Monday, 19 August 2013

National Day Rally 2013

PM Lee outlines 'new way forward'
By Lydia Lim, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

SINGAPORE will move decisively to shield citizens from the harsh effects of global change, an ageing society and rising inequality, with a new approach to government policy.

After decades of what others have called "tough love", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced big shifts to:
- Extend help to middle-income households to buy Housing Board flats, and to owners of two-room flats ready to upgrade.
- Widen safety nets to everyone, regardless of age, to deal with health-care costs; and
- Ensure that every child gets the best shot at developing his potential to the maximum, while removing some of the stress in the education system.
Mr Lee delivered his 10th National Day Rally (NDR) speech and chose to hold it at the Institute of Technical Education's new Ang Mo Kio campus for a serious purpose: "To underscore my longstanding commitment to investing in every person, every Singaporean to his full potential, but also to signal a change, to emphasise that this is not the usual NDR."

He added: "Singapore is at a turning point."

Responding to key issues raised by nearly 50,000 citizens who took part in the year-long Our Singapore Conversation, Mr Lee announced key changes in housing, health care and education.

Addressing worries about home prices, he announced that a Special Housing Grant of $20,000 that is now for buyers of two- and three-room flats will be extended to middle-income buyers of four-room flats as well.

Playing "HDB housing agent", he showed that existing and new grants make it possible for some to buy a three-room flat and cover monthly loan payments entirely with their Central Provident Fund contributions. A couple with a household income of $4,000 could buy a four-room flat and pay only $67 a month out of pocket.

"Don't worry," he said to hesitant couples. "Go ahead, plan on it, get married, get your flat."

On concerns over health-care costs, especially given the rapidly growing number of older folk, he said MediShield will be extended to everyone, including those with pre-existing health conditions.

The national health insurance scheme, which now covers people up to age 90, will cover everyone for life. Citizens in the "pioneer generation" who built Singapore will get help to cover their MediShield premiums. And subsidies for outpatient care, which now kick in at age 40, will be raised and extended to everyone from poor families, regardless of age.

Education has proven to be a major bugbear of parents, especially the process of getting their children into popular primary schools, the stress of the high-stakes Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), and keen competition for places in top secondary schools. There will be changes on all fronts.

All primary schools will have to set aside at least 40 places in the annual Primary 1 registration exercise for children with no links.

The PSLE grading will be changed, to replace the current T-score with broader grade bands, but this will take several years to implement.

Mr Lee said Singapore must continue to have top secondary schools, but they should admit more than the brightest students. More will be done to let children with special traits, such as resilience and drive, enter the best schools, and bursaries will help those from poor backgrounds get in too.

Mr Lee said he and his Cabinet colleagues had pondered the problems caused by global change and income inequality and taken in valuable input from the Our Singapore Conversation process.

They have decided on a new way forward, which he described as a new balance between individuals, community and the Government because those who are vulnerable can no longer make it through individual effort alone. "We must shift the balance. The community and the Government will have to do more to support individuals," he said.

He called on Singaporeans to organise themselves to help solve problems, and for the more privileged to give back to society.

Singapore will tread carefully to ensure the changes do not undermine self-reliance, lead to over- consumption of health care or compromise academic standards and rigour, Mr Lee stressed.

Over the longer term, it will have to raise its taxes or cut back on other spending so it can pay for stronger safety nets and new social programmes without saddling the next generation with debt.

"We must pass on to our children a better Singapore than the one we inherited. We owe it to them to do so, just as we owe what we have today to our founding generation," he said.

He illustrated how his Government intends to do so with a preview of plans to expand Changi Aiport over the next decade, and move Paya Lebar airbase to free up land larger than Ang Mo Kio for new homes, offices and factories.

"In a deeper sense, these are not plans; these are acts of faith - in Singapore and in ourselves," he said. "Faith that a generation from now, Singapore will still be here, and will still be worth investing in.

"Faith that we can thrive in the world, whatever the challenges, and hold our own against the competition.

"Faith that we can get our politics right, that we can throw up honest, capable, trusted people to lead our country well, to make our system work for Singaporeans.

"Faith that we can stay together as one united people, maintain a steady course year after year, and make our dreams come true," an energised Mr Lee said as he drew his speech to a close.

He invited Singaporeans to work with him and with one another.


Singaporeans sense correctly that the country is at a turning point. I understand your concerns. I promise you, you will not be facing these challenges alone, because we’re all in this together. We will find a new way to thrive in this new environment...We must make now a strategic shift in our approach to nation-building.

A strategic shift in nation-building
PM announces slew of efforts by Govt as it moves to do more to support individuals
By Neo Chai Chin, TODAY, 19 Aug 2013

A strategic shift in the approach to nation-building, from the “tough love” approach of low and targeted State welfare to one where the community and Government do more to support individuals, was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last night.

In an expansive, sometimes emotional National Day Rally speech lasting close to two hours at the ITE College Central in Ang Mo Kio, Mr Lee spelt out the changing roles between the individual, the community and the State as Singapore arrives at a turning point in its development.

Mr Lee made it clear at the start of his speech that this was “not the usual National Day Rally”, and sketched out the backdrop of a world in flux as he briefly took the audience through how rapid changes in technology and increasing competition are giving rise to income inequality and a stagnating middle class.

Singaporeans, he said, are feeling uncertain and anxious too, and domestic social stresses are compounding their worries.

