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Parliament: Work Injury Compensation Bill – Doing right by our Workforce – 3 Sep 2019

Introduction

Sir, the Work Injury Compensation Act or WICA is a critical piece of social legislation for all local and foreign workers in Singapore. Previously known as Workmen’s Compensation, the concept of providing compensation against workplace injuries via legislative fiat dates back to the late 19th century. In Singapore today, manual workers are covered regardless of salary. With the changes proposed under this Bill, non-manual workers receiving a salary of up to $2600 will also be covered in stages up from $1600 as is currently the case.

The case of R

Sir, this tabling of the public feedback consultation to this Bill early this year roughly coincided with a compensation claim under WICA that involved one of my residents, who came to seek my assistance at a Meet-the-People session. I will refer to him as R.

R was employed as an Industrial Relations Officer by a union. He was injured when he was on his way to attend a labour workshop some years ago. At the time of the accident, he did not make a claim under WICA. His employer informed him that they would take care of the medical costs arising out of the accident. The employer did the needful and incurred medical expenses which included a surgical procedure that saw four screws inserted into R’s spine.

R returned to work after his hospitalization leave. As he approached the age of 67 a few years after the accident, he was informed by his superiors that his employment would not be extended. The matter of his injury came up just before he left the employ of the union. His injuries had left him unable to find another employer who would hire him, and separately, in need of medical follow-up. R then decided to make a belated WICA claim to MOM. It was originally rejected due to it being out of time and because – in the Commissioner of Labour’s assessment – the accident he was involved in did not arise out of and in the course of his employment, and hence rejected for the purposes of a WICA claim. This position was in fact wrong in law, but the initial conclusion by the Commissioner of Labour could have turned on how R framed the circumstances of his injury. An appeal was thereafter made to the Commissioner of Labour which was successful. After the submission of a medical report which was initially challenged by the insurer, R eventually received a pay-out of 25% of permanent incapacity which amounted to $54,500.

Private settlement of WICA claims

Sir, I seek a few clarifications on the Bill and the application of the proposed amendments. Where useful, I will refer to R’s case in raising them. My first set of queries are general in nature. At the outset, a question that comes to mind in R’s case is why he did not file a claim independent of his employer. I put the question to R to which he replied – the matter did not cross his mind. R could have been under the mistaken belief that since the accident occurred outside his usual place of work, it was not claimable under WICA. Even if R was labouring under that presumption, his employer should have known better, which then begs the question why the employer did not proceed in making a WICA claim for him.

According to the former Minister of Manpower in a reply to a PQ in January 2018, out of the 33,000 plus WICA claims in the two years from 2016 to 2017, about 2500 claims were withdrawn either because workers received private compensation from their employers, chose to pursue a common law remedy or decided not to proceed with their claims. While I am not aware if R falls under the category of those who chose private compensation, it is a relevant question whether the support or compensation received from employers is adequate in all of these 2500-odd cases. To give the House a sense of the numbers involved, what was the percentage and absolute number of all successful WICA claims by foreign and local workers over the last five years, and separately, what is the breakdown of workers who chose a common law remedy, private compensation and did not proceed with claims respectively? To this end, does MoM follow up with employers and make the necessary enquiries with regard to private settlements and workers’ decisions not to proceed with claims so that workers are not worse off than they would be under the WICA framework? If it does so, how do cases like R’s slip through the cracks? More specifically, would MOM monitor private settlements between employers and workers under the amended Bill and would MOM consider a more activist approach in overseeing private settlements to ensure that workers get a fair deal?

The lived reality of Employer-Worker Relationships

Sir, employer-worker relationships are almost invariably weighted in favour of the employer. A power relationship exists, one that can be incredibly lopsided regardless whether local or foreign workers are involved. Very often, discussions over workers’ rights can gloss over this lived reality. Not all workers are vocal, some may wish not to make trouble for their bosses for the fear of being ostracized or labelled or sent home. Yet some others may fear for their jobs and simply bottle things up. Other more specific issues for specific groups of workers can also come up. In 2017, in a TODAY article, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a well-known NGO reported that some lawyers pursue questionable practices with regard to foreign workers who are ill-informed about electing between a WICA claim on the one hand and common law remedy on the other. Separately, the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People said foreign workers are sometimes “poorly informed about costs” involved in legal processes.

