Singapore 2025

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Archive for the ‘Workers’ Party’ Category

Parliament: Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill (Pritam Singh) – 8 Nov 2016

Madam Speaker, the changes proposed by the Government to the provisions that deal with the Elected Presidency in the Constitution by way of this Bill are uniquely significant. A key significance lies in the fact that a Constitutional Commission was formed to review the Elected Presidency – only the second time such a Constitutional Commission was formed in the history of post-independence Singapore. However, the deepest significance of the Commission’s findings I would argue Madam Speaker, lie in Chapter seven of the report which rest firmly outside the Commission’s Terms of Reference.

After reading 107 written submissions and receiving oral representations from selected contributors, the Menon Constitutional Commission was compelled to ask a critical question, which in the opinion of the Workers’ Party, all Singaporeans ought to ponder over seriously – and that is – Should the Presidency remain an elected office?

Having had many months to immerse itself in the genesis of the Presidency, its historical role, and the function and operation of the Elected Presidency, the Commission found it a critical enough responsibility and duty to pen its thoughts about a Singapore without an elected President and for the Government to consider undertaking a more fundamental change to the office. With this background to the Commission’s work in mind, my speech will cover four main points.

Firstly, as guiding principles, the Workers’ Party agrees that the President should not become an alternative centre of political power and an elected entity should safeguard the nation’s reserves.

In January this year, when the Prime Minister announced the setting up of a Constitutional Commission to study changes to the Elected Presidency, PM Lee said that the President cannot be an alternative centre of power. In September, when the Law Minister rebutted the Constitutional Commission’s alternative proposal to replace the Elected Presidency with an appointed council of experts, he said that the president must himself be elected to have the popular mandate to veto an elected government.

The Workers’ Party agrees with the Government on these two fundamental principles. First, the President should not become an alternative centre of power with the potential to undermine the sovereign authority of Parliament. Second, our national reserves need to be safeguarded and the body safeguarding the reserves would need to be elected to say the ‘no’ and to force a debate in Parliament.

This has been the Workers’ Party’s position when the Elected Presidency was first introduced in 1991. We believe that an Elected President should not fetter the supreme power of Parliament as the people’s representative. The Presidency should be a dignified ceremonial office and a President from any race should focus on performing his or her role in fostering national unity and representing Singapore to the world. We also believe that the past reserves should be safeguarded, but this custodial function should lie with elected representatives of the Legislature.

Secondly, the Workers’ Party believes that reviewing the Elected Presidency by strengthening the Council of Presidential Advisers to check the Elected President complicates the Elected Presidency further.

To that end, we disagree with the Government that the solution to the current problem is to tighten the qualifying criteria for the Elected Presidency and to strengthen the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) hereinafter referred to as “Council”.

In tightening the qualifying criteria for the Elected Presidency, the Government seeks to lessen the potential for the Elected Presidency to become an alternative centre of power by severely reducing the number of qualifying candidates and restricting the pool to the super-elite executives in the private and public sectors. This is based on the mistaken premise that a candidate from such a pool is immune to politicization and will not become an activist President.

The Government has refused to recognize that the problem is inherent to the Elected Presidency by virtue of a popular mandate. Unlike the typical Member of Parliament, the Elected President is elected by the whole nation to represent the country without any party affiliation. The competitive election process pitting individuals against each other compels candidates to offer platforms to attract votes. The outcome of such a popular election tempts candidates to use the percentage of votes garnered as an indication of popular endorsement and the elected candidate to claim a mandate beyond his or her constitutional powers.

The Government had recognized that even with existing discretionary powers, we run the risk in the Elected Presidency of placing too much power in one person to properly check a popularly elected Parliament. The Council was set up to moderate this risk, by endowing the Elected Presidency with a team of advisers so that his or her decisions would always have the benefit of a group of experts and/or experienced persons.

Again, in order to further moderate the risk of the Elected Presidency having too much power to clip the Government’s wings, the Government is turning to the unelected Council. By expanding the Council from six to eight members and obliging the President to consult the Council on all monetary matters related to the reserves and all key public service appointments, the Government is not merely strengthening the Council’s advisory capacity, but is changing the very nature of the Council beyond its advisory function.

In attempting to create another check, namely, the strengthened Council on the original check, namely the Elected Presidency, the Government’s approach will in effect create a third key for safeguarding the reserves. When the President disagrees with the Government, the strengthened Council will be empowered to settle the decision on the side of either party. This makes the Council another alternative centre of power. This approach risks politicizing the office of the Presidency further, by placing the Elected President in a situation where he will be caught in a three-way faceoff in making crucial custodial decisions. This approach also risks producing complicated three-way situations that could end in gridlock and the erosion of the legitimacy of the elected Government. An unelected Council should not have the power to create such outcomes.

The Government’s proposal to reserve an election for an ethnic community if the past five Elected Presidents did not come from that ethnic community does not solve the problem. Over a long period, our Presidents should come from the main ethnic communities to symbolize and express the multiracial fabric of our nation. However, to tie this important symbolic role with the electoral process risks politicization of the role. As the ethnicity of the candidates will be pushed into the glare of competitive elections in the case of reserved elections, this will inadvertently lead to the politicization of multiracialism and may even introduce communal interests into the contest.

Thirdly, the Workers’ Party proposes to revert to the Ceremonial Presidency and to establish an Elected Senate to fulfill the custodial role as the solution.

We studied and deliberated the Constitutional Commission’s report and agreed that the most elegant solution to the problem is the Commission’s alternative proposal to revert to an appointed ceremonial Presidency and to set up a group of experts to exercise the Elected President’s custodial role. However, as the body performing a check on Parliament should have a popular mandate, we believe this group of experts ought to be popularly elected.

With your permission Madam Speaker, I would like to distribute a two-page handout which presents two flowcharts – the first is titled Checks and Balances under Option A, which fleshes out the key details of how the Elected Presidency system with a strengthened Council of Presidential Advisers as conceived by the Government would operate. The second is titled Checks and Balances under Option B presents a streamlined system of checks and balances with an elected Senate as put forth by the Workers’ Party.

We propose that a Senate be established within our Legislature as an Upper House to exercise the custodial functions that are now exercised by the Elected President. Eight Senators shall be elected from a list in periodic elections where non-partisan candidates will have to fit the qualifying criteria. A Senate Elections Committee will select the most suitable sixteen candidates to stand for the Senate election. Properly mandated by popular elections, the Senate will take over the custodial powers of the Elected Presidency. A Senate veto will return relevant bills to Parliament for debate which Parliament can veto with a ¾ majority. As part of the legislative arm of the State and not the executive arm, and mandated to fulfill a limited custodial role, Senators would be under no illusion of having any executive or policymaking powers. It is the Workers’ Party belief that such a two-chamber legislative system will minimize gridlock and enhance constructive politics.

With the establishment of a Senate, the Presidency shall revert to an office appointed by Parliament with no custodial role to perform. By focusing on unifying Singaporeans and representing Singapore to the world, the dignity of the office will be preserved and protected from the risk of politicization inherent in electoral competition and in checking Parliament and being checked by an appointed Council. Parliament shall consider the multiracial character of society and factor in multiracial representation when making the appointment. This way, the symbolic role of representing our coveted multiracialism will also be preserved and protected from politicization.

Fourthly, the Workers’ Party is of the view that the proposed constitutional amendments are major changes that should not be made with indecent haste and should be put to a referendum.

The amendments to the Constitution that the Government has proposed are far-reaching and wide-ranging, and deserve much more airtime where the changes can be subjected to proper and thorough public debate. Any changes made with indecent haste will expose the Government to suspicions and accusations that it is seeking to shape the terms and outcome of the election, when the country is on the verge of the next Presidential Election.

In the amendments proposed by way of the new Articles 5A, 5B and 5C, the Government has affirmed the utility, desirability and legitimacy of a national referendum in introducing controversial changes to presidential candidate eligibility. Given that the Prime Minister has acknowledged the proposed fundamental changes to the Presidency are controversial and potentially unpalatable to many members of the public,[3] we believe that a national referendum on these proposed amendments should be held after an appropriate period of public debate.

