort looking after itself. It will mean men will pay more and women less. Let it be so. This motion gives Parliament scope to rethink the concept of inclusivity for Careshield Life and define it to mean that men and women will not be treated differently.

In this vein, I would also call on the Government to considering extending tax relief to CPF members who top-up the CPF Medisave accounts of their loved ones, regardless of gender until the Basic Healthcare Sum is met, similar to the tax relief cap on top-ups to the Special Account currently. Such a move would enhance the ability of CPF members’ Medisave accounts to support future increases in Careshield Life and other compulsory premiums, generate greater interest for members and give them some peace of mind for their loved ones at the same time.

Mr Speaker, notwithstanding the comments, views and suggestions to improve the management of Careshield Life by my colleagues, the Workers’ Party supports the rationale behind Careshield Life and the set-up of ElderFund.

Written by singapore 2025

16/07/2018 at 10:16 pm

Parliament: Debate on President’s Address

Introduction: Thrust of the President’s Address

Mr Speaker, in addition to laying out the Government’s plans for the rest of the term, the President’s address this year was note-worthy particularly for the upcoming transfer of power from the third (3G) to fourth generation (4G) of PAP leaders.

Three remarks in particular shone through. Firstly, the new PAP leaders cannot take the people’s trust for granted and assume that the right to lead will automatically pass from one generation to the other. Secondly, the 4G leaders ought to resist the temptation not to go for bold changes. Thirdly, the 4G leadership must fire up and mobilise the spirit and energy of young Singaporeans.

One thread that binds these three directives is the ability and willingness to listen to the people. This trait can be understated especially in light of the dominance of the PAP and its electoral success over more than five decades of uninterrupted rule. However, societal norms and expectations of political leadership have evolved. Alternative views will have to be addressed, accommodated and considered thoughtfully so as to allow us to move forward as one Singapore.

What the Government should not do is to close the door or resign itself to the politics of majoritarianism when a sensitive or difficult subject comes along, but instead invest a lot more energy to engage and explain, for our people have more than their fair share of good ideas. If the approach of the 4G leaders is to ignore, silence or ridicule alternative ideas, they will fail to galvanise and spur all Singaporeans to greater heights or worse, they may even engender a divided society rendering the message of inclusivity hollow and without substance. This would be an untenable outcome for the continued success of a small country like Singapore that needs to pursue innovation and excellence, and to conceive of new ways of doing things with greater vigour than ever before.

I will focus my speech on the cost of living, a topic which the Workers’ Party believes deserves closely scrutiny by the Government for the remainder of this term and beyond. The remaining Workers’ Party MPs will address other issues as covered in the addenda to the President’s Address.

Cost of Living

In the last few years, cost of living issues have dominated the headlines and more price rises are on the way with a prospective hike in the Goods & Services Tax in the near future raising anxieties further.

More than one year ago, in the wake of the announcement of a hike in water tariffs, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean sought to assure the public that the price of coffee should not go up in the aftermath of the water hikes because the cost of water in a cup of coffee is “much much less than one cent”, and that the public should not be scared of untrue stories about coffee prices. While this is true in a mathematical sense, just a few days ago, a Zaobao report confirmed that one of the largest coffee shop chains had increased the price of coffee citing rising overheads.

One response to pre-empt cost of living concerns by the Government at Budget 2018 has been to enhance the GST U-Save Voucher, with each eligible household standing to receive $5 more every three months between 2019 and 2021 to compensate for the recently announced carbon tax. The PAP Government’s philosophy has always been to target assistance.

For those who govern, the fear of overly generous welfare pay-outs for the able-bodied comes with a warning – the message that can be inadvertedly sent is that a person is not able to look after himself, severely undermining the work ethic. Singaporeans should not dismiss this concern.

Explaining Price Hikes

But parallel expectations and considerations apply equally for the Government too.

At the Committee of Supply (COS) debate this year, the Transport Minister confirmed that Singaporeans can expect to see a rise in transport costs in the very near future too, to reflect growing network capacity and ridership. But as many callers to a local radio station commented not too long ago, the operating costs of running and improving the transport system cannot just be seen through the eyes of fare revenue. Many correctly questioned whether there ought to be some scope for other segments of SMRT’s business to subsidise train operations too, such as advertising and revenue from other investments to lessen the effect of any fare increases on the general population.

