Saturday, 31 December 2016

Post-truth world: Fight against fake news

When hard truths lose out to seductive lies
The spread of fake news worldwide has raised concern but it has also galvanised efforts to combat the problem
By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent, The Straits Times, 31 Dec 2016

Did you know that the Pope already endorsed Mr Donald Trump as US president, urging faithful Catholics to vote for him months before Mr Trump faced the American electorate?

Were you aware that, once safely outside the European Union, Britain would be able to reconnect to its former colonies and recreate the splendour and prosperity of its old empire? And did you know that, recently, a teenage Russian girl was repeatedly raped in Germany by Muslim migrants, but that the German government hushed up the entire affair and allowed the perpetrators to escape unpunished because it did not wish to admit that Germany's immigration policies are filling Europe with dangerous criminals?

If you were not familiar with these stories, don't worry too much, though. Because they are utterly false, complete concoctions from beginning to end. Yet each one of these stories was believed by tens of millions of people during this outgoing year. And each one had direct consequences, by contributing to changed political realities in the countries concerned.

Welcome to our "post-truth" times, an era when politicians can get elected and nations can be persuaded to make fateful decisions not on the basis of facts, but on the basis of emotions, stirred up by often deliberately manufactured lies.

Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth - an adjective defined as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief" - as its international word of the year.

And for good reasons, for this phenomenon of replacing truth with "believability" is hugely significant, and stands to undermine the very foundations of good governance and rules-based politics.

Post-truth is not, of course, an entirely new development. Think of Nazi Germany's systematic extermination of millions of Jews in facilities masquerading as labour camps. Think of the Soviet Union of the 1930s, when the "workers and peasant socialist paradise" killed millions of workers and peasants.

And recall the Great Leap Forward of Mao Zedong's China, which resulted in the deadliest leap backwards in Chinese history.

In each one of these events, the publicly proclaimed reality was diametrically at odds with actual reality.

Besides, resorting to lies for political advantage is hardly a unique phenomenon; for as long as human beings had something to say, they also uttered words which were untrue. And truth itself has often been a fungible concept.

What 'Nazi parade' scandal says about Taiwan society

By Alan Fong, Published The Straits Times, 31 Dec 2016

TAIWAN (THE CHINA POST/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A school event in Taiwan came to the attention of international media last week.

A group of students from a private high school wore self-fashioned Nazi uniforms and wielded swastika banners at their school's Christmas and Thanksgiving costume parade on Dec 23. Photos taken at the parade served as fodder for a heated debate on PTT, Taiwan's largest online forum. When one netizen forwarded the photos to the Israeli representative office in Taipei, the debate escalated into a diplomatic affair.



The Israeli representative office condemned the display of Nazi paraphernalia as "deplorable and shocking" and called on Taiwan to initiate programmes to teach students about the Holocaust.

The Presidential Office apologised for the presentation, which it described as "disrespectful to the Jewish people's suffering at the hands of war and representative of ignorance towards modern history".

The Ministry of Education also responded by threatening to cut subsidies to the school.

Before the day ended, the school's principal apologised for the school's negligence and failure to educate its students.

He resigned the next day.

The parade was widely criticised in Taiwanese society, but there were also people who questioned why representations of Nazis deserved universal and high-profile condemnation in a place where people seemed to have no problem role-playing, or even outright worshipping, other authoritarian figures such as Taiwan's former president Chiang Kai-shek.

AMK Town Council general manager under CPIB probe

By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 30 Dec 2016

The general manager and secretary of Ang Mo Kio Town Council has been removed from his duties and is under investigation by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).

Mr Victor Wong, who works for CPG Facilities Management, the managing agent of the town council, was asked to go on leave by his company after the town council received a complaint about him in September, town council chairman Ang Hin Kee told The Straits Times yesterday.

He added that the case had been referred to the CPIB and Mr Wong was removed from his positions at the town council last month.

An acting general manager, Mr Lim Kian Chiong, has been appointed to replace him, according to a notice published last month in the Government Gazette.

Mr Lim is also an employee of CPG Facilities Management, which is contracted to manage the estate.

Mr Ang, who is an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, said the town council received a complaint in September about Mr Wong concerning "the way he handles contracts and dealings in the town council".

He added that the complaint "arose out of his dealings which relates to probable behaviour needing investigation done by CPIB".

"Needless to say, the town council ourselves will render all the assistance needed to ensure zero tolerance for corruption," said Mr Ang.

"There's responsibility on the part of our contractors to do the job properly. If they do it inappropriately, then we will take follow-up actions with regard to getting them replaced (and) sending the case for investigation, making sure the necessary steps are taken."

