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Alternative proposals for a better Singapore

Debate on MediShield Life Scheme Bill


During the debate during the second reading of the MediShield Life Scheme Bill, I raised several concerns and questions regarding the disclosure of confidential information and the approach to the recovery of outstanding premiums. I pointed out that some people may have genuine privacy concerns and they should not be automatically penalised for it in the form of higher premiums. Instead they should be allowed to make statutory declarations about their health status.

Speech delivered in Parliament on 29 January 2015

Mdm Speaker,

This Bill gives effect to the MediShield Life Scheme, which was debated in this House in July 2014. It spells out the framework for the disclosure of an individual’s confidential health and financial information, recovering outstanding premiums, and the offences and penalties for false declarations and claims.

I have several concerns to raise regarding the disclosure of information and the recovery of outstanding premiums.

DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION

First, on the disclosure of information described in Part 5 of the Bill.

The Bill authorises certain “authorised persons”, including public servants from the Central Provident Fund Board (CPF), the Ministry of Health (MOH) and public hospitals, to tap into various government databases to extract an individual’s confidential health information for two purposes: One, to assess whether a person has pre-existing medical conditions for which premium loading may apply; and two, to assess the person’s benefit claims under MediShield Life.

The Bill also permits these authorised persons to request for, access, use or disclose to other authorised persons the “means information” of an individual, which could include monthly income, income tax data, information on assets, residential address and household composition.

My queries and concerns on this Part of the Bill fall into four categories:

1. The means testing process;
2. The extent of access, disclosure and use of confidential data;
3. The process and consequences of opting out; and
4. Safeguards to prevent illegal disclosure.

Means testing process

First on means testing. I understand the rationale for authorising this disclosure of health and means information is to facilitate a smoother and more seamless execution of the MediShield Life Scheme.

I raised the matter of means-tested premium subsidies in both my adjournment motion on healthcare affordability in November 2013 and during the MediShield Life White Paper debate in July 2014. I had asked for premium subsidies to be provided automatically to households that have already undergone means-testing for other government assistance schemes like CHAS (Community Health Assist Scheme). I also asked for the appropriate level of premium subsidies to be automatically extended to all vulnerable groups of Singaporeans, without requiring them to apply separately. This is so that all individuals who are eligible for premium subsidies will receive them with minimal paperwork.

Can the Minister confirm if the provisions in this Bill will enable means testing to be automated, such that individuals do not have to submit additional forms to receive the premium subsidies?

If not, what would be the procedure for individuals to apply for premium subsidies, and how will MOH ensure that the process is simple and convenient, especially for the elderly, people with disabilities or those with lower levels of literacy?

Given the very tough premium recovery measures in Part 3 of this Bill, it is ever more important no one misses out on their premium subsidies, if they are eligible to receive them.

Extent of use of confidential information

Next, the use of confidential information.

Will the Government and its functionaries be allowed to use any of the confidential information authorised under this Bill for purposes other than means testing, premium calculations and benefit claims assessments? I note there are provisions under the Bill, including in Clause 30, for the Minister to approve the access or disclosure of such information as he “considers appropriate”. This is gives very broad powers to the Minister and could potentially negate the protections spelled out in other parts of the Bill.

Can the Minister give some examples of what he may “consider appropriate” for access or disclosure of confidential information that is not already provided for in this Bill? Can these not be spelled out in the Bill instead of giving the Minister so much discretion?

Opting out

Next, on opting out.

For those who do not consent to access to their confidential information, how will they opt out? Will the process be made simple and explained clearly to all persons, including those who have not yet expressed a desire to opt out? The Bill does not explain the procedure for opting out, but simply that it should be in “the manner determined by the Minister”.

If individuals opt out, will they automatically have a 30% premium load for 10 years imposed on them?

It is easy to assume that people all fall into one of only two groups: First, those who are willing to allow the Government to access their health and means information; and second, those who have some medical conditions that they are trying to hide so as not to attract higher premiums.