Mr Speaker, the question of the quantum of the surpluses and the prospect of alternate revenue streams and future surpluses of many Government-Linked Companies and statutory boards to better cushion price hikes on Singaporeans needs to be looked at very closely and debated before prices go up. For example on the 30% water hike, how do future capital investments in water supply and transmission cohere with the large capital reserves of the national water agency which have increased consistently from around $3b in 2007 to more than $5b in 2016?

Getting into the details of such matters would represent a unique partnership with the people. It would represent bold leadership but such an approach would come with an upshot. Price hikes are likely to be better understood and contextualized to the benefit of the policy discourse in Singapore.

Cost of Living and the Total Fertility Rate

Mr Speaker, the President correctly pointed out that that young Singaporeans want to feel a strong sense of nation. Raising our Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is an existential issue for our nation. We know from a recent Government survey that many married Singaporean couples actually do wish to have three or more children.

While 39% felt this was an ideal outcome only 18% were able to actualize it. Similarly, while 53% of couples ideally wanted two children only 37% were able to actualize it. 61% of respondents raised financial cost as their first out of three reasons for not having more children followed closely by the stress of raising children in Singapore at 56% and the difficulty of managing work and family demands at 33%. If indeed the cost of living is a major impediment to having more children, what can we do to address this issue? How will we create a strong sense of nationhood when our Singapore core and the values internalized over 50 years of nation-building are progressively hollowing themselves out with the population not replacing itself?

Sir, immigration cannot be the long-term solution to our TFR woes. Immigrants will grow old too and we cannot be encouraging even more immigrants to set up home on our shores without a robust strategy to raise our TFR. Not to do so would severely impact the quality of life in Singapore for our future generations in view of our limited size.

The problem is a structural one and structural changes are necessary and bold thinking is required to break with the orthodoxy of the past. Is there scope to make HDB flats more affordable by pegging prices to income levels? Can flexible-work arrangements become a compulsory option for new parents from employers? What can we do to make the education system a reason for parents not to panic about having children? Is there scope to introduce more child support tax credits for low and medium income parents which can be scaled back progressively as household income increases?

4G Leadership and Budgetary Surpluses

Unlike their predecessors, the 4G leadership are coming into power when expenditures will rise in concert with the changing demographics of Singapore. But that is only half the story. On the question of finances, the inclusion of Temasek into the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) framework from 2016 has also put more money and by extension more political capital in their hands of the current Government and 4G leaders than any other generation of PAP leaders.

This is without having to even call on the President to unlock reserves.

To put this in perspective, the overall budget surplus for this term of Government for FY2016 and 2017 is currently at $15.7b and this is after transfers to endowments and trust funds like the GST voucher fund.[6] The $15.7b could potentially cover two more Pioneer Generation Packages of about $8b each covering almost an additional one million more elderly and this is only taking into account the accumulated surplus of two out of the five years of this Government’s term.

In comparison, the first and only drawdown of the reserves in 2009 requiring Presidential approval amounted to $4.9b for the Jobs Credit scheme which extended a cash grant for every local worker on a qualifying employer’s payroll, with a smaller amount allocated to financial institutions for the Special Risk Sharing Initiative.

With $15.7b in hand today, and given the putatively stable formula for NIRC withdrawals in spite of market fluctuations, the picture for the immediate future does not appear to be one of a Government needing money to stay afloat and needing to tax the population as a result, raising the cost of living.

We are told more money is needed for healthcare and other areas in the years to come. This is not unexpected given our demographic transition with our elderly population expected to grow to 900,000 by 2030. But what are the Government’s current estimates and the underlying basis for its projections of higher expenditure coming on stream in future? This information needs to be shared so the public are clear-eyed about the sufficiency of the budget at the Government’s disposal to help Singaporeans with the cost of living today.

