Sunday, 26 February 2017

The fall of Singapore: Shades of grey

It may be 75 years, but the events and feelings around the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, including the rise of the Indian National Army and Sino-Japan hostilities, still resonate today.
By Walter Woon, Published The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2017

Amid the solemn commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore to the Japanese during World War II and the controversy over the naming of the Syonan Gallery last week, another anniversary passed unmarked.

On Feb 17, 1942, two days after the British surrendered, the Indian prisoners of war (POWs) were paraded in Farrer Park. The British commanding officer, Colonel Hunt, handed custody of them to Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, who made a short speech in English. Fujiwara was followed on the podium by Captain Mohan Singh, a former officer of the 1/14 Punjabis captured at the Battle of Jitra. After a stirring oration, Mohan Singh declared that they were forming an Indian National Army (INA) to fight for a free India. He asked the assembled POWs whether they would join up. Some 20,000 did so.

There is a tendency to view the fall of Singapore and subsequent events in black and white. In contrast to the war in Europe, which can justifiably be depicted as a struggle to defeat a vicious, evil regime, the war in Asia was much more nuanced. Nothing illustrates the shades of grey more vividly than the history of the INA.

The INA that was formed at Farrer Park was not the first. The Germans had previously established a Free India Legion (Legion Freies Indien) from Indian POWs taken in North Africa. This was done at the instigation of Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, who in an epic escape had made his way from India through Afghanistan and onwards to Germany in 1941.

That Free India Legion was known as the Azad Hind Fauj (Free India Army), the name which the Indian National Army also bore. Bose saw the enemies of Britain as allies in his quest for Indian independence.

Meanwhile, in late 1942, the British had detained nationalist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarhalal Nehru in order to quash the Quit India Movement. Thirty British battalions were deployed in the sub-continent on internal security duties. Bose recognised a better opportunity to carry on the fight closer to home. Leaving Europe, he travelled by submarine to Sumatra and thence to Japan.

In July 1943, Bose arrived in Singapore to revitalise the independence struggle. The first INA under Mohan Singh had become moribund due to disagreements with the Japanese over its role. Mohan Singh himself was exiled to Pulau Ubin. A mass rally was held on the Padang. Bose had the gift of oratory. He exuded magnetism. He worked up the crowd to a fever pitch. "Our task will not end until our surviving heroes hold the victory parade on the graveyard of the British Empire - the Lal Qila, the Red Fort of Delhi! Chalo Delhi! On to Delhi!" he declared.

The crowd responded rapturously: "Azad Hind zindabad! Long live Free India!" The Indians called him Netaji, the beloved leader. Among that crowd was the late president S R Nathan, who told me once in conversation how electrifying Netaji was.

4,400 false SkillsFuture claims made for a course in January 2017

$2.2 million paid out in largest case of abuse to hit scheme; claimants have 30 days to return money
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2017

Suspicions were aroused at statutory board SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) when its data analytics system flagged the unusual nature of thousands of SkillsFuture claims made last month - all 4,400 were for one particular training course which the claimants did not attend.

It said yesterday that $2.2 million had been paid out for these false claims, in the largest case of abuse to hit the SkillsFuture Credit scheme.

The SSG, which comes under the Education Ministry, has sent letters to the claimants to demand they return the money in 30 days.

It added in its statement: "SSG takes this abuse of the SkillsFuture Credit very seriously and will take the necessary action against these individuals."

Under the law, those who give false information to the SSG can be fined up to $10,000, jailed for 12 months, or given both penalties.

The case came to light after the data analytics system flagged the claims that were mostly submitted towards the end of last month, and for the same course.

SSG declined to name the training provider or the course.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

15,000 workers needed in rail sector by 2030: Khaw Boon Wan

This is to support expansion of rail network and improve reliability: Transport Minister
By Zhaki Abdullah, The Straits Times, 24 Feb 2017

New academy to become 'gateway of rail industry'

The rail sector here will need to grow to 15,000 workers by 2030, as Singapore expands its MRT network and works to improve rail reliability, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday.

