Saturday, 31 May 2014

Parliament Highlights - 30 May 2014

Debate on President's Address to Parliament: Day 5





"Passionate" debate an example of constructive politics: MP Zaqy Mohamad
The final day of the five-day debate on the President's address in Parliament saw the hot topic of immigration taking the spotlight.
By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia, 30 May 2014 

Member of Parliament for Chua Chu Kang GRC Zaqy Mohamad described the five-day debate on the President's address in Parliament, to chart the Government's agenda for the second half of its term as a "robust" and "passionate" debate.

Mr Zaqy, who had tabled the motion of thanks to the President, wrapped up the debate on Friday (May 30). He said MPs conducted themselves with decorum despite differences of opinion, which is a good step forward in constructive politics.

A total of 62 MPs spoke during the five-day debate which featured some vigorous exchange on topics such as constructive politics, immigration and retirement adequacy.

"The passionate discussion and the clashes of ideas we had this week is an example and a good step forward in the direction of constructive politics which means putting Singapore and Singaporeans at the heart of every one of our policy goals," said Mr Zaqy.

A clash of ideas was again displayed on the last day of the debate, with MP for Pioneer Cedric Foo asking opposition member Chen Show Mao what his view was on immigration.



"I would like Mr Chen's comments on whether he welcomes immigrants and whether he would rally the support of Singaporeans to bring in immigrants so that they are on our side, they help us compete, they help us stabilise our society," said Mr Foo.

Mr Chen replied: "Of course we have nothing against immigrants coming to Singapore but we are talking about an orderly growth within limits that hopefully we would have debated and agreed on, and that is not inconsistent with what we have said on immigration on foreign workers in Singapore."

The volley of exchanges prompted Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang to step in.

"Let's make it clear here. We are not anti-immigration. We need to have quality immigrants,” said Mr Low, who is also the MP for Aljunied GRC.

Improving the lot of commuters, operators

By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 29 May 2014

IT IS all too easy to deride the current bus operating model as a failure when we are presented with an all-new system that everyone - from investors to political commentators - is hailing as the best thing since sliced bread.

But the soon-to-be-replaced "regulated franchise" model has in fact served us fairly well.

In it, SBS Transit and SMRT have to meet the Public Transport Council's universal service obligation, which states that everyone should have a bus service within 400m, even if the service is unprofitable.

The two operators do not receive upfront subsidies, but are exempted from levies such as Certificate of Entitlement, Additional Registration Fee and diesel duty.

They almost always get annual fare increases, but have to set aside sizeable budgets for asset replacement. The profit motive keeps them efficient.

The operating model however, has one fatal flaw: as service standards rise (which they have in recent years), profits dive.

SMRT reported a loss of $28.4 million for its bus business last year, while SBS Transit posted a bus loss of $4.7 million for the first quarter of this year.

Taken to its logical conclusion, there will eventually be no incentive for the companies to continue the bus business.

In the new arrangement, the Government assumes ownership of operating assets such as buses and depots, freeing the operators from lumpy depreciation and capital expenditure patterns.

Operators bid for route parcels in a competitive tender, while fare revenue is handed over to the Government. This allows operators to meet service standards without having to worry about fares.

The new order also allows Singapore to discover the "right price" for its public bus service through real competition.

The flip side is that it entails Government subsidies - foreseeably, quite a lot.

In London, bus subsidies grew from £41 million (S$86.5 million), 6.5 per cent of the cost of contracts awarded, in 1999/2000, to £653 million, 40 per cent of the contracts' cost, in 2007/2008, according to a report by KPMG.

This however, is an unavoidable trade-off in the new regime. If we want public transport commuters to enjoy good service, and the bus business to be reasonably attractive to private companies - taxpayers have to chip in.

There is no other way. Or so it seems.

More electronic eyes to enforce bus lane rules

By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

THERE will be more electronic eyes watching out for motorists straying into bus-only lanes come Sunday.

More bus lanes and give-way schemes to clear the roads for buses will also hopefully mean a smoother, quicker bus ride for passengers.

Video cameras will be installed on more buses, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced yesterday, although it did not say how many.

Along with traffic wardens, the cameras will help to ensure that bus lanes remain clear during operating hours, it said.