To that end, one of the main purposes of the Bill – that is to provide for a more expeditious process for workers to receive compensation for injuries suffered arising out of and in the course of employment is to be welcomed. In 1975, when this Bill’s predecessor, the Workmen’s Compensation Act came up for second reading, the intention to introduce an expeditious compensation regime was a key purpose of introducing changes to the law. In those days – in the words of then Manpower Minister Ong Pang Boon – some employers even ignored the notice of assessment and despite repeated reminders, would even delay the payment of compensation by disputing the extent of liability to pay compensation or the extent of the dependency of the claimants on the earnings of a deceased worker.

Sir, the WICA regime has moved significantly from the shortcomings of those days, thanks to both the commitment of not just employers, but the Ministry too. But as this House has heard in the past, most recently when the Act was amended in 2011 – the reality is that workers need enough information to assess how best to pursue their injury claims as not all are highly educated and informed or know of their rights and responsibilities.

What R’s experience suggests is that in spite of the various initiatives to make workers aware of their rights, much more can to be done, and the modified claims framework that underpin the changes proposed under this Bill is a good opportunity to review how WICA is communicated to all workers and employers.

Coming back this Bill, in view of the fact that most of the feedback on the public consultation to the Bill came from insurers, I would like to ask the Minister how MOM will ensure that all employers adhere to the new WICA processing regime? In 2008, MOM committed itself to raise worker awareness of avenues for compensation through the community, union leaders and employers so as to create awareness among employers and workers. How does MOM plan to engage employers and workers to further improve compliance to the new claims reporting framework and to better protect worker’s rights after the passage of the Bill?

Light Duties’ Reportable – Can all employers cope?

Sir, one critical improvement to the Bill seeks to make to WICA is the requirement for employers to report all injuries resulting in any instance of light duty or medical leave to be reported to MOM. The amendments see that an injured worker will be compensated up to their usual level of earnings if they are given light duties by a doctor, principally because they would not be able to undertake overtime work to boost their wages while on light duties, hence a lower Average Monthly Earnings (AME) calculation for the purposes of their claim. This is a progressive move.

The Ministry has stressed that such reporting will not be an administrative burden for employers and has provided for a simplified procedure for reporting injuries that result in less than 4 days of light duties or MC for the worker. Under the Bill, the responsibility shifts to the employer to file a WICA claim as employees now do not have to separately file a claim. This is a fundamental change in the claims framework and it requires a religious compliance commitment from employers for it to work smoothly.

In 2017, the Minister of State for Manpower in a reply to a PQ confirmed that it was mandatory and not voluntary for employers to report any work-related accidents resulting in an employee’s death, or hospitalization for at least 24 hours, or medical leave for more than three days. In that regard, MOS stated that MOM had taken enforcement action against errant employers for persistent late reporting of minor injuries after repeated reminders or delayed reporting of a serious work injury, with seven employers taken to task.

Sir, in view of the new claims framework which makes the burden of reporting injuries on employers more acute, I seek more information on how the Ministry manages errant employers. Are they issued warning letters, stern warnings or reminders in the first instance? It would appear that the regime is escalatory and calibrated to deal with egregious employers. Can I confirm this to be the case, and if so, how many warnings has MOM issued to employers over the last five years, from reminders to warnings, amongst others, and finally, prosecutions? And the case of R, what action would MOM typically take against an employer in his scenario under the new amendments?

Circumstances under which the Commissioner of Labour exercises powers?