Speaking at the launch of the Singapore Rail Academy (SGRA) at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) in Dover Drive, Mr Khaw said more than 15,000 workers may be needed.

About 10,000 are currently employed by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), as well as rail operators SMRT and SBS Transit, in the engineering, operations and maintenance fields.

To support the expansion of the rail network to 360km by 2030, as well as improve rail reliability, Singapore has to grow the pool of engineering expertise, Mr Khaw said.

"This makes the rail industry a growth industry, whose employment prospects are almost guaranteed in the next decade," he added.

He said the role of rail engineers has become more complex over the years, and that SGRA will help train a new generation of rail engineers.

The academy will allow aspiring engineers and technicians to upgrade and reskill themselves to join the rail industry. It will also serve as a research and development centre for rail engineering.

SGRA chairman Cham Tao Soon said several initiatives are already under way. The academy is currently working with SkillsFuture Singapore and the two rail operators to develop a competency framework, he said.

The framework will allow SGRA to better identify training needs in the industry. It is also working on a rail research and technology road map that will allow it to develop solutions to enhance rail safety and reliability.

Improving kids' health: More exercise, better diet

Pre-schoolers to get more physical activity and healthy meals; panel to also study youth suicide
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 24 Feb 2017

The road to health in Singapore will start early. All pre-school children will have at least one hour of physical activity a day, including time spent in the sun.

They will also be served healthy meals that include fruit. Once a key law is passed, pre-schools will no longer be allowed to offer unhealthy eating options.

These recommendations from the NurtureSG committee to get children and youth to grow up healthy - both physically and mentally - have been accepted by the Health and Education Ministries. Some are already being rolled out.

With obesity rates among children going up and chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension on the rise, the committee was tasked with finding ways to improve children's health. It was co-chaired by Minister of State for Health Lam Pin Min and Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Education Janil Puthucheary.

Among the issues that the committee addressed were mental health problems, eating habits, and the lack of sleep and exercise.

Obesity rates among children have risen from 10 per cent in 2010 to 12 per cent in 2015.

"So very often you can see young children on their handheld devices," said Dr Lam. "That has also resulted in children not exercising enough and leading a more sedentary lifestyle."

The committee decided to get the fitness ball rolling with pre-schoolers, who will have at least one hour of physical activity every day.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Singapore the No.1 tree city

Not a concrete jungle: Singapore beats 16 cities in green urban areas
Study by MIT and WEF puts the city ahead of Sydney and Vancouver which are joint-2nd
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 23 Feb 2017

When it comes to urban tree density, Singapore stands at the crown.

The City in a Garden outshone 16 cities from all around the world, in a study by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the World Economic Forum (WEF). Almost 30 per cent of the Republic's urban areas are covered by greenery.

This puts Singapore ahead of Sydney, Australia, and Vancouver, Canada, both of which are tied for second place with 25.9 per cent.

Sacramento, in California in the United States, follows closely behind with 23.6 per cent.

Of the 17 cities, Paris has the smallest percentage of green urban areas at 8.8 per cent.

More cities will gradually be added to the database, the researchers said last December, when the list of cities was first uploaded on a website known as Treepedia. It was again highlighted by news site Business Insider earlier this week.

Researchers use data from Google Street View to measure trees and vegetation in cities around the world to form the Green View Index (GVI), presented on a scale of 0 to 100. It shows the percentage of canopy cover for a particular location.

The researchers determine this by getting Google Street View images in each city, then extracting green areas using computer vision techniques. The data is processed to obtain the GVI.

As Google Street View shows panoramic photographs of streets and buildings, it allows the study to capture data such as vertical gardens. But as the images are taken by cameras atop cars, only areas with roads are covered in the study, said Mr So Wonyoung, a data visualisation specialist from Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology who is involved in the project.

Professor Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Lab and head of the project, said the goal of Treepedia is to get people to take action to improve urban tree cover in their cities.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Forging a new consensus for the future economy

Some tough questions need to be grappled with and these concern foreign manpower, population size and pace of growth
By Tan Khee Giap and Gareth Tan Guang Ming, Published The Straits Times, 22 Feb 2017

The Singapore economy seems to have entered a new normal of low and slow growth. There are more out-of-work residents and, last year, those jobless for at least 25 weeks took longer to find work as compared with the previous year. Business sentiment has softened and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have quite understandably been more adversely affected than multinational corporations (MNCs).