Promising that Singaporeans “will not be facing these challenges alone, because we are all in this together”, he then got down to brass tacks on how these challenges would be tackled.

Singapore, he said, would undertake three important shifts in charting a new path forward: Do more to give citizens a fair share in the nation’s success through home ownership; strengthen social safety nets in areas like healthcare; and ensure the paths of progress remain open to all.

The shifts will apply to all social policies progressively, he said, adding that his team had been “pondering these problems over the past year”.

Indeed, over the past few weeks, senior politicians, including Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, had hinted at changes to come. In his National Day Message on Aug 8, Mr Lee had also said the Government needed to do more.

Elaborating on the shift, Mr Lee said Singapore was built on three pillars: The individual, the community and the State, with the Government creating conditions for a vibrant economy and good jobs. It invested heavily in housing, education and healthcare, but kept state welfare low and targeted. “Some call this tough love, but it’s tough love which has worked well,” he said.

But maintaining equity has become harder as the income disparity widens, and the Government must intervene more to keep society fair and just, he said.

Saying that housing would continue to be an important way to share the fruits of progress with all Singaporeans and to help poorer households level up, Mr Lee pledged that every Singaporean family that is working will be able to afford their home: A household with income of S$1,000 per month, for example, can afford a two-room flat, one with a monthly income of S$2,000, a three-room one, and one with S$4,000 monthly income, a four-room home.

To do this, the Government would not bring down prices of Build-To-Order flats, which would hurt all home-owners, but would keep prices stable while giving more support to lower- and middle-income households.

Buyers would be able to pay for their homes in 25 instead of 30 years, he added, with the bulk of the repayment coming from their Central Provident Fund accounts. The shorter repayment period would allow homeowners to use their incomes in later years to beef up their retirement savings.

Significant changes are also being made to improve healthcare financing, with the MediShield insurance scheme being extended to cover all Singaporeans for life. Healthcare experts have previously called for universal coverage, arguing that it should not stop at age 90, given the needs and healthcare spending trends of those in their golden years. To be renamed MediShield Life, premiums under the revamped scheme will necessarily be higher, the Prime Minister said, but he added that the Government will provide subsidies — particularly for seniors under a new Pioneer Generation Package — for those who cannot afford to pay.

For younger Singaporeans who are less well-off, the Community Health Assist Scheme’s age restriction to those aged 40 and above will be lifted. This will enable them to receive subsidies for treatment with selected general practitioners and dental clinics, and enjoy subsidised referrals to specialist outpatient clinics.

Turning to education, another oft-addressed topic in Our Singapore Conversation, Mr Lee said efforts to keep educational pathways open to all would be enhanced.

With society becoming more stratified and competition intensifying, he said the system must be re-calibrated to ensure it remains open and focused on “things which matter more than exam grades in the long run”. Changes will occur at various points during the formal education journey — in the Primary 1 registration process, in PSLE scoring, in Direct School Admissions and by way of greater flexibility in secondary schools.

The aim is to create a landscape with a high base and many peaks of excellence to “uplift the whole entire education system”, and make meritocracy work better for Singapore, he said. There must be no barriers to entry such that outstanding students can make it to the top and Singapore avoids having a “closed, self-perpetuating elite”.

“Some societies become like that, we must never become like that,” he said.

A visibly-moved Mr Lee teared up when he cited the example of research scientist Yeo Sze Ling, who became blind at age four and studied at the school for the visually handicapped, Bedok South Secondary School and Serangoon Junior College before reading maths at the National University of Singapore. When all was said and done, Ms Yeo obtained three degrees, including a PhD. Now a research scientist with the Agency for Science Technology and Research, Dr Yeo has given back to society by volunteering at the Society for the Physically Disabled.

His voice catching, Mr Lee said: “Sze Ling proves that you can do well if you work hard, it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are. And that’s what we have to try to do, to contribute back to society and keep the system fair for all.”

Summing up the changes, Mr Lee said the “new strategic direction will take us down a different road from the one that has brought us here so far; there is no turning back”. “I believe this is the right thing to do given the changes in Singapore, given the major shifts in the world,” he added.

But he sounded a note of caution as well, saying the new strategies are not without risk. Other countries have tried similar things, but their best intentions nevertheless led to unwanted outcomes, he said, citing the example of the United States, which has the world’s highest healthcare spending but where outcomes are worse than in many developed countries, and Finland, where 20 per cent of youth are unemployed despite comprehensive protections for workers, a successful economy and good education system.

To avoid such pitfalls, Singapore will not undermine self-reliance, encourage over-consumption in healthcare, or compromise academic standards and rigour. Mr Lee also said that the changes will need to be paid for, whether by raising taxes or cutting back on other spending.

Concluding his speech, the Prime Minister outlined bold infrastructural plans to take place over the next few decades to create more opportunities, and space, for Singapore.

Among the plans — a fifth terminal for Changi Airport by the mid-2020s, and relocating Paya Lebar Air Base to free up 800ha for housing and industry. “We are not done building Singapore, we never will (be done),” Mr Lee declared.

“In a deeper sense, these are not plans, these are acts of faith in Singapore and in ourselves. Faith, that a generation from now Singapore will still be here, and will still be worth investing in, for the sake of our children and their grandchildren.

“Faith, that we can thrive in the world, whatever the challenges and hold our own against the competition — bigger, stronger, but we are there.

