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.

Indonesia's Warship Naming: A startling reminder (16th February 2014)

Our Singapore Happenings
16th February 2014

Indonesia's Warships Naming: A startling reminder

              Earlier this month, Indonesia announced that they will be naming new warships after their national 'heroes'- Osman Haji Mohamed Ali and Harun Said. These were names of terrorists who bombed the Macdonald House which killed 3 and injured 33 others during the 'Konfrontasi' movement where then Indonesia President, Sukarno, went on the offensive to extend the influence of Indonesia in the archipelago. Singapore's ministers have since asked their Indonesia counterpart to reconsider the move to name the new frigate after these “heroes”. Indonesia replied that 'no intent was meant, no malice, no unfriendly outlook'. They added that each nation has the authority to decide who their national heroes are and who they want to name their warships after. Sure enough, Indonesia is free to decide and regard both terrorists as their national heroes. After all, both men did indeed give their lives in service to their country's national agenda during that period, whether we agree with that agenda is another question altogether. However, what is regarded as a hero by a country may be regarded as a terrorist by another; which is true in this case. And by naming a new frigate, a warship that signifies aggression and militarily supremacy, after two men who have been part of Singapore's dark and turbulent history isn't being sensitive to Singapore. It is reasonable to assume that the Indonesia leadership knew that this decision would reopen old painful wounds that both countries have since put behind. 

                 The reasons for their actions are unknown, we can only guess and speculate. It could be a case of oversight by ill-informed or clueless government officials where the decision was announced and cannot be retracted- though unlikely. Or it could be a naive mentality that this issue is no longer a sensitive spot in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans since it happened so long ago. Or it could be to drum up nationalistic support ahead of the April presidential elections. Any one of these three reasons is plausible. 

                   It is a known fact that leaders from both countries worked tirelessly to improve relationship since the incident; which explains the close economic cooperation and military ties that we share today. However, over the past two years, there have been tricky test-points that have tested Singapore's relationship with Indonesia. A case in recent memory would be the haze problem Singapore faced last year caused by hot-spots in Indonesia. Though Singapore registered its unhappiness and offered its assistance to Indonesia repeatedly, Indonesia ignored Singapore's request to dampen the fire and instead some ministers went on the offensive to say that Singapore should be grateful for the oxygen Indonesia provides or that Singapore was 'behaving like a small child'. The second being the current warship naming issue where they were outright insensitive. 

                   I believe these two cases evidently demonstrate that the 'little red dot' mentality that once dominated the Indonesia government's thinking back in the 60s is, sadly, still present in some fractions of the government. Indonesia may have since decided to establish a good relationship with Singapore with many cooperation initiatives and good will gestures but when it comes to crunch time where the government has to decide between personal political/economic gains and preserving a healthy relationship with Singapore, they will choose the former. The old mindset that the 'little red dot' is a small dot that has no means and/or would not make things difficult for a big country like Indonesia, though unspoken, may very well persist within fractions of the leadership. Though we are a stronger and more economically powerful little red dot as compared to the 1960s, is our military and economic muscle big enough to be a force to be reckoned with in the minds of the Indonesia government? 

                  These two episodes may well serve as a reminder that we have to continue to work towards strengthening our armed forces and our position as an economic powerhouse in the region so that we will not be messed with and that neighboring countries will think twice before making insensitive remarks/decisions. 

                  It is unlikely that the Indonesia government would retract their decision of naming the warships after the two terrorists. It does not help that both countries are on the offensive diplomatically. Singapore has stood its ground and registered its unhappiness, which is important to show that it is no push-over. Hopefully, this incident can be put behind and both countries can cautiously move on to strengthening diplomatic relationships. 

                 In conclusion, this episode has been a good history lesson for the Singapore public for it generated curiosity about what exactly happened in 1965 at the Macdonald house and reminded Singaporeans that peace should not be taken for granted and should continue to be preserved. It is also a startling reminder that Singapore has to continue to strengthen its military competences and economic powers as we may not be exerting the level of deterrence we hope to.


Transport Fare Hikes: A necessary but untimely affair. (2nd February 2014)

Our Singapore Happenings 
2nd February 2014 

Transport Fare Hikes: A necessary but untimely affair. 

                Recently the Public Transport Council (PTC) has approved both Public Transport Operators' (PTO) request of a 6.6% fare adjustment. The PTC then decided to roll over 3.4% of the increase to spread out the impact of any large increase in cost. Thus fares will hike 3.2% this year and kick in on April 16. The 3.2% hike is lower than the expected 4-5% increase in average national wage last year, and thus can be said to be reasonable. However, this announcement was met with an outcry amongst Singaporeans, with many speaking up and some protesting against it. I believe this reaction is expected and understandable from the point of view of a commuter, which I will explore more later. However, if we look from the operators' point of view, this fare hike is necessary and expected. Furthermore, this is the first fare hike since 2011. 