The cause of such a subdued economy is more structural than cyclical in nature as the Government has painstakingly engineered a productivity-driven revamp of the labour market, but old habits die hard and it takes time to change human resource management and work behaviour.

Meanwhile, in the Budget statement on Monday, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat made clear the Government's intent to lend financial support to seven broad strategies tabled by the Committee for the Future Economy(CFE) to improve the longer-term resilience of Singapore's highly open city-state economy. This is taking place amid a challenging external environment of rising protectionism against global trade, disruptive change due to rapid technological progress, and heightened geopolitical tension.


This year's Budget can be said to have three prongs: ease companies' and workers' shorter-term pains and hardships, build capacity for the longer term so the economy can adapt and stay competitive, and further commit to keeping society inclusive and caring.

With companies finding it hard to cope with higher business costs due to wages, rentals, government fees and charges, the Budget sought to ease hardship for companies suffering due to a cyclical downturn in their sector by, among other things, deferring foreign- worker levy hikes, enhancing and extending the corporate income tax (CIT) rebate for the years of assessment 2017 and 2018.

The Budget also includes help and incentives to cushion firms, especially SMEs, going through painful sectoral transformation. The schemes include Wage Credit amounting to $600 million, of which 70 per cent will be for SMEs; extension of Special Employment Credit amounting to $300 million that will benefit 370,000 workers, and the continuation of the SME Working Capital Loan scheme for the next two years.

In terms of capacity building and skills upgrading, the Government has committed up to $600 million in capital for a new International Partnership Fund with Global Innovation Alliance for Singaporeans to gain overseas experiences, build networks and collaborate with their counterparts.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Budget 2017: Moving Forward Together

A budget for today - and tomorrow
• Water prices to go up 30% • Carbon tax from 2019 • Income tax rebate • Fund to help firms go global
By Yasmine Yahya, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 21 Feb 2017

Against a backdrop of rapid technological change and global uncertainty, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat delivered a Budget yesterday that addresses Singaporeans' immediate concerns while laying the groundwork for future growth.

The speech kicked off with MPs thumping their seats in a show of support for Mr Heng, who had made a remarkable recovery to speak in Parliament for the first time since suffering a stroke last May.

The Budget offered several talking points of its own. These included an increase in water prices to fund the higher costs of desalination and Newater production, the first rise in 17 years; this was offset, for some, by a permanent increase in the GST Voucher - Utilities-Save (U-Save) rebate for eligible HDB households, ranging from $40 to $120, depending on flat type.

Young home buyers received cheer in the form of generous hikes of up to $20,000 in the CPF Housing Grant for resale flats from a Budget in which expenditure is expected to touch $75.1 billion.

But underpinning it all is a message Singaporeans should find familiar - the Republic has to adapt and thrive as the world undergoes deep shifts that will create new challenges, but also open up new opportunities. It continues the theme of the report by the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), co-chaired by Mr Heng, released earlier this month.

"It is critical that we take decisive action to re-position ourselves for the future," Mr Heng told MPs in a packed House, noting that the Budget would take a "learning and adaptive approach", trying new methods, keeping those that worked and learning from experience. "That is the Singapore way."

Mr Heng noted that while the economy grew 2 per cent last year - from 1.9 per cent in 2015 - there was an "uneven performance" across sectors. Similarly, overall unemployment remained low at 2.1 per cent, but redundancies rose.

The Budget measures, he said, aim to see Singapore through this period of transition. "We can aim for quality growth of 2 per cent to 3 per cent, if we press on in our drive for higher productivity and work hard to help everyone who wishes to work, find a place in the labour force," he said.

Workers will be offered programmes to help them retrain and find new jobs. Businesses struggling with tough times will receive immediate relief. The construction sector, for example, will benefit from $700 million worth of infrastructure projects brought forward.