“Faith, that we can get our politics right, that we can throw up honest, capable, trusted people to lead our country well, to make our system work for Singaporeans.

“Faith, that we can stay together as one united people, maintain a steady course year after year and make our dreams come true.”

Universal, compulsory, and for life
MediShield Life will ease worries about large hospital bills
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

THE national health insurance scheme MediShield will undergo a major change to make it compulsory for every Singaporean, in a move to ease people's worries about racking up large hospital bills when they fall very ill.

To be called MediShield Life, the new scheme will have three key features:
- It will be for life as the age limit of 90 will be removed.
- It is universal and compulsory. Even those with pre-existing conditions will be included as well as those who have dropped out of MediShield.
- It will give better protection against very big hospital bills and patients will pay less out of their pockets and their Medisave.

Those from the "pioneer generation" in their late 60s and older, who slogged hard for the nation in its early days, will get help from the Government to pay the premiums of the new insurance.

The changes are a "very, very major step" which the Government thought long and hard over, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday when he announced the new insurance at the National Day Rally.

The Health Ministry will conduct a public consultation before deciding on the scheme's details. This will take about a year or more, he added.

But the better cover from MediShield Life will mean higher premiums, he said, although he gave the assurance that the Government will subsidise the premiums of those who cannot afford them.

Mr Lee acknowledged that one major worry of Singaporeans is big hospital bills from serious illnesses, although there are "very few" such cases in reality.

"In fact if you're on MediShield, which most people are, you don't need to worry."

MediShield, which helps with large hospital bills in Class B2 and C wards, covers around 92 per cent of the resident population.

But some are excluded, like those who drop out due to pre-existing illnesses or those older than 90. The 2010 Census shows 8,558 residents are older than 90.

Mr Lee also highlighted a group who will receive special care from the Government: the pioneer generation who are mostly retired and at least in their late 60s.

Paying tribute to them, he said they worked hard to build today's Singapore, earning less with fewer safety nets so that future generations can lead better lives.

The Government recognises this generation by giving them something extra in bonus schemes like the GST vouchers, said Mr Lee, adding that they would be similarly looked after in the new health-care arrangements.

Elaborating in Mandarin, he said this generation tends to be most concerned about medical bills as many had low wages and limited Medisave savings.

Some also face the "empty nest" syndrome, living alone or with no one to rely on, he added.

Introducing the new "Pioneer Generation Package", he said it will help them pay their MediShield Life premiums and "make sure that our pioneer generation will be well covered and will not need to worry about health care in their old age". Said Mr Lee: "I think we owe it to them."

The new package will help people like Madam Mon Atan, 76, who does not have MediShield and Medisave. The retired cleaner, who has ischaemic heart disease and asthma, said getting more help with medical costs will give her peace of mind.

Yesterday, observers praised the move to make MediShield universal. Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Health Lam Pin Min saw it as part of a "fundamental shift" in health-care funding, while GPC member Chia Shi-Lu said it is a "bold move" which adds another safety net for the elderly.

Ms Jenny Goh, manager of medical social service at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, said MediShield Life will address a common problem where patients let their MediShield lapse because they cannot afford to top up the premiums.

But observers have concerns about how the changes would affect private insurance schemes.

Health economist Phua Kai Hong said MediShield Life plugs the gaps in MediShield by extending basic cover to all. This is enough for the bulk of the population, so he is in favour of moving away from integrated shield plans provided by private insurers.

The important thing, he said, is to ensure "everybody is perceived not to be denied or deprived relative to other people".

Changes to ease medical costs welcomed
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

MADAM Nellie Wong, 64, found out how exacting medical fees can be after her mother was diagnosed with lymphoma last year.

Madam Seet Kim Neo, 83, had to undergo six cycles of chemotherapy and her MediShield covered about $1,200 for each cycle. But this had to be topped up with $900 from her daughter's Medisave. Madam Seet has no savings in her Medisave account as she used to be a housewife.

Madam Seet also had to pay cash for blood tests and screenings. Now, she has to go for regular PET scans. She can claim up to $600 a year from Madam Wong's Medisave for these, but the rest has to be paid in cash.

Mother and daughter welcomed yesterday's health announcements, including the lifting of the age limit of 90 for MediShield.

Medisave can also be used for more outpatient treatments in future, and Madam Wong hopes that it will be extended to outpatient procedures like blood tests and the cap for cancer scans will be raised.

The administrative assistant in a senior activity centre said: "I hope the Government can let us use Medisave for more medical expenses as sometimes, it can be very costly to fork out the cash."

Scheme set to cover more outpatient treatments
By Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

MEDISAVE, a national health savings scheme, looks set to be expanded for the payment of more outpatient treatments.

But the trade-off is that people will have to make higher contributions to their accounts.

At the same time, the Government will take on a bigger share of some outpatient bills by providing more subsidies to lower- and middle-income patients, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Subsidies for those seeking specialist care at outpatient clinics in hospitals will increase, he said. It currently stands at 50 per cent.

PM Lee did not elaborate on the changes but more details will be announced by the Ministry of Health (MOH) at the end of the month. These likely changes are part of an ongoing review the MOH is conducting on health-care financing.

Yesterday, in explaining the reason for the shifts, PM Lee said many people, including the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Health headed by Dr Lam Pin Min, had asked that Medisave be extended to more outpatient treatments. "I think they are right, we should do this. In principle, this is sound. It's personal responsibility - I save, I use the money when I get sick," he added, thanking the Sengkang West MP for the suggestion.