To date, more than 3,300 buses have been fitted with cameras that continuously monitor the road in front of them. The system was first tested on 90 SBS Transit buses in 2008.

The efforts have worked.

"Since 2008, we have seen an improvement in motorists' compliance with the bus lane scheme," said the LTA.

The times that motorists were caught on camera driving in bus lanes during restricted hours have decreased: from 2,112 cases in 2008 to 1,560 cases last year.

The LTA said it is expanding the use of bus lanes and its Mandatory Give Way To Buses scheme - which enables buses to enter and exit bus stops more smoothly - to improve bus reliability and cut journey times.

Covered walkways for 59 MRT stations by 2018

Commuters need not fear rain or shine with extra 200km planned
By Lee Jian Xuan, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

HEARTLAND commuters will have sheltered walkways within a 400m radius of their nearest MRT station by 2018.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced in a statement yesterday that work on these walkways will begin in the final quarter of this year and be completed progressively over the next four years.

The move will add more than 200km of sheltered walkways, which now amount to 46km, to the public transport network.



Signs and local maps will be provided along with health information at rest-stops along the walkways.

"Commuters will enjoy a more comfortable walk to the transport nodes to get to their destinations - rain or shine," the LTA said.

In addition, it has called two tenders to add covered links to another 29 MRT stations, 38 LRT stations and one bus interchange.

Currently, sheltered walkways are provided from transport nodes to schools and health-care facilities within a 200m radius. They are also built within residential estates by town councils.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Parliament Highlights - 29 May 2014

Debate on President's Address to Parliament: Day 4





Plan to enlist poly students for NS earlier
Change among NS recommendations set to cost $4.5 billion over a decade
By Lee Jian Xuan, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

POLYTECHNIC students are likely to start their national service in May or August next year, a month earlier than usual, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament yesterday.

The proposed change, which will affect an annual intake of some 11,000 polytechnic students, is one of 30 recommendations by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS), which released its report last week.

Their implementation, including enhanced benefits for NSmen, is expected to cost about $4.5 billion over the next decade, Dr Ng said. It is a move that will have a "huge administrative impact" and require "significant investment" from the Defence Ministry, he said. About 24,500 servicemen are enlisted annually.

"My SAF commanders are sweating over this... Each batch is about five, six, seven thousand, and they're wondering how do we do this."



But enlisting these students earlier means they get into the workforce earlier. For those who enlist in September and are bound for local universities at the end of their two years in August, they will no longer need to disrupt their NS, he said, speaking at the debate on the President's Address.

Junior college and Institute of Technical Education students will also benefit from a shorter waiting time, as the Singapore Armed Forces aims to enlist 90 per cent of its incoming recruits in a four-month window, up from 45 per cent now.

If these suggestions are accepted, they could take effect as early as the middle of next year, said Dr Ng, who chaired the CSNS. Such changes will bring "substantial" benefits to servicemen and Singapore, he noted.

Earlier in his speech, Dr Ng also highlighted the importance of NS to building a credible SAF, since national servicemen form the bulk of the fighting force.

He observed that Singapore is one of the few countries that has sustained its conscript system - for 47 years, as other states gradually phased them out, due to waning public support or to reap peace dividends. He attributed Singapore's success to the NSmen who had discharged their duties, and high levels of public support.

Despite that, the CSNS pressed on with its work, to ensure that NS remains "responsive and relevant to a new generation of millennial national servicemen".

"Better to hear them now and adjust policies, rather than wait and assume previous policies will work even when circumstances have changed," said Dr Ng.

Dr Luisa Lee: What serving in volunteer corps means

I AGREE with Ms Charissa Yong that the proposed Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps is not for everyone ("Why set up SAF volunteer corps?"; Sunday), and the prerequisites are useful in ensuring that those who do sign up will be "motivated by a strong sense of passion and service to Singapore".

Ms Yong had surmised that the SAFVC could provide "a chance to reduce the perceived inequality between those who do NS and those who do not".


Rather, the SAFVC promotes more opportunities for individuals from the broader society, who were not called up for NS, to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to serve and defend our home. This is another avenue for those who want to take greater ownership and contribute to Singapore's well-being.