Conclusion: A Confident People

In conclusion Sir, the President’s call not to eschew bold changes is not one that should not only preoccupy the 4G leadership alone.

The leadership transition from the 3G to 4G leaders also presents a unique opportunity for each Singaporean to question what we can do to make Singapore a better home for all of us. The leadership team is no longer just the political leadership. Singapore needs a special breadth and depth of leadership if Singapore is to succeed – leadership in every field of industry from trade and industry to sports, arts and culture.

If Singapore is to thrive as the immediate geopolitical situation shifts – and separately, the challenge of an aging society, inequality and an extremely low TFR confronts our small country – boldness should be a part of our national character too.

At its core, the transition from the 3G to 4G leaders must be accompanied by a transformation of our society which creates the conditions to engender a confident people.

The impetus and authority behind a new boldness in Singaporeans should harken back to the title of the President’s address – a call for a strong people-government partnership to build our future Singapore. A people who exercise independent judgment and who are empowered to support Singapore and to move forward together.

Finally Mr Speaker, I would like to put on record my thanks for Minister Chan Chun Sing’s words on the Workers’ Party and Mr Low Thia Khiang’s contributions over the years. The Workers’ Party will always bear in mind the national interest in our deliberations, and endeavour in the interest of Singaporeans and Singapore.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

18/05/2018 at 10:19 am

Parliament: Budget 2018 Speech – On Education, Fiscal Sustainabilty & Taxes

Introduction

1. In his Budget debate, the Finance Minister spoke of three major shifts in the coming decade. The rise of Asia was observed some years ago, but the colossal scale of the change only became apparent to many with the conception of China’s global One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Technological disruption is mind-boggling, if not downright terrifying for some. The sight of agile robots from Boston Dynamics on our Facebook news-feeds, driverless vehicles and news of medical initiatives in cloning, herald a world that was considered to be fictional only one generation ago. The prospect of an aging society however was not sudden. Successive governments have identified it with the second generation PAP leadership establishing the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Aging which published its report in 1999, and with at least four other high-level committees on aging since 1982 putting the issue squarely in the public imagination.

2. The Workers’ Party notes that this year’s Budget is one that seeks prepare Singapore and establish strong foundations for economic growth for the next 10 years. Singapore’s situation is unique. Economic growth is at the centre of our existence and an economy that exhibits a certain verve and vitality is critical to the well-being of our people. While the Government has got the headline issues right as it had with identifying aging almost 20 years ago, what will matter most is how its vision of looking after Singapore and Singaporeans is translated operationally and executed on the ground. My speech will cover education, fiscal sustainability and taxes.

Driving Educational Transformation

3. In his budget speech, the Finance Minister spoke of Industry 4.0, a reference to the technological shift from computer systems to integrated cyber, physical, biological and intelligent systems. Mr Speaker, as much as we seek to encourage workers of today to embrace the future economy through the Industry Transformation Programs, the Tech Skills Accelerator and the Go Digital Programme amongst other initiatives, there is another segment of our population for whom the new economy is one they must fit into seamlessly. They are our younger Singaporeans – many of whom are still in school today.

4. On 19 Feb 2018, the Straits Times carried a fictional article that sought to imagine what Singapore would be like in 2030 for one young Singaporean. It spoke of the story of Alex, whose life was transformed by the Committee of the Future Economy report of 2017. Alex interpreted the report to mean that entrepreneurship was the way of the future. By 2023, his fictitious company was awarded a contract to supply the Ministry of Health with mechanical parts for robot assisted surgery. With a local foothold, he expanded his business into Southeast Asia.

5. Alex’s story was fascinating to me particularly when I contrasted it against the speech of the former head of civil service Mr Lim Siong Guan, who gave a series of lectures as part of the IPS-SR Nathan Lecture Series on Singapore late last year. Most striking was Mr Lim’s observation of how we in Singapore pile accolades on those who reach the pinnacle of success, with others often remaining unnoticed and unmentioned. The call for innovation, a central pillar of this year’s budget requires – in Mr Lim’s view – for our people to try more and fail; and to be recognised not only for their success but their effort, and to be proud of the trying their best in exercising their talents and abilities.