                 This tension between commuters and transport operators can be understood if seen through each other lenses. 

                 Through the transport operators' lenses, over the past two years, their operational costs have sky rocketed. With higher fuel cost and staffing wage increment amongst others, their financial accounts have been in the red over the past years. Thus this fare hike could well be the only way to make this service possible and sustainable. This 3.2% increment will also mean an estimated 53.5 million in extra revenue for these PTOs per year. Hopefully a good part of this 53.5 million will go towards improving transport reliability and systems as well. I believe this increment has been modest. If you look at transport cost in comparison with your wage increment year on year, transport cost has actually gotten more affordable - proportion of total spending spent on transport has decreased. 

                  Apart from the fare hike announcement, a slew of subsidies were also announced. There was a long list of subsidies with two new concession schemes targeted at those suffering from disabilities and those with lower income. These two new schemes are expected to cost the government a good estimated $50 million. Traditionally the government will be the one funding these subsidies, together with funds from the Public Transport Fund (PTF), which is topped up when PTOs are fined with failure to provide reliable service and the PTOs' public service contributions. However, with the fare hike, PTOs have to contribute more to this PTF. They will now contribute 11.58 million in a one-off contribution which is significantly more as compared to previous occasions. Thus this whole scheme may well be a move to build a more inclusive society where the needy and less fortunate are taken care by the working population. 

                Amongst all the new subsidies announced, one of them stands out in my opinion. Prices for concession passes for polytechnic students would be cut by more than 40 percent. This is actually a breakthrough for those who have been urging for transport fares for poly students to be on par with those in Junior Colleges. Simply phrased, the government is acknowledging the equally significant role polytechnics and junior colleges play.

               Next if we look through the commuters' lenses, their anger and frustration is understandable. Few can opine that train and bus service reliability have improved over the past 3 years since the major breakdown in late 2011. Train disruptions have almost become a second nature every few weeks. Bus timing reliability is still an issue. Many commuters are frustrated that the situation is not improving despite it being 3 years and are thus not willing to pay for the fare hikes. It did not help that there was an untimely string of train stoppages during the period when the fare hike was announced. From a private consumer point of view where choice is an option, no rational consumer will pay even more for poor service. The idea that we need to pay more now so that PTOs will have the funds to invest in new technologies and systems is absurd. As private companies, the operators are responsible for providing affordable and reliable transportation to the people. When such objectives are not met, the operators should acquire the necessary resources to fix the problems, instead of relying on hand outs from the government. Furthermore, the government has contributed $1 billion of taxpayers’ money to the private companies to assist them in improving their service. Such an act has provoked a small number of people into calling for the nationalisation of the transportation system.
The PTOs' need for an increment in fare and commuters' resistance to it essentially boils down to the difference between commuters' expectations and the current reality. I believe Singaporeans will be willing topay extra for good transport service. Thus I think now is the time for the PTOs to set things right once and for all and slowly regain the public's trust once again. The first step in this direction is being accountable to the public with its future actions. 

                Firstly, the PTOs have to reassure the public that a good percentage of the fare hike will go towards improving the transport system. They need to explain the specific steps that they will be taking to fix the situation with a time frame and an expected completion date attached to it. They will be held accountable by the PTC which will then monitor their progress and ensure that these measures are effectively carried out. The PTOs can also do a quarterly press release to inform commuters of the progress of these new implementations. As such, commuters can be assured that definite steps are taken to resolve the issue and change is imminent. 

               Secondly, to resolve the issue, the PTC could take up an additional role as an independent investigative auditor to assess the reasons behind these train faults. This investigative body could comprise of international experts on transport systems or retired rail/bus engineers who have the depth of experience and technical skills to assess and diagnose the root cause of these problems. Next, recommendations as to how to resolve the issues will then be submitted to PTOs for implementation. The PTC will then take on a big brother role of overseeing the successful implementation of these recommendations. This is possible as the PTC holds the trump card to the game - any PTOs who fail to comply with the given timeframe of implementation will be denied any request for fare hikes in the future. Definitely, plenty can be done to improve service reliability, such as improving the signalling systems of trains, retraining staff members, increasing the purchase of trains, and replacing worn out rail lines. The options are endless but experts need to recommend what is necessary to nip the problem in the bud. 