From the conversations on NS that the committee conducted, I was encouraged to hear women, new citizens and first-generation permanent residents expressing support for the scheme and their willingness to contribute.

The scheme will appeal to those who want a meaningful experience in supporting the SAF's operations, or want to contribute their specialised skills from their professional careers in the context of defence.

I volunteered as a medical officer when I was a 30-year-old mother of two sons, and feel privileged and proud to have served 20 years in the SAF alongside its men and women, seeing at first hand why Singapore needs a strong defence.

On reflection, I count my years as a volunteer in the SAF to be most fulfilling and an important part of my life.

The added bonus was that, as a mother, I could relate to what my three sons were going through when they enlisted for full-time NS and when they served their in-camp training.

They were encouraged by the fact that I had voluntarily undergone the training and sacrifice, and they understood that at the heart of their onerous training and sacrifice is the essence of NS as a duty and an honour for the country.

It is worth noting that people who eventually decide to join the SAFVC are not compelled to by law; neither will they be doing it because they are asked to. They will be doing it because they want to.

There will be a select group of people with such commitment and this scheme will provide them with the opportunity to serve the nation in their own meaningful ways.

Luisa Lee (Dr)
Member, Committee to Strengthen National Service
ST Forum, 30 May 2014

Speak Good English drive focuses on grammar rules

Humorous videos and notebooks to help spread the message
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 29 May 2014

AN ADVERTISEMENT boasted how a shop ''specialised'' in a particular service. Far from enticing Mr Goh Eck Kheng to visit, it actually put him off.

''Why should I patronise someone who was a specialist and is no longer one?'' said the chairman of the 15-year-old Speak Good English Movement, which yesterday launched its campaign for this year - the first to focus on grammar.

Mr Goh has noticed many examples of poor grammar use among Singaporeans, particularly in tenses, subject-verb agreement and prepositions.

''If you learn the rules of grammar, then you can check yourself far easier, rather than taking mistakes piecemeal,'' he said yesterday, launching this year's campaign at The Arts House.

Previous campaign themes have focused on raising awareness about the importance of speaking standard English.



To dispel the notion that grammar rules are boring, the movement launched the first in a series of six humorous videos yesterday.

Starring local comedian Kumar as the ''Queen of Grammar'', the skits feature commonly misunderstood grammatical practices such as tenses and countable nouns.

The movement has released a set of ''grammar rules'' notebooks, around 5,000 of which will be handed out on Saturday to members of the public during dance performances by Institute of Technical Education students.

HistorySG: New online resource portal launched

Singapore history did not start with Raffles
Trading days go back to 1300s, and NLB hopes to get more digging into nation's roots
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 29 May 2014

STUDENTS might have learnt that Singapore was a sleepy fishing village transformed into a vibrant trading port by Sir Stamford Raffles in the 19th century.

But the country's trading days started some 500 years earlier, in the 1300s, as a major "emporium" in the maritime trade between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

The National Library Board (NLB) hopes to get people acquainted with its rich history before the British arrived, with the launch yesterday of the HistorySG online portal.



"Singapore history deserves to have far more exploration and far more angles and perspectives. As librarians, it is always important to give people as much resources as possible," said Mr Gene Tan, director of the NLB.

Without enough resources, people "tend to sometimes come to quite quick conclusions about Singapore history", he said at a symposium held by the Education Ministry and attended by 200 history teachers.

The portal will offer photos and newspaper clippings, as well as nuggets detailing the country's history from 1299 to the present day.

Concerns raised over racism and xenophobia

Civil society groups, individuals say surge of such sentiments is alarming
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 29 May 2014

TWELVE civil society groups and 20 individuals, including activists Constance Singam and Vincent Wijeysingha, have raised concerns about "the recent surge of racism and xenophobia in Singapore", in the first such call here.

Groups including the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) and Maruah said in a statement yesterday that the rise in such sentiments had "alarmed" them.

"We see the widespread use of racist, aggressive and militarised rhetoric on social media, as well as a trend of blaming foreigners for social ills," they said.

Ordinary people have been threatened in public with nationalist or anti-foreigner language.

"They threaten the human rights of all (especially migrants) and the health of our political conversation," they said.