6. In a second equally compelling and parallel anecdote, Mr Lim spoke about how Israeli mothers in the past wished their children to be doctors and lawyers. Fast forward 20 years and this scenario has apparently changed completely with Israeli mothers wishing their children to be CEOs of start-ups. The situation is similar in Estonia and Finland. In Mr Lim’s words, “Singapore has to get there and be exceptional in our own way.”

7. I have my doubts about whether Alex’s parents are ready for him to forget how they changed addresses to get him enrolled into a better school before he entered Primary 1 and how they spent thousands of dollars in tuition fees so that he would be streamed for the best outcomes to secure a stable and lucrative career. More pointedly, unless Alex comes from a rich family, I am not sure he would be in a position to give up an education in accountancy in favour of entrepreneurship, given our cultural biases to what qualifies as a good school, job, university or career.

8. Mr Speaker, ensuring the readiness of the education system to drive future economic growth is a critical strategy that we cannot afford to overlook. Only last month, the Minister of Education in charge of Higher Education shared that the Government is examining how it can better design the learning landscape so as to ensure that opportunities are available for Singaporeans to succeed in life. However, the Minister said that this endeavour may take a generation.

9. Without a doubt, the education system has progressively evolved for the better, but do we have the luxury of time to undertake its transformation for the new economy, a transformation that is arguably as urgent as the economic transformation we desire? With people as our only natural resource, we must begin from the starting point that each and every one of our students, regardless of race, language or religion, can not just succeed, but excel in the economy of tomorrow. The focus cannot be on acing examinations as a means of securing a child’s future as is overwhelmingly the case is today. Even as our education system has correctly made adjustments to allow for a minority of students to benefit from aptitude-based entry points across the eduction system, this is not enough.

10. In fact, we continue to have a tuition culture which is allegedly a billion-dollar industry in Singapore. There are no evident signs of this tuition culture abating. Even PAP MPs have raised questions in this House about stress and anxiety levels in our students. Parents naturally equate poor PSLE results with relatively poorer opportunities and outcomes for their children in secondary school. They fear that poor PSLE results will evince a bleak future, with their children condemned to schools dominated by problematic students who in their estimation essentially do not like to study or cannot communicate well, hence setting their own children up for mediocrity. Such fears, amongst others, drive the tuition industry and the stress both in parents and by extension, students.

11. Mr Speaker, it will take a radical move to energize the cultural shift needed to change mindsets about tuition and early streaming among all stakeholders, particularly parents. But there is another downside, and very important one that requires us to hasten educational transformation. Streaming and ranking only serve to reinforce the inequality the Finance Minister warned about in his Budget speech. This is particularly since our educational culture is weighted in favour of parents with means and those who can pile on enrichment classes and tuition and even consider paying educational professionals to work out strategies to game Direct School Admission exercises.

12. The Government has previously looked at board-based schemes like the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) to drive productivity only to shift now to more targeted measures for specific industries through the ITMs. In similar vein, the Government should start identifying the specific policy changes needed to alter behaviour and drive cultural change in favour of learning. The time has come to look squarely at our tuition culture and ironically, how it may actually be holding us back rather than spurring and motivating our students in a healthy manner. The tuition industry is an important stakeholder in this undertaking. Rather than time and money spent on tuition, would our students not be better served by an education in various regional languages, more debates, better communication skills, financial literacy, problem-solving and negotiation, and on field trips rather than cramming model answers and methodologies for exam-based outcomes only for them to be forgotten shortly thereafter? How critical is streaming and even the PSLE examinations for success in life in the future economy? If it is not critical, are there persuasive arguments that remain for their continued existence?

13. The need of the hour today is different from that of the past. A radical cultural shift in direction needs to take place to set up our future generations of workers and employees for the future economy. Alex’s plans to become an successful entrepreneur with an appetite for risk – and for his story and Singapore’s economic future not to be a fictional one – depend on it.

Reframing Fiscal Prudence and Sustainability?