Sir in R’s case, when he sought to revisit his WICA claim almost two-and-a-half years after his accident, unsurprisingly, it was met by a rejection from MOM for the two reasons, one of which was that he was out of time as the claim had to be made within a year. To that end, over the last five years, I would like enquire how many WICA claims were outside the one-year claims window and how many of these were successful claims?

It is probable that R would receive a similar response from an insurer in the first instance, that of being out of time, under the new claims regime proposed under the Bill. Clause 36 of the Bill gives the Commissioner broad powers to process a claim. Under the proposed amendments, insurers will now also process death and Permanent Incapacity claims, a function that was previously undertaken by MOM.

In view of this, what new or roles, if any, will MOM or the Commissioner of Labour play to support the claims process for workers? For example, would MOM consider all appeals that fall outside the claims window to be addressed by the Commissioner of Labour at the first instance, so that the workers can deal directly with regulator for advice and assistance? This would give effect to the Commissioner of Labour’s powers to override an insurer’s assessment under the amended Bill. Furthermore, such a work process would support its objective of making the claims process as worker-friendly as possible and position the the Ministry as a pro-active intermediary for all WICA claims. Can the Minister share a broadly exhaustive list of the circumstances under which the Commissioner of Labour will take over the processing of a WICA claim as opposed to insurers leading the process as envisaged under the Bill. This should exclude the instances where an employer has not purchased the relevant insurance, or if the employer in financial difficulty and the MOM dips into the Workers’ Fund.

Reviewing Compensation Limits more regularly

Mr Speaker, when Minister Josephine Teo spoke on the Bill as a backbencher about ten years ago, Minister sought to persuade the Government to review the WICA compensation limits once every 3 years, in effect allowing injured workers to receive a higher pay-out by virtue of a more frequent review of compensation limits. The proposal was agreed to by the then Minister of Manpower. Since then, I understand the Ministry has decided that WICA compensation limits will be reviewed once every four years instead. Would the Minister explain why this is the case and consider reverting to the three-year review window to give workers a higher pay-out, particularly those struck by permanent and debilitating injuries? Minister would agree that even though the new limits may not differ significantly from one year to another, a few thousand dollars can make an important difference for workers or their families.

Can workers choose their own doctors?

Sir, the NGO, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics or HOME, in its feedback to the Bill raised some useful feedback. Specifically, it raised clause 37 and medical examinations that a worker must surrender himself/herself to if injured in the line of work. A reality of Singapore’s workforce is that much of the manual work is carried out by foreign workers. In the last few years, we have read about doctors falling far below the standards of their profession, ostensibly because they are beholden to a worker’s employer. It is mind-boggling to wrap one’s conscience around some of the headlines and the stories that have appeared in the local mainstream media on this matter. In one story last year, the ST’s Senior Health Correspondent in a story titled, “Doctors reminded to give injured workers the rest they need” noted that the Ministry had reported three doctors to the Medical Council for not ordering the requisite rest or recovery period commensurate with the worker’s injury. A doctor wrote to the ST Forum page to state that doctors cannot be site inspectors to verify if a company is in a position to extend the appropriate light duties to a worker, as the reality may be that the employer has no light duties it can reasonably offer the injured worker.

Nonetheless, in view of the power imbalance between employer and worker, would the Commissioner of Labour consider giving effect to requests by workers to see a doctor of their choice, possibly one on a panel managed by the Ministry, as opposed to being restricted to choose a doctor of the employer’s choice? An important condition could be that the consultation fees and medical costs are within a stipulated range so as not to disadvantage the employer. Sir, on this point, the prospect of injured workers not being able to sufficiently recover partly because there are effectively no light duties for them to undertake is something that needs to be watched closely, particularly since workplace safety can be compromised when a worker is not medically ready to return to work. Such ongoing scrutiny and prospective improvements will ensure our manpower laws are effective, fit for purpose and protect our workforce.