But there is a third group of individuals: Those who have no medical conditions that warrant higher premiums but still do not wish to give the State such wide ranging access to their personal information. People in this group should not be penalised for wishing to maintain their privacy, neither should they be forced to make a Hobson’s choice: Either permit access to your data, or pay higher premiums.

For individuals who are concerned about privacy, can the Government allow them to opt out from the provision of health information, and instead make a statutory declaration about their health status? If they declare that they have no relevant medical conditions, they would not be required to pay higher premiums. If they are untruthful in their declarations, then there are already penalties in this Bill and other laws that can be used to punish them and deter such behaviour.

I believe this would strike a fair balance between individuals’ desire for privacy and the need to ascertain their health status for premium calculations.

Safeguards to prevent illegal disclosure

Next, on safeguards.

This Bill greatly increases the potential number of people who will be authorised to access confidential information of individuals. We have seen examples in other countries where public officers who were given wide-ranging access to confidential information misused that information and even disclosed it publicly. We have also seen large organisations have their computer systems breached by hackers and suffer massive losses of confidential information, including health information of their employees or credit card numbers of their customers.

I note that there are penalties in the Bill for unauthorised disclosure. But it is not always easy to track down the source of a leak, and in any case, once confidential information is leaked, the damage would have already been done.

With the introduction in this Bill of such extensive authorisation to access confidential data, do the relevant agencies plan to significantly beef up the security of their computer systems to prevent unauthorised data access, either by external hackers or by disgruntled insiders?

Can the Minister assure us that authorised persons will be given access only on a strictly “need-to-know” basis, regardless of their seniority, and that the data in their possession is removed as soon as it is no longer needed?

I note that a new Cyber Security Agency (CSA) has been set up under the PMO. Will the security of confidential information covered in this Bill come under the purview of the CSA?

RECOVERY OF OUTSTANDING PREMIUMS

I now move on to Part 3 of the Bill: The recovery of outstanding premiums.

Under the Bill, those who do not pay their premiums could also be slapped with penalties of up to 17% of outstanding premiums and interest on late payments. Can the Minister elaborate on how the penalties will be computed and how soon after a default will they take effect?

The Bill empowers a “recovery body” to use methods of recovery of outstanding premiums similar to that used by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) to recover outstanding taxes. These include declaring any person or entity to be a “defaulter’s agent”, who could be one’s employer, bank or tenant. The defaulter’s agent will then be obliged to pay the premiums due from any salary, pensions or rent that he owes to the defaulter. Defaulters could also be sued.

I agree that those who have the means to pay their premiums but fail to should be firmly compelled to do so. This is only fair to other policyholders who are contributing their fair share to ensure that the Scheme is sustainable and viable in the long term. However, can the Minister assure the House that the Government will not aggressively pursue individuals who default due to their genuine inability to pay?

I am not referring to the destitute, who can be helped by premium subsidies, but those who may not qualify for premium subsidies but still cannot pay. For example, individuals who have lost their jobs or cannot work due to illness. Can the Government allow for premium deferment for such individuals who may have temporarily run into hard times financially?

And lastly, if an individual continues to default on premium payments, will he ever lose his MediShield Life cover? I hope this will not be the case, because it will call into question the universality of MediShield Life.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, Madam, I support this Bill but have expressed a number of concerns about the disclosure of health and financial information, and the enforcement of the measures to recover outstanding premiums. I hope the Minister will address my queries in round up speech.

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Families in $1,000-$2,000 income bracket booking HDB BTO flats


Parliamentary Question on 19 January 2015

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for National Development since March 2012, how many families with a monthly household income of between $1,000 and $1,200 (inclusive) have (i) applied for and subsequently booked or (ii) been invited but failed to book 2-room or larger HDB BTO flats.

Mr Khaw Boon Wan: For BTO exercises between March 2012 and July 2014 where selection has been completed, 744 families with monthly household income of between $1,000 and $1,200 booked a 2-room or larger BTO flat. Over the same period, 655 other families in the same income bracket were invited to select a BTO flat but they did not proceed to book one.