14. Mr Speaker, from a citizen perspective, making deeper enquiries of the Government’s budget is no less important than acquiring deep skills for the economy. Some very important and healthy conversations are taking place within our society about social protection and the size and use of our reserves, estimated in the Straits Times last week to be in excess of a trillion dollars – I will say that again, in excess of a trillion dollars. How much of it do we need to protect the Singapore dollar from currency speculators is a valid question given that yearly revenue from land sales alone ensures that our reserves continue to grow in size.

15. Some arguments have been made in public for Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) to be increased to 60% to stave off a GST hike. Similarly, there have been calls to consider only a temporary increase in NIRC to fund non-recurrent, lumpy infrastructure investments such as the High Speed Rail, new MRT lines and the Changi T5 terminal. After such infrastructure has been completed, the NIRC can return to 50% and some portion of the revenue earned from such infrastructure can also be returned to the reserves. Such proposals leave more scope for the Government to hold back from increasing regressive taxes like the GST which also hit middle-income Singaporeans with young children and elderly parents the hardest mainly because offset packages announced by the Government inherently target the low-income and needy more.

16. In his Budget speech, the Finance Minister made a fundamental distinction to set out the Government’s thinking on recurrent spending which directly benefits current generations, and that the responsible way to pay for such expenditure is through taxation. However, it is no secret that Singapore’s approach to budgeting is highly conservative with land sales excluded from the Government’s income. Even as more resources are required to take care of our elderly population through to 2030 and beyond, reasonable Singaporeans take the view that there is scope to consider how elderly Singaporeans can be better protected in their twilight years with the burden of additional taxes like the GST held off for as long as possible. One novel, if not relatively radical approach in view of the current orthodoxy is to reconsider the role land sales can play in recurrent spending.

17. The Government is by far and away the largest landowner in Singapore. The majority of all land here comprises of 99-year or less than 99-year leasehold properties. Seen in this light, should not current generations be allowed to benefit from some percentage of today’s land sales with the knowledge that such land regenerates in value for future generations providing successive governments with a recurring source of income? Should Singaporeans who are now expected to live well into their eighties reap more benefit from land sales so as to justify better social protection for them?

18. Even as land is scarce in Singapore, it is also highly valued with land sales likely to be very healthy in the decades to come right until our HDB flats run down their leases well into the second half of this century. As much as the development of the port in Tuas will cost money, the move of port facilities from Tanjong Pagar will free up prime and valuable waterfront land adjacent to Shenton Way. After 2035, a massive tract of land where the current Paya Lebar airport sits – massive by Singapore standards at least – will be available for sale to the Government of the day. In between, the Government as the largest landowner has many sites open for development that will ensure a progressively steady growth of the reserves for the foreseeable future.

19. On the Government’s Factually website, the argument against including land sales for budgetary spending is two-pronged, apart from Constitutional restrictions.

20. Firstly, excluding land sales prevents the Government from unnecessarily selling land to meet expenditure needs. However, this argument that can potentially be addressed with a cap on spending revenue from land sales – for example, not more than 20% of the value of average land sales over 20 years, or 20% of land sales for that year, whichever is lower. This would give no good reason for an ill-advised Government to ramp up land sales when in Government to increase its own income.

21. The second argument on the Factually website posits that income from land sales are invested and already available to the Government for spending through the NIRC. While this is a stronger argument and certainly true, not co-mingling the income from land sales with other reserves for investment also brings with it the prospect of greater transparency to the public and of mitigating the consequences of poor investment decisions, most dramatically highlighted by the GIC’s partial divestment of its stake in UBS and losing billions in the process as reported last year.

22. Mr Speaker, the Workers’ Party is open-minded about looking at different modalities of funding future Budgets with a view to strengthening social protection frameworks. This also promotes a healthier discussion of fiscal issues amongst our population. Of course, the money has to come from somewhere. But there are two ways of framing this conversation. One is to say proposals to seek to improve and suggest better social protection for Singaporeans is tantamount to raiding the reserves. The other is to take a strategic perspective of our reserves position – something only the Government can holistically do in view of the significant information asymmetries, look at the how quickly the world is changing and always assess how Singaporeans can be better protected ahead of time.