Workers contribute between 7 and 9.5 per cent of their pay to Medisave each month, depending on their age. Each year, a person can use only up to $400 from his Medisave for a specified range of outpatient medical services. These include vaccinations and check-ups for 10 chronic diseases, including diabetes and stroke.

For sums beyond the limit, patients can tap the Medisave savings of their family members.

PM Lee noted that steps have already been taken to cover some costly outpatient expenses, especially for people who are severely ill, like cancer patients, who can use up to $600 a year for scans to check if the disease has spread.

People with kidney disease can also use $450 a month for dialysis while those with HIV can take up to $550 a month for anti-retroviral drugs. This list, however, can be lengthened, PM Lee said.

When contacted, Dr Chia Shi-Lu, who sits on the GPC for Health, said easing the Medisave rules will stop people from using their savings unnecessarily.

For example, it will discourage those who may not need to stay in hospital for a procedure from doing so to tap Medisave.

Retired hospital cleaner Lachimi Ramasamy, 85, welcomed the changes. She goes for physiotherapy at Alexandra Hospital twice a month and it costs her about $50 a month."It's definitely better if I can use my Medisave to pay for physiotherapy," said Madam Lachimi, whose children give her a few hundred dollars a month.

Age limit removed to extend subsidy to younger Singaporeans
By Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

YOUNGER Singaporeans from the lower- to middle-income groups will qualify for a subsidy scheme which, for years, was designed to help with the medical bills of poor older folk suffering from chronic ailments.

The Community Health Assist Scheme's (CHAS) age floor of 40 will be removed in the light of concerns over the cost of outpatient care, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

More details will be unveiled by the Health Ministry later this month.

Under CHAS, those aged 40 and older can apply for medical bills at participating general practitioners and dental clinics to be subsidised.

But they must be from households with a per capita income of $1,500 a month or less. For households without an income, the annual value of their home cannot exceed $13,000, an amount which covers most HDB flats.

Without the age limit, applicants will need to fulfil only the income requirement.

PM Lee said that when the scheme was first set up, an age limit was set "to get it started".

"Now that the scheme is well launched... system is working nicely, I think we remove this floor and younger Singaporeans will also be able to join the CHAS scheme."

It was launched in 2000 under a different name, the Primary Care Partnership Scheme.

Yesterday's change also means children of the 300,000 existing members, such as Mr Tay Siew Mow, will be eligible for the benefits.

The 59-year-old machine operator is entitled to an $80 subsidy every time he sees his GP for high blood pressure.

His two teenage children can now have their own blue CHAS cards - leaving Mr Tay with one fewer worry about his family's health-care costs.

But more can be done, said MPs. For instance, the number of clinics under the scheme can be expanded. Some 560 GP clinics, or about 40 per cent of the total, are part of CHAS.

Dr Lam Pin Min, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, said the ministry needs to ascertain why a "huge pool" of doctors have not signed up, and try to make it more palatable for more to join.

Still, health economist Phua Kai Hong of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said the scheme has managed to get GPs to play a bigger part in preventive care to keep patients out of the hospital.

Previously, this group of doctors was left out of the national health-care financing system.

But the amount of reimbursement these doctors get will be important to keep them on board.

"If GPs are not being paid market rates, why would they want to do it?" said Dr Phua.

MediShield Life premiums will be affordable: Gan
By Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 20 Aug 2013

With plans under way to craft a national catastrophic insurance scheme that covers all Singaporeans for life, the question on many people’s minds is: By how much will premiums go up?

While it is impossible at this stage to provide figures, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday nevertheless reassured that premiums under the new MediShield Life scheme — announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the National Day Rally on Sunday — will continue to be affordable for Singaporeans.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a health congress, Mr Gan reiterated that the Government will subsidise the premiums for those who cannot afford them.

On the expected rise in premiums, Mr Gan said the final figures depend on many variables. Over the next few months, the Ministry of Health will consult the public on, among other things, what type of enhancements they want and the level of premiums that will be acceptable to them. The issue will be studied “very carefully ... before we are able to share with the public exactly how much the increase will be”, Mr Gan said.

He stressed that time is needed to study the implications and details of implementation such as how to include the 304,000 people — or 8 per cent of the citizen population — who are currently not under the scheme. The authorities will also need to work with private insurers to decide what to do with the existing private integrated Shield plans.

While he emphasised collective responsibility, Mr Gan reiterated the need for individual responsibility “to stay healthy, to save up sufficiently for rainy days so as to afford the co-payment”.

Over-consumption of healthcare services could be prevented not only through individual responsibility and discipline, but also by retaining co-payment and deductible features in the financing framework, he said.

“If we calibrate carefully, we will be able to provide universal coverage and at the same time, moderate healthcare (cost) increases,” he said.

Experts noted that to date, no other country has a comparable healthcare financing system, even as Singapore is again breaking new ground with MediShield Life. Associate Professor Phua Kai Hong of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said that the unique savings component — in the form of Medisave — will safeguard the Republic against potential pitfalls experienced by other countries that have universal healthcare coverage.