                The people have a desire to see that the additional money from the fare hike is put to good use, and that results are obvious. The patience of commuters’ is running thin, with confidence in the system at an all-time low. The PTOs certainly need to be held accountable, and improvements must be clearly shown. One can only wonder the duration which it will take before the system is fundamentally changed in a crucial manner. If there has to be a starting point, I would think it should begin today.


Singapore's Cycling Culture: A Fundamental Shift in Thinking (7th January 2014)

Our Singapore Happenings 
7th January 2014

                    Singapore's Cycling Culture: A Fundamental Shift in Thinking

             The price of cars in Singapore is that of a supply and demand issue. With the ever increasing demand for cars amongst Singaporeans and limited road space available, the cost of cars in Singapore will naturally increase. Singaporeans who can afford a car will usually opt for one given its convenience and ease of travel. Another reason for its popularity amongst Singaporeans who can afford it could be the status symbol that comes with owning a car. However the prices make it inaccessible to some or do not make any economic sense to own one to others. Thus, a cheaper and more economically sustainable solution is sought. Two obvious choices are available for use: Public Transport or another form of private transport in the form of cycling. 

                Recently, there has been a renewed interest in Singapore which led to current discussions between the government and civic groups to explore how to cultivate and facilitate a cycling culture in Singapore. This renewed interest may be due to it being seen as a viable alternative means of transport other than the public transport system which currently has its flaws. It is also a healthier option which may be one drawing factor to cycling. It's essentially killing 2 birds with one stone, being able to reach your destination and yet sneak in a cardio workout at the same time. In addition, it is time efficient which many Singaporeans seek. There are talks about how some may want to cycle to work in the future, I am not too sure if the demand for this is there. If someone lives at Yishun, would he/she cycle all the way to work in the CBD? Unless the route to the CBD from these suburban estates are extremely convenient and cuts down travelling time, I don't think people are willing to travel 30 minutes by bicycle to work daily. So I would say demand is more for inter-town rides, ride to town's amenities and to the closest MRT stations/bus terminals. 

                Cycling has become a culture amongst citizens of other countries such as in London. Cycling brings along its benefits such as a healthier lifestyle for individuals and a decrease in carbon footprint for the society in general. More must be done to promote the use of cycling as a means of transport here. There are several barriers/concerns that are preventing more people from taking it up. Firstly, it is the space contention that cyclists face. In the eyes of the pedestrians, these cyclists who share the pavements with them are reckless and dangerous while in the eyes of motorists, these cyclist who share the roads with them are a nuisance and a hindrance. Since cyclists are unwelcomed on both the pavements and the roads, many would choose the former as it is the safer option despite it being illegal. Thus leading to my next point on safety. Safety is a major issue when cycling on public roads. Realistically speaking, a cyclist stands no chance if it experiences a collision with a motorised vehicle. Ask any frequent cyclists and they will tell you that cycling on Singapore’s public road is downright scary with cars not giving way or drivers being impatient with your slow speed. In recent years, you would remember serious road accidents involving cyclists on the road. A prominent case would be the tragic news of 2 boys who were knocked by a cement truck in January 2013. Safety is a major concern for any cyclist and unless we can assure cyclists of their safety while cycling, I doubt we will see a cultural shift towards cycling. Lastly it is the accessibility of bicycles and the convenience of cycling in Singapore.  The current rules and infrastructure in Singapore has its limitations in accommodating cyclists. There are still overheads bridges with no ramps available, forcing cyclists to dismount and physically lift their bicycles up the bridge. Cyclists are also forbidden from riding over overhead bridges. Also, bike parking facilities are limited and only available at high traffic areas (more to be built in the near future). There are also size restrictions and time restrictions for bringing bicycles on board buses and trains. The time allowed are off-peak hours (9.30am - 4.00pm and 8.00pm to the end of passenger service) which is not attractive for individuals who want to cycle to and from work daily, using public transport as an intermediate means.

                If cycling is going to be part of our culture and lifestyle, a fundamental mind-set shift on both the part of the government and its citizens must happen. On the part of the government, one key issue that must be solved is that of the safety of cyclists. Seeing the space constraints on both roads and walking pavements for cyclists, space for cyclists should thus be exclusive for them only. Some have called for a lane to be dedicated purely to cyclists on public roads. This is a huge fundamental shift in power in flavour of the cyclists, the feasibility of this need to be questioned. Some roads in Singapore are already running at max capacity during peak hours, allocating a lane especially for cyclists may cause massive congestions and bottleneck at these roads.  The frequency of usage of this designated road is also yet to be seen, it may actually prove to be an inefficient allocation of resources.  What can be done instead is a small cemented pavement could be laid out, 3 bicycle width, that runs parallel to public roads. This will facilitate cyclists who use public roads to get around to their destinations. Cyclists will abide by rules for pedestrians, sharing only the traffic light crossing.  This is can in additional to the 700 km of bicycle track that the government is building by 2030.