The statement came a day after a Philippine Independence Day celebration scheduled for June 8 was cancelled after its choice of venue - Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza in Orchard - was attacked by some netizens here, sparking concerns about public safety and security.

About 30 per cent of Singapore's 5.4 million people are foreigners. In a Institute of Policy Studies poll earlier this year, about one in three Singapore residents say nationality-based prejudice is more widespread now.

Sentosa opens new centralised command centre; SCDF's fire station starts operations

By Hoe Pei Shan, The Straits Times, 29 May 2014

POLICEMEN and island rangers can now react more quickly to threats on Sentosa with the opening of a new, multi-million-dollar Joint Command Centre, set up to enhance the island's security as it receives a growing number of visitors.

Opened yesterday, it is a joint initiative of the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC).

The centre allows, for the first time, centralised monitoring of all CCTV footage on the island around the clock, and can also track the whereabouts of the island's emergency response personnel, who number at about 300.

 
The command centre is also equipped with live news feeds, 3D-mapping capabilities and digitised emergency protocols.

"In times of contingencies and major incidents, the Joint Command Centre will allow us to have a quick, up-to date, comprehensive situational picture to facilitate decision-making and incident response," said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Melvin Yong Yik Chye, commander of the Clementi Police Division and a deputy director of SPF's operations department.

The addition of the new centre to Sentosa's security infrastructure is "a timely move" in view of growing visitorship, said Mr Koh Piak Huat, Sentosa Leisure Management's operations divisions director.

The island recorded some 20.5 million visitors in 2012 - almost triple the 7.8 million in 2009, before integrated resort Resorts World Sentosa was opened.

A new fire station is also expected to be unveiled on the island in 2016, said Mr Koh.

S-E Asia: Where is the ideology in our politics?

By Farish A. Noor, Published The Straits Times, 29 May 2014

IN INDONESIA, the former minister for Religious Affairs is being urged to resign after being accused of misusing funds that were meant to be used to fund pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca. In Malaysia, a parliamentary candidate has found herself the target of a smear campaign in which images of a foreign actress in a bikini were distributed, purporting to be her in a state of undress. In Thailand, the army has stepped in to prevent what appeared to be an escalating state of tension between opposing political factions that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.

All across South-east Asia, we see ample evidence of politics being waged in earnest, but with almost no ideological moorings to give these spectacles any real meaning. Why is this so?

A cursory glance at the goings-on across our region would suggest that we, contemporary South-east Asians, have grown accustomed to the tools and trappings of Modernity but have not internalised any of its values or ideas.

Over the past four months, I have been following the Indonesian election campaign - first for the legislative elections, and now for the presidential elections. My general observations are dismal, to say the least: Indonesian survey agencies have noted that more than 50 per cent of Indonesians no longer believe in politicians or political parties, while more than 50 per cent think that it is perfectly all right to accept a bribe to vote for a particular party.

This low level of public trust accounts for the lacklustre campaign we have seen thus far, and the poor showing of all the major parties in the legislative election. Even more worrisome is the fact that the proportion of eligible voters choosing not to vote has risen to over 30 per cent. Yet we maintain some semblance of normality in the political process, with elections being held on a regular basis. That elections have become precisely that - a spectacle - should set alarm bells ringing. Indonesia's election campaign was not without its share of fanfare and "celebrity candidates". In Thailand, an election that was practically forced upon the incumbent government was later rendered null and void.

Parliament Highlights - 28 May 2014

Debate on President's Address to Parliament: Day 3





Right politics vital to ensure that policies work: PM
He spells out five qualities of constructive politics
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 29 May 2014

CONSTRUCTIVE politics can help Singapore scale new heights but the wrong politics will doom it, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday as he set out policies to address key concerns about the future, and explained why the right politics was crucial to making them work.

Joining the debate in Parliament on the President's Address, which entered its third day yesterday, Mr Lee said politics is not just about words but that "Singaporeans' lives and Singapore's future are at stake".

He then gave his Government's most detailed definition to date of constructive politics, an issue that has become a running theme in this debate, with Workers' Party (WP) and People's Action Party (PAP) MPs locking horns over it.

Speaking for an hour and 20 minutes, Mr Lee first took the House through the Government's plans to tackle key challenges in housing, transport, manpower, education, health care and retirement security.