The public should be presented with a simple choice between the Government’s proposed amendments and the Workers’ Party’s proposal as outlined in this paper. The two options represent the main ideas mooted by the Constitutional Commission with minor modifications. As such, we believe the referendum questions should be marked in non-partisan manner as simply Option A and Option B, as explained by Ms Sylvia Lim earlier. A simple majority should suffice to decide the referendum.

In conclusion Madam Speaker, should this Bill be passed in its current form, the Elected Presidency, we will soon host a triple-weak situation. A weak institution that is structurally flawed in hosting different and contradictory objectives, weak public knowledge about the powers of the Elected President and finally an Elected President whose electoral mandate will be weakened as a result of the strengthening of the unelected Council of Presidential Advisers.

This House needs to focus its energies on the path that the Commission has laid for the future of the Elected Presidency. Instead of rushing this Bill through parliament in time for the next Presidential Elections, the Workers’ Party calls for the Government to delay any changes to Elected Presidency. The Government should do this not because it is has been suggested by Workers’ Party or the Constitutional Commission in varying forms but to protect the institution of the Presidency and to create a more accountable and robust system than the one we host today for the next 50 years.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

12/11/2016 at 7:17 am

Parliament: Preventing the Scourge of Online Gambling in Singapore (Pritam Singh) – Adjournment Motion – 7 Nov 2016

Preventing the Scourge of Online Gambling in Singapore

Madam Speaker, I am speaking on this adjournment motion as a result of the debate that took place during the second reading of the Remote Gambling Bill in 2014. I noted in my speech then that terrestrial and online gambling are two very different realms that would require different approaches to address the problems associated with gambling.

To this end I would like to refer to a section of the speech made by the then Minister of Social and Family Development, Mr Chan Chun Sing on online gambling and I quote: This is an evolving challenge. It is a difficult challenge. We need to stay vigilant to stay ahead of the threat and the challenges. We need to stay ahead and be prepared to strengthen our safeguards as necessary proactively and creatively. And we need concerted efforts by all – individuals, family and society – to keep our eyes on this issue. And we need to make sure that our measures are multi-pronged – upstream, midstream and downstream (unquote).

During the last session of Parliament, I directed some supplementary questions at the current Minister of Social and Family Development about these multi-pronged measures that the Government had sought to introduce to check online gambling. The answers did not suggest any specific initiatives introduced by the Government since the debate on the Remote Gambling Bill in 2014 to tackle the online gambling realm any differently from terrestrial gambling, even though the Government has acknowledged that its methods of outreach between terrestrial and online gambling have to be different. So I would like to ask the Minister again, what new upstream, midstream and downstream measures has the Government instituted to prevent the scourge of online gambling since the passage of this Bill in 2014? One would have thought that it ought to have been imperative for the Government to go public with these new initiatives well before granting exemptions to Singapore Pools and the Turf Club to offer online gambling services starting from October 2016.

Madam Speaker, the choice of the usage of the word scourge in my speech fulfils a specific purpose. Why do I call online gambling a scourge?

Impact of Online Gambling on the Young and Low Income

The American Psychiatric Association places pathological gambling in the same category as drug dependency and alcoholism in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It says that gambling “activate(s) the brain reward system with effects similar to those of drugs of abuse” and that “gambling disorder symptoms resemble substance use disorders to a certain extent.”

Numerous academic studies have found that online gambling is more addictive than other types of gambling, and that online gamblers have higher rates of gambling addiction than traditional gamblers. The Internet has greatly increased the accessibility of gambling. A 2015 study in Spain found a significant increase in pathological gamblers two years after the legalisation of online gambling in that country. The problem was found to be especially serious among young people – online gambling has become the main form of pathological gambling among people below 26 years old in Spain.

These results are unsurprising, since millennials are more comfortable using Internet technologies than their older compatriots.

Online gambling has another dark side. Problem and pathological gamblers can place bets using their smart phones without their friends and family members even noticing, unlike when they visit the casinos or go to the Turf Club. This removes a very important informal safeguard against problem gambling.

An important part of addiction treatment is for the problem gambler to avoid putting himself in situations which could tempt him to lapse back to his bad habit, for example, by avoiding casinos, jackpot rooms or other physical locations where gambling is available. However, it would be impractical to expect a problem gambler to refrain from using his mobile phone or computer as these are needed for modern day work and personal communication.

A longitudinal study of gambling and problem gambling in the U.S. between 1999 and 2013 found that problem gambling affects the poor more than the rich. The prevalence of frequent gambling is highest in the poorest one third of respondents and those in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and it declines dramatically as socio-economic status increases. This could be because some in the lower income group are motivated to gamble in an attempt to improve their financial status.

Raising Revenue from Gambling

The most common reaction I have heard from Singaporeans to the news of the issuing of exempt operator licenses is that the Government just wants to “make more money”. While am sure the Minister will refute this accusation vigorously, the fact remains that a large part of legalised gambling revenue goes into the state’s coffers. Is providing for exempt operators a way to redirect gambling spending away from illegal overseas operators to local operators, which are owned by the Tote Board? If so, this only fuels public speculation that the Government simply wants a piece of the huge global internet gambling pie, and that this is a revenue-raising exercise done at the expense of Singaporeans’ welfare.

Some have argued that the Tote Board gives money to many charities, which help the vulnerable in our society. This is a morally questionable argument that is akin to saying that it is okay to harm some people in order to help others. Since problem gambling disproportionately affects the poor, collecting revenues from online gambling is in effect a regressive tax on the most vulnerable in our society.

Prohibition is the Best Way Forward

The Minister said that the Government looked at a similar exempt operator regime in Hong Kong and Norway and found that the problem gambling situation did not worsen. I am not sure what these studies were or what the exact findings were. I hope the Minister will be able to share the details of these studies for Singaporeans to examine.

Did these studies prove that having an exempt operator regime reduces gambling harm more than a complete prohibition of online gambling? If not, was the Government too eager to rush to exempt operators before more conclusive results are found?

Madam Speaker, we should not be gambling with the lives of Singaporean families.

In the aftermath of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) dialogue with the Government, it was reported the carve out created for exempt operators to legally provide online gambling facilities were based on studies relating to the social impact of gambling that the Government had documented, and its assessment of possible scenarios with and without the ‘valve’ of controlled exempt operator. The NCCS noted that the research on this area is still new. To this extent at the very least, the Government should publish its research in this area especially since the Government will reportedly be meeting up with NCCS leaders in three to six months time.

The Minister has argued that exempt operators provide an “outlet” for gamblers and allow the government to manage crime associated with gambling. The assumption behind this argument is that gamblers who were gambling on illegal overseas gambling websites will switch over to the exempt operators’ websites or apps.

Has the Government found any studies to show that people will actually switch over to exempt operators? More likely, local gambling apps that have a stamp of approval by the government will attract people who have previously never gambled online. It may include many young people who may not relish queuing up at Toto outlets or going to the races at the Turf Club, but may experiment with gambling for the first time from the privacy of their phones. The legalisation of online gambling will thus expand the gambling market, rather than provide a safe outlet for existing gamblers. Once started, online gambling, like soft drugs, could be a gateway to more serious gambling addictions.

A Fait Accompli?

In its meeting with the NCCS, it was reported that the Government told the NCCS that it was not sending conflicting signals with the partial lifting of the ban on online gambling because the exemptions had already been written into the Bill back in 2014.

It would appear these exemptions were written specifically with Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club in mind. A quick review the timeline of events is as follows:

October 2014: Remote Gambling Bill passed.

July 2015: Singapore Pools and STC apply for exemptions.

July 2015: Straits Times reports that Singapore Pools had hired OpenBet to replace its website with one that can offer sports betting, and the contract is estimated to be worth $10 million.