Companies will get help to embrace digital technology and innovate. A new $600 million International Partnership Fund will see the Government co-investing with Singapore-based firms in opportunities to expand overseas.

In all, the Government is setting aside $2.4 billion over the next four years to implement the strategies set out in the CFE. This is on top of the $4.5 billion earmarked last year for programmes to transform industries here, he said.

There will also be a personal income tax rebate of 20 per cent of tax payable, capped at $500, for income earned in 2016.

The Government will spend an additional $160 million in the next five years on community mental health efforts. Medifund will get a $500 million top-up.

There were also measures to make Singapore more environmentally sustainable - a new carbon tax to be introduced in 2019 will levy between $10 and $20 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions by heavy emitters - and measures to encourage a move to greener vehicles.

It was, in short, an expansionary Budget, with ministries' expenditures expected to be $3.7 billion, or 5.2 per cent, higher than last year. However, it included a permanent 2 per cent downward adjustment to ministry budget caps from this year on.

Responding last night, the Singapore Business Federation said it was disappointed with the "inadequate short-term support" to lower business costs. But it welcomed steps to boost innovation and help firms go international.

Others were more upbeat. "It creates opportunities for Singaporeans to chase their dreams and excel internationally, while also providing protection in the current uncertain climate," said Mr Low Hwee Chua, regional managing partner for tax, Deloitte Singapore and South-east Asia.

Parliament will debate the Budget and government spending plans over two weeks from next Tuesday.

PM Lee: 2-state solution only way to peace for Israel, Palestine

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu official visit to Singapore
Singapore hopes both sides can resume direct talks for a just and durable solution, PM Lee tells Netanyahu
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 21 Feb 2017

Singapore hopes both Israel and Palestine can resume direct negotiations and make progress on a "just and durable solution" to their longstanding conflict, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

"We have consistently believed that a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, however hard to achieve, is the only way to bring peace and security to both peoples and to the Middle East," he said.

He was reiterating Singapore's longstanding position on the Middle East peace process at a joint press briefing with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after they met at the Istana.

Mr Netanyahu arrived yesterday for a two-day visit and, after a ceremonial welcome, called on President Tony Tan Keng Yam. He also met PM Lee and they discussed bilateral cooperation as well as developments in the Middle East.

Mr Lee said he explained to his counterpart that while the Middle East is far from South-east Asia, what happens there has an impact on and concerns Singapore.

Many around the world are seized with the Israel-Palestine issue, an emotional one especially for Muslim communities, he noted.

"Singapore is good friends with Israel and also good friends with the Palestinian National Authority and many Arab countries," he added.

Mr Lee made clear Singapore's stand on a two-state solution when he met Mr Netanyahu in Israel last year. "It is still our view," he said.

During their meeting yesterday, Mr Lee also reiterated Singapore's support for Israel's right to live within secure borders and in peace, and also the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland.

Monday, 20 February 2017

A little less Nimby

Resistance to eldercare facilities has given way to more acceptance, even a welcoming attitude
By Seow Bei Yi, The Sunday Times, 19 Feb 2017

In 2012, residents in areas such as Bishan, Woodlands and Jalan Batu expressed resistance to the news that eldercare facilities would be built in their neighbourhoods.

But despite earlier petitions - which some called the "Nimby" or "not in my backyard" syndrome - many have accepted - and, in some cases, grown to embrace - the facilities that they once opposed.

In turn, service providers are making an effort to be considerate to their neighbours.

Five years ago, about 40 residents signed a petition against a nursing home that was set to be built on an empty plot of land facing blocks of flats in Bishan Street 13.

One man said at a dialogue session that "the old folk will be groaning right into my home".

Such sentiment has dissipated. Residents encourage tolerance over minor issues. Some now even volunteer at the home.

The Lions Home for the Elders is set to mark its official opening next month, having been operating for more than a year, and has become "accepted as an integral part of the town", MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Chong Kee Hiong told The Sunday Times.

"Some residents have family members who are residing in the home and find the proximity a welcome convenience. There are also residents who have taken to volunteering at the home."