He added that most countries eventually face the problem of rising premiums with any form of social health insurance scheme. “People pay through taxes, or they have to persuade them to pay higher premiums. The saving grace for Singapore is that we have enough savings to take the premiums from,” said Assoc Prof Phua, pointing out that on average, Singaporeans have more than S$10,000 each in their Medisave accounts.

On Sunday, Mr Lee noted that there are “very few” cases where Singaporeans have to worry about big hospital bills.

Assoc Prof Phua estimated that only 2 to 3 per cent of the population uses MediShield. The proportion could go up to above 5 per cent as the population ages, he estimated.

Dr Loke Wai Chiong, Director of Global Healthcare Practice KPMG, said universal coverage is difficult to achieve without payment reforms and “radical changes” to healthcare delivery. He noted that in the United States, lower premiums are offered to those willing to change their health behaviours. Hospital bills are also based on outcomes to reduce unnecessary procedures.

PSLE T-score to go in a few years' time
Instead, pupils will get grade bands much like system for O and A levels
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

THE way Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scores are calculated will be changed in a few years' time, as the Government moves to cut excessive competition and stress among young children.

Instead of an aggregate T-score, pupils will get a grade band, similar to how students get A1 to F9 for O levels or A to E in the A levels.

These grades will be converted into points for admission into secondary school - very much like the system used at O and A levels.

"An A* is still an A*, whether you score 91 marks or 99 marks," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last night during the National Day Rally, without detailing how the PSLE will be graded.

He explained that the current system, which has been in place since 1980, sorts children too finely and adds to stress.

PM Lee pointed out that even a one-point difference, between a T-score of 230 and 231 for instance, may make a difference to which secondary school a student is posted to.

Such fine distinctions should not carry so much weight.

"At the age of 12, one examination, four papers and you want to measure the child to so many decimal points... a distinction which is meaningless, too fine to make," he said.

He recalled that when he took the national examination in 1963, the scores were confidential and students were told only if they passed or failed and which school they had been posted to.

"Luckily I passed," he said to laughter from the audience.

He said using a broader grading system will reduce excessive competition in chasing that last point, and allow schools more space to develop their students holistically.

He assured parents that the new scoring system will only be in place in a few years, a point Education Minister Heng Swee Keat stressed in his Facebook post later, calling on pupils preparing for the PSLE next month not to worry.

The PSLE has been one of the most debated topics in the year- long Our Singapore Conversation, with many criticising the high- stakes examination for placing too much stress on children.

Parents interviewed yesterday were all for the change.

Madam Patricia D'Cruz, 40, who has a son in Primary 3, even hopes the Education Ministry (MOE) will make the revision before her son sits his PSLE.

PM Lee, who announced other tweaks in education, including Primary 1 registration, said on the whole Singapore has an excellent education system. But it is important that education opportunities continue to be open to all.

In his post, Mr Heng admitted that "there is no perfect policy that can satisfy everyone".

But "taken together, these are very significant changes". "They will ensure that our education system remains open and inclusive."

40 places in school for kids with no links
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

FROM next year, every school must set aside at least 40 places during the Primary 1 registration exercise for those who are not siblings of their pupils or children of alumni.

This will give parent volunteers, those with church or clan connections and people who live nearby a better chance of getting their children into popular schools like Henry Park Primary.

They currently apply in later phases.

In making the announcement yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that while it is important to preserve some priority to children with prior connections to the school, primary schools must also be prevented from becoming "closed institutions", where only those whose parents have attended the schools can get in.

Previously, popular primary schools would usually have places for children without prior connection to the schools, he noted.

But the number of places has shrunk over time, as seen in this year's Primary 1 registration exercise.

Henry Park, for instance, had only nine of the 300 places remaining for Phases 2B and 2C this year, after the phases for applicants with siblings there or whose parents are alumni.

"If we do nothing, one day, these schools may have no such places left at all," Mr Lee said.

He noted that participants in the Our Singapore Conversation threw up several suggestions on how to tweak the primary school registration process.

Many called for absolute priority to be given to those living nearby while others went as far as to suggest that all places should be balloted, with racial quotas.

Yesterday's announcement drew mixed reactions from parents.

"It's better than nothing - but 40 is not a lot of places for so many groups of people," said sales engineer Mike Yip, 38. He hopes to send his son Ayden, four, to Catholic High School, a five-minute walk from his home.

"It'd be better if the 40 places were reserved for those who live within 1km of the school," he said.

Those who had hoped to tap alumni connections to popular primary schools, like Madam Sarah Rodrigues, expressed unhappiness.

The 38-year-old housewife, whose husband is from Anglo-Chinese School (Primary), said her family may have to consider moving nearer the school or possibly even become parent volunteers, to stand a better chance.

Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, acknowledged these concerns but said that the 40 places "was a fair arrangement".

"I feel there is room for more than 40 places to be set aside, in fact," he added.

Flexibility in secondary schools
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

SECONDARY 1 students in the Normal Stream who did well in a particular subject at the Primary School Leaving Examination can soon take that subject at the Express level.

Now, they are allowed to take O-level subjects only when they reach Secondary 3, depending on their performance.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last night that this will let students who are better in some subjects build on their strengths and learn at a pace appropriate to them. The purpose, he added, is to create flexibility in secondary schools for students to tailor their education to their abilities and development.

To foster greater student diversity, he also said that top secondary schools will take in more students from different backgrounds through the Direct School Admissions scheme. The programme, which lets pupils secure secondary school places early based on talents such as sporting or artistic skills, will be broadened to admit "very good students with other special qualities", he added.

These include resilience, drive, character and leadership. Top schools will seek out such pupils, and primary schools will also nominate their own candidates.

Such elite schools do exist, acknowledged Mr Lee. But they cannot become "closed circles" for only a selected crowd.

They "must make sure that students from low-income backgrounds are not put off from applying to enter, for fear that they can't afford it, or that they can't fit in", he said.

To ensure openness, schools' financial assistance and bursary schemes will also be enhanced to benefit eligible students.

The changes reflect a recognition of different skills and areas people can excel in, and the ministry's move away from pure academics, said Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education. "We should celebrate what students are good in, and not allow their weak subjects to pull them down," he said.

Edusave extended to madrasah and home-schooled students
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

STUDENTS aged seven to 16 attending madrasah religious schools are to get Edusave accounts and the money the Government contributes to it, in a policy shift announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Currently, Edusave is only for students in national schools.

Mr Lee said it is to signal that every Singaporean child is valued and build a sense of togetherness.

The Edusave scheme was started in 1993, giving funds only to national schools and their students for enrichment programmes or to buy extra resources.

"We had reasons for this, but children outside these schools feel left out, including those studying in madrasahs," said Mr Lee.

"We have decided to change it... This is a signal that we value every child, and will help build a sense of solidarity among the next generation."

Each year, up to 400 children enrol in Primary 1 at madrasahs.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad, MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC, said the change will help many Malay students enjoy the extra courses or activities using Edusave, and open up more opportunities for them.

The PM announced the change in his Malay speech at the National Day Rally, at which he also assured the Malay-Muslim community the Government will support it with resources and expertise.

He urged them to make better use of government support via existing platforms such as the Community Leaders' Forum run by Malay self-help group Mendaki, to maximise the impact of their efforts rather than dilute them.

He also advised them to "be careful not to let competition turn unhealthy and activism result in race-based politics", referring to a recent controversy involving an ex-board director of the Association of Muslim Professionals.

With the major policy changes yesterday, Mr Lee said they should greatly benefit the Malay-Muslim community and help improve their social mobility.

EM3 students who crossed over to other paths - Lim Chi Siang & Ahmad Muhammad Rosman
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

MR LIM Chi Siang was in the EM3 stream in primary school and Normal (Academic) in secondary school, a path that usually leads to a polytechnic.

But he made it to Yishun Junior College, then landed a place to study physics in the National University of Singapore.

Now 21 and serving national service, his story was shared by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to show how students can cross over to other educational pathways, if they do well.

Mr Ahmad Muhammad Rosman was another.

He went from EM3 to Normal (Technical) to the Institute of Technical Education. There, he did well in his Nitec and decided to try going straight to Singapore Polytechnic, skipping Higher Nitec. He said: "I thought I'd see if I was good enough."
He was.

The 20-year-old is now a third-year student studying for a diploma in visual effects and motion graphics.

Making public housing affordable for all
New grants will reduce cash outlay for monthly mortgage repayments
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong turned housing agent last night, laying out the numbers that show how every working family in Singapore can afford their home.

Announcing a new grant of up to $20,000 for middle-income buyers going for three- and four- room flats, he promised that a family earning $4,000 a month will be able to afford a four-room flat comfortably.

A family earning $2,000 a month will also be able to afford a three-room flat, and a family earning $1,000 a month will be able to afford a two-room one, he said.

By "afford", he means that monthly mortgage repayments will mostly be covered by Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings, with minimal cash outlay required, and that home loans can be fully paid off in 25 years.

Most Housing Board loans now extend for 30 years.

To that end, HDB's Special CPF Housing Grant of up to $20,000, currently only for low- income households to purchase a small flat, will be extended to middle-income buyers looking for bigger homes.

This will mean that a family earning $2,000 a month can buy a three-room flat that costs about $170,000, without having to top up any cash each month.

And a family earning $4,000 a month can buy a four-room flat at about $285,000, and pay only $67 in cash for their monthly mortgage payments, he explained.

"Not bad!" he told the audience at the National Day Rally. "And people say HDB is making money? Something is wrong!"

For low-income families in two-room flats, Mr Lee promised a boost in efforts to improve their lives in the form of a "Step Up Grant" when they sell their two-room flats to upgrade to three-room ones. He did not elaborate on the details.

PM Lee did make it clear that the Government's strategy in tackling the affordability of public housing is to increase and extend grants, rather than meddle with existing policies governing the building and pricing of new flats.

During the Our Singapore Conversation exercise, suggestions on making Build-to-Order (BTO) flats cheaper, such as imposing a longer minimum occupation period, were debated.

But Mr Lee said the Government will not be fulfilling its housing promise to Singaporeans through policies that hurt existing home values.

"I don't think we want to do this by bringing down the BTO prices because after a while, that will bring down all the resale market and everybody who owns a flat in Singapore will be hurt," he said.

"We will keep BTO prices stable for some time, while increasing support for lower- and middle-income households."

Emphasising that home ownership remains an important principle for Singapore and that an HDB flat will always be "within reach, affordable and available to Singaporeans", he said: "Don't worry, go ahead, plan on it, get married, get your flat."

Business development executive Alvin Chua, 27, applauded the extension of the Special CPF Housing Grant to middle-income buyers like himself.