He will speak more on improvements to the Central Provident Fund system in August.



Effective policies which improve Singaporeans' lives are the first of five qualities of constructive politics, Mr Lee said. And that also involves making difficult trade-offs but persuading and leading people to get things done.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

PM Lee, WP's Low spar over constructive politics





PM Lee questions WP's stand on the big issues
He criticises party's approach to politics in exchange with Low
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 29 May 2014

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang traded verbal blows yesterday over the opposition party's approach to politics, which Mr Lee described as "breathtakingly cynical".

The feisty 15-minute sparring began when Mr Low jumped up from his seat to rebut Mr Lee's speech on the President's Address.

Among other things, Mr Lee had said that it was "striking" that the WP leader's response to the Address had nothing on the substance of the Government's programme, "no critiques, no suggestions, no alternatives, nothing".

Clarifying, Mr Low said he had focused on the topic of constructive politics but that the other WP MPs would talk on other subjects.

He also took issue with Mr Lee's criticism that the WP had flip-flopped on the foreign worker policy.



On Monday, when he was accused of flip-flopping on foreign workers - asking for more of them to be allowed in 2012 then calling for a freeze in last year's Population White Paper debate - Mr Low denied it was the case. He called on the other side to file a motion to fully debate the issue.

Yesterday, Mr Lee did not let the matter rest, countering that Mr Low's denial was "simply false" as the Hansard would prove it. And, he added, the call for a motion was worth considering.

He said: "The WP did flip- flop."

Mr Low: "I don't think we have flip-flopped. I have explained in this House some misunderstandings of the speeches I have made. And in any case I also noted that when the PAP has to make a policy U-turn, they called it policy shift. I don't know whether that is a shift or is a flip-flop."

Mr Lee responded: "When we make a shift, we acknowledge the shift. When the Workers' Party changes position, they pretend they haven't. That is the difference."

The Prime Minister went on to say that while it was up to Mr Low to organise his party as he wished, as the leader, he should have a stand on the big issues: "Is the Government doing right, is it doing wrong, do you agree with the Government, do you have a better view or do you abstain or do you abstain from abstaining?"

Speech by PM Lee, in the Debate on the President's Address

28 May 2014






KEEPING OUR PROMISES

Mdm Speaker, I rise in support of the motion. We all want the same thing – to “Secure Our Future Together”. That was the title of the PAP manifesto in 2011. And it stated my Government’s goal: To develop a “fair and inclusive society, where every citizen has a rightful place and the opportunity to fulfil his or her aspirations”. We set out our plans clearly in the manifesto. For example, to develop a vibrant city and an endearing home - by providing high-quality and affordable HDB homes, and enhancing our public transport system. By improving the lives of lower-income Singaporeans, for example by helping them to own their own homes.

We have made steady progress on these programmes over the last three years. We have stabilised the housing market, we have cleared the first-timer queues, we have introduced the Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) for commuters while we expand the rail network. And we took prudent steps to manage our population, particularly the inflow and the profile of foreign workers. And we have strengthened our social safety nets, and balanced economic growth with social priorities. So today I intend to recap our progress in each of these areas before talking about our agenda for the rest of this term, as it has been set out in the President’s Address.

Housing

Let me start with housing. When Parliament first opened in 2011 this was a big concern for Singaporeans. So the Government mobilised all our resources to tackle this problem. In the last three years, we have built two Clementi new towns worth of Housing Development Board (HDB) flats - 52,000 flats. We have almost doubled the subsidies for the flats, which have been disbursed so as to make the flats more affordable. The situation is now under control, as many MPs have acknowledged - Mr Zainudin Nordin spoke about this, so did Mr Edwin Tong, so did Mr Gan Thiam Poh. I think Minister Khaw Boon Wan, Ministry of National Development (MND) and HDB, they have done a good job - both the political leaders and also the civil servants.