15 September 2016: Singapore Pools and STC were reported to be running final tests on their new online betting websites.

29 September 2016: The Government grants exemptions to Singapore Pools and STC.

25 October 2016: Singapore Pools launches new online betting website, although this was not widely reported in the mainstream media.

$10 million is no small sum. It would be a huge gamble to sink $10 million into a contract without knowing it would pay off. Yet more than one year before the exemptions were granted, Singapore Pools appeared to have done exactly that. In the eyes of the public, it would seem that the yearlong evaluation of the applications was conducted with one outcome in mind – to find a way for Singapore Pools and the Turf Club to carry out online gambling operations. Was the process meant to determine whether or not the applications should be approved, or to determine how they could be approved? To this end, will the Minister inform this house under what circumstances the Government will review the exemptions granted currently to Singapore Pools and the Turf Club and how it plans to review them in an on-going manner?

During the 2014 debate, I asked the Minister to put the Bill before a Select Committee so as to scrutinise the exemption clauses. This request was turned down as the House was told that the Government had already engaged in consultations. However, in its recent meeting with the NCCS, the government cited its consultations with social service leaders and religious representatives as justification for the exemptions. Was the NCCS part of the “religious representatives” consulted in drafting the Bill? Did they agree to the exemptions? If so, why have they changed their position and if not, why weren’t they consulted before?

While feedback through the government channels should not be discouraged, we should remember that they are not subject to the same degree of parliamentary scrutiny in terms of the range of opinions consulted and the extent of public scrutiny. On Bills that provoke as much controversy as this one, should we not take the extra step to establish relevant Select Committees to go over the implementation and provisions with a fine-tooth comb? In exchange for a bit more time, we gain the opportunity to deepen public engagement and generate greater support for our laws.

Insufficient Safeguards

The Government says that there are safeguards in place to prevent gambling addicts from harming themselves and their families. These include self-exclusion and third party exclusion. However, self-exclusion is only practical for those who recognise that they have a problem. As for third party exclusion, a family member has to cross several difficult hurdles to get his or her loved one placed on the exclusion list. This includes being interviewed by a panel and having to show proof of the family member’s gambling addiction. The surreptitious nature of online gambling addiction means that such proof will be hard to obtain.

International studies have found that each problem gambler negatively impacts an average eight to 10 family members, colleagues and friends. Also, most problem gamblers do not seek help until they hit rock bottom – for example if they have wiped out all their family savings. These suggest that the numbers affected by problem gambling are much higher than official statistics show.

Unlike other vices like alcoholism and drug abuse, the costs associated with problem gambling are borne almost entirely by family members, who often end up paying off the debts of the gambler. The embarrassment associated with problem gambling means that the gamblers and their families rarely talk about their problems in public. Because of this, there is a tendency for policymakers to overlook the real social impact of problem gambling. As part of its on-going review of the exemptions, the Government should look into the implementing more stringent ‘circuit breakers’ – for example, tying expenditure and daily funding limits to an individual’s salary scale, deliberately set as a low percentage of one’s salary or removing the user-defined funding and expenditure limits. Separately, Singapore Pools and the Turf Club should be required to collect detailed statistics so that the Government and the public can better study the trends of problem gambling online. Anecdotally, many cases of loan sparking “runners” are linked to problem gambling. There should be better statistics gathered on such tragedies to better establish the extent of their links to problem gambling. This will enable a proper assessment of the impact of the exemptions on the rates of gambling and problem gambling.

We need to look further downstream to prevent gambling habits from taking root. Particular focus should be on young people. It would appear that many young men are introduced to the habit during their National Service days through army mates, or at their workplaces. More targeted public education is needed, especially among young people, if we are to prevent the scourge of gambling from spreading in our society.

The best safeguard is to lessen the avenues for Singaporeans to get introduced to gambling. Legalising online gambling is a step in the wrong direction.

Conclusion

To conclude Madam Speaker, there has been a glaring lack of clarity as to how the Government is making preparations to address the scourge of online gambling downstream, midstream and upstream in a directed and committed way. This is in spite of the Government open admission that the online gambling is, I quote, a “difficult challenge”. It would logically follow that the issue would demand significant attention from the authorities. However, one cannot help but to get the feeling that it is business as usual, and that online gambling is just another game to gamble on, or just another sport for the public to take a bet on. I am concerned that it is much more ominous than that.

Written by singapore 2025

08/11/2016 at 7:09 am

Parliament: Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill (Pritam Singh) – 15 August 2016

Introduction

Mdm Speaker, at paragraph 17 of the judgment in Alan Shadrake, the Singapore Court of Appeal notes that the balance between freedom of speech on the one hand and protection of the administration of justice on the other is at the heart of the law relating to contempt. But rather than to merely codify the common law on contempt in Singapore, this Bill threatens to upset this delicate balance by extending extraordinary powers to the Government.

Contempt by Sub-Judice

The Minister publically remarked after the first reading of the Bill that it merely crystallizes the current legal position on contempt and “does not create anything new”. However, the drafting of Clause 3 suggests this far from the case. If it were so, one would have expected specific reference to the “real risk” test as established in the Alan Shadrake judgment to preface the explanatory statement covering Clause 3. In view of the Minister’s second reading speech, it is now clear that clause 3 does indeed envisage a more stringent test that the “real risk” test in cases of scandalising the court.

However, clause 3(1)(b)(i) on sub-judice contempt, on a plain reading, is also open to interpretation and is hardly determinative. A broad reading of the clause with the conjunction “or” suggests that an individual could be guilty of sub-judice contempt by publishing something that prejudges a pending court proceeding by firstly, prejudicing; secondly, interfering with; or thirdly posing a real risk of prejudice or interference with, that proceeding.

Does this not potentially create different thresholds for sub-judice contempt especially since there is a dearth of Singapore case law on this matter? It also leaves room for the courts to potentially introduce a test other than the “real risk” test, such as the “inherent tendency” test, which has been summarily rejected by the Court of Appeal, albeit in cases of scandalizing contempt, but not sub-judice contempt.

Compounding this ambiguity is the introduction of the term “prejudgment”, a term that is curiously not defined in the interpretation section of the Bill. What does prejudgment entail? Should the Minister argue that it would depend on each case, does he not agree that leaving it open-ended would give the Government significant powers to alter the balance between freedom of speech and the administration of justice to its whim and fancy.

Madam Speaker, on sub-judice contempt in particular, this Bill will legislate vagueness. At best, it would only serve to confuse the public, and does nothing to educate the layman about what qualifies as sub-judice contempt. In reality, it will shrink the common space for discussion on matters of public interest as is typical of human behaviour to be safe rather than sorry. That alone already makes this Bill bad law, negating its very purpose.

No place for fair comment of pending cases?

Furthermore, the concerns many Singaporeans have raised over the clause on sub-judice contempt ought to bring members back to fundamental purpose of the sub-judice contempt in the first place – which is to protect the right to a fair trial.

In his remarks to the media shortly after the first reading, the Minister raised a recent case the 2-year old toddler, Daniel who was abused by his caregivers before he passed away. Minister correctly observed many people were angered by the facts of the case, and Minister queried in such circumstances whether a Defendant would get a fair trial. Interestingly, Minister conceded that the judge – the facilitator in chief in ensuring a free trial – may not be influenced, but instead the witnesses, and the whole environment may be prejudiced or influenced. However, has such a doubt ever been raised in the Singapore context where our judiciary was so helpless as to be unable to oversee a fair trial, and to assess the veracity of the evidence of witnesses? Under the current legislation, it can be argued that many Singaporeans would have conceivably been in contempt when the City Harvest trial was on-going. But did their public comments compromise a fair trial?

Coming back to the toddler’s case, what actually happened and how fast did public anger blow over? Was the judge actually influenced? Were witnesses influenced in spite of negative feedback? And most importantly, did the Daniel’s parents not have a fair trial? To quote the Minister, has the situation “gotten out of control”?

Mdm Speaker, as it stands, there is a “real risk” this Bill would have an unnecessarily detrimental effect on public discourse of matters central to the effective functioning of a participative democracy, and that is why it is so objectionable as it stands.