He and his civil servant girlfriend, who together make $5,000 monthly, plan to apply for a four-room flat in Bukit Panjang.

He said: "I think the sandwiched middle class has been suffering in Singapore, because we don't earn enough to be comfortable, but we are not eligible for a lot of the support and grants. I'm glad the Government is putting effort into supporting us now."

Not that PM Lee is getting a cut for his cameo role as housing agent. "I'm not getting any commission from (National Development Minister) Khaw Boon Wan," he quipped, drawing a round of laughter from the audience.

A relief for young couple
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

THE new housing grant of up to $20,000 for four-room flat buyers is a relief to public servant Farhan Noordin.

The 27-year-old, who is engaged, said: "When my fiancee and I did our financial calculations for a flat initially, we were concerned that both of us have to continue working even after starting a family if we didn't want to deplete our Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings (for retirement).

"Now, she can stay home when we have children, which we will have before we turn 30."

His fiancee Salwa Andriana Saptu, 26, is an air stewardess.

With the new grant, a four-room flat buyer with a monthly family income of $4,000 will pay around $67 a month in cash for the mortgage, with the rest coming from CPF.

Mr Farhan and Ms Salwa now have a combined income of about $6,000 a month.

They had applied for a Build-To-Order flat in Tampines on three separate occasions, but failed to get one owing to the popularity of the mature estate.

With their wedding set for August next year, "we are fine with any location now as long as we get our own home".

Blind PhD holder proof of meritocracy
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

A BLIND Singaporean who overcame the odds to earn a doctorate made the Prime Minister choke up, when he cited her as an example of a successful citizen who is helping to build a "compassionate meritocracy".

Research scientist Yeo Sze Ling lost her eyesight when she was four, but went on to forge an interest in mathematics and enrolled at the National University of Singapore. She topped the science faculty and graduated with three degrees, including a PhD.

PM Lee Hsien Loong, who has a double first-class honours degree in the subject from Cambridge University, said: "I stare at a page of maths with the formulas - I don't understand what's going on sometimes... But to be able to imagine it, visualise it, manipulate it, express it, that's amazing."

Dr Yeo is now working at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and as an adjunct assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University. The winner of the National Youth Award last year also helps other handicapped people at the Society for the Physically Disabled.

PM Lee said she proves that one can do well with hard work.

"It doesn't matter what your circumstances are, and that is what we have to try to do to contribute back to the society and keep the system fair for all."

This will help build a "compassionate meritocracy", a term used by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong recently.

Making this point after announcing changes to the education system - which aim to keep pathways open to all - Mr Lee also said meritocracy "has to remain the most fundamental organising principle" here.

"We have to recognise people for their contributions and their effort, not for their backgrounds, not for their status or wealth or connections," he said.

Communities can also do more to complement individual effort and government programmes.

He described how residents from a private estate in the east took charge and solved the problem of indiscriminate parking by drawing up a code of conduct. This included residents promising to park at least a car in their porch and not to reserve space outside.

"They saved on parking aunties, and maybe the other estates can learn something from them," said Mr Lee, drawing chuckles from the audience.

Govt to fund volunteer youth corps
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

A VOLUNTEER youth corps will be set up to help spur the young to make a bigger difference to Singapore and to the world.

It is for those keen on community service and will be established and funded by the Government.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in announcing the move yesterday, urged young people to step up: "You are our future. You are idealistic, full of energy and passion. Go forth, change Singapore, change the world, for the better."

The new body will expand opportunities for community service in Singapore for young people, especially students from the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics and universities. They may receive funding to start projects and, if necessary, be given time off from school to work full-time on community projects.

Grants will also be available for those who continue to be involved in the projects after graduation.

Young Singaporeans will receive guidance from mentors and be matched to areas where the community's needs are especially critical.

Young people who want to serve abroad can seek aid from the Youth Expedition Project, which will now be part of the new corps. The project, started in 2000, has supported more than 26,000 young people on 1,300 expeditions around Asia.

Among them is Ms Amanda Teng from Singapore Polytechnic, who went with fellow students to Nepal to build a classroom and a water system using rainwater.

"At first, the children looked at us funny because of the way we dressed and how we seemed to be from a different world. But when I was leaving, a 10-year-old boy, Galchen, cried," said the 19-year-old, who was in Nepal for two weeks.

"What I learnt was: the kids there don't have the best things but were very contented. Singaporeans should learn to appreciate better what we have."

Spice seller Puranam George & ex-sailor Ho Tee Soon
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

MADAM Puranam George spices up life in Teck Ghee.

She sells Indian spices at a wet market, and her regular customers have become her friends. "When they come into my shop, I smile at them, they smile at me. I like to talk to people," she said.

The 62-year-old can speak English, Tamil, Malay and a smattering of Mandarin.

She and her husband raised their three children in a five-room flat in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 bought more than 35 years ago.

After their children moved away, the couple downsized to a three-room home in the same neighbourhood.

"I like Ang Mo Kio. It's near to everything and all my children were married in a church here," she said.

Madam Puranam was one of two long-time residents of Ang Mo Kio cited by PM Lee - an MP for the constituency - in his Rally speech as examples of Singaporean home owners who are deeply rooted in their communities.

The second, Mr Ho Tee Soon, had been a sailor all his life and dropped anchor in Teck Ghee in 1978, where he raised his four children. These days, the 104-year-old chit-chats every day with friends at the void deck of his block.