I know that Singaporeans are still focused on housing. On May Day, after the Rally I met a group of pioneer generation unionists. We had a very good chat. They were very happy to be honoured by NTUC and they greatly appreciated the Pioneer Generation Package. So we reminisced about life in their generation, they are only a few years older than me and we got talking about the cost of property. And I said, “Well in those days a 3-room flat cost $8,000.” So two of them said, “No, I only paid $6,800 for my 3-room flat.” And today, that 3-room flat is worth probably more than $300,000. But of course in those days salaries were much lower. So I said, “What is your salary then?” He laughed and said, “I knew you would ask me that question.” And he was paid as a teacher $300 (per month). And for that princely sum, he started paying for an HDB flat. But as Singapore prospered, and the value of their flats rose, they shared in this benefit and today they have sizeable nest-eggs in retirement.

But they said that their children were concerned about housing still being expensive. So I explained what I have explained so many times before – how we are keeping flats affordable for their children’s generation as well. Because HDB home ownership is not just about providing Singaporeans a roof over our heads – it is also to give everyone a stake in the country and it is a very important way by which we boost the assets of the lower-income Singaporeans, level them up and narrow the gap between the rich and the poor in Singapore.

Why it’s so hard for S’poreans to understand CPF

By Devadas Krishnadas, Published TODAY, 28 May 2014

Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin has published a lengthy blog post on the Central Provident Fund (CPF) to dispel some misconceptions about it.

Mr Tan points out that as the lifespans of Singaporeans lengthen, our retirement needs will grow, and hence the need to raise the CPF Minimum Sum and retirement age. He also reminds us that CPF monies are commonly used for housing needs.

Yet, his well-intentioned effort at communicating a complex phenomenon that is the CPF model may not have silenced the critics or comforted the anxious. Why is this so? Primarily because of some complications that make the CPF model difficult to understand. And what does the angst over CPF say about Singapore’s political system? Maybe it is time to rethink the social compact.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?

First, the CPF system is trying to do too many things. It originated as a simple contributions model to address the retirement needs of workers.

But today we can use our CPF money to pay for housing and to make investments. These additional options have bundled the notion of retirement financing with the emotional issues of home and the pecuniary desire to grow monies. The three are not easy bedfellows.

Over the years, housing prices have grown much faster than CPF interest rates or wages.

The first significant growth spurt came in the 1990s when the government liberalised CPF rules to permit higher withdrawals to finance housing and to make investments.

The second major growth spurt in housing prices has been in recent years due to demand and supply mismatches brought about by rapid population growth, easy credit conditions and discouragement from savings due to extremely low interest rates.

The use of CPF monies to chase fast-rising housing markets has meant that while the “net asset growth” strategy has technically worked, Singaporeans have in fact traded fungible cash for a relatively illiquid physical asset, namely their homes.

CPF monies were and are in fact an important source of liquidity for the property market. The curiosity that perplexes many Singaporeans is the idea of treating CPF monies used for housing needs as “borrowing” since it is their own monies, as pointed out by the minister.

Botanic Gardens' iconic Tembusu tree gets better support

Springing to the support of a stately green icon
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

ONE of Singapore's most iconic trees is standing tall, thanks to a $25,000 project to prop up a low-hanging branch.

The Tembusu at Singapore Botanic Gardens is more than 200 years old and features on the $5 note, but it had been in danger of having its sagging, 20m arm snap off.



A team of eight, including engineers from local defence contractor ST Kinetics and arborists from the National Parks Board, worked for a year to develop a system to prop up the branch at three points without hindering its growth.

Previously, it had been supported by wooden props which, while effective for the short term, restricted its movement and could have made the tree unable to bear its own weight over a longer period.

The new system consists of structures with springs that allow the branch to move, and another part nearer the trunk to support it.

These allow the branch to gradually adjust to wind conditions and regain strength while helping it to grow at the same time.

You don't need to be rich to make a difference to the arts

By Corrie Tan, The Straits Times, 26 May 2014

THE lights dim and audience members settle into their seats, ready for the show to begin.

But before the curtains lift, a dulcet voiceover usually filters in over the speakers, thanking a list of sponsors who have made the performance possible, from food and beverage outlets to wealth management firms.

Whether it is $1,000 or $1 million, a tiny art showcase or a blockbuster musical, wrangling funds to get performances and exhibitions off the ground is a perennial struggle for all arts groups and artists here.

In Singapore, arts funding comes in two main forms - government funding and sponsorship from private companies or individuals, those who love what an arts group does and reach deep into their pockets to keep them going.