                 To make cycling more accessible and convenient, rules with regards to cycling or transportation of bicycles should be significantly relaxed. Foldable bicycles should be allowed onto trains and buses even on peak hours with specific cabins (maybe first and last) designated for cyclists to bring their bicycles into. Bicycle parking services could also be provided at more spots, near offices and work places which make it convenient for cyclists. And lastly, shower facilities can be provided at all work places for employees to shower before work if they decide to cycle to work.

                The perception of cycling amongst Singaporeans must be changed as well. Making cycling look “cool” should be the main focus of campaigns to encourage more to take up cycling. This campaign has to make Singaporeans see that it makes economic sense to cycle and that the paths and route provided makes cycling a time-efficient means of transport.  

                Change won’t happen overnight, it will take considerable effort from the government to decide and make fundamental changes to facilitate the grooming of this cycling culture in Singapore. Singaporeans are practical people; they will make sense for themselves if cycling is indeed the way to go about Singapore.  

                                                        --THE END--

MediShield Life: Challenging implementation ahead (29th Dec 2013)

Our Singapore Happenings
29th December 2013

                              MediShield Life: Challenging implementation ahead

                During the National Day Rally earlier this year, PM Lee announced the MediShield Life scheme with 3 key proposed reforms to the current scheme. They are:

(i)                 Better coverage through MediShield payouts. Pay less for large bills
(ii)                Coverage for Life
(iii)               Coverage for Everyone, even those with pre-existing medical condition

                It was naturally a well-received move by the public. There were obvious gaps in the current scheme and these reforms would address the gaps. It was also a morally right decision taken by the government to include everyone under MediShield regardless of pre-existing medical condition. This ensures that all Singaporeans, regardless of age or your medical circumstances, is well taken care of.

                In principle, MediShield is similar to Obamacare in the US where every individual, regardless of age or pre-existing medical condition, is mandated to purchase health insurance with a pre-determined benefit package. Those who cannot afford are then given financial subsidies.

                I believe the first question every Singaporean have on their minds is: “So who is going to pay for all these extra coverage?” There can only be 2 sources of funding for this extra coverage. The government could take up the cost of funding the extra coverage but this may mean higher taxes in the future. Or it can directly translate into higher premiums for all Singaporeans across the board.

                One obvious coverage difference is that MediShield Life will cover Singaporeans above the age of 90. Covering those above 90 will mean heftier medical bills that will significantly increase the premiums for all Singaporeans. The question will then be how high a premium Singaporeans are willing to pay for all these extra coverage. Singaporeans must be able to see this as an investment where they are paying forward so that they can benefit from these benefits in the future when they are old. If those with pre-existing medical conditions are considered in the same pool as other Singaporeans, premiums will sky rocket even higher.

                Thus, it might be wise to separate Singaporeans who have pre-existing medical conditions to be in a separate pool altogether. Premiums for the people in this pool will definitely be higher. However, premium should also vary for the people within the group; premiums could be pegged to the potential medical cost with reference to their pre-existing medical condition since different medical condition could have vastly different potential medical cost. Thus having a personalised premium payment system may be the way to go. Financial assistance can be provided by the government for those who cannot afford the high premium.

                 There is no correct way to do this; there are many options available so it is about weighing which one is most feasible and acceptable by all. The Ministry of Health (MOH) is currently consulting Singaporeans on this. It would be interesting to see what is announced in the near future and how Singaporeans react to it. In principle, it is a great step forward but implementation will be controversial and challenging. 

                                                               --THE END--

PAP Party Convention: The Roadmap for the Future (26th December 2013)

Our Singapore Happenings
26th December 2013
                            PAP Party Convention: The Roadmap for the Future

           On 8th December 2013, the PAP Party Convention took place. It was a key event where the party leadership announced the party’s direction leading up to the next general election. It was also apt that this party convention is taking place midway through the government’s 5-year term in office. The party also adopted a significant resolution that will define its cause in a new phrase of Singapore’s development.

           Overall, the key focus of the government in the following years (e.g. Healthcare, Transport, and Housing) and the ways to solve these problems remains unchanged from what PM Lee spoke about during his National Day Rally Speech. There were three main points which I thought was good to point-out.