Friday, 30 December 2016

ICA to collect iris images from January 2017 for NRIC and passport applications

Process similar to taking a photo; scans will serve as added layer of security at checkpoints
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2016

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) will be collecting iris images from Singaporeans and permanent residents from next month, as amendments to the National Registration Act kick in.

The iris images will serve as another identifier, in addition to photographs and fingerprints, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a statement yesterday.

This will be done as part of the National Registration Identity Card (NRIC) registration and re-registration process, and passport application and renewal.

Amendments to the Act were passed last month and are aimed at strengthening "the effectiveness and efficiency of (ICA's) operations", said MHA.

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Desmond Lee had told Parliament that the collection of iris images would be done in preparation for a roll-out of iris-scanning technology at land, air and sea checkpoints in the next two years.

The collection and verification of iris images is a non-intrusive process similar to taking a photograph.

The amendments will allow the ICA to collect more forms of personal identification data but not body samples, such as blood, through invasive means.

The ICA had received feedback from people who had problems using automated clearance gates at checkpoints because of difficulties in producing definitive fingerprints.

Iris scanning has been used in the Netherlands and Germany since the early 2000s, while the United Arab Emirates has mandated the collection of iris images from all citizens since 2013.

Selected SingPost employees will also be appointed as registration officers to assist NRIC holders at certain outlets. SingPost outlets are another location where passports, identity cards and long-term passes can be registered.

Driving instructors' age limit to be raised to 75 from January 2017

By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2016

Driving instructors will be able to teach up to the age of 75, instead of the current limit of 70.

The Singapore Police Force announced yesterday that it would raise it from Jan 1.

"With this revision, driving instructors who are 70 years old and older can continue to conduct driving lessons until they turn 75 years old, if they pass their annual enhanced medical examination," the police said in a statement.

The check-up will include an assessment of the person's cognitive ability to drive a motor vehicle, and also diagnose lower spinal medical conditions, which could make it unsafe to drive.



Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Lee said that over the years, his ministry has heard from driving instructors, the Singapore Driving Instructors' Association and some MPs that many instructors wish to continue teaching beyond the age limit of 70, if they are still fit and healthy.

Mr Lee said the age revision "will allow qualified and experienced instructors who teach privately or in driving schools to continue teaching and imparting good and safe driving skills to learner drivers if they are mentally alert and in good health."

Singapore Safety Driving Centre operations manager Gerard Pereira said about five or six instructors there are due to turn 70 in two to three years. The school has 193 instructors and it is hard to find fresh blood, as the job requires shift and weekend work.

Private driving instructor Gordon Thia, 61, who has been teaching since 1980, sees up to nine students a day. He plans to teach up to 75. "If I'm healthy and if students need my service, I'll teach, perhaps at a more relaxed pace" he said .

Certis Cisco recruiting auxiliary police officers from Taiwan

Not enough qualified Singaporeans, Malaysians for auxiliary police forces
By Tan Tam Mei and Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2016

There is a reason auxiliary police forces (APFs) are turning to Taiwan to fill their vacancies: They cannot find enough qualified Singaporeans and Malaysians.

The demand for auxiliary police officers (APOs) is projected to cross 600 over the next few years. But, since 2011, APFs such as Certis Cisco and AETOS have managed to grow their pool of Singaporean officers by only 250.

A Certis Cisco spokesman confirmed that it had been hard to find qualified Malaysians, too.

The response came in the wake of news reports that the outfit was looking to hire 120 Taiwanese nationals for its force here.

There are about 7,000 APOs here. They can be stationed at sensitive spots, such as immigration checkpoints, and can escort people in custody. They can also carry firearms and are allowed to arrest offenders.

"There is a shortage of the type of manpower needed for APFs... and APFs cannot get 600 APOs from Singapore, based on the last few years' experience," said a police spokesman.

"The majority of APOs in Singapore are Singaporeans. The Government requires that APOs at specific sensitive locations can only be Singaporeans. Foreign APOs are allowed to do other duties," he added.

Hiring such officers from Taiwan will mark the first time they will be recruited from a foreign source other than Malaysia.

Certis Cisco said that recruitment interviews will start next month, and the company hopes to hire university graduates, aged 20 to 40, on two-year contracts.

Their deployment will depend on the needs of various sites and the suitability of the recruits, the spokesman said.

Certis Cisco will have to get the green light from the authorities before deploying the recruited APOs, said the spokesman, who declined to share further details.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

SAF introduces new combat boots and physical training shoes from December 2016

More rugged combat boots for SAF soldiers
New boots have better durability; old model being replaced after feedback from troops
By Adrian Lim, The Straits Times, 27 Dec 2016

Soldiers of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will soon be equipped with new boots that are more rugged, while preserving its users' comfort and agility.