Conclusion

Sir, the Workers’ Party supports the amendment Bill. In the main, the majority of workers should not face any difficulties with their claims. However, laws like WICA that are a critical expression of our social attitudes and shape our social compact – in this case towards manual workers and non-manual workers who earn less than $2600 – are often judged on where they fall short and the cases which slip through the cracks. As the new WICA claims processing regime comes into being, I hope the Ministry not only puts the welfare of the worker first but puts itself in the shoes of our workers and their lived reality as it operationalises the amendments to this Bill.

Written by singapore 2025

03/09/2019 at 10:21 am

Parliament: Protection against Online Faslehoods and Manipulation Bill – Rely on the Judiciary, not the Executive (8 May 2019)

Introduction

Sir, as the Select Committee report on Deliberate Online Falsehoods observes, the phenomenon of fake news is nothing new. Since time immemorial, a battle for hearts and minds has taken place between people who host different views and seek to persuade others of their beliefs and causes; Between politicians at the hustings; Between companies through elaborate public relations exercises and spin; And between countries – most vividly played out during the Cold War between the US and former Soviet Union, each forwarding the superiority of the capitalist and communist systems respectively.

The landscape of fake news

What we refer to as fake news today, with misinformation and disinformation at its core, has been the domain of propaganda in the days before the internet. As framed by Claire Wardle in her submission to the Select Committee, at one end of the spectrum, misinformation has been a method of choice of individuals, politicians, companies and countries. Here, misleading content, false context and imposter content dominate. On the other end is aggressive disinformation with falsified or manipulated content which seek to deceive an audience or a reader. This is usually the domain of sophisticated state and well-endowed non-state actors.

The advent of the internet, and more recently social media – where communication has been democratized with both positive and negative repercussions – has brought the ease of propagating fake news centre-stage. The political economy of social media companies and their algorithms which are skewed at extracting profits, in some cases regardless of the consequences, accentuate the problem. Bots and the existence of enterprises that charge for services to manipulate the public discourse, subvert democracy and elections and weaponize information, have become a feature of the online world with many examples highlighted to the Select Committee.

Over the last few years, Western powers have identified Russia’s employment of hybrid warfare, combining both a hostile information campaign employing both misinformation to disinformation before and during the onset of hostilities as the norm for future conflicts. However, it would be a mistake to suggest only Russian involvement. The arc of history has proved that many countries, even those friendly to Singapore are no less seasoned at subversion and subverting even democratic forces in other countries. And it would be naïve to assume that the employment of misinformation and disinformation is not a permanent aspect of the world we live in today, much of which is lived online.

The Executive should not decide what is a falsehood

Clearly, there is a problem at hand. The question is how should Singapore deal with the problem? The Government has proposed the Protection against Falsehoods Online and Manipulation Bill before the House today, what I henceforth refer to as POFMA. After spending a long time deliberating the nature of the problem including forming a Select Committee of Parliament, the Government decided not to consult the public on how it preferred to tackle the problem.

To this end, a lot of the public apprehension over the Bill can be located in its choice of the decision-making authority on matters concerning online falsehoods – the Executive. The remedies available under this Bill are virtually identical to those individuals and companies can rely on under the Protection from Harassment Act or POHA. In deciding that the Executive will determine what is an actionable falsehood and what is not, there has been significant disquiet even amongst moderate and politically disengaged members of the public about the potentially wide remit of powers extended to Ministers through this Bill.

Sir, the public routinely get involved in political discussions both online and offline on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of policies, the appropriateness of Executive action, the lack of information on matters on public interest such as the size of our reserves, amongst many others. By their very nature, such discussions are also limited and even exaggerated sometimes because of a lack of disclosure by the Government or the absence of any freedom of information regime to equalize the asymmetry between the information and facts available to Executive as compared to general public.

Given our unique laws that govern how the press operates in Singapore, the infamously local phrase, “out-of-bound” or OB markers, and our unique political culture steeped in a history of hauling up members of the public and politicians who utter defamatory statements to court to be slapped with punitive damages – there is a genuine sense amongst the public that this Bill can easily abused in the wrong hands. It does not help that the public do not appear to be clear on what can be said or what cannot be said – for example, how does a false statement of fact interplay with an opinion or a comment? I believe Minister also recognises this point. In comments to the Straits Times last Saturday about whether the Bill could have the unintended effect of self-censorship, Minister said “we need to educate the public that the Bill applies only to people putting out falsehoods and that various ministries like the Education Ministry is working on public education in this area.”