In reality, there are benefits in allowing the public to comment on cases pending before the courts. For example, in the recent Benjamin Lim case, no reasonable person would argue that the Coroner would not have been able to rule fairly, and this is a testament to the standing of the judicial and legal service, which are already held in the highest esteem not just locally, but internationally as well.

In the Benjamin Lim case, it was the very feedback and concerns raised by the public that contributed to a review of police procedures involving young people and minors before the case was concluded. For most lay Singaporeans, the reality is that criticising policies and the facts central to a pending case will inevitably overlap to varying degrees. That is the very nature of public communication and for the common man, it is not easy to always neatly differentiate between the two. Surely there is a place for fair comment and criticism of pending cases and it does not necessarily follow that freedom of speech has to be curtailed as a result.

Relying on the common law to address sub-judice contempt in egregious cases of sub-judice would more than suffice, so as to preserve a healthy balance between freedom of speech and public confidence in the administration of justice. There is simply no overwhelming reason to pass this Bill when Singapore’s experience with sub-judice contempt in particular has not compromised the conduct of fair trials – the near absence of case law on this matter in our legal history provides the strongest evidence of this.

More Power to the Government

With the passage of this Bill into Law, the Government, and specifically the Attorney-General by virtue of clause 13 now has a potentially overwhelming role in the determining the balance between freedom of speech and the administration of justice. Worse, the Attorney-General only has to prove a prima facie case of contempt, an exceedingly low standard of proof. Even our judges, in whom we have so much respect, are prevented by law from refusing to grant leave should he deem the prima facie standard of proof to be too low and not in correspondence with the public interest in a particular case. In fact, the Government, through the Attorney-General could conceivably abuse the law by virtue of the unclear and highly interpretative words such as prejudge in clause 13(7), and suggestions of a test with a lower burden of proof than the real risk test, which mirrors the identical problematic drafting in clause 3. This vagueness suggests a clear and present danger for civil liberties should the Government decide to interpret the law strictly as drafted, to muzzle alternative voices.

Even worse, making sub-judice contempt arrestable by way of clause 22 and thereby giving the police powers to confiscate personal computers amongst other things appears to be specifically targeted at civil society activists who are not afraid to challenge the Government, and who play their part in serving Singapore by contributing to a diverse public space of voices and views. Proceeding on this course will not only compromise trust between the Government and people in the long run, but between the people and the police as well.

At this stage Madam Speaker, it is useful to review the Government’s record on civil liberties over the last few years in particular.

In 2013 when Parliament passed the Protection against Harassment Bill, the Government canvassed many justifiable reasons for the passage of the Bill. Many were legitimate, such as protecting individuals and public servants from (I quote) “indecent, threatening, abusive, insulting words or behaviour” (unquote). One would have expected sexual harassment, stalking, bullying in schools to be brought to task under the law, as predicted and in step with the tone of public consultation on the Bill.

But after the Protection of Harassment Bill was passed into law, it was the Government that used the Act to claim harassment from a member of the public in a dispute over a mere patent! It is instructive to recall that during the second reading of the Protection against Harassment Bill, the Minister was silent about the Protection of Harassment Act envisaging the Government as a plaintiff. To then turn around as sue individuals, was a completely unexpected use of the Act by the Government. And if suing an individual was not enough, the Government then proceeded to sue an online news site under the same law!

Earlier this year, the Government proposed and passed amendments to the Government Proceedings Act that allowed the Government to claim costs for more than two legal officers from a plaintiff knowing that the Government has limitless resources to hire the most expensive lawyers and an entire army of civil servants and legal service officers behind it to defend any civil suit.  The Minister-in-charge did not even address why it was amending clause 9 of the Government Proceedings Act, until Ms Sylvia Lim brought it to the attention of the Minister. This seemingly innocuous amendment would inevitably cause an individual to think twice about taking on the Government because of the prohibitive costs involved.

Madam Speaker, even the so-called “sharp edge” of judicial review is blunted when Parliament passes laws that cause ordinary citizens to think twice about mounting a judicial review action, or further strengthens the Government’s hands, as it can conveniently make the case that its actions are within the form and substance of the law as determined by Parliament. This is especially the case for Bills like the Administration of Justice Bill, which is to give the Government maximum scope of action.

In this vein, there are other pieces of legislation over the years that directly impact freedom of speech too, and which have been amended to give the Government greater powers, such as the amendments to the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act of 2014, the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notifications of 2013, and of course the Public Order Bill of 2009.

Upon a closer analysis, it is increasingly clear that the Government’s recent record on civil liberties mirror what was known in the heyday of Cold War as “salami tactics” – only that the Singapore version is slightly different and a tad more sophisticated, with the curtailing of civil liberties occurring incrementally, bit by bit or slice by slice, one law at a time which appear justifiable and innocuous when analysed in isolation. Taken together however, they portend a clear and consistent ability to control the public discourse, fair comment and criticism should the Government choose to up the ante to tighten its stranglehold on the public discourse. Viewed in totality, the Government’s approach gives it significant powers to strike fear in the hearts of ordinary citizens.

Conclusion

To conclude Madam Speaker, how much confidence is one supposed take from a Bill which criminalises contempt by a fine of up to $100,000 at the High Court, and a three-year imprisonment term when the Court of Appeal in Alan Shadrake affirmed a sentence of six weeks imprisonment and a $20,000 fine in what the Court of Appeal called and I quote, “the worst case of scandalizing contempt that has hitherto come before the Singapore courts” unquote. IfAlan Shadrake stands for the worse case of scandalizing contempt in Singapore’s 51-year history, how can the Government justify increasing the prison term and fine by such a wide margin? The Minister commented on a recent civil case where the High Court imposed an imprisonment term of eight months. It would appear that the common law is working fine. Does the Government envisage a higher quantum of fines and imprisonment terms for other contempt scenarios, like sub-judice contempt for example?

Madam Speaker, the Workers’ Party objects to this Bill that overstates the case for the administration of justice to the detriment of freedom of speech.

Written by singapore 2025

19/08/2016 at 9:40 pm

Foreign Policy and the Opposition: A Response to Mr Bilahari Kausikan

Former Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs Mr Bilahari Kausikan’s remarks at the fifth and final lecture of his IPS-Nathan Lecture Series titled Dealing with an Ambiguous World: Can Singapore Cope? revisited an intractable pessimism and lack of confidence about the approach of the opposition in Singapore – specifically the Workers’ Party – towards foreign policy in Singapore.

Source: Mothership.sg

This opinion was apparently formed on the basis of a parliamentary question I asked the then Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2013, on Singapore’s decision to abstain on the successfully passed United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution to elevate Palestine’s status at the UN to that of a non-member observer.

I say Mr Kausikan’s views on the matter are intractable because this is the second time the very same point he makes has been carried by the Straits Times, although it is the first time he refers to me by name.[1] In fact, Mr Kausikan, has consistently made the identical point, originally found in an endnote of his contribution to a book published by Straits Times Press in 2015 titled The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew.[2]

I will use the rest of this article to address Mr Kausikan’s misgivings, by putting my views on the drivers of my parliamentary question on Palestine in perspective. In doing so, I will identify the shortcomings and partisan nature of Mr Kausikan’s point about the Workers’ Party approach towards foreign policy, which he anchors on the basis of one parliamentary question, albeit recycled three times across three different contributions authored by him.

Before doing so, it would only be appropriate for me to acknowledge Mr Kausikan for his reflections on a broad canvas of topical issues on global affairs as the second speaker of the IPS-Nathan lecture series. They reveal a personality with an acute sense of Singapore’s interests and the trade-offs that determined Singapore’s foreign policies priorities in years past and present. I personally found his reflections on the management of a rising China in the years to come and importance of avoiding invidious choices, insightful.