They will progressively replace the Frontier model boots, which, while lauded for being lightweight and fast-drying, had a major flaw - their soles came apart after being placed in prolonged storage.

The Frontier boots have been in use for the past four years.


The new boots come in two variations - the Army Combat Boot (ACB), which will be constructed with directly moulded soles, increasing their durability; and the Enhanced Combat Boot (ECB), which will have a cupsole that is fully stitched.


These will combat the durability issues faced by the Frontier, which had three elements - a leather upper, a polyurethane midsole, and a rubber sole.


While this kept the boots light, the polyurethane material tended to degrade, especially when placed in long storage. Because of hydrolysis, which is a chemical breakdown due to reaction with water, the sole separated from the shoe.




The Frontier has a lifespan of two years, whether it is used actively or kept in storage.


In comparison, the new ACB and ECB will stand up to two years of active use, and four years in storage.

Lieutenant-Colonel Elizabeth Soh, head of the System Development Branch, HQ Supply, said: "The boots are differentiated to match the force types and mission tasks. The ACB is for the mainstream army and operationally ready national servicemen; the key outcome is durability.

"The ECB is about performance... and (supplied) to selected active manoeuvre units - infantry, commandos, guards and armoured infantry."

The ACB itself will come in two models - Wellco Peruana, a Peruvian brand, and Altama, a United States brand. Both weigh about 900g for a US size 9, and have synthetic breathable material that allows quick drying, with a sole suitable for jungle use.

Lt-Col Soh said the models are similar but the SAF chose two manufacturers for supply resilience.

In comparison, the ECB, which is made by US brand Magnum, is just 700g, and has an outsole that can be used in both jungle and urban terrains.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Is Singapore the new sick man of Asia?

Its economy is going through challenging times but its core strengths are reasons for optimism
By Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Published The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2016

On Dec 8, I read in the online publication Asia One a report emanating from Hong Kong about the Singapore economy. The report stated that "morale in Singapore is at rock bottom" and that "some economists call Singapore the new sick man of Asia".

The report motivated me to think more deeply about the current state of the Singapore economy and its future prospects. In this essay, I wish to discuss four questions.

First, what is the current state of the Singapore economy?

Second, is the Singapore economy the worst-performing economy in Asia?

Third, are the problems of the economy cyclical or structural?

Fourth, should we be pessimistic or optimistic about the prospects of the Singapore economy?

1 in 150 children in Singapore has autism

Rate is higher than global average; better diagnosis, older parents are some reasons
By Priscilla Goy and Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2016

One in 150 children here has autism, a higher rate than the World Health Organisation's global figure of one in 160 children.

This comes as more pre-schoolers here get diagnosed with developmental issues. There were 4,400 such children in 2014, a 76 per cent jump from the 2,500 children in 2010.

These figures were revealed in the Government's third Enabling Masterplan, which was unveiled on Tuesday. It covers the next five years and builds on two earlier plans to create a more inclusive society for people with disabilities.

The data on developmental problems came from KK Women's and Children's Hospital and the National University Hospital, which diagnose such disorders in children six years and below.

The children's conditions include autism, speech and language delays, behavioural problems and global development delay.

The panel behind the roadmap identified the rising number of people with autism as a key trend affecting the disability sector, and said it was important for future services to address the wide spectrum of needs.

The consensus among experts is that Singapore's high autism rate and the rise in the number of people with autism are likely due to more awareness and testing, and to the wider parameters of the autism spectrum, rather than a greater prevalence of autism.

Dr Eyleen Goh, an assistant professor in the neuroscience academic clinical programme at the Duke-NUS Medical School, said the WHO rate is probably lower because of underdiagnosis in certain countries.

"Diagnosis for autism has always been a difficult and challenging issue," she said. "A large part of the diagnosis is based on questionnaires, which can be subjective. This is why overdiagnosis and underdiagnosis can happen."

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Investing in the ‘little things’ for the benefit of Singaporeans

By Sheila Pakir, Published TODAY, 21 Dec 2016

We were at a jewellery store picking out a Mother’s Day present, and my sister had just told the shopkeeper that I worked at the Pioneer Generation Office (PGO).

“Our Government is so terrible to the elderly, you know,” the shopkeeper exclaimed.

“I must tell you what happened to my husband. All his life he was paying for this ElderShield, then he turns 65 and they send him a letter saying no more coverage.

“How can they do that, right? His whole life, paying and paying, and he never even claimed once.”

This sounded odd. I knew that ElderShield was a Government disability insurance scheme, and it did not make sense for coverage to cease just as a person entered a more disability-prone age bracket. I quietly made a quick Google search on my phone as the shopkeeper continued talking. I glanced through the first result and found a moment to interject.

“I just went to the MOH website … Are you sure the letter said they were ending coverage?” I asked.

She nodded emphatically. “I saw it myself,” she said. I replied: “It’s just that it says here that at age 65, you stop paying premiums … But then your coverage continues for life.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “What?”

“Yes,” I continued, “See, it says so here. Don’t worry. It looks like your husband is covered. They just front-loaded the premiums so he only pays while he’s working, not when he’s retired.” By the end of the visit, we had bought a pair of earrings and the shopkeeper could not wait to get home to tell her husband the good news about his insurance.

To me, the next big thing for Singapore might, paradoxically, be a shift in focus from big things to little things. We do big things well: In policy alone, recent years have seen the rollout of many exciting national-level schemes. Where we now need to spend more energy on are the myriad little things that can make or break these plans.

One key little thing is to ensure that citizens understand the big moves, and know how to access the benefits they offer.

Malaysia's East Coast Rail Line touted as a game changer, new trade links could bypass Singapore

Singapore could be bypassed as new links alter regional trade routes
By Leslie Lopez, Regional Correspondent In Kuantan, The Straits Times, 22 Dec 2016

In a remote nook along Peninsular Malaysia's east coast, millions of tonnes of sand are being dredged up from the South China Sea to get Kuantan Port ready for the country's priciest infrastructure project yet: a RM55 billion (S$17.7 billion) railway link financed by China.

The East Coast Rail Line project (ECRL) will connect ports on the east and west coasts of Peninsular Malaysia and could alter regional trade routes which currently ply between the busy Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea via Singapore, officials say.

This potential game changer gives a glimpse of China's ambitions to expand its economic clout in Asia and beyond. And it explains why land is being reclaimed at such a frenzied pace at Kuantan Port.

The port owners, Malaysia's construction powerhouse IJM and China's Beibu Gulf Port Group, are spending more than RM1.2 billion to reclaim 40ha of land. The Malaysian government has provided another RM1.08 billion to complete a 4km breakwater, to protect the harbour.

The massive port expansion will feature a 1km-long berthing complex that will feed industries in nearby industrial zones earmarked specially for Chinese manufacturing concerns.

Officials say the upgrading of Kuantan Port, which will be completed by mid-2018, is only one part of what is shaping up to be Malaysia's most expensive infrastructure undertaking.

The port, which began operations in 1984, is central to the ECRL, which will depend on Chinese train technology and funding.

The proposed 620km electrified railway line will snake its way from Tumpat, located near Malaysia's north-eastern border with Thailand, down the coast to Kuantan Port, before cutting through the mountainous central region to Port Klang, Malaysia's biggest port.

China has also proposed building a new port in Malacca, also on the west coast, but Malaysian government planners say financing for the project has yet to be finalised.

Funding for the ECRL, on the other hand, has been secured, with 85 per cent of the project financed with soft loans from Beijing.

While the entire stretch is set to take more than a decade to build, government planners say that top priority will be placed on the construction of the 250km section that will connect Kuantan Port with Port Klang. When completed, the ECRL would become a major land bridge for trade in and out of Asia.

"Cost issues aside, this new network will create new alternative routes to boost trade for ASEAN, with Malaysia as the base; and why this has to be taken seriously is because the Chinese have a direct interest in the (Kuantan) port and the rail link," said Mr G. Durairaj, managing director of maritime and logistics consultancy PortsWorld.

If everything comes together as planned, the new links could bypass Singapore and offer exporters new options to reach markets in North Asia. Exports from North Asia could also bypass looping around Singapore to get to the busy Strait of Malacca, proponents of the project argue.

Pressure ulcers a pressing concern for elderly patients

Patients with the condition face longer hospital stays and higher risk of dying: CGH
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 22 Dec 2016

A diabetic woman in her 80s was admitted to Changi General Hospital (CGH) with a huge pressure ulcer that covered both her buttocks.

She had been cared for by a maid who did not tell her employer, the woman's son, of the ulcer when it first started. The maid had tried to treat the damaged area with tapioca powder, which inflamed the wound and made it worse.

"It was the worst pressure ulcer I had ever seen," geriatrician Barbara Rosario said of the 2013 case. She has been treating seniors for the past decade and been with CGH since that year.

That patient marked "the start of our journey with pressure ulcers" for the hospital, said Dr Rosario.

It has shed light on a serious issue facing elderly patients: pressure ulcers or sores caused by friction or prolonged pressure, especially over a bony area, such as the hips, tailbone or ankle (see graphic).

While hospitals do track ulcers that develop when a patient is hospitalised, they need to report only those that are at stages 3 and worse to the Ministry of Health.

CGH started checking patients admitted to its two geriatric wards for pressure ulcers in December 2013.

Between May and December the next year, 809 patients were admitted to the two wards. Among them, 117 patients, almost all over the age of 80, were admitted with one or more pressure ulcers.

Three in four of them were either bed- or chair-bound. The rest were able to move around, though some needed assistance.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

3rd Enabling Masterplan: Panel calls for national office for disabled people

By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2016

To coordinate various initiatives to meet the needs of disabled people, experts have suggested setting up a dedicated office comprising relevant government agencies.

This office would oversee efforts ranging across sectors such as education, health and social services.

This was one of 20 recommendations made by an expert panel in the latest Enabling Masterplan, a national blueprint for disability services for next year until 2021.

It builds on the progress made through the first two blueprints, and was released yesterday after the panel consulted more than 400 people over eight months.

Panel chief Anita Fam, vice-president of the National Council of Social Service, said the previous road maps focused more on "meeting specific needs" of disabled people, namely early intervention, education and employment.

"This time, we took a person-centred approach... A person with disability has health, education and social service needs. If we can address them holistically, it would be better for the person," she said.

Hence, the recommendations focus on areas such as supporting disabled people as they transit across different life stages, such as from school to work, and improving coordination across various sectors.

This is also why the panel called for a disability office to be set up.

While the panel did not elaborate on what form this office could take, some members aired a personal view that it could be parked under the Prime Minister's Office, rather than under a single ministry.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

ElderShield scheme to be reviewed and your feedback is wanted

Wanted: Public feedback on how to improve ElderShield
The Straits Times, 20 Dec 2016

Peg ElderShield payouts to inflation or review it every three years to ensure the payouts keep pace with rising costs.

And make the payouts last until the end of the beneficiary's life instead of the current maximum of six years.

That was one idea mooted in March this year.

Suggestions like these are what the ElderShield Review Committee wants as it reviews the disability insurance scheme.

To get public feedback, the committee will be hosting a series of public consultation sessions from January to June next year to find out how people think the scheme can be improved.

The review committee is looking for opinions on the appropriate level of ElderShield coverage and benefits, as well as input on how premiums can be kept affordable even if benefits go up.

The 14-member committee will also look at how to make it easier to sign up for ElderShield and make claims.



ElderShield is an insurance scheme for those who have severe disabilities - that is, people who cannot carry out daily activities such as eating, dressing or taking a bath on their own.

Currently, the scheme provides payouts of up to $400 a month for up to six years. It covered 1.2 million people aged 40 to 83 as of the end of last year.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Five maids working in Singapore radicalised

But they didn't pose imminent threat, and were among 70 foreigners probed in past two years
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2016

In the past two years, five maids working in Singapore were radicalised, although they "did not pose an imminent security threat" at the time, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

The maids were among some 70 foreigners investigated during that period, and had been radicalised through social media. Some of the foreigners were later deported after the authorities in their home countries were informed of their cases.

The statement yesterday came after Indonesia's anti-terror police commandos rounded up four women in the past week on suspicion of terrorism. Among them was Dian Yulia Novi, 27. She had worked in Singapore between 2008 and 2009, said an MHA spokesman.


Dian had allegedly been planning to mount a suicide bomb attack on the presidential palace in Jakarta. In a television interview broadcast last Tuesday, she said she was first exposed to radical Islam through Facebook by opening profiles of extremists while working as a maid abroad.


She worked for a family with three children here, and as a maid for three years in Taiwan.


But Dian did not show signs of being radicalised during her time in Singapore, said the MHA spokesman, who added: "Our security agencies are in contact with their counterparts regarding her case."


Most of the 70 foreigners investigated in the past two years "were radicalised through their exposure to radical propaganda on social media", said MHA. Some then radicalised others using radical propaganda from online sources.


The Straits Times understands that the five maids were among those radicalised via social media.

While they did not plan to carry out acts of violence in Singapore at the time they were investigated, their presence posed a security concern for Singapore, MHA said.

Six Bangladeshis charged with offences under the Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act are serving their sentences here.

How 'empathy' became a weapon we use against others

By Britt Peterson, Published The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2016

As long as we've had the word "empathy", it's been seen as an essentially positive thing, like kindness. It's the idea of putting yourself in someone else's shoes - intuiting the thoughts and feelings of another person and attempting to do something about it.

Several past Democratic presidential candidates have basically campaigned on empathy. US President Barack Obama talked about an "empathy deficit" among the American people that needed to be filled by attention to those in need.

Over this past election season, however, the concept of empathy has become rather more complicated. Despite coming from an extremely different background from the white working-class voters who made up his base, President-elect Donald Trump connected with them on a gut level while displaying little empathy for anyone else. Mr Trump tugged on the strings of his supporters' empathy for highly effective rhetorical purpose.



This weaponisation of empathy has led to a flurry of questions about whether the concept is still the universal good we all once assumed.

As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom writes in his recent book Against Empathy, the sentiment focuses us on concrete examples rather than the abstract needs. Similarly, studies show that we're much better equipped to feel for someone who looks like us than someone who doesn't.

It also makes it hard for us to evaluate whether the people we feel for actually need our help. For example, millions of Trump supporters watching the Republican National Convention came away deeply concerned - for empathic, and yet still irrational reasons - over the victims of murderous illegal immigrants. No matter that these murders and drink-driving incidents were statistically insignificant. "You don't often hear Donald Trump and empathy in the same sentence, but he was extraordinarily adroit at using empathy," Dr Bloom says.

"Empathy" has often been tossed around in the month since the election as a panacea to heal the country's wounds. And yet in this context as well, it's not clear empathy would be an entirely positive force. As journalist Amanda Hess pointed out recently in the New York Times magazine, empathy has become a Silicon Valley buzzword that describes an understanding of user experience, and the political meaning is very similar. We empathise with someone, frequently, because we want to change his or her mind - whether that person is an undecided voter, a potential customer or a first date.

Monday, 19 December 2016

A helping hand in a foreign land: Kudos to NGOs that help Singapore's migrant workers

There are about 1.4 million foreigners working in Singapore. Most of them are work permit holders employed as construction workers or maids. While they are protected by labour laws, those who are injured or embroiled in disputes with their employers often turn to non-governmental organisations for help. On International Migrants Day today, Insight looks at the NGOs that see to the welfare of these workers and speak up for them.
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent and Joanna Seow, The Sunday Times, 18 Dec 2016

Migrant workers have been with us for centuries.

When modern Singapore was founded in 1819, migrants came here from across Asia to make a living - some returned home, others stayed on, as did many other migrants all over the world.

But only recently did the contributions of migrants get global recognition.

In 2000, the United Nations proclaimed Dec 18 as International Migrants Day.

On that day in 1990, a decade earlier, the UN adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The international treaty spells out protections for migrant workers and their families.

Since then, the day has been observed by countries in the world in various ways.

Singapore does not mark the day in a big way. There are no official events held around it and it does not appear on the diary of activities of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

However, a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are celebrating the day by acknowledging the contributions of migrant workers here.

These workers form a significant proportion of the Singapore population and labour force.

There are about 1.4 million foreign workers in Singapore, out of a workforce of 3.7 million and a population of 5.6 million.

This means that about one in four people here is a foreign worker. And about two in five workers here are foreigners.

The bulk of these foreign workers, about one million of them, are work-permit holders doing manual work, for example, as construction workers and maids.

Unlike top-rung foreign executives who come to Singapore on expatriate terms with their families in tow, those doing manual work receive low pay and live in dormitories or others' homes.

Without family support, they turn to non-governmental organisations for help when they run into problems.

LTA scrapping minimum daily mileage for taxis from 1 Jan 2017; More cabbies leaving the job amid stiff competition

Rule change from January seen as first step in levelling playing field between cabs and private-hire cars
By Adrian Lim, The Sunday Times, 18 Dec 2016

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) will ease up on regulations on the taxi industry from Jan 1 and scrap the 250km minimum daily mileage that cabbies now have to clock.

Taxis will still have to be out plying the roads during peak hours, but the taxi availability (TA) framework will be simplified, Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng said in announcing the changes yesterday.

The easing of taxi regulations is seen by observers as a first step towards levelling the playing field between taxis and private-hire car services, which are currently unregulated.


The standards for taxis were introduced three years ago through the TA framework, and imposed on taxi operators in a bid to tackle commuter grouses of being unable to get a cab.


National Taxi Association executive adviser Ang Hin Kee said that the requirement for cabbies to clock a minimum mileage was a "rough proxy" to boosting the supply of cabs on the road. But it could have led to taxis cruising without a passenger.


With commuters turning to cab-booking apps, Mr Ng said that the demand and supply gap is being bridged more efficiently.


"We have also seen the rapid growth of private-hire car services like Uber and Grab. These innovations have provided more convenience for commuters for point-to-point transport," said Mr Ng, who is also Education Minister (Schools).

As of October, there were six cab companies in Singapore which run more than 27,500 taxis.

A news report in September estimated that Uber and Grab had a combined fleet of about 25,000 private cars.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

2016: A year of looking to the future

Six major events caused Singaporeans to ponder over the future and what it will bring
By David Chan, Published The Straits Times, 17 Dec 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, it is timely to reflect on the past 12 months, which I would summarise as "a future-focused year" - one filled with events and issues that made people ponder about their own future and that of the country.

It is useful to revisit the way we approached the key events and issues. After all, when it comes to thinking about the future, how we think is as important as what we think.

Let me highlight six major happenings which in my view led many Singaporeans to ask: "What might the future bring?", or "What might the future mean?"

SGFUTURE

The year started well with SGfuture, a series of dialogues for Singaporeans to share their hopes and ideas for the future. The exercise was government- facilitated but people-driven.

SGfuture is a ground-up and grounded action-oriented movement. People from all walks of life spoke up, shared ideas and came together in community-led projects to do something to make a positive difference to others and Singapore society at large.

Whether the project is encouraging Singaporeans to read regularly, teaching basic life-saving skills in emergencies, or building a dementia-friendly community, what people say and what they do come together. The ideas are translated to concrete actions that make a real impact on people's lives, both now and for their future.

This democracy of deeds and voices benefits the recipients, but it also has lasting positive effects on the givers of help. When people give their time, effort and resources, they experience personal meaning in helping others. They also become more grateful for their own circumstances as they encounter many others who are less fortunate.

As people come together to give, they influence one another with their altruistic acts and social innovation. So giving generates multiplier effects and builds strong communities.

Cop-bashers must be taught a lesson: Law Minister K. Shanmugam

MHA told to review if law on assault of public officers is adequate
Law Minister's request comes after man gets 10 weeks' jail for attacking woman officer
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 17 Dec 2016

The Home Affairs Ministry (MHA) has been asked to relook the legislation surrounding the assault of uniformed officers, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam in a Facebook post yesterday.

This follows the sentencing on Tuesday of Albin Lim Fu Rong, 25, who was jailed 10 weeks for causing hurt to a public servant in May.



The officer, Corporal Ammy Shazwina Rizuan Ong, 27, had been responding to a taxi driver who reported about his hostile passengers when Lim attacked her.

She was speaking to Lim at around 2am when he grabbed her head and neck, and pushed her head to the ground.

As Cpl Ammy tried to protect her firearm and other equipment with her hands, Lim kicked her lower back and then walked away.

She stood up and took a few steps towards him to stop him, but fainted.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "Lim's abusive conduct was terrible on several levels. He attacked a lady. He attacked an officer in uniform, doing her duty."

He added of the jail sentence: "I have asked the Ministry of Home Affairs to relook the legislation, to consider whether this is adequate.

"I have said to MHA that anyone who attacks a uniformed officer should learn a lesson which he will never forget; and it should be enough of a deterrence to others." In the first eight months of this year, there were 328 cases of abuse of Home Team officers. This figure for last year was 344 cases - working out to almost one case per day.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

KL-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) Agreement signed; service targeted to start by Dec 31, 2026

Line will be up by end-2026; PM Lee hails pact as a significant milestone in bilateral ties
By Royston Sim, Assistant Political Editor In Putrajaya, The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2016

Singapore and Malaysia yesterday signed a historic agreement to construct a high-speed rail line that is slated to start by Dec 31, 2026.

The line between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur will be 350km long and have eight stations. It will go across the Strait of Johor via a 25m- high bridge near the Second Link.

The landmark deal will transform the way both countries interact and do business, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his counterpart Najib Razak said yesterday at a media press conference after their annual Leaders' Retreat.

They called it a "marquee project" in a joint statement, saying it will bring their countries even closer together, improve connectivity, deepen people-to-people ties and catalyse further economic cooperation.

PM Lee hailed the agreement as a significant milestone in the relationship between the two countries. "It gives both sides a big stake in keeping relations stable and warm."



The ambitious rail link conceived in 2013 will cut travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to 90 minutes, compared with more than four hours by car.

The legally binding deal was signed by Singapore's Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan, and Malaysia's Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Abdul Rahman Dahlan.

It formalises technical, safety and security requirements as well as regulatory and commercial frameworks, among other things.

The signing also marks the shift from a planning phase to that of implementation, and comes after both sides inked a memorandum of understanding for the project in July.

Mr Lee said there is "strong political will on both sides" to ensure the project is done right and is a success. He quipped: "I look forward to taking my first train ride up to Putrajaya in 10 years' time."

While the 10-year timeframe is a "relatively short period of time" given the size and complexity of the project, Datuk Seri Najib said he is committed to meeting the deadline.

"We have to work very closely together and be very focused, and we must overcome all the challenges as we move ahead," he said.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Over 40,000 cleaners will see basic pay go up by $200 over next three years, starting from July 2017

Steps to hike pay for 40,000 cleaners unveiled
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2016

Cleaners' basic pay will go up by $200 in the next three years, starting from next July. It will then rise yearly by 3 per cent for three years.

Those employed by the same business for at least 12 months will get a yearly bonus, starting from 2020, of two weeks of basic monthly pay.

The recommendations, unveiled by the Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners (TCC) yesterday, further boost the wages of some of Singapore's lowest-paid workers.

Said National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Zainal Sapari, who chairs TCC: "The (change) may be seen as a half-step, but (it) is a big half-step. This is the first time we are forcing an industry's annual increments, as well as some form of bonus."

The Government has accepted the recommendations, which will benefit about 40,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents employed by more than 1,200 cleaning firms.

Companies with service contracts that start before next July have until July 1, 2018 to comply with the recommended wages.

The TCC suggestions follow its review of the progressive wage model in the cleaning industry. The model aims to raise the pay of low-wage workers through skills upgrading and improvements in productivity.

It applies to the cleaning, security and landscape sectors, and became compulsory for the cleaning industry in September last year.

The model specifies a starting pay of at least $1,000 a month for cleaners, with wages rising to $1,400 and more for higher-skilled cleaners, and from $1,600 for supervisors.

The median basic wage of full-time cleaners grew by 9 per cent per annum from 2012 to last year. It was $1,100 in June last year.

Said Mr Zainal: "We need to make employment terms and conditions better. Otherwise, the type of workers attracted to the cleaning industry will be the vulnerable ones."

Monday, 12 December 2016

Proximity Housing Grant a boon for over 5,200 households

$82.6m given out in scheme launched last year to help families live closer together
By Yeo Sam Jo, The Sunday Times, 11 Dec 2016

When housewife Jennyfer Aw Young and her husband, Mr Wang Dewei, both 34, bought their first home in 2008, they chose a four-room, Build-To-Order flat in Punggol as it was readily available.

But the couple soon longed to return to Jurong, where they had grown up and where their parents still live. They finally bought an executive flat in Jurong West Street 65 off the resale market and moved in this October.

After receiving a Proximity Housing Grant (PHG) of $20,000, the 125 sq m unit cost them $525,000.

"It's like a homecoming for us," said Madam Aw Young, a mother of three. "It's so much easier to visit our parents now. We don't need to wait for the weekend to have dinner together.

"The grant definitely helped us financially because we can save the money for our kids' education."

The couple and their family are among the 5,217 Singaporean households - 4,860 families and 357 singles - that have applied for the PHG within a year of its introduction, said the Housing Board.

Some $82.6 million in grants has been disbursed to 4,315 households. Another $18.2 million will be doled out to the rest when they complete their resale transactions.

The scheme, which was rolled out in August last year, helps families live closer together when they buy resale HDB flats.

Families who buy a resale flat to live with or near their parents or married child receive a PHG of $20,000. Eligible singles get $10,000 if they buy a resale flat with their parents.

All Singaporeans are eligible for the grant once, regardless of their income level and whether they have received housing subsidies before.

Bogus HDB contractors targeting the elderly

By Yeo Sam Jo, The Sunday Times, 11 Dec 2016

An old woman answers a knock on her door, sees someone who claims to be a Housing Board contractor and ends up paying for a renovation job that she does not need.

Bogus contractors have been targeting elderly people in public housing estates, telling residents that they have been appointed by the HDB to carry out repair works.

"These bogus contractors tend to target the elderly and operate mainly during office hours, when the elderly are likely to be home alone," said an HDB spokesman in response to queries.

Some even use pressure tactics, claiming that HDB will take action against them if the works are not carried out, she added.

The "required works" include replacing doors, rubbish chute covers or sewage pipes, installing security systems and repairing spalling concrete or leaking ceilings.

Some fake contractors also appear in estates with ongoing upgrading or construction works to solicit business from unsuspecting residents, the HDB said.

To tackle this problem, the statutory board has worked with the police and the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) to issue warning posters around the island.

About 2,000 of them have been put up since March, and are displayed at all the 21 HDB branches, as well as at blocks where the imposters are likely to strike.

These include newly completed developments, blocks undergoing upgrading and blocks where complaints have been received.