Last year, the Government announced a new Cultural Matching Fund in the hopes that it would encourage more of this brand of private philanthropy.

Under this $200 million scheme, the Government will match cash donations to eligible arts groups dollar-for-dollar, meaning that a $20 cash donation is transformed into $40 in their coffers.

All arts and heritage charities and Institutions of a Public Character (non-profit organisations with activities benefiting the community as a whole) can tap the fund, and no conditions will be placed on the groups as to how the matching grant is used.

That means they have a great deal of flexibility in how they want to use the money, whether for salaries or for specific projects.

There was a general sense of optimism from the arts community when this fund was unveiled, with many positing that it would change the landscape of arts giving, which has remained largely stagnant over the last decade due to a variety of causes, including a fluctuating economy and competition from other charitable causes.

The arts scene has also grown exponentially over the past decade, with the number of arts companies in Singapore leaping from 302 in 2003 to 1,260 in 2012.

The number of arts performances has also spiked, from 4,531 in 2003 to 8,530 in 2012, meaning that there were an average of 23 arts performances daily in 2012.

This also means that more arts groups and events are fighting for their share of the limited financial pie.

This is not helped by the fact that private sponsorship and donations to the arts have flagged over the past decade, with $35.3 million received in 2012, compared to $47.2 million in 2004.

While government funding for the arts has gradually increased, sustainability is key, and it is therefore crucial that there is a variety of funding options that arts groups can turn to.

Millions of dollars are pumped into arts companies here every year, whether to help cover rental costs, pay performers or keep the company afloat.

Attracting major film projects to S'pore

By John Lui, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014

IT WAS an operation worthy of the undercover operative that gives the movie its name.

The crew for Agent 47, with its stars Zachary Quinto and Rupert Friend in tow, came into Singapore stealthily earlier this month to film a few scenes on its streets. Other filming took place in the new, massive sound stages run by Infinite Studios, off Portsdown Road.

But despite producer 20th Century Fox's attempts to keep things quiet, paparazzi buzzed the Robinson Road shooting site. All it took was a leak - perhaps from a reporter breaking a confidentiality agreement - and news of the photographic locations spread quickly.

Sources say the leak displeased the studio, which was trying to keep images related to the video game-inspired movie franchise a secret until the action movie's release next year.

As far as hiccups go, the leak was probably a minor one for a production with a budget in the tens of millions that will take several years from birth to release.

Mr Mike Wiluan, chief executive of Infinite Studios, says Agent 47 is only the start of what he hopes to be a string of major productions making the trip to Singapore.

This will be especially so after the film's views of Chinatown, Marina Bay and, yes, Robinson Road are seen by a worldwide audience. "This will turn heads. The benefit will be that it will have a lot more producers, more people in the business, interested in coming to shoot in Singapore."

Infinite Studios is a co-producer of the project.

Fox did not come here purely for the sake of scenic locations, a skilled workforce, national infrastructure, the use of English and the new sound stages - reasons often given by those promoting the nation as a film location.

The island competes with other countries in the game of snagging studio work. It is understood that an undisclosed financial incentive was offered by the Government. Tax breaks and other perks are standard in the industry.

$1.2 billion in govt IT projects up for tender

By Kenny Chee, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014

COME July next year, people dialling in to the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) hotline for its new contact centre could have their calls analysed automatically by software.

This is to help MOM categorise calls and understand why people call the centre, which will handle public enquiries.

MOM is also looking into the feasibility of using virtual assistants at the centre to answer simple questions that could come from phone calls and e-mails.

The new centre is one of the $1.2 billion worth of infocomm projects for which the Government is calling tenders in its 2014 financial year, which began last month.



The amount to be spent on Government information technology projects is the same as last year, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) said yesterday.

About 380 tenders are expected to be called, up from the previous year's projection of about 290 tenders.

More than 90 per cent of this year's tenders are less than $5 million in value, Mr Chan Cheow Hoe, IDA's assistant chief executive, said at an industry briefing at Suntec Singapore. This is similar to last year's.

The event was attended by more than 700 people, including infocomm executives, public officers and business developers.

The bulk of this year's projects - 33 per cent - are between $200,000 and $500,000.