In making his point that the Workers’ Party plays “fast and loose with foreign policy for partisan purposes”, Mr Kausikan posed three rhetorical questions. Firstly, if the Arab countries did not think Singapore’s relations with Israel and our position on Palestine were problems, why was the Workers’ Party asking questions on Middle East policy? Secondly, and rather sinisterly, was the Workers’ Party trying to stir our Malay-Muslim ground against the government? And finally, would Singapore benefit if Singaporean Muslims become alienated from the government or non-Muslim Singaporeans?

During the question and answer session at the lecture, in a moment of complete serendipity, a member of the audience asked Mr Kausikan, “What was the political reality of being a Malay-Muslim minority in Singapore?”

Mr Kausikan replied, “I have not the slightest idea what they experience and what they feel [as I am] not a Malay-Muslim.”[3]

Politicians in a multiracial and multi-religious country do not have the diplomatic immunity to deflect such questions.

It is apposite to note that nowhere in my parliamentary question did the Arab countries feature. The reason Mr Kausikan saw fit to introduce a red herring, which is not found on the parliamentary record, is best known to him. On the contrary, my parliamentary question sought to query whether the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would consider voting along with the majority of ASEAN members on Palestine-specific issues at the UN in future, particularly since all the ASEAN countries voted in favour of the resolution, barring Singapore.

The Straits Times published the Ministry’s position on the aforesaid resolution on 1 Dec 2012, in a short 125-word piece, citing the upgrade in Palestine’s status at the UN as a “unilateral move” that should be seen “in the context of its efforts for full UN membership.” This position, which largely mirrored that of the US – which voted against the resolution – was a wholly incongruous one for some of my Malay-Muslim constituents, some of whom follow the Israel-Palestine issue closely. Much more closely than I had cared to assume.

As Singapore supported a two-state solution, why was it abstaining from a vote that brought Palestine closer to that reality, they asked? A handful requested me to raise the issue in Parliament, and I duly did as it was a legitimate query in my view. It did cross my mind why Singapore would take such a position, which made it stick out like a sore thumb among its closest neighbours in a largely Malay-Muslim neighbourhood. Could such a position unnecessarily unsettle the Malay-Muslim mainstream in Southeast Asia? Was it a wise position to take? And how was it in Singapore’s interests? In fact, there was no readily apparent reason why the Singapore government chose to abstain, since it consistently supported a two-state solution with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a position the government takes even today.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs provided a lengthy, largely helpful and more detailed reply – in step with the political process in a parliamentary democracy – to say that Singapore had consistently voted in favour of Palestinian resolutions at the UN General Assembly. My point was that this consistent course of action had been lost on many Malay-Muslim Singaporeans as the diplomatic and political signature of Singapore’s decision to abstain from voting in favour of Palestine’s ascension to the UN as a non-member observer, overshadowed our earlier voting patterns on Palestinian issues at the UN.

Even so, the ground sentiments of the Malay community on Palestine did not start to manifest themself as a result of my parliamentary question. To this end, it is helpful to consider some of the public sentiments on the Israel-Palestine issue that have been published in the Straits Times from Singaporeans of all racial and religious stripes, particularly Malay-Muslims. These go some way to answer the loaded question posed by Mr Kausikan – would Singapore benefit if Singaporean Muslims become alienated from the government or non-Muslim Singaporeans? The answer is an obvious one, but wholly irrelevant and unconnected to the point Mr Kausikan seeks to make.

In 2005, the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts and MINDEF organised an exhibition titled The Changing Face of Terrorism, which featured the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a photo montage as a terrorist. More than one reader questioned this characterisation and whether it was fair or accurate. In 2006, in response to a piece by the deputy chief of the Israeli embassy in Singapore, a Sikh Singaporean and Young PAP member questioned why the Straits Times published an Israeli perspective on Israel’s actions in the region without offering a Palestinian position on the same matter. In 2007, the President of PERGAS (Singapore Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers Association), in response to the Israeli ambassador’s call for a dialogue with PERGAS, politely replied that any meaningful dialogue could only take place when Israel ceases its aggression and use of force in the Gaza strip and Southern Lebanon, urging Israel to take a more reflective stance on its past actions. In 2009, a Malay Muslim wrote in to state that the bombing of civilians in Gaza was unconscionable, with another eloquently arguing why Muslim communities around the world were outraged over the death of innocent Palestinians.  In 2014, in an event organised by From Singapore to Palestine (FS2P), a group set up in 2012 to create awareness about the Palestinian situation gathered at Speakers’ Corner to show solidarity with the people of Gaza.

Whether Mr Kausikan cares to admit, the Palestine issue is on the minds of a not insignificant number of Singaporeans. He would have to offer a compelling reason why he considers such foreign policy questions off-limits, even more so in the context of our democratic system of government – and especially since Singapore’s position as an outlier in abstaining on Palestine’s elevation was out of the ordinary from its usual approach. That the Malay-Muslim ground did not “turn against the government” or see “the alienation of the community” by non-Muslim Singaporeans as a result of my question, suggests a flaw in Mr Kausikan’s understanding of the Malay-Muslim ground in Singapore on the Palestine issue.

In the same speech, Mr Kausikan, rather oddly, took issue with another question I asked in parliament on Palestine in 2014, which again, in his view, “could” have inflamed our Malay-Muslim ground. In arguing that the Workers’ Party’s views on foreign policy do not inspire confidence in him, a cursory check of the parliamentary record would show that the 2014 question he refers to, was actually filed by a PAP politician, who was later joined by his PAP colleague enquiring if Singapore could take a stronger stance against Israel!

I had asked a supplementary question on the back of the question filed by the PAP MP on the dangers of self-radicalisation amongst Singaporeans as a result of the shocking images coming out of Gaza, and raising the prospect of this possibility to Israel through the Ministry’s public and private channels. In the name of consistency – which Mr Kausikan argued, in reply to separate question after his lecture, was “overrated” – the ambassador would have to concede that the filing of the question on Palestine and subsequent supplementary questions by the PAP MPs could have inflamed the Malay-Muslim ground as well. Why he chose not to make this point is best known to him.

Mr Kausikan concluded his lecture by stating that he was not pessimistic about Singapore’s ability to cope with the complexities ahead. In so far as the Workers’ Party’s approach on foreign policy is concerned, he ought to have no difficulty in opining similarly.

A check of the parliamentary record would show that on defence and foreign policy issues, the Workers’ Party adopts a measured approach, best appreciated by the tone of the Committee of Supply debates between members of the WP MPs and PAP Ministers. We do not hold back from asking questions on defence expenditure and other difficult issues, as seen most recently by the back and forth between the Defence Minister and Workers’ Party MP Faisal Manap on the challenging issue of halal kitchens on our warships. But we do so with the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans at the centre of our objectives, and in the context of a multi-racial society where every community has a right to have its reasoned voice heard in parliament. That has been the guiding principle of the Workers’ Party and must be so of all Singaporeans, regardless of our political affiliations.

In the final analysis however, it takes two hands to clap on an existential issue for Singapore such as foreign policy or for it “to stop at the water’s edge” as Mr Kausikan puts it. At this year’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Committee of Supply Debates, which included contributions made by PAP and Workers’ Party MPs, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan remarked, “Mdm Chairman, I thank the Members of the House for sharing their perceptive insights yesterday. I am gratified by our unity of purpose. The friends and protagonists that we have on the international stage will not be so much listening to what I have to say, but rather to the congruence of the discussions and the debates in this House. It is important that we demonstrate unity of purpose.”

Achieving such a unity of purpose on foreign policy in parliament is not an alien concept to the Workers’ Party. Nothing is stopping the government and ambassadors like Mr Kausikan from engaging opposition politicians with a view to achieve this unity outside parliament too.

_____________

[1] “Foreign Policy is no laughing matter”, The Straits Times, 8 June 2015.

[2]  In the book, Mr Kausikan also took issue with the Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party, Mr Low Thia Khiang for asking the Minister of Foreign Affairs why Singapore had brought the Indonesian transboundary haze issue to the UN in the past, but not in 2013, on the back of the worse episode of haze to affect Singapore. To Mr Kausikan, this was “politicking”.