Mr Speaker, the Workers’ Party opposes this Bill. All the Workers’ Party MPs will speak against it. Our objections centre primarily around a fundamental matter.

First, we do not agree that the Executive should be the initial decision-maker on matters surrounding false statements of facts. Secondly, we do not support the uncertainty over the circumstances under which the Executive can move on matters that rest purely on a Minister’s subjective opinion that a false or misleading statement is nonetheless not in the public interest – for which a correction or take-down order, amongst other directions are necessary. While the Government must legitimately be able to apply to shut down malicious actors, a Court order should legitimise the action that needs to be undertaken.

In fact, the Select Committee report noted representors raising the prospects of the Executive itself spreading falsehoods. This should give all Singaporeans reason to pause and consider whether the Bill that will be passed today with the Executive as the decision maker is truly in the best interests of Singapore. In fact, it is my case that POFMA can easily become a proverbial Damocles sword that would hang over members of the public who do not support the Government’s narrative or tow the Government line.

Alternatives to the Executive as the decision-maker

Sir, it would be useful for the House to revisit Recommendation 12 of the Select Committee report and the analysis that precedes it. Here, the Committee’s report deliberated on which entity should become the decision-maker in determining what is a falsehood.

In fact, the Select Committee outlined three other alternatives – the first, was the Courts. The second was the establishment of an independent body or ombudsman that would issue directions and thirdly, the report considered the prospects of social media companies themselves acting upon notification of falsehoods by users with a recourse to the Courts.

At paragraph 364 of the Select Committee report, the Committee acknowledged the views of some representors, including those who were sceptical of the Executive as the decision-maker. Ironically, much of the concern that has been expressed in the public realm since the first reading of the Bill was actually foreseen by the Select Committee report.

At para 364(b)(iii) it read and I quote, “Representors raised concerns about whether Executive action would be credible. There was concern that Executive action could feed fears over the abuse of power. It was also pointed out that Executive directions would not be able to deal with falsehoods spread by the Executive.” In contrast, the proposal to have the Courts as the decision maker did not illicit any significant apprehensions.

Clause 2 – A misleading statement can be a false statement

To reinforce this point, it is apparent that the Bill gives remarkable leeway to the Executive to define what a falsehood, especially since the Government has said that it will not act on all falsehoods. In fact, Clause 2(2) legislates that a statement can be deemed by the Government to be false if it is misleading – whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears. In the public understanding, this clause gives broad latitude to the Executive to clamp down on what it deems to be even misleading statements, which may not be false per se.

In fact, it is fathomable that some statements the Executive may interpret as offending are likely to exist along the misinformation and disinformation spectrum eloquently laid out by Claire Wardle in her submission to the Select Committee. Some statements would exist in the middle of the spectrum where reasonable people would disagree about whether such an offending statement is indeed prima facie false or misleading and against the public interest.

Clause 10 – What is the public interest?

In addition to Clause 2, Clause 10 legislates that any Minister can issue a whole range of directions if that Minister is of the opinion that it would be in the public interest to issue it. Clause 4 lists six broad considerations of what would be in the public interest. Reference is also made to a diminution of public confidence in the Government, again a term that I would argue can turn on how thick-skinned or thin-skinned the Government is – be it today or in the future.

For example, some weeks ago, some critics – of what many reasonable people would consider, correctly or incorrectly, to be a pro-Government influencer Nas Daily – were accused of seeking to undermine confidence in public institutions. These critics alleged double standards on the part of the Executive in allowing the applicant, a foreigner, to mark his presence in Singapore because of a different interpretation of what the Executive would deem to be a cause-based event. This led the Singapore Police Force to release a statement which framed the allegations of the critics as, I quote “a malicious attempt to undermine confidence in public institutions.” Unquote.