Singapore Veterans Futsal League: Playing into the second half of life

Friendly football league for those aged 40 and above reaches fever pitch with 160 players
By Ng Huiwen, The Sunday Times, 19 Feb 2017

He may be a 61-year-old grandfather of four, but Mr Saleh Ahmad feels young again when he dons his yellow soccer gear and dribbles a ball on the pitch.

Nearly every Tuesday evening for the past two months, the field service engineer has turned up at the Home United Youth Football Academy to play in a five-a-side football tournament. In fact, Mr Saleh is the oldest among some 160 players in the new SG Veteran5s League, which is said to be Singapore's first such tournament for those 40 years old and above.

The league also sports colourful team names such as Chapalang Football Club, Vintage Eagles, Zion Kings and Brickworks Old Boys.

"Age is nothing. I will still play as long as I am healthy and fit," said Mr Saleh, who started playing football as a teenager in his secondary school team.

His 15-man team, dubbed Hydratight Football Club, is led by former national player Ali Imran Lomri, 41, and comprises colleagues from Britain-based oil and gas company Hydratight.

Organised by local start-up PlayPal Group, the league is now into its second season, with the finals to run on Tuesday.

The first season kicked off last August with just five teams and one division, but it has since doubled to 11 teams and two divisions, said co-founder and chief executive Shaun Lin, 32.

The four founders started the free PlayPal football mobile app in March 2015, aimed at gathering social and amateur players to organise friendly games in the community. There are currently 3,400 registered users on the app, with plans to launch the app in other countries in the region.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

New one-stop centre for sexual crime victims after review of investigation, court processes: MHA

New one-stop centre for alleged rape victims
Facility at Police Cantonment Complex among new initiatives to protect victims of sexual crimes
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2017

Victims reporting an alleged rape to the police will no longer have to suffer more stress of being taken to a public hospital for the necessary examination.

If the alleged sexual assault is reported within 72 hours of the incident, a victim can be attended to instead at a new centre in the Police Cantonment Complex, by specialists from the Singapore General Hospital.

The One-Stop Abuse Forensic Examination (OneSafe) Centre was one of the initiatives announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) yesterday, following a review of investigation and court procedures dealing with sexual crimes.

"One of the key issues is... to encourage victims to come forward and make the whole experience something that doesn't add to their trauma," Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said at a press conference yesterday.

This will make it easier for victims to lodge a report and undergo an examination.

The new centre began operations last month and, in its pilot phase, will see adult rape victims who do not require other medical attention.

Deputy Commissioner of Police Tan Chye Hee, who is also the director of the Criminal Investigation Department, said the police see an average of about 150 rape cases a year. Most are reported after 72 hours of the alleged offence.

Officers who come into contact with victims can always be better trained, said Mr Shanmugam, and the police are working with the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) to develop a training video to do so.

Based on the experiences of AWARE's clients at its Sexual Assault Care Centre, the only specialised service here for victims, the video is intended to help sensitise officers to victims' experiences during the investigation process.

PAP town councils to increase service and conservancy charges from 1 June 2017

Higher service, conservancy fees soon for most HDB residents
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2017

Most Housing Board residents will pay higher service and conservancy charges (S&CC) from June 1.

The fee hike by 15 People's Action Party (PAP) town councils will range between $1 and $17 a month.

But it will be implemented in two stages, with the second rise taking effect on June 1 next year.

The increase will also apply to HDB shops and offices, as well as markets and cooked food stalls, the Holland-Bukit Panjang Town Council said yesterday.

Its chairman, Dr Teo Ho Pin, is also the coordinating chairman for the PAP town councils.

This is the second time that PAP town councils are raising S&CC charges in the past three to five years. In 2012, seven of them raised their fees, citing higher electricity, maintenance and operation costs. The rest did so in 2014 for similar reasons. Before that, fees at most town councils had remained unchanged for almost 10 years.

The reason for the latest increase is the higher costs of cleaning services plus pest and vector control.

Town councils also have to set aside more funds for lift replacement and maintenance, following a spate of lift breakdowns in public housing estates last year.

In the first hike in June, home owners will pay from 50 cents to $9 more a month, depending on flat type.