[3] See video from 1.31.30 onwards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gViA1O9L934

Written by singapore 2025

27/05/2016 at 2:42 pm

Parliament: Debate on the President’s Address, Empowering our Future through Parliament (Pritam Singh) – 29 Jan 2015

Thank you Mdm Speaker.

Much of the attention surrounding the President’s speech at the opening of parliament concerned the upcoming changes to the political system. The President’s speech intimated that an inclusive Singapore is a clear objective of the government, and I will speak on one aspect of our political system that I believe can play very significant role to improve both politics and policies in Singapore – and that is through Parliament and the institutions it offers.

Parliamentary Select Committees

Madam Speaker, Woodrow Wilson was quoted to have said “it is not far from the truth to say that Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.”

To this end, Select Committees that meet regularly when Parliament is not in session are a fundamental pillar of many parliamentary democracies. Erksine May on Parliamentary Procedure, the signature reference book used by parliaments in the Commonwealth including Singapore, notes that Select Committees (I quote) “have become over recent years the principal mechanism by which the House discharges its responsibility for the scrutiny of government policy and actions.” It goes on to say that, “Select Committee members have been able to acquire significant levels of expertise in the specific areas for which their committee is responsible. This, together with the resources available to them, has reinforced the authority of their reports” (unquote).

Mdm Speaker, Select Committees are also an important means by which MPs build a public record and communicate with other MPs, civil servants, activists and the general public. It is my view that the processes afforded to Select Committees are helpful because the testimony of witnesses who could be private sector individuals, civil servants or implementing agents on the ground. This would lead to greater information sharing and the acquisition of greater knowledge on specific policies by all Singaporeans, not just parliamentarians. In addition, an appreciation of trade-offs in a more complex Singapore and a more complex international environment beyond SG51, would in my estimation, significantly mature our political discourse, level up knowledge, and serve to unify our people. It would also encourage Singaporeans not just to look into an issue more deeply, but to understand why what may be a solution to some, has to be balanced with other demands – all of which must confront the question of financing, a question a small country with no natural resources cannot avoid.

The depth of knowledge of policies and their trade-offs enabled by Select Committee hearings and reports can also be a strong insurance against the dangers of retail politics, and political aspirants who irresponsibly make promises in hope of winning votes. Fast forward to the next fifty years, any conversation with Singaporeans cannot only be about seeking feedback from the people before policy crafting and implementation. Instead, it has to involve Singaporeans along every step of the way, including during execution so mid-course corrections, reviews and assessments can be made.

Select Committees in the UK and in Hong Kong

In September last year, as members of this House were busy at the hustings, the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills received evidence on the UK government’s Productivity Plan. This plan sought to address the main causes of low productivity in the UK. The select committee sought to determine whether the Government’s policies were likely to achieve their desired results. Ordinary citizens were able to submit their evidence to the committee through the UK’s parliamentary website. There was also the prospect of giving oral evidence at hearings that are open to members of the public and companies. As an example, some of the companies that gave evidence at the Productivity Inquiry included Rolls Royce and Virgin Atlantic, hence providing a lot of scope for a deeper understanding of the problems of the day surrounding productivity from a wide canvas of citizenry.

Even Hong Kong’s Legislative Council carries out significant policy work behind the scenes. The Hong Kong Legislative Council hosts 18 different panels to deliberate on issues relating to specific policy areas and also give views on major legislative or financial proposals before their formal introduction into the Council or Finance Committee. These panels also examine important issues of wide public concern as referred by the Council or as raised by the panels themselves. These include the development of elderly care services, retirement schemes, studies into free kindergarten education, animal welfare and cruelty to animals and even hawker policy.

Select Committees: Subject Matter and Scope

In practice Mdm Speaker, our parliament does not need to mirror the UK system, Hong Kong system or any other system in its entirety, nor do we need to establish an excessive amount of Select Committees for the sake of it. However, there are a number of issues that would clearly keep the Government and the opposition occupied in the years to come. In view of the longer experience and size of the UK, they host an extensive A-Z of Select Committees. Our parliament on the other hand, can establish Select Committees for the key issues of the day as determined by Parliament. What could be some of these issues?

First, there is the prospect of a Singapore where the number of elderly Singaporeans is expected to double in the next decade. It will have an attendant impact not just on our healthcare system but on families too with more children having to take more time off to look after their parents to see to it that they age well and gracefully. An Active Aging Select Committee would be helpful in this regard to understand what gaps need to be plugged, in addition to where deficiencies continue to exist in the system, the reasons for their existence and how they can be overcome.

Secondly, there is the difficult Population policy issue, for which the Government has announced a mid-course review around 2020. A population Select Committee could potentially start hearings on this issue early allowing Singaporeans to understand the decisions taken thus far, and outline what other policies need to dovetail closely with our population strategies. It could also flesh out the different perspectives of Singaporeans with regard to trade-offs between the dwindling of the Singapore core and the economic strategies required for Singapore to not just survive, but thrive in the next lap.

A SkillsFuture Select Committee of Parliament

Mdm Speaker, this House can endeavour to establish just one Select Committee in the immediate term as a pilot Select Committee, and that is a SkillsFuture Select Committee. In his speech, the President’s clearly emphasised the importance of SkillsFuture to the economy, how important it is for SkillsFuture to be a success and how it must become a national movement. There are many dimensions of SkillsFuture – P-Max, career guidance, Sectoral Manpower Plans, Earn and Learn, Credits, Individual Learning Portfolios amongst others, across the age spectrum.

Then, there is the issue of productivity. As I noted in my Budget Speech last year, the National Productivity Council also comes under the purview of the SkillsFuture. For many advanced economies, including Singapore, improving productivity is a serious matter. Even in Singapore, we have not achieved the productivity aims set by the Economic Strategies Committee Report of 2010 of 2-3% each year, and our numbers continue to look weak.

As productivity and the acquisition of new skills are closely linked, a SkillsFuture Select Committee of Parliament comprising MPs from all parties would be in a good position to pursue, and consider improvements and innovations to the Government’s strategies. This would ensure that SkillsFuture works well on the ground and how it can do more, and to account for the taxpayer dollar that is eventually expended on it. The presence of Select Committee members from all parties would not just be symbolic. In fact, it would be in step not just with the wishes of many voters, but would mirror the inclusive Singapore we all desire. More importantly, it would operationalize what the President meant when he said, (and I quote) “individual aspirations may differ, but we have to work together to create a common future.” (unquote)

Conclusion: Select Committees – Better Politics, Better Policies

In conclusion Mdm Speaker, the tremendous scope of Parliament and specifically, Select Committees to make our politics more accountable and better accessible to all Singaporeans should not be underestimated. This proposal to establish a SkillsFuture Select Committee can be read in two ways – the cynical view is that Select Committees could be used to secure information not in the public domain on Government processes and decision-making and to embarrass the Government. But there is another long-term perspective that ought to be considered. And that is – the in-depth granularity offered by Select Committees on vital issues affecting Singaporeans would contribute significantly to creating a culture of mastery and excellence, and for Singaporeans to take a deep interest in policies and to understand trade-offs surrounding policymaking. This theme of excellence and mastery, not just competence was covered in the Finance Minister’s Budget speech of 2014 – and that is exactly what SkillsFuture is about.

Parliament is a privileged position to reconfigure the relationship between the public and Government as we march towards SG100. A more public role for Parliament, and more time spent in it by MPs, offers greater scope to better our political system so that it governs effectively in the interests of all.

Madam Speaker, I support the motion.

Written by singapore 2025

31/01/2016 at 2:40 am

Parliament: Committee of Supply (2015) – Connecting Parliament and Singaporeans better

Head F – Parliament

Mdm Chair, I beg to move, “That the total sum to be allocated for Head F of the Estimates be reduced by $100”.

Mdm Chair, when a Member proposes that a Bill which will become law ought to be committed to a Select Committee of Parliament, it means that while the Member generally agrees with the objectives of the Bill, he or she is concerned about its implementation or its provisions.

The last time a Select Committee was formed in this House after the Second Reading of a Bill was in 2004 when the Building Maintenance and Management Bill came up for Second Reading. A variety of reasons were put forth by Members for the committal of the Bill. Some Members cited better representation of the interest of all stakeholders and to gain support for the Bill. Others highlighted the importance of the Bill by virtue of the number of people who would be affected by its enactment into law, hence, requiring further feedback. Another called for extensive consultations to ensure the relevance of the proposed law.

Mdm Chair, according to the Parliament website, and I quote, “Select Committees are mostly set up to discuss the details of a Bill which affects the everyday life of the public.”

Over the last year, the Workers’ Party and the SPP, through Mrs Lina Chiam, proposed two Bills in particular for committal to a Select Committee. In both these cases, the Government rejected the calls as a consultation process through the Government feedback channel, or REACH, was deemed to have been sufficient.

Mdm Chair, I would like to request that the Government consider committing more Bills to Select Committees in future. Participation on such Select Committees is envisaged to take up more of a Member of Parliament’s time, and rightfully so. While I accept citizens have an opportunity to engage issues through the Government feedback channel, and this should continue to be encouraged, this should not mean that Parliament’s role in scrutinising Bills through a Select Committee is minified or rendered unnecessary.

In fact, in today’s day and age, Select Committees can add much needed civility to the public discourse through the active engagement of issues, as Select Committees are empowered to call for witnesses and for documents and records. They present a good opportunity for the Government to deepen discussions and generate greater public support for laws.

I hope the Government can look into this matter from a fresh perspective, in light of the changing contours of Singapore’s society, where more engagement is sought on issues affecting the public.

The Minister for Defence and Leader of the House (Dr Ng Eng Hen): Mdm Chair, the Government welcomes calls from Members of Parliament to increase engagement, and in the Member’s words, to deepen or increase the engagement when it comes to legislation in this House.

Indeed, that is what we have been doing over the last few years. Government agencies routinely conduct public consultation exercises with the public to facilitate and incorporate inputs from members of the public and relevant stakeholders before new legislation is introduced into this House. This process includes close engagement with Members of Parliament in this House through the Government Parliamentary Committees who provide valuable suggestions to improve proposed legislation. The extent of consultation varies depending on the issues involved. There are many Bills that are introduced in the House. Let me give some examples of Bills in recent times that have undergone extensive public consultation: the Human Organ Transplant (Amendment) Bill in 2009, Personal Data Protection Bill in 2012, Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill, Remote Gambling Bill and Public Entertainments and Meetings (Amendment) Bill in 2014, and most recently, the Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill and Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill in 2015.

After the legislation is introduced, Members of Parliament further scrutinise and deliberate on the Bills during the Second and Third Readings in this House.

Parliament also resolves itself into a Committee to discuss the Bill.

Members will remember that in November last year, Nominated Member of Parliament Ms Chia Yong Yong proposed an amendment to clause 3 of the Pioneer Generation Fund Bill. She wanted to ensure that no means testing would be applied. Since it was never the intention to apply means testing to the PG package, MOF accepted her proposal and will introduce an amendment to the Bill at an opportune time to provide this certainty. Apart from the Government Parliamentary Committees, this is another positive example of how Members of Parliament in this House have contributed to improve legislation.

As Mr Pritam Singh had said, there have also been some occasions when the Government judged it necessary and beneficial to propose to this House to refer specific Bills to a Select Committee of Members of Parliament instead of the Committee of the Whole Parliament after the Second Reading. He has mentioned some, but let me give the list of Bills that have done so.

The Bills which this House referred to a Select Committee include the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Bill in 1988, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill and the Administration of Muslim Law (Amendment) Bill in 1990 and 1999 respectively, the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill, the Maintenance of Parents Bill, and the Advance Medical Directive Bill in 1995 and 1996, and the Companies (Amendment) Bill, Goods and Services Tax Bill, and the Bankruptcy Bill in 1993 and 1995.

The reasons vary, depending again on the issues involved. Not quite as Mr Singh had put it, whether it is to increase support or look at the implementation or provisions.

The reasons for Bills to be committed to a Select Committee are when the Government judges that a Select Committee will allow a smaller group comprising Members of the House to further examine the details of implementation for complex issues, or seek views from experts and other focus groups on matters related to the Bill.

On the whole, these public consultation exercises, Second and Third Readings in this House, and Select Committee for some Bills have allowed Government to obtain views from members of the public and Members in this Parliament, and pass legislation in a timely and responsive manner to meet the needs of our society.

The Chairman: Mr Pritam Singh, do you wish to withdraw your amendment?

Mr Pritam Singh: Mdm Chair, according to the revenue and expenditure estimates for FY2015/2016 on page 41, one of the desired outcomes under this Head is public awareness of the roles and functions of Parliament. I thank the Leader of the House for his reply. And I hope the Government can consider how this outcome can be furthered in future either through topical Select Committees, ad hoc Select Committees and so forth, covering even subject areas of interest. With that, Madam, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The sum of $2,508,900 for Head F ordered to stand part of the Development Estimates.

Written by singapore 2025

10/03/2015 at 2:43 pm

Parliament: Budget (2015) Pritam Singh – 4 March 2015

Madam Speaker,

A major theme of this year’s Budget revolves around preparing Singapore and Singaporeans for the future. The two aspects of the Budget that are the focus of my speech are SkillsFuture and more briefly, the inclusion of Temasek in the Net Investment Returns (NIR) framework. On both fronts, the government has considerable experience to call upon and Singapore is not starting from a zero base. First, SkillsFuture.

Skills upgrading before SkillsFuture

As a national philosophy, upgrading of skills and lifelong learning are not a new phenomenon. Almost 35 years ago, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew announced at the 1979 National Day Rally that a Skills Development Fund would set up compelling employers to pay a percentage of wages in to Skills Development Fund as recommended by the National Wages Council. A month later, Finance Minister Hon Sui Sen informed parliament that the introduction of the Skills Development Levy was a necessary intervention as the Singapore economy had to be upgraded and restructured promptly, for Singapore to move up economic value chain.

The Skills Development Levy Act of 1979 legislated skills upgrading primarily at low-level workers, but also included mid-level workers and managers too, with some, especially those involved in technology work sent overseas for training by the early 1980s. Since the Skills Development Levy was introduced in 1979, an entire ecosystem of training and skills upgrading has been part of the governance firmament in Singapore.

Lifelong learning since 2000

Lifelong Learning is also not new phenomenon. The Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund was first announced by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in the year 2000 to promote and support lifelong learning in Singapore and to provide assistance and opportunities for Singaporeans to meet the needs of a knowledge-based economy and cope with the threat of structural unemployment. Last year, during Budget 2014, it was announced that the fund would be topped up by $500m bringing the fund size up to a total of $4.6b.

A decade later by 2010, the National Productivity Fund (NPF) was launched with a $1b injection. This year’s budget will also see another injection of $1.5b into the fund.

Over the years, the Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) framework, a key component of the Continuing Education and Traning (CET) system allowed Singaporeans to improve their qualifications in various industries from certificate up to diploma level, and even graduate diplomas for certain industries. In industries where there has been an acute of shortage of skilled professionals, the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) has even introduced scholarships at the post-graduate level, thus providing opportunities for professionals who wish to upgrade themselves further. There are currently 34 WSQ frameworks covering the manufacturing and services sectors such as Precision Engineering, Aerospace, Retail, Hospitality, Community and Social Services, Financial Services, Infocomm and Logistics, some of which have also been identified under SkillsFuture initiatives, in particular Earn and Learn.

When the Skills Development Levy Act was amended in 2008 to cover all employees including those earning more than $2000 a month, in a functional way, the seeds were sown for SkillsFuture with the Skills Development Levy acting as the primary tool to better support the CET system supporting all workers, regardless of age, skill or education level, to upgrade and seize new opportunities as they progressed in their careers.

SkillsFuture – What makes it different from earlier schemes?

The long tail of experience surrounding retraining and lifelong learning makes it important for the Government to identify why and how SkillsFuture is different. How will it mark a critical shift away from the existing skills upgrading framework and what shifts in thinking among Singaporeans will be required for it to work? To this end, the identification of the starting point of the journey – in schools and the provision of career counsellors, commonplace in many Western countries like the US and Canada – is a good place to start. However, the challenge to convince hearts and minds, especially those of parents in an Asian society fixated on grades and a tuition culture will not be easy. To this end, I hope career counsellors in school work together with parents to identify the strengths and interests of students, with parents also playing their part in motivating children to aim for excellence, regardless of the paths they choose.

Even employers will need to imbibe a new mindset and to accept that skills upgrading is a fact of life. Employees are more likely to stay on in a firm if the firm also shows a readiness to upgrade itself too, and attempt to adopt work new processes. For example, appreciating the importance of work-life balance in the Singapore of today and tomorrow where the reality dual-income households can leave precious little time to raise young children and look after our elderly, to say nothing of pursuing other interests such as community volunteerism or the onset of a medical issue for a family member.

Born from the UK Leitch Review: SkillsFuture Credit

A new feature of our skills upgrading system is the creation of SkillsFuture Credit, which provides learning credits for all Singaporeans above 25 years of age, supported by regular top-ups. The SkillsFuture Credit largely mirrors the proposal made in the UK-government commissioned 2004 independent review by Lord Sandy Leitch to maximize the economic growth, skills and social justice by 2020. The Leitch Review of Skills proposed the establishment of a learner accounts as a centrepiece of what it called “adult vocational further education”. In fact, the “Earn and Learn” work-study program under SkillsFuture is also conceptually similar to the Leitch Review’s “Train to Gain” program with a focus on apprenticeships.

In fact, the creation of a SkillsFuture Credit along the lines of the UK model was also proposed in this house in 2010. However, the Government’s reply then was and I quote, “[i]nternational studies show that by providing a training account with monetary value may still not be the best and most effective way of motivating individuals to take up courses. What we have today in our system is a CET infrastructure that comprises a large number of training courses that individuals can go forward and sign up.” In view of this stated position of the Government five years ago, how does the Government envisage the provision of the SkillsFuture Credit as being enough of an incentive to motivate Singaporeans to take up courses to improve themselves?

In recommending the learner accounts, the Leitch Report noted that for about 20% of those who did not pursue upgrading in the UK, lack of funding was not a reason. In fact, high course fees, lack of childcare support and transport were some of the potential issues that workers had to take into account when deciding whether to upgrade their skills. In response, the UK government has sought to provide some basic courses for free, in addition to extending study loans repayable only after a worker exceeded a certain salary. It has also made an allowance for a support fund to provide assistance for costs such as childcare, transport, books, equipment that can mitigate the impact of financial problems workers face as they upgrade their skills. While some of these gaps are specific to the situation in the UK, in addition to applicability in the Singapore context or otherwise, there are nonetheless lessons for Singapore, and the Government should regularly review and identify reasons Singaporean workers may be hesitant to upgrade their skills, as it looks to make SkillsFuture a success.

Making SkillsFuture a Success

Madam Speaker, the SkillsFuture Council will have its hands full, as SkillsFuture cannot represent upgrading for the sake of upgrading. Minister mentioned in his speech that a key challenge of SkillsFuture is to help uplift the SMEs, and involve them in this process of skills development.

In the UK, a parliamentary Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills select committee, in wake of the Leitch Report, noted with concern that a conflation of skills and qualifications in targets could lead the UK Government to assume that a qualifications strategy is an adequate substitute or proxy for an overall skills strategy. The select committee noted that a qualifications-focused strategy which identifies the numbers of workers who have upgraded their qualifications would inadvertedly reinforce the skills gap if companies were unable to achieve high performance working practices and thereby raise productivity.

To this end, as SkillsFuture gets off the ground, it may be worthwhile for the Government to track the qualification and certification outcomes of SkillsFuture initiatives, especially for our SMEs, as to assess how the scheme has been effective in achieving the desired productivity increases and economic outcomes so as to better track the real value of the SkillsFuture initiatives for various industries.

Improving Productivity with SkillsFuture

The formation of the SkillsFuture Council has resulted in the devolution of CET oversight from the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council (NPCEC) to the SkillsFuture Council.  With NPCEC renamed as the National Productivity Council (NPC) also headed by the Finance Minister, greater synergies and coordination between both councils can be expected. This administrative change should be a lot more significant that a mere change of nomenclature. This point is worthy of some reflection considering the large amounts of public funds that will be devoted to SkillsFuture. For example, $250 million dollars was set aside from the National Productivity Fund to improve productivity for the construction industry in 2010. Five years later, in view of the productivity numbers, there is some legitimate doubt as to how effective these huge investments have been. Once again, going forward, the provision of an institutionalised, dedicated and regular review framework can be helpful to arrest efforts and correct a course of action that does not appear to be engendering favourable results. This would be more critical over time as the reality of less fiscal room for manoeuvre becomes a reality, if it has not already.

Finally, some practical skills and qualifications are not learnt through skills upgrading, but in the course of National Service too where specific skills or credits can be relevant in the private sector. Repair and maintenance certification and operating of heavy machinery and vehicles and leadership skills are part of a lifelong learning skills framework and these can give our NSmen a leg up at certain workplaces. I understand a similar recommendation was also made by the Committee to Strengthen National Service, and I hope that skills and qualifications earned during the course of NS are constantly reviewed and incorporated into the SkillsFuture framework as far as practically possible.

Temasek’s inclusion in NIR

Madam Speaker, the increased spending on human capital for the future must mean increased Government expenditure. For this reason, amongst others, Minister has announced the inclusion of the expected investment returns of Temasek in the NIR framework. The move of our reserves held by MAS and GIC from to the NIR framework from Net Investment Income (NII) framework was the subject of an extensive Constitutional Amendment Bill debate in 2008. Then, Minister established that as Temasek was expected to make higher returns and was not encumbered from investing in high-risk assets, it would be difficult to project Temasek’s future earnings. Minister has stated in his 2015 Budget speech that Temasek’s equity-only portfolio will continue to be more volatile and subject to more pronounced investment cycles than the MAS and GIC portfolios. For this reason, a brief primer from Minister on the expected long-term expected real returns from Temasek’s inclusion in the NIR framework and its methodology would be appreciated. In reply to NCMP Gerald Giam’s parliamentary question in 2014, Minister stated that for FY2009 to FY2013 the government took in about 47% of the NIR, and that the NIRC has been able to supplement the Budget by $7 billion to $8 billion annually. I would like to enquire from the Minister, based on current projections, how much would subsequent Budgets be supplemented by with Temasek’s inclusion in the NIR framework?

Conclusion

In conclusion Madam Speaker, Minister spoke at the 2014 Budget debate about changing social norms, in three broad areas, at the workplace, in professional competencies and to change habits for the better. This was not hard policy per se, but related to important softer aspects which can be the critical factor that make the difference between a how successful or unsuccessful a policy is. SkillsFuture, requires social norms and attitudes towards education to change. A deep mind-set shift towards lifelong education must truly be a goal for all Singaporeans. With human capital as our only natural resource, a more forgiving attitude must be exercised towards people who may not have succeeded at the first instance either in an exam or at some other important career cross-junction. Equally important, the opportunity for skills upgrading and a second chance should be one every Singaporean must grab with both hands. SkillsFuture must be positioned as a key feature of the Singapore system. A large part of the continuing economic prosperity of Singapore should also serve as a report card for SkillsFuture. My recommendation to track the expenditure and to constantly review the implementation of SkillsFuture notwithstanding, I support the initiative and encourage Singaporeans to draw up, review and update their own skills upgrading and career objectives, and to tap on the initiatives will be rolled out under SkillsFuture.

Thank you.

Written by singapore 2025

04/03/2015 at 2:33 pm

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