23. To reiterate, allowing a portion of the revenue for land sales will also not stop the reserves from growing. They will continue to grow and disproportionately benefit future generations. But looking at using land sales also gives the Government of the day more flexibility to ensure that current generations of elderly Singaporeans’ healthcare needs for example, are adequately budgeted for, leaving more scope for the Government to strengthen social protection for a current generation of Singaporeans. Inter-generational equity is a subject that deserves greater discussion. The importance and willingness to prepare for the future cannot underestimated especially since the very technological disruption the Finance Minister spoke of will – like globalisation in the past – host the discontented. Those who cannot be readily re-trained to assume higher value-added jobs. Those who may not be able to build new capabilities. Those who for example, cannot stand for too long and for whom job redesign is only catchphrase. And those who may not adapt to what they fear is a brave new world.

24. GST may well have to rise but Singaporeans could be more likely to accept it if the Government considers the pros and cons of moving from the established orthodoxy and consider new approaches that improve social protection thresholds for all, and elderly Singaporeans in particular.

WP Position on the Government’s plan to raise GST

25. As expected, the Budget drew much attention on the Government’s plan to raise GST from 7% to 9% sometime in the future. However, there was an inconsistency in the treatment of some additional taxes that will no doubt add to the Government’s coffers before that. For example, the Government was able to confirm that the imposition of the carbon tax would bring an additional $1b a year of revenue after implementation. However, no estimates were provided on the likely additional revenue that would be be added to the Government’s income with the inclusion of GST on imported services.

26. In addition, the journey to become a smart nation – another plank of this year’s budget – is likely to make Singapore more efficient in tax collection. There is also the question on the move to become a cashless society and the impact this will have on sectors which have traditionally been thought to under-declare their income such as the self-employed, hawkers and taxi drivers. This prospect will become less probable with the advent of more electronic transactions and in turn, is likely to have a positive impact on tax revenues. Furthermore, with borrowing backed by a Government guarantees proposed for large infrastructure projects, more spending for such projects can potentially be allocated elsewhere for recurrent spending.

27. In view of the absence of such details, the Workers’ Party is unable to support the announcement of a GST hike at this moment in time. This is because of the lack of clarity surrounding projected expenditure when the Government raises GST in future and the relative lack of information on whether there is scope for the reserves to better support Singaporeans. In addition, as the Prime Minister told the media some years ago when the GST was raised from 3% in response to initial objections from the Workers’ Party, we would also need some understanding of the Government’s offset package for the low-income and middle-income should the GST be raised – information which the Government has not revealed thus far.

Conclusion

28. In conclusion Mr Speaker, the Government has made significant investments in placing Singapore to take advantage of initiatives like OBOR and tapping on the potential of the ASEAN region. These are necessary investments to keep the Singapore economy humming along. However, the people who keep it humming must be equipped to succeed in tomorrow’s economy. Some sacred cows may have to be slain forthwith. Equally, the security of elderly Singaporeans, each generation a pioneer generation of an improbable country in its own right, should not be made to feel insecure in their old age, particularly when it is comes to healthcare. Instead, they should be respected for what they have done for Singapore and looked after in their golden years.

29. Mr Speaker, we must never be done making Singapore an even better home for all Singaporeans. Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

27/02/2018 at 10:22 pm

Parliament: Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) (Amendment) Bill

Mr Speaker, the prospect of locking people up for an undetermined duration is incongruous with the rule of law. Should a state have such powers? Insofar as the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA) is concerned, the answer has been yes for reasons that have been enunciated in this House over many decades, albeit not without significant soul-searching and qualified support. One important reason that underpins the qualified support for the CLTPA in Singapore through the decades has been the prospect of judicial review, which operates as an important safety valve to check against any excesses of the Government of day. The importance of judicial review with regard to the CLTPA was publicly expressed recently by the Court of Appeal judgment in the matter of the international match-fixer Tan Seet Eng or Dan Tan.

Unlike many extensions the Government has sought for this Act since then, the one before the House today includes a few fundamental amendments, which are very significant and extend new powers to the Government for an Act which was ostensibly temporary.

Why change the law?

At the outset Mr Speaker, is an amendment to the Act even necessary?

To answer this question, it is helpful to look at what transpired in the aftermath of international match-fixer Dan Tan’s short-lived release under the CLTPA after the Court of Appeal ruled against the Government and in favour of Dan Tan. Government critics focused on Dan Tan’s re-arrest six days after the Minister cured the deficiencies in the original Grounds of Detention (or GD) with a more detailed GD describing how Dan Tan’s activities had a direct relevance to public safety, peace and good order in Singapore. As stressed by the Court, that was the crux of the CLTPA – the Government had to show how Dan Tan’s activities prejudiced public safety, peace and good order in Singapore, something it had not sufficiently done in its original grounds of detention.

However, what was somewhat overlooked in the decision to re-arrest Dan Tan was the Minister’s decision to revoke the detention orders under the CLTPA of three members of Dan Tan’s global match-fixing syndicate. The Ministry of Home Affairs in a statement on 18th of January 2016 stated that “the evidence against the three persons, and their roles in the syndicate were recently reviewed, after the Court of Appeal gave its decision in Dan Tan’s case.”

It would appear that in light of the judgment in Tan Seet Eng, the Government became aware of the poor case against them in law, putting the three detainees on supervision orders instead. To that end, the purpose of the Act and more importantly, the separation of powers between the Executive and Judiciary as it currently stands would appear to be operating effectively, giving the Minister enough leeway to take decisive action against individuals who in his estimation pose a threat to ensure public safety, peace and good order in Singapore, while being in a position to apply the Act lawfully even it means revoking detention orders in light of the clarification of laws by the Judiciary. Quite simply, the system is working as it should. If so, what is the impulse behind this amendment bill and is it justified?

The Minister’s decision is Final: A lesser role for the Judiciary?

Secondly, the Bill introduces a new limb to Section 30 of the Act, legislating that a decision of the Minister would be final. I seek the Minister’s clarification on how this new clause 3 will interact with the prospect of judicial review for individuals detained under the CLTPA in future, in view of the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Tan Seet Eng.

While clause 3 does not explicitly exclude the prospects of judicial review unlike section 8(2)(b) of the Internal Security Act, it is a fact that more, not fewer judicial review cases are coming up for adjudication in our Courts, challenging the lawfulness of government decisions. In recent years, these include questions on the legality of whether or when elections ought to be called in a Single Member Constituency and a Group Representation Constituency, the constitutionality of 377A with regard to homosexuals, the constitutionality of the Government’s decision to extend a loan to the International Monetary Fund, a challenge by some Hindu adherents on the banning of musical instruments during Thaipusam and the challenge by a Sikh prison counsellor on prison policy covering Sikh inmates, amongst others.

In concert with a more educated population and a greater recognition of the critical role an independent Judiciary plays as a co-equal organ alongside the Executive and Legislature, it is unsurprising that more Singaporeans are seeking the avenue afforded by judicial review for clarity on public law matters and for the Judiciary to have the final say on the legality of government actions. I would hazard that even the front bench recognizes and agrees with the critical role the Judiciary plays as a feature of a good government and good governance.

Judicial Review: The Sharp Edge

Mr Speaker, in a speech delivered at the American Law Institute in 2016, the Chief Justice referred to judicial review as (and I quote) “the sharp edge that keeps government action within the form and substance of the law.” (unquote) However, it is well established under Singapore law that judicial review only covers the process and legality of Government decisions, not the merits of a decision which are properly empowered to the Executive, who having been lawfully voted in by Singaporeans at each General Elections take decisions by virtue of their electoral mandate. To that end, a policy question or decision of the Government of the day can only be overturned by the Courts on grounds of irrationality, illegality, or impropriety – thresholds which are exceedingly high to begin with.

However, the law covering judicial review has not stood still even if Singapore law does not recognize some of the newer heads and principles that define judicial review in the UK such as the proportionality principle – ostensibly because some of these new approaches risk substituting the judiciary’s decision for the executive – a concern which is in light of our separation of powers schema is a legitimate one. But even so, the Chief Justice in his speech to the American Law Institute which I referred to earlier, found it appropriate to share the Singapore experience with regard to a new head of judicial review recognized under Singapore law – that of substantive legitimate expectation – which concerns government action that is contrary to a promise or an expectation that it has created or encouraged.

For the man on the street and the average Singaporean, the knowledge of a continual evolution of the law on judicial review is a welcome development. Justice must be seen to be done, and the evolution of the law on judicial review has required judges to make more not less enquiries on the facts and circumstances of a matter at hand so as to be able to decide whether the government has made a lawful or unlawful decision. In and of itself, it would appear intuitively logical for judges to have maximum access to the Minister or the Executive’s thought processes even if they cannot replace it with their own. However, clause 3 appears to be going against the grain, closing the door and further limiting the judiciary’s scope for judicial review for CLTPA cases. At this juncture, it would be useful for me to recite a a short paragraph of the Court of Appeal judgment in Tan Seet Eng which buttress the point that even though the ambit of judicial review only covers the process and legality of how a decision is made, the role of the courts is far from routine and administrative.

“In our judgment, while it is one thing to say that the court must not substitute its view as to the way in which the discretion that is vested in the Minister should be exercised, it is quite another to say that the Minister’s exercise of discretion may not be scrutinised by the court at all. We asked (the Government’s lawyer) if he was contending that the function of the court was confined to verifying, as a clerical matter, that the paperwork was in order and included at least a bare recitation by or on behalf of the Minister that formally complied with the statutory formula. The (Government’s lawyer) said that was not his position, and in our judgment, rightly so. We have already referred to the decision of this court in Chng Suan Tze where an objective approach was laid down. This plainly runs counter to any suggestion that the court is confined to so narrow a role. Indeed, this recognises that a court may and indeed should examine whether the power that is vested in the Minister is being properly invoked (unquote).”

On clause 3 per se, the explanatory note to the Bill states that the Minister’s decision being final applies in any of these three instances:
(a) That the person has been associated with activities of a criminal nature;
(b) That it is necessary for a person to be detained in the interests of public safety, peace and good order; and
(c) That it is necessary that a person be subject to the supervision of the police.

Mr Speaker, all three instances operate to narrow the judiciary’s role with respect to judicial review. To this end, I would like to ask the Minister, in the event the Courts require the Minister to reveal detailed information on the background facts on any of the three instances to determine and assist the Court to decide on the lawfulness of a CLTPA detention for the purposes of judicial review, can the Minister confirm if the Courts will be able to do so? More fundamentally, would it not be more propitious for Parliament to extend real scope to the Judiciary to review the Minister’s decision in the case of CLTPA detentions particularly since detainees cannot challenge the evidence against them in an open court, notwithstanding the Executive check available by way of the Advisory Committee under the Act?

Extending the CLTPA to crimes committed outside Singapore

The third point I wish to make extends to the inclusion of clause 8 which covers section 48(1) of the Organised Crime Act in Schedule 4 of the Bill extends the reach of the CLTPA – by way of legislation – to individuals who participate or facilitate a serious crime overseas. This is a significant shift in the reach and ambit of the CLTPA and I have some questions in this regard.

What is the threshold of participation or facilitation in a serious crime overseas as defined by section 48(1) of the Organised Crime Act before the CLTPA can be employed against an individual? Does the Minister have any examples of criminals having facilitated or participated in crimes overseas only for the Government to be bereft of any legal options to bring such individuals to justice? More narrowly, would the detention of an individual arising from Section 48(1) of the Organised Crime Act under the CLTPA require the Minister to include evidence or the results of investigations from a foreign counterpart in his Grounds of Detention or would some other standard apply – and if so, what would that standard be? Or would it be up to the Minister in step with the amendment proposed in clause 3 that his decision is final and there is for all practical purposes, no scope for enquiry into this matter? Finally, and in this context, does the Minister foresee the CLTPA to be employed against foreigners who commit crimes overseas and who may be members of or in the employ of a Singaporean or local criminal syndicate?

Mr Speaker, the Workers’ Party opposes this Bill.

Written by singapore 2025

06/02/2018 at 10:27 pm

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