Letter to The Straits Times by Cheang Ko Lyn, 15
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

THE way her peers were putting down Singapore before National Day prompted 15-year-old Cheang Ko Lyn to write to The Straits Times Forum Page with another point of view.

Later, when interviewed, she told The Straits Times that her generation finds it easy to criticise. They also may take things for granted, added the Secondary 3 student from Singapore Chinese Girls' School.

"There are very few people who appreciate how much of a feat it was that we reached here."

Last night, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was "greatly cheered" by her letter, which shows how the young are up to the challenge of building a better Singapore.

3 new mosques to be built in S'pore
By Sara Grosse, Channel NewsAsia, 18 Aug 2013

Muslims can expect 18,000 more prayer spaces by 2016.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Rally Speech on Sunday evening, said three new mosques will be built in Woodlands, Jurong West and Punggol.

Speaking in Malay, he said the newly expanded An Nur Mosque reflects the good progress of mosque upgrading and building programmes.

As new spaces are built, he said heritage and culture are also maintained.

Mr Lee also said Malays have participated actively in Our Singapore Conversation and share the concerns of other Singaporeans in housing, healthcare, education and jobs.

This, he said, reflects how integrated Singapore's society is.

Mr Lee said: "I am confident the Malay/Muslim community is committed to a Singapore anchored on multiracialism and meritocracy.

"I also encourage you to concentrate on the many things you can do to make a difference to your community's well-being. Whether we define an issue as a community or a national problem is less important than whether we are doing our best to tackle it."

Changi expansion sign of faith in Singapore's future
Other plans include moving Paya Lebar Airbase to Changi East
By Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

SINGAPORE is embarking on the largest expansion of its iconic Changi Airport and the plans include two new terminals and a complex codenamed Jewel that will adorn the east with its shops, restaurants and indoor garden.

Terminal 4 will be ready by 2017. When Terminal 5 is completed in about a decade, it will double the airport's existing capacity of 66 million passengers a year.

"And we have one more trick, outside T1," Mr Lee said. "We will build something special."

Where an open-air carpark now sits in front of the airport's first and oldest terminal, a multi-storey complex codenamed Jewel will be built.

He also announced plans to move Paya Lebar Airbase to Changi East after 2030. That will free 800ha of land, bigger than the size of Ang Mo Kio, for new homes, offices and factories.

The moving of the military facility, which is the largest of four airbases run by the Republic of Singapore Air Force, will also remove height restrictions on large areas around Paya Lebar.

This "frees us to develop new, exciting plans for the big chunk of eastern Singapore...

"You are talking about 2030 and beyond and it won't fully happen for maybe 20, 30 years after that... But the potential is there. We can dream."

A fourth runway will also be built at Changi East - the location for the airport's future Terminal 5. Changi is expanding to meet growing traffic but so are other airports, Mr Lee stressed.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi are gearing up to serve 100 million passengers each a year.

Both are geographically better placed than Singapore to be the region's air hub, he said.

"But we are the hub. Why? Because they are not Changi Airport! That makes a difference," he said to rousing applause.

These are very ambitious and long-term infrastructure projects, Mr Lee said, but they are not merely plans.

"These are acts of faith - in Singapore and in ourselves," he added.

They reflect "our fundamental mindset and spirit - to be confident, to look ahead, to aim high".

"We are creating possibilities for the future. We are opening up opportunities for our children, for their children to continue to build, to upgrade, to reinvent this city for many more years to come."

There are few countries that can think or plan over such a long term but Singapore has been able to do so, he observed.

Changi Airport was the result of such long-term thinking. It exists because in the 1970s, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had the vision and pushed for it, against external experts' advice.

Today, Changi Airport is an icon to travellers, and for Singaporeans, it is a welcome landmark when they return home.

"But Changi Airport is more than an emotional symbol... It is why we thrive as an international hub for business, for trade, for tourism."

Container port operations will also move to Tuas, freeing up prime land in Tanjong Pagar.

"If we can carry off these plans, we don't have to worry about running out of space or possibilities for Singapore.

"We are not at the limits. The sky is the limit," he said.

Govt will do its best to help SMEs tackle labour crunch
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2013

THE Government understands the difficulties that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have with the tightened foreign worker numbers and will try its best to help.

Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck will be meeting business associations and representatives to find out how to better support them, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally Mandarin speech last night.

There are many assistance schemes but SMEs may not know of them, he added.

Acknowledging that these firms' biggest challenge currently is the lack of manpower, PM Lee reiterated that the Government has slowed the pace but did not stop the inflow. But he warned that not controlling the foreign worker numbers will lead to "serious consequences".

"The foreign worker issue is complex and the Government cannot meet all the demands. There is no perfect solution," he said. "But we will definitely help SMEs find a way to make it."

In a lighter moment, he quoted labour MP Yeo Guat Kwang, who said SME bosses had used three Chinese song titles to describe how they felt government policies were hurting them.

Responding, Mr Lee gave his own three titles to describe how the Government promises to stand with SMEs but it wonders whether it remains loved, drawing laughter from the audience.

Association of Small and Medium Enterprises president Chan Chong Beng said having the matter raised at the Rally showed the Government is very concerned about the problems SMEs face.

He urged the firms to also make an effort to tap the official schemes: "The grants do not have legs and will not walk to the SMEs, so the firms have to help themselves too."


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