Competition watchdog slaps firms with record $9.3m penalty

By Grace Leong, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014

FOUR Japanese ball bearing manufacturing firms and their Singapore subsidiaries have been hit with a record penalty of $9.3 million for engaging in cartel activities to fix prices.

The Japanese companies, which are listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and their local units engaged in anti-competitive agreements and unlawful exchange of information to fix prices of ball and roller bearings sold to aftermarket customers here, which use bearings for repair and maintenance purposes, the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) said yesterday.




CCS chief executive Toh Han Li, at a briefing yesterday, said: "Our Competition Act does have extra-territorial reach in so far as the conduct impacts on the Singapore economy and Singapore businesses. So companies that engage in anti-competitive conduct overseas, like in this case, can be investigated under Singapore law.

"This is also the first time we (have) issued a decision against a manufacturing cartel. All previous decisions involved services (cartels)."

Mr Toh added that the cartel was a "secretive and sophisticated" one, where the participants "engaged in covert conduct, including referring to each participant by codenames, unlike previous CCS price-fixing cartels".

No pork DNA in Cadbury chocs in Singapore: AVA

It confirms no such imports but will check all similar products
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014

THE Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) has confirmed that Singapore did not import the batch of Cadbury chocolates that contained traces of pork DNA.



Still, it will conduct checks on all similar Cadbury products available here. This is to "ensure that the ingredients used in the manufacturing of the products are truly as declared under the statement of ingredients", the AVA said in a statement on Monday.

Cadbury Malaysia is conducting a full review of its supply chain after it had to recall its Cadbury Dairy Milk Hazelnut and Cadbury Dairy Milk Roast Almond items, which were found with traces of porcine DNA, The Star newspaper reported yesterday.

A check with local supermarket chains, including FairPrice, found that consumers have not raised concerns about Cadbury chocolates so far.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Parliament Highlights - 27 May 2014

Debate on President's Address to Parliament: Day 2

Govt plan to engage public on ageing issues
Aim is to address concerns and celebrate people living longer
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014

A NATIONAL action plan to help Singapore's seniors live meaningful lives as they age is expected to be ready by next year.

This "coherent national agenda" will include helping them learn new things, getting the workplace to be more welcoming, and making it easier for them to live with their families.

These measures will not just allow seniors to remain active, but also to have "their days filled with excitement", said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday.

This "Nation for all Ages" action plan he announced in Parliament will also cover employment, volunteerism, urban infrastructure, health care, retirement adequacy and research into ageing.



Mr Gan, who also chairs the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, said there will be a series of public consultations, starting from the middle of this year, to find out what people want. He said: "Ageing is a conversation that involves all of us - our aspirations for our silver years, how we hope to live our life to the fullest, how we wish to relate to peers and younger persons, and the kind of society we wish to live in when we age."

What Mr Gan wants to see is a shift in people's mindsets - "from worrying about the challenges that come from ageing to celebrating longevity".



Ageing and paying for health-care financing were hot topics on Day 2 yesterday of the debate on President Tony Tan Keng Yam's address at the opening of the 12th Parliament's second session. Suggestions on how to help seniors remain financially independent included higher Central Provident Fund contributions and better ways to unlock their flats' value.

Outlining in broad strokes the way forward, Mr Gan said it includes people having longer years of productive lives and how "the workplace can be made more welcoming and empowering for our seniors to put their experience and talents to good use".

PSLE here to stay, but its focus will shift: Heng

By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 27 May 2014

THE Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will continue to be an "important milestone examination" in the education system here, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat reiterated yesterday, amidst a call by an opposition party for it to be scrapped.


He was addressing 600 educators from more than 40 countries at a global conference on educational assessment at Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel.

Mr Heng did not give more details about the PSLE revamp first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally last August.

Mr Lee had said then that the PSLE T-score would be replaced in a few years by wider grade bands similar to the A1 to F9 grades for the O level.

The T-score system has often been criticised for fuelling competition by sorting children too finely based on how well a child does relative to his peers.

Earlier this month, the Singapore Democratic Party had called for the PSLE to be scrapped so that students can focus on learning instead of preparing for an exam that will determine their future.

But Mr Heng said exams today have gone beyond recall and understanding. "Our national examinations at all levels require higher order thinking skills such as application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation," he said.