            Firstly, it was Mr Chan Chun Sing’s speech where he mentioned one of the three priorities at a national level was “Communications”. To quote:

            “This is why we must continuously and strenuously defend the common space for people to speak up. If we do not stand up for what we believe, others will occupy that space and cast us into irrelevance. We must not concede the space - physical or cyber. We will have to learn from the 1960 generation of PAP pioneers - to fight to get our message across at every corner - every street corner, cyberspace corner be it in the mass media, and social media. We will have to do battle everywhere as necessary.”

            The first thing that came into my mind was that of a military general giving order to a battalion of soldiers. Tone aside, who was he referring to when he said “for people to speak up”? And who are the “others” that will occupy that space? Anti-government and extremists views on the net? Or simply those that do not toe to the line of the government? The statement is pretty vague I feel; I just hope that this is not a call for more government hands in the online and offline media scene.

           If we simply look at the underlying message of what he is trying to say, it should be a simple message of asking party members to stand up for what the party is doing and allowing Singaporeans to know that whatever the PAP government is doing is for the eventual good of Singaporeans. This I do agree should be done. Many of times, when the government releases a new programme/scheme, the main headline gets sensationalised without the mass public truly understanding what the programme/scheme seeks to achieve. The headline then gets blown out of proportion with many anti-government sentiments attacking just the headline alone. An evident example would be the population white population released earlier this year. The figure of “6.9 million” was immediately picked up and sensationalised by the media which sent many Singaporeans into a furry. But if you look and read deeper, the core idea was about forecasting Singapore’s future growth and planning the infrastructure and social system to meet the demands come 2030. The 6.9 million was merely used as an estimate for planning purpose. If the issue is framed in such a way, then people may start to understand the purpose behind the white paper; it’s simply what every good government seeks to do.

             Like what Mr Chan said, the party needs to re-examine the way it explain its policy to the masses and it needs to “simplify and customise our messages to the diverse target audiences.” This is an area that the party can work on. Understanding how and where different groups in society consume information is the key to effective information dissemination. For example to reach out to younger Singaporeans, info graphics about key policies changes can be done up and uploaded onto social media for consumption. On the other hand, to reach out to older Singaporeans, TV commercials or newspaper adverts may be the way to go. It is all about displaying information effectively through the correct channel to get the point across.

          Secondly, PM Lee announced the formation of the PAP Seniors Group (PAP.SG) interest group to champion elderly causes. The EXCO will consist of a cross-section of members reflecting our social make-up, needs and aspirations.  Hopefully this make-up will consist of people who know the sentiments on the ground and bring up important issues to be addressed on the national level.  It is said that the committee will consist of the elderly and those who are younger but are interested in ageing issues. I think this a wonderful partnership as it encourages the elderly to step forward to share their wisdom as to how to solve problems that their generation are currently facing whilst working hand in hand with the younger generation. I think this announcement is also timely for party activist and elderly Singaporeans in general, the youths have been a key focus for many government policies recently, with the establishment of PAP.SG, it is a clear signal to the elderly that they are not forgotten and neglected and that their concerns are well taken care of. Politically, it is also a smart move as the elderly group has traditionally been supportive of the party.  This initiative shall seek to secure this voting base and hopefully be a lobbying voice for the party.

            Lastly, there were multiple calls from the government to continuously engage the public on the way forward. This can be seen from the newly adopted resolution where under the theme of “A Democracy of Deeds”, it explains that “We welcome diverse views and robust discussion from all Singaporeans to devise solutions for the good of all.” and under the theme of “Engage and Empower our People”, it explains that We must improve the way we communicate our intentions and actions to the people, and involve citizens in decisions that shape our nation and our shared future.”  This demonstrates that the government understands the importance of civic engagement on policies and that people’s opinions matters. Head bashing through with an unpopular policy is a no go. Devadas Krishnadas, a risk consultant at Future-Moves, describes this as just Singapore “normalising as a democracy” where every issue has to be debated and discussed whether formally or informally. Of course, this is ideal, but the government knows that this takes extra time – time to consult with different groups with sometimes opposing views, time to understand concerns from stakeholders and time to refine and tweak policies. Efficiency will be sacrificed in the process, so the government has to decide if it is a worthy sacrifice.

              Overall, the main crux of the convention was one of clarifying goals and redefining its cause in a new socio-political landscape. Whatever was stated in the resolution definitely reflects what the general public wants in any democratic government. Now that the government got their goals and cause sorted out, time will tell if their actions embody the key guiding principles laid out in the resolution.

Will the PAP be a “sexier” party come 2015?
It will take effort from every level but I believe it can be done.

                                                         --THE END--