Sir if this example – rooted in a different perspective of how the Public Order Act is applied – outlines the contours of what the threshold of undermining public confidence as defined in the Bill is, then the irresistible conclusion must be that the public interest limb detailed in clause 10 can potentially be very easily invoked by the Executive. Such a conclusion would explain why even moderate Singaporeans have raised concerns about the prospect of POFMA having a chilling effect on the public discourse at the hands of an easily triggered Executive.

Now if an exceedingly low threshold to trigger Part 3 was not enough, the explanatory statement of the Bill at page 69 clarifies that the six scenarios of what would qualify as the public interest are actually only the tip of the iceberg. I quote the explanatory statement – “Clause 4 gives a non-exhaustive (let me stress this again) a non-exhaustive definition of the expression ‘in the public interest’, which is part of the condition for the making of various directions under the Bill.” Unquote.

So in fact, what this Bill is really saying is that Clause 4 is merely a precursor to another potentially unknown list of definitions of what could be in the public interest.

Mr Speaker, we have had episodes in our history where decisions made by the Executive by virtue of powers legally exercised were questioned with scepticism by members of the public, including even members of the Executive years after the event. Operation Spectrum or the Marxist conspiracy of 1988 is a good example. It is public knowledge that a senior Cabinet member left the Executive after expressing doubts about the Executive’s exercise of powers under the Internal Security Act. Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was also quoted by the media as being doubtful about whether the individuals arrested in 1988 were communists.

These are not the opinions of lay members of the public who have access to all the relevant information and individuals involved to make a decision or clarify their understanding of events. It would appear that reasonable people even within the Executive would opine very differently on some matters, but yet, each Minister can invoke the powers under this Bill, even if a fellow Minister may not be in agreement. To avoid such inconsistency, wouldn’t the Courts represent a more neutral, transparent, accountable and uncontroversial platform to rule on such matters?

Difficulty in determining between a false statement of fact viz. a comment or opinion

The Government has argued that under the proposed Bill the Courts are the final arbiter of truth and that an uncomplicated appeals process to the Courts would address the concerns of aggrieved parties. Even so Sir, the judicial culture in Singapore is highly non-interventionist. The Courts cannot overrule Executive directions lawfully undertaken, pursuant to legislative powers passed by this House.

False statements which can include misleading ones – nonetheless require the independence and neutrality of the reasonable man who in the case of the Bill, will not be a Judge, but a PAP Minister in the first instance. It is open to question whether a traditionally non-interventionist judiciary will challenge what the Executive deems to be reasonable under the Bill particularly in the face of broad definitions like “misleading statements” and “public interest”.

Furthermore, an appeal to the High Court for a Part 3 direction under Clause 17, does not give leeway to the Court to order what is just and equitable in the circumstances, powers which a genuinely neutral appellant authority must ordinarily host. Instead, POFMA limits the grounds for appeal to the Courts to three circumstances as listed in clause 17. While Judicial Review nonetheless applies, it is a high bar as Judicial Review does not cover the merits of the Minister’s decision, but only its legality.

More fundamentally, the Executive will have to carefully assess and determine what constitutes a statement of fact, something which is not necessarily a straightforward exercise. What is not stated in unequivocal terms by the Government is that the line between satire, opinion or comment, and what the Executive may deem to be a false or misleading statement of fact in the public interpretation, can be highly subjective.

This point was raised in the Court of Appeal judgement in Review Publishing vs Lee Hsien Loong quoting Evans on Defamation, albeit in the context of the defence of fair comment, where it was said and I quote:

It will often be very difficult to decide whether a given statement expresses a comment or [an] opinion, or by contrast constitutes an allegation of fact. The same words published in one context may be statement[s] of fact, yet in another may be comment[s]. Therefore, whether this element of the defence established is one of fact, is dependent upon the nature of the imputation conveyed, and the context and circumstances in which it is published. The test in deciding whether the words are fact or comment is an objective one – namely, whether an ordinary, reasonable reader on reading the whole article would understand the words as comment[s] or [as] statements of fact.

However, in acknowledging that deciding between an opinion or a comment and a fact can be a difficult exercise to say nothing of misleading statements, it would follow that the application of a nonetheless objective test in some cases may likewise not be a straightforward exercise especially in cases of misleading statements where politically charged decisions need to be made.

The Courts as the decision-maker

Mr Speaker, it would appear that a key factor in the Government’s selection of the Executive as opposed to the Courts as the decision-maker on matters concerning falsehoods and manipulation turned on whether a false statement of fact can be corrected, removed and generally, dealt with speedily. If so, it would be important to put this factor into perspective and consider alternatives that seek to balance the urgency of moving against an online falsehood and having a decision maker that is more acceptable than an unchecked Executive.

Firstly, under civil law, quick remedies are available where service and the presence of a respondent in Court are to be dispensed with. And to this end, the ex-parte process is not an unusual judicial remedy to deal with certain time-sensitive applications. But one need not reinvent the wheel here. The prospect of interim orders made in favour of the Government in the face of a prima facie falsehood, just like how an individual or company would apply under POHA – can possibly also operate to deal with online falsehoods and manipulation quickly and effectively.

To this end, Part 3 and 4 of the Bill has close similarities with the remedies for online falsehoods this House has passed under Part 3 of the Protection from Harassment Bill earlier today. The new Section 15 and 16 of POHA envisages identical remedies such as stop publication and correction orders that can be invoked by individuals and companies in Singapore, in addition to orders sought against tech companies upon application to the Harassment Courts.

Mr Speaker, if ordinary Singaporeans and corporates registered here are expected to apply to the Courts to deal with online falsehoods and misleading statements made against them, it would be sensible for the Executive to surrender itself to such as process as well, particularly since the meaning of a falsehood is identical under both POHA and the Bill. The Harassment Courts, dealing with all online falsehood applications, from individual and companies and the Government would also result in a consistent application of the law in matters involving online falsehoods and misleading information, resulting in not only greater clarity for all parties but would help in public education on permissible and impermissible forms of expression. In cases of sensitive matters involving national security, in-camera applications can be made by the Executive to the Harassment Courts.

To this end, I believe there is scope to introduce processes involving duty judges to deal with an urgent application from the Government speedily or at very short notice. Likewise, there can be times where there is a heightened risk of false or misleading postings online. This can happen during elections for example. In such a scenario, urgent interim orders can be ordered by duty judges available at short notice to quickly deal with false content that threatens to subvert the election process. The difference in the time taken between an Executive direction and an Expedited Order through the judicial process in such cases may not be significant. On the other hand, an aggrieved party is also free to apply to the Courts to challenge, vary, suspend or cancel a Court’s decision.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mr Speaker, the Workers’ Party is of the view that as a matter of principle, the Courts should be the decision-makers at the very first instance on matters that pertain to deliberate online falsehoods and manipulation. The fact that this Bill would have to regulate what some reasonable people may well interpret as an expression of free speech under Article 14 of our Constitution, must to give us reason to pause and question whether the Courts are better placed to exercise judgment on this point.

The fake news domain is already a very controversial one. Some players are sophisticated. Others will fake innocence when rightly called out. Some misleading statements will be completely political in nature, aimed lowering the esteem and political prospects of election candidates. And there would conceivably be a whole litany of other circumstances and scenarios to consider. On its part, the Executive will act in some cases of falsehoods, and it other cases, it will not. In both scenarios, questions will be asked why the Executive acted as such. Suspicious will be raised and perceptions formed. Politicisation would be inevitable. But it is precisely because of these very reasons that the decision-maker must be perceived to be free of conflict in deciding on matters concerning online falsehoods and manipulation as defined by the Bill.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

09/05/2019 at 8:42 am

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

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