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Financial sustainability plans for Gardens by the Bay


Parliamentary Question on 19 January 2015

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for National Development given that the Government grant to Gardens by the Bay increased from $23 million in the November 2011 to March 2013 period to $27 million in the April 2013 to March 2014 period, whether the Government plans for Gardens by the Bay to be commercially self-sustaining eventually and, if so, by when.

Mr Khaw Boon Wan: Gardens by the Bay (GB) is a national public garden for Singaporeans. It is a people’s garden meant for all to enjoy. Except for the Conservatories, GB’s recreational garden spaces and facilities, which make up 90% of the site, are free and accessible to the public. The Government grant to GB is used to offset the operating expenses incurred in the upkeep of this as well as to support GB’s active community programming.

Since its opening, GB has run a wide range of non-ticketed programmes and activities to reach out to our local community. Major festivals and events such as the Mid-Autumn Festival @ The Gardens and the recently concluded Christmas Wonderland were well-received by Singaporeans.

There is no plan to make GB self-funding.

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Credential checks on foreign professionals seeking employment in S’pore


Parliamentary Question on 4 November 2014

CREDENTIAL CHECKS ON FOREIGN PROFESSIONALS SEEKING EMPLOYMENT IN SINGAPORE

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Manpower what are the Government’s plans to facilitate credential checks on foreigners coming to work in Singapore in light of cases of foreigners on employment passes who are revealed to have used false credentials.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Our Employment Pass (EP) eligibility framework is based on a range of factors, such as the applicant’s salary level, qualifications and experience, to identify individuals that are likely to possess expertise and capabilities to contribute to our economy. Hence, possessing acceptable qualifications alone does not guarantee that the EP application will be approved. Conversely, not possessing acceptable qualifications does not automatically rule one out of being eligible for an EP.

In 2012, we tightened our legislation and increased penalties for making false statements or submitting false documents in support of work pass application, including those relating to academic qualifications. Offenders may be fined up to $20,000 and/or imprisoned up to two years. Since 2012 to the first half of 2014, we have successfully prosecuted about 150 foreigners for false credentials. All were sentenced to imprisonment terms and subsequently had their work passes revoked and were barred from working in Singapore.

We have also taken a risk-based approach to improve and strengthen our credential checks, including supplementing these checks with third-party overseas screening agencies, verifying the authenticity of certificates directly with the issuing educational institution, and requiring the applicant to upload proof of diplomas and higher qualifications authentication.

MOM will take strong actions against those who make false declarations in work pass applications. If members of the public know of such offences, they should report the matter to MOM.

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Income and expenditure of the bottom 10% of households


Parliamentary Question on 3 November 2014

BREAKDOWN OF DATA IN HOUSEHOLD EXPENDITURE SURVEY

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Trade and Industry whether the Household Expenditure Survey data can be broken down to quantify (i) the income and expenditure profile for the bottom 10% of households by income and (ii) the respective types of home ownership among the bottom 20% of households who spend more than what they earn.

Mr Lim Hng Kiang: Based on the results of the Household Expenditure Survey (HES) 2012/13, the average monthly income of households in the first income decile was $1,043, while their average monthly expenditure was $1,844. About 55% of their income was derived from work, while the remaining 45% was from non-work income sources such as investment income and regular transfers from the Government. The stronger reliance on non-work income by these households could be attributed to the fact that around one-third of the households in this group were retiree households. Detailed data on the expenditure patterns of households in the first income decile can be found in the HES 2012/13 report on the Department of Statistics’ website.

Information on home ownership by dwelling types and income quintiles has also been published in the HES 2012/13 report. Specifically, more than eight out of ten households in the bottom income quintile owned homes. Among those who lived in HDB flats in this group, 81% owned the flats that they occupied. The ownership rate for those residing in condominiums and other apartments, and in landed properties was higher at 88% and 95% respectively. However, specific data on the home ownership of households who spent more than they earned is not available from the HES.

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Impact of low productivity on economic growth


Parliamentary Question on 4 November 2014

IMPACT OF LOW LABOUR PRODUCTIVITY ