Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rohingyas in Myanmar: The Unwanted Child

In recent weeks, we have heard the devastating news of fishing boats filled with Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants being abandoned in the middle of the Andaman Sea. These smugglers have since abandoned their boats in fear of being persecuted by countries such as Thailand, which has recently embarked on a serious crack-down on human trafficking activities. This has resulted in a serious humanitarian crisis with these “boat people”, the name which they are often referred to, experiencing starvation and with some critically ill. Malaysia and Indonesia have since agreed to accept 7,000 “boat people” onto their shores and to provide medical and humanitarian assistance for a period of a year.  As the international community struggles to find a solution to this humanitarian and political crisis, it is important to understand the situation back in Myanmar.

                The Rakhine state in Myanmar, home to a population of about 3.2 million, is a diverse region, one that has a make-up of a Buddhist majority of 60 percent and a significant Muslim minority of about 30 percent. The crisis in Rakhine came into focus in 2012 after waves of violence sparked off between the Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingyas.  A Human Rights Watch report alleged that these violence were the result of a collusion between Buddhist monks, state officials, security forces aimed at terrorizing and "forcibly relocating" the Rohingya. The Rohingyas were historically not viewed as rightful citizens of Myanmar by the government despite many having lived in Myanmar for generations. They are often viewed as illegal interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh and are not recognized as an indigenous ethnicity of Myanmar.  This was further amplified by a citizenship law in 1982, which links citizenship with race, which led to these Rohingyas being effectively stripped of their citizenship.  They are now held up in camps with poor living conditions and are continually being persecuted. Many Rohingyas, exasperated with their situation, have decided to take matters into their own hands and escape to neighboring Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia which have showed sympathy to Rohingyas in the past.

                Much talk has been going around in Singapore with regards to whether Singapore should and could take in these “boat people” and to provide a shelter for them, similar to what Malaysia and Indonesia have done. It is of course easy to stand on moral high ground and to say that we as a society need to show compassion and accept these “boat people” and provide the necessary aid. But we too need to consider the practical aspect of housing these “boat people”: Where are we going to house them? How long are we going to house them? Will they be restricted to a confined space? What if there is no long-term solution for these Rohingyas? There is simply too much uncertainty with regards to these “boat people” for Singapore to take them in. Singapore did take in Vietnamese refugees back in 1978 with the condition that they will only be here for 90 days with the guarantee that they will be taken in by another country after that. However, the circumstances with these “boat people” is different, with no clear solution in sight, these “boat people” may end up staying here for years. Are we going to integrate them into the Singapore society then? Would it be politically and socially feasible? If Singapore were to accept these “boat people”, it may set the precedence of what is tolerable and make Singapore a hot-spot for refugee and human-trafficking activities.  Don’t get me wrong, I am all for Singapore providing aid as a transition location if a clear diplomatic solution is in sight, but given the current situation, it is just not feasible.

Now that Malaysia and Indonesia has agreed to hold these Rohingyas temporarily for a year, time must not be wasted to find a political solution to this crisis. Given the lack of will on the Myanmar government to look out for the welfare of these Rohingyas in its policies and actions, I believe that international agencies and countries have a role to play in pressurizing the government to do what is right. In the short-term, more should be done to ensure that no more Rohingyas leave the Myanmar border by boat as they risk their lives and risk a greater humanitarian dilemma for countries that are already stretching their resources to take in the 7,000 refugees. Concurrently, the Myanmar government must be pressured to open up the Rohingya living space to international aid workers to enter to provide much needed humanitarian aid to the people. Independent observers must also be allowed in to ensure that authorities do not support and promote sectarian violence. In addition, the breakdown of the law and the justice system must be restored. Those who organize and participate in hate crimes and violence must be investigated and brought to justice; doing so will not only bring these people to justice but also reinstate the respect for the law and prevent further violence. These are short term measures to ensure the basic rights of these Rohingyas are guaranteed while a more complicated long term solution is discussed.

The conflict arose from two hard-line groups who are insistent on their respective positions: The Myanmar government who do not recognize these Rohingyas as rightful citizens of Myanmar and the Rohingyas who identify themselves as Burmese. The draft plan which the Myanmar government proposed was merely an attempt to appease the international community but it is clearly discriminatory in nature. Firstly, the draft plan requires Rohingyas to provide documentation proof that their families were in Myanmar before Myanmar’s declared independence. This is simply not possible because most families do not have such documentation or have lost it over the years of violence. Secondly, the panel who decides whether one gets a Myanmar citizenship contains representatives from the Rakhines community, essentially giving veto rights to the Rakhines over who gets accepted. And lastly, but most importantly, the state forces these Rohingyas to be classified as “Bengalis”, a move which signifies that they are foreigners first. The citizenship being offered is also a “naturalized” citizenship – a “second-class” citizenship which carries fewer rights and could be stripped at any time. These uncertainties can be used against the Rohingyas by the state and thus such a citizenship is not desired by the Rohingyas.

At the heart of it, the Rohingyas just want to be recognized as citizens of Myanmar and given the same rights and opportunities as the rest of the Burmese and they see their Rohingya identify as central to their argument; since if they were accepted as an indigenous group, they would qualify for full citizenship by birth. However, the 1982 law has linked citizenship to with race which discriminates the Rohingyas. To move ahead, a compromise must be made. Muslim leaders may consider dropping their insistence on being identified as “Rohingya” if there is a clear and sure path to citizenship. In other words, they can campaign to be offered citizenship under another identity marker that would not imply indigenous status and thus would be offered citizenship by descent rather than birth. They could be identified by the name “Rakhine Muslims” or “Myanmar Muslims”.  Of course, for this to work, the government must be willing to accept these Rohingya to be part of Myanmar, if not no reclassification will work.  

This is a problem that the international community has chosen to turn a blind eye on for too long, it has only became a topic of discussion recently  because of the huge humanitarian crisis and  the implications for surrounding neighbors. Political pressure on the Myanmar government cannot be softened even after these refugees are housed in Malaysia and Indonesia. Only sustained pressure and sanctions against the Myanmar government can force it to have the will to resolve this long standing problem. Without sustained effort and compromise from the Rohingyas and the Myanmar government along with international intervention, the scene of large masses of “boat people” stranded in the middle of the sea will continue to resurface.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Liquor Control Bill – Relook Needed

         If you are reading this with a can of beer in your hand whilst seating at your block’s void deck, you should probably finish it up and throw it away as soon as you can…

The Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill, passed in parliament on January 30th, kicks into effect today, April 1st. The bill comes along with it added restrictions, stating that alcohol cannot be consumed in public places between 10.30pm and 7am daily and take-away alcohol cannot be purchased after 10.30pm. The bill was passed to prevent public drunkenness and to reduce the probability of liquor-related offences (e.g. rioting, causing serious hurt). Though the intention of the bill is good - public drunkenness is unhealthy and needs to be eradicated, but the details and the reach of the bill needs to be carefully examined.

                The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has said that they conducted “two public consultation exercises between October 2013 and August 2014, and received close to 400 pieces of written feedback. MHA also conducted discussions with about 180 stakeholders, including members of the public, grassroots representatives and business owners.” The number of people involved in the consultation process is indeed small compared to the number that is going to be affected under the new law. We are talking about approx. 1,000 people being consulted as compared to the millions that would be affected. MHA said that out of those who were consulted, most were in support of better management of retail sales hours of liquor and the consumption of liquor in public areas.  The exact stakeholders and grassroots reps consulted are unclear; hopefully they are not solely representatives from the Little India and Geylang area, or else the results would definitely be skewed. A good proportion of those affected by the bill are migrant workers; thus, it is important that they are consulted on the bill as well as it directly affects them. I strongly believe that a more thorough consultation process should be carried out before drawing the conclusion that most are in favour of the bill.

                Additionally, the cut off time of 10.30pm might be too early in my opinion; the bill would be more measured if the time was shifted back to 11.59pm instead. This would allow Singaporeans who wish to unwind after a day’s work to do so in public, at least until 11.59pm. This would allow those with the sincere intention of enjoying alcohol to do so whilst ensuring troublemakers do not have the ability to stay out late to cause public nuisance. This would also allow businesses to suffer minimal impact from the bill. A good part of the daily liquor sale comes after 10.30pm as sales peak from 8pm onwards, with the implementation of this bill, business will be hit hard, especially so for small businesses.

                The government needs to play and active role in helping small businesses cope with the implementation of the bill, especially businesses located within the liquor control zone where there are even stricter restrictions on when liquor can be sold/consumed. Businesses should not be made to close down due to unsustainability of their business under the new law. The government could explore measures such as lowering of rental fees or partial waiver of the liquor license fees to help businesses cope.

                Tackling public drunkenness and public nuisance is a tricky business but in my opinion, it is often the same few hotspots which cause discomfort and insecurity to residents living in the area. It would be a legislative overkill if we pass a law that does a blanket ban across the whole island just because of these few hotspots. My view is for Singapore’s liquor control to remain status quo, but dedicate more resource to step up patrols in hotspot areas where liquor-related incidents have a high probability of occurring. Alternatively, a whistle-blowing system can be set up to allow residents to alert the police of any case of public nuisance easily via a phone call or an SMS system. I believe such a system would be more targeted and efficient. The police can also use current laws under the Miscellaneous Offences Act to punish offenders. Also, having a blanket ban across the island may lead to a black market demand for liquor after 10.30pm where illegal vendors profit from the ban of sales. This will create another law enforcement issue for the police and additional resources have to be dedicated to stop such illegal activities.

                Another key point of contention under the bill would be designating workers’ dormitories as “public space”, thus liquor restrictions would apply within the dormitories as well. Minister Iswaran has since came out to clarify that private quarters and beer gardens of the dorms will not be covered by the new law and that classifying dormitories as public space was mainly for “technical” purpose. Even so, this could be seen as an invasion into the private space of these foreign workers. Such regulation should be left to each dormitory’s managers as they know their dormitory situation best. The relaxing or tightening of alcohol consumption should be left to their judgment instead and thus there’s no need to classify dormitories as public space.

                The minister has repeatedly reiterated that the implementation of the bill would be measured and balanced and that the police would act as they deemed fit. There is much ambiguity with regards to the bill with much discretion given to police officers on the ground. I trust in the capability of our police officers; and given the subjective nature of consumption/possession of alcohol and the definition of public drunkenness, the ambiguity of the bill can be understood. However, the extend of authority bestowed upon these officers should be measured. The bill states that officers have the ability to strip search individuals whom they reasonably suspect to consume/possess alcohol. I feel that this authority given is extreme and unnecessary. A simple body-touch search would suffice to check for procession of alcohol, a strip search is excessive and borders on infringement of modesty.

                Though the law has been implemented, I do hope the government can relook the entire bill from its need to its framework to its implementation. My take is that more consultation should be done to establish that this concern is large enough to warrant such a law.  Using a sledgehammer to kill a fly is unnecessary; similarly enforcing a blanket ban to tackle a localized issue is excessive. If given the opportunity, this bill should be brought back to the drawing board.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Remembering Our Father (A Tribute)

Just as I was sitting at my usual spot at MPS on Monday evening , it dawned upon me that the issues that residents brought up were the very institutions that Mr Lee and his team set-up during Singapore’s early years. Things like the CPF, HDB Housing schemes and the Police Force, these institutions have continued to evolve since but they each served pivotal roles in our lives.

Having been to condolences sites set up in the heartlands, it was a solemn sight seeing Singaporeans pay their last tributes to Mr Lee. Many teary-eyed, others silently weeping; it was testament to the impact one man had on their individual lives. The impact Mr Lee’s works had on Singapore can never be fully comprehended in writings or words. Like what many have wisely said, the most accurate depiction of his contributions to Singapore is best seen by just looking around you. There is really nothing more accurate than that. He and his team had laid a stable foundation for us to build on, thus the Singapore we see today.

I don’t think we as Singaporeans can fully comprehend the gravity and magnitude of this pivotal moment in history – a legend has passed on. Every day over the past weeks, the nation would anxiously await the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office on the condition of Mr Lee’s heath. Every liner allowed the public to get a little glimpse into his condition; every line read over, every word interpreted. Everyone was praying for a miracle that he would get well but as the days passed, we all somehow knew deep down inside that this may just be it. Three days has passed since the news broke, and Singaporeans are still grappling with the fact that Singapore’s founding father is no more.

Mr Lee has no longer been in active politics for some time now, but somehow it was his presence that assured Singaporeans that Singapore would be alright. We know that with his wise counsel and keen insight, our interests will definitely be looked after and cared for. Now that this warm assuring flame is gone, Singaporeans, I feel, know that Singapore would be different henceforth and it will be for the next generation of leaders to chart our course. It is the feeling of nervous excitement, knowing that things are at an “inflexion” point but at the same time excited for the possibilities ahead.

As tributes flow in locally and internationally, both positive and negative words are said but no words are enough to speak of his legacy and contributions. After all, he was ultimately a man of deeds.

As cliché as it may sound, Mr Lee has always been someone I looked up and admired since young. Through reading the many tribute pieces and from my past recollections these qualities of the man stood up most for me.

Mr Lee’s mad passion for Singapore and his job was nothing short of inspiring. They say that if you have a job that you love, you will not have to work for a day in your life. I doubt Mr Lee saw being PM a job for him, it was his life calling, his life. The story of the Red Box showed how much he loved Singapore; in 1996 after undergoing a heart operation, he woke up after the operation and the first thing he did was to ask for his red box so that he could continue his unfinished work. Even when he was grieving from the loss of his wife back in 2010, he saw a piece of thrash while taking a stroll along the Singapore River and immediately called his guards to take a picture of it and he followed up on it thereafter. Small incidents, but they speak volumes of the man’s commitment and passion. His relentless commitment to his ideals was evident even after he left office. Formulated while he was in office, his vision of a Clean and Green Singapore was one he took personal responsibility to see to its fruition. What struck me was that he would even go as far as deciding the species of tress to be planted and would personally question officers if they did not do a good job looking after the trees. Even after leaving office, he has never failed to plant a tree yearly in his constituency. Leading by example, he has never failed to follow through on what he believed in.

His sheer grit and tenacity as a leader was unrivalled; as long as he sets his mind and heart to it, he will get it done. His end goal has been clear from day one – to make Singapore into a striving and prosperous city state and he did whatever it took to get us to where we are today. In the early days to win elections, he learnt Mandarin and Hokkien to better communicate with the electorate and he would take lessons and practice his languages on a daily basis to get better at it. It was painful but he did what was necessary. Also, Mr Lee was a tireless communicator, in order to convince the people on the importance and need for merger; he did 12 talk shows over the radio in 1961 to reach out to the masses. There were times he was so drained that he slept on floor of the studio room to recover his energy. Eventually, the people voted in favor of merger. Even after independence, Mr Lee was known for his pragmatic but unpopular policies. From compulsory National Service to “Stop at Two” and even the Bilingualism Policy, these policies were all met with strong opposition from the people. But he always tried his best to communicate about the need for these policies and created the environment necessary for these policies to take its course smoothly. Many criticized his bull-dozer method of policy implementation and his infamous grip on the media amongst others, but were those measures necessary given the circumstance and political climate of those days? You bet. As long as Mr Lee set his mind to it, nothing could stand in his way. And thankfully, those decisions though painful, benefited us in the long run.

Above all else, Mr Lee was human. He was a father, a husband and a leader of his people. His unwavering dedication to ensure close ties with his children despite his busy schedule is especially heartening. PM Lee recounted how Mr Lee would type/write him substantial letters of five to six pages on a weekly basis while he was schooling at Cambridge so that they could keep in constant contact. Mr Lee was always there for his children when they needed him; he offered advice but allowed them to chart their own paths. That to me showed how he understood true parenting. To his wife, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo, he was the ideal husband any lady could ask for. From reading to her daily to never failing to be there for her during crisis his unwavering commitment to their marriage is an inspiration to every couple in Singapore. To his people, he was like a fatherly figure always guiding and chaperoning his people. At the center of it all was a sincere heart, looking out for his children, wife and the people of Singapore.

A thought leader yet a people’s man, Mr Lee’s legacy will live on. The best way to honor a man’s legacy would be to continue his good works in his spirit. The future of Singapore is in our hands, he and his team have brought us thus far and the rest is up to us. I really hope Singaporeans take time to reflect about what is next for Singapore and how we want Singapore to be come SG100. It is time to step up and take ownership of our country, our Singapore. Because he once did, so must we. He would have wanted us to anyways.

May you rest in peace, Mr Lee. You will be dearly missed.

“Whoever governs Singapore must have that IRON in him. OR GIVE IT UP. This is not a game of cards. This is YOUR LIFE and MINE. I've spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I'm in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.” (Speech at a rally in Raffles Place, Singapore in 1980)


Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Tricky Process To Implement Singapore's Trans-Boundary Haze Bill (17th March 2014)

Our Singapore Happenings 
17th March 2014 

A Tricky Process To Implement Singapore's Trans-Boundary Haze Bill

              The trans-boundary pollution bill has been put up by the government for public consultation for a month. The bill targets firms with haze-producing fires on their land that affect Singapore.

               Many environmentalists and conservation lobby groups applaud the move as a right one. However, it is clear it will be a daunting task when it comes to implementing this law.
               This bill is unique for two reasons: firstly, it deals with offences committed in a foreign land that affects Singapore and secondly, it applies to non-Singaporeans. Given the bill's unique coverage, it comes with unprecedented challenges during implementation. 

                First and foremost, the bill relies on satellite imagery to pinpoint the culprit for the haze-causing fires in Indonesia. There is no way that concrete evidence can be found against these firms. This gives such firms plenty of reasons and opportunities to avoid being fined by claiming that the land does not belong to them.

                Singapore has always been struggling to secure a map with a breakdown of the firms behind each plot of land. To be able to successfully implement this law, this has to be rectified. Singapore can request firms to present the plots of land under their charge to prove their innocence in the case; the presented area can then be cross-checked with the Indonesian government, eyewitnesses or Singapore officials on investigative missions. Once verified, Singapore can build up its database with time; eventually having the ability to pinpoint the owner of each plot of land. 

              Secondly, firms can look for legal loopholes in the bill and find its way around the law. One potential loophole is under the bill's defence clause where it is a valid defence if sub-contractors conduct slash-and-burn without the firm's authorisation or against the company's will.

               This creates an easy way for firms to claim that they were ignorant of their sub-contractors' slash-and-burn practices. The bill could introduce an assumption that firms should know the whereabouts and actions of their sub-contractors to ensure no such practices are done. Thus, the onus is now on the firms to check on their sub-contractors to ensure compliance; otherwise they will be punished by the law. 

               Thirdly, the legal reach of the law is of concern. Technically, if the firm is not based in Singapore and does not receive any financial funding from any Singapore entity, it can refuse to comply with the fine opposed upon it and the Singapore government's reach is limited without the Indonesian government's help. The penalty can be only be served and action taken if one member of the firm's management enters Singapore.

               However, given Singapore's position as a hub for business transactions, it is likely that these companies will inevitably have to work via Singapore. If some of these companies are partially owned by local companies, the government can pressure these Singapore companies to force their counterparts to pay up the fine incurred. Banks in Singapore can also assist by refusing loans to these companies if they have outstanding fines to be paid.

              At the end of the day, the Indonesian government's support of the bill is crucial. They can play a big role in adding pressure to these firms if they do not pay. The Indonesian government can also grant Singapore government officials access to tools to effectively bring the culprit to task without compromising national security. To have concrete evidence against firms, Singapore would have to send officials down to investigate. The Indonesian government can play a role in facilitating this process. 

             The implementation of this bill requires a constant and measurable amount of resources on the part of the Singapore government. The question is how much our government is willing to invest to track down those responsible for the hazy skies in Singapore? To what extend will investigative and prosecution efforts eventually outweigh the benefits of clearer skies in Singapore? 

             But one thing is certain: the Indonesian government can no longer accuse Singapore of turning a blind eye to companies based in Singapore that are practicing slash-and-burn in Indonesia. This bill will work very effectively against them and if anything they will be the first to be prosecuted under the new law. 

             A carrot approach could concurrently complement the current stick method. More can be done to encourage firms to move away from slash-and-burn practices.

             Under the Singapore government's jurisdiction, tax breaks/cuts can be given to firms doing business in Singapore that have a no-burning policy and effectively ensure their sub-contractors do not employ such practices. In addition, a preferential buying policy could be implemented for the government sector to frequent these firms for purchases.

             Banks could also play a important part by having loans with lower interest and higher caps for these companies. Minister for Environment and Water Resource, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, said that the root cause for the problem is commercial. Since business is the main driving factor for these decisions, it will be a win for the cause if incentives can be attractive enough and  fines large enough for firms to realise that it makes more economical sense to stop such practices entirely.

             How the law is going to be implemented leaves many questions; the government has a heavy, uphill task with the reasons mentioned above. Legislation can only do so much in solving the issue. Educating firms and sub-contractors on right practices coupled with incentives to stop burning practices are equally important. 

             The message to all is clear: such burning practices cannot be tolerated further. If the Indonesian government is not going to actively enforce the reduction of slash-and-burn practices, Singapore is going to -- in whatever capacity we can. 

Budget 2014: A Popular One (16th March 2014)

Our Singapore Happenings
16th March 2014

Budget 2014: A Popular One

                The Budget 2014 was a popular one amongst Singaporeans, no doubts about it. Despite the many areas of focus, the Pioneer Generation Package is the cornerstone of this year’s budget. I will discuss the various aspects of the Budget by section, first by examining the micro then the macro aspects of it.

The Pioneer Generation Package
               The Package is the cornerstone of this year’s budget with over 450,000 pioneer generation Singaporeans benefitting from it. The government has set aside $9billion, with interest taken into consideration, for the package. The amount was taken entirely from this year’s budget .On a micro level, the package made sense since healthcare would be the main concern of these pioneer generation Singaporeans; and the package is focused on covering all aspect of healthcare for them. The main concern I have about the package is the possible cliff-hanger effect it creates with the eligibility factor of the package. Singapore citizens have to meet two criteria to be eligible: a. Aged 16 and above in 1965 (born on or before 31 December 1949), which also means they are aged 65 and above in 2014; and b. Obtained citizenship on or before 31 December 1986. This creates a very sudden break-off and a stark difference in benefits for someone born in 1949 and someone born in 1950. A more gradual decrease in benefits according to age qualifications could have been done. The other concern I have is the nature of the package, the package focused on the users of medical services – the demand. With Specialists Out-Patient Clinics (SOC) treatments being subsided up to 85% for the most need, it would cause SOCs to be overwhelmed with patients. Singaporeans under the scheme may now find SOCs a much better choice as compared to GP clinics given its attractive price and the mindset that a specialist provides better treatment than GP clinics. More could have been done to address the supply of these SOCs in the form of grants for specialize care to ensure that supplies can meet demands in the future. An overload on the system will only cause waiting time at these SOCs to lengthen; lengthening the wait for those who need the specialize attention.  

                  This package is more than a monetary hand-out to citizens, the message behind it is that the government values the hard work of these pioneer generation Singaporeans and that it is only right for us, as a nation, to honor their contributions. It is a popular policy, not a populist one. The difference between the two is in its intention; is it meant to please or is it the right thing to do? I believe it is the latter. Some may argue that this is a vote-buying package to secure the votes of the pioneer generation in the coming General Elections.  I beg to differ; the money for the package is guarantee by the government regardless of the government in power after the next GE. Thus, it cannot be used as a “carrot-stick” to persuade voters to vote the ruling party back to power. Timing wise, if it is meant to be a vote-buying package, it is way too early. Come the next election, the effect of the Pioneer Generation package would have already sinked in.  

                 In addition, The Pioneer Generation package also demonstrates the financial capability and prudence of Singapore.  In a time where countries grapple with financial difficulties and economic slow-downs, the fact that Singapore can set aside such a huge amount of money to honor its pioneer generation speaks volume of the countries’ economic foresight and prowess.

                 Some may argue that this handout may set the precedent of Singaporeans wanting “more, more”. It is true that the package is generous and may be seen as a left-ward shift in the government’s policies. However I personally feel that this package was created with commemoratory purpose. It is meant to appreciate the efforts of these seniors and dispel the perception that “you can die but cannot afford to fall ill in Singapore”. It is important to note that this is a one-off package as well.

CPF Contribution Rate Change
                 Another key change would be the increase in CPF contribution rates with employers increasing their contributions by 1 percent for all workers. In addition, contributions will be further increased for older workers with an addition 1.5% (1% from employer, 0.5% from employee) for workers aged 50 to 55 and 0.5% (from employer) for those aged 55 to 65. My only concern/question is: Why did contributions decrease for those between 55 to 65 as compared to those between 50 to 55?  Shouldn’t contributions increase as age increase since the probability of falling ill increases with age? Could it be move to encourage companies to rehire older workers and help these older workers find reemployment into the work force?

                 But in principle, this move is a right one. The government is sending a simple reminder to firms that they have an active role and responsibility to their employees’ welfare and health. With this added 1%, it would mean higher production cost for companies, but I believe it is still bearable and will not be a big financial burden for employers. Traditionally, employees are seen as individuals that help the companies reach its productivity and financial goals. However, companies now have social corporal obligation to care for the social and health welfare of their employees. It is basic corporal social responsibility and it starts with their employees.

 Education Subsidies Policy
                Pre-school education is a big focus of the budget with Singaporeans with household income less than $3000 paying only $3 as compared to $48 and those earning $4800 paying only $85 as compared to $135. Bursaries will also be given to tertiary students and will cover 2/3 of all Singaporean households.

                The above measures ensure that social mobility continues to be possible in Singapore. If you observe, the above two measures targets two key stages of education – the beginning and the ending. The government recognizes that a head-start during pre-school is important for the future academic development of the student and thus wants to make it accessible to all. Similarly for tertiary education, the bursaries serve as an incentive for Singaporeans to continue their studies. This removes all forms of monetary barrier that Singaporeans may have about furthering their studies. These policies will be effective in leveling the playing field to some extent. However, we must note that students from more fortunate backgrounds will inevitably gain an extra edge in the form of external tuitions or better education resources available to them. If we really want to level the playing field and help students from less fortunate backgrounds succeed, more must be done on a local level, not so much from a policy level. Grassroots initiatives such as after-school tutoring programmes conducted by volunteers or vouchers for educational resources can come into play.

Business Transformation
                Many new schemes were announced aiming to boost productivity of firms in Singapore, this comes as no surprise after Singapore’s labour productivity growth was 0% in 2013. The new schemes are innovation and ICT solutions focused, incentivizing companies to reinvent and work creatively to boost productivity. These will definitely be a booster for Singapore-based companies. It might be helpful for the government to facilitate the learning of best practices from similar industries abroad, for example technological companies in Silicon Valley. This would fast-track local SMEs to adopt these best practices and boost productivity.
              The scheme aids companies/SMEs who are already established, however none of the schemes were aimed at aiding starts-up take-off. I personally feel that this is one key pillar that was missed out. If more monetary support and guidance can be given to budding entrepreneurs, Singapore could see a very vibrant SMEs community in the near future.

               There is no further foreign worker quota and levy implemented in this year’s budget other than in the construction sector. This may be an indication that the government understands the manpower constraints SMEs are facing and do not wish to tighten the labour supply further. The construction sector has been constantly lagging in productivity and innovation; thus there is a real need to drastically boost productivity in this sector thus the further regulations.

                Overall, this budget is a really sweet and popular one on many fronts. There is really nothing much to complain about unless you are an employer (the extra 1% CPF contribution) or in the construction industry (increase in worker levy) or a smoker, drinker or better (increase in taxes!).

                                                       --THE END--

The Little India Bill: A Measured Response To An Issue Of Law & Order (23rd February 2014)

Our Singapore Happenings
23rd February 2014

The Little India Bill: A Measured Response To An Issue Of Law & Order

           The Public Order (Additional Temporary Measure) Bill (POATM) recently passed in Parliament outlined a specific set of powers scoped for the current situation in Little India.

            POATM takes the place of the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) which was enacted immediately after the riots took place; and would last for 12 months, applying specifically to the Little India area.

            It is important to note that the powers granted under POATM are far more limited than the extensive powers granted under POPA, although opposition and nominated members of Parliament (NMP) spoke up against the bill in a heated debate.

            Their concerns include the need for such powers to be bestowed upon the home team to maintain law and order, the fear of abuse and the possible influence this may have on the ongoing Committee of Inquiry (COI)’s investigations.

            If we take a look at the POPA, which was enacted directly after the riot and renewed on a weekly basis till date, I would say that the powers given to the police were disproportionate to the imminent/perceived threat of a similar incident taking place. The powers included imposing curfews, reporting orders on persons and the use of lethal weaponry to effect arrest among others.

            Since it was established that the riot was an isolated, one-off event, POPA may have been too serious a response in the immediate aftermath of the riots. The powers under POPA were more suited for state-of-emergency or crises situations.

            In fact, POPA has some serious infringement of human rights there; it remains a wonder why no MPs or human rights activists spoke up against it when it was first implemented but instead, they are now questioning the more measured POATM.

            Though some MPs may be unhappy with POATM, what are the other alternatives available? Reverting back to business-as-usual whilst stepping up police surveillance and patrol in the area? The question would be how effective this extra presence can prevent the repeat of a similar incident.

            What if, fingers crossed, similar riots were to break out? The police would definitely be blamed for not taking preventive measures; which they now can with the additional powers under POATM. Thus, I would think that it is better to be better safe than sorry.

            Some MPs are concerned with the possibility that the police may abuse their additional powers. The police have had a good track record of professionalism; there have been no cases of abuse when POPA -- which grants the police even more powers -- was enacted.

           Besides, the police have strict protocols on when a search or seizure can be done. If there is any instance of abuse, the person involved will be severely punished and I believe the police know these consequences well. If we were to weigh the option of another riot happening or the abuse of power by a policeman, the probability of the former is higher.

           On the concern of POATM promoting racial profiling, it is just unfortunate that the riot happened in Little India – a place frequented by South Asians -- and that the riots involved South Asians. The government is simply treating this issue as one of law and order; if similar riots were to happen in Chinatown, Geylang Serai or Orchard Road I believe a similar bill will be passed to guarantee order.

           It must be noted that POATM applies to every individual in the Little India vicinity regardless of race or nationality.

          Similar to POPA, POATM bans the sale, consumption and supply of alcohol in the Little India area. As the government has ascertained that alcohol was a “contributory” factor for the riots based on preliminary investigations, I do hope they will also review the way alcohol sale licenses are given and the safeguard measures in place to prevent sales without licenses.

           Evidently, POATM is a stop-gap measure till the COI recommendations are implemented. Instead of the bill's 12-month period, I believe this bill should cease immediately once COI recommendations are put in place.

           My stance remains unchanged: these are all law and order ways of preventing similar incidents from happening again. However, I hope the government will look beyond that -- into the welfare and well-being of South Asian workers.

           Though living and working conditions have been said not to be contributory factors for the riots, addressing worker concerns will be welcome. As recreational spaces have always been a concern for these migrant workers, the government can explore how best to provide quality recreational spaces not just for them, but for the cramped Little India area as well.


HPB FAQs on sexuality – A Brave Effort (22nd February 2014)

Our Singapore Happenings 
22nd February 2014
HPB FAQs on sexuality – A Brave Effort  

A lot of buzz has been going on lately about the HPB FAQs – A FAQs aimed at addressing key questions youths may have about sexuality. The FAQs drew a flurry of comments and opinions from both the LGBT community and the conservatives. Many interpreted that the Health Promotion Board (HPB), a government statutory board, was promoting homosexuality through the FAQs. The LGBT community has largely applauded the FAQs such as Pink Dot SG’s spokesperson Paerin Choa who said it found the information to be objective and aligned with globally accepted scientific standards. On the other hand, a petition calling for its review has since surfaced. The petition author by the name of “Aaron” argues that HPB “dangerously promotes homosexuality” and that “[f]ollowing public moods, popular trends or making unsubstantiated statements will not help to bring clarity on the issue at all”.

It is never easy for the government to take a stance on such a controversial topic such as homosexuality; not just in Singapore but in countries around the world. Some countries like Canada and England have legalized gay marriages while others like Nigeria and Russia have enacted anti-gay laws. It is never easy when you have two camps, equally convinced and outspoken about their stance, wanting the government to pander to their agenda whenever possible.

Taking a step back, we have to understand the purpose of these FAQs. It is primarily to address the concerns of youths in Singapore who have burning questions regarding their sexuality and to provide them with the help needed. Being a statutory board that provides public health education resources, HPB has a tough role to play as it is inevitable that it will have to stance to be able to address issues hard-on whilst remaining neutral and objective. The reasons for the FAQs to be interpreted as being pro-homosexual/bisexual can be seen in its phrasing of answers such as: “A same-sex relationship is not too different from a heterosexual relationship. Both take the commitment of two people.” and “Homophobic people are prejudiced - and will sometimes reject and bully homosexuals.” The Health minister has since clarified that the FAQs do not promote same-sex relationships and the government’s stance that family is the basic building block of society remains unchanged.

Could the information be presented in a better manner with better explanations about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT)? Yes. Could the FAQs on sexuality be focused on other aspects of sexuality rather than making homosexuality/bisexuality the only focus in the FAQs? Yes. Could the phrasing of answers to the questions be better? Yes. But I would still applaud the HPB for taking the brave step in taking up the responsibility and challenge of addressing these sensitive but important issues. It is tricky; any slight hint of taking a side will get flanked by the opposing party. But ultimately it is the maturity of the board to acknowledge that there are increasing fractions in society that do not fall into the category of having a heterosexual relationship. With the rise of new media where information are more easily accessible and changing global perception on these issues, more people are exploring and questioning their sexuality.  In the process, youths may get confused with the varied opinions and schools-of-thought. HPB accepts that this is happening and looks at the issue from a neutral perspective; explaining what it is about and teaching youths how to go about their uncertainty. It remains an authority in public health matters in Singapore so it is only their responsibility to provide the help that youths may need in an information-rich, but not necessarily right, world.

It is good to note that HPB actually removed links to Action for Aids Singapore, Oogachaga Singapore, and SAFE Singapore – non-government organizations providing youth counseling and psychological services after the petition for the FAQs to be reviewed was created. It could be the awareness that this is still a sensitive topic of discussion and that the statutory board do not want to be seen to be endorsing the values these organizations stand for. This is in fact the state of debate on the topic of homosexuality in Singapore – deadlock. The advocates on both sides are equally staunch in their beliefs. As a society, I believe we have a long way to go before we can be comfortable or embrace the idea of homosexuality being a part of our societal landscape especially in an Asian context like Singapore. As can be seen from The Institute of Policy Studies survey on race, language and religion involving more than 4,000 Singapore residents found 72.9 per cent of respondents saying it was “always wrong” or “almost always wrong”, when asked how they felt about gay marriages. 

Society has to decide when it is ready to embrace it; I do not think the government has the moral authority to do so. For now, we are definitely not ready. But as time passes, more studies on homosexuality will be done and we may gain a deeper understanding behind the genetics of homosexuality. Maybe then, our mindset and perception will be different and we can begin to accept and embrace the notion of homosexuality. In the meantime, different groups are free to air and advocate their beliefs but it is about being respectful of each other’s comfort level when discussing such topics. That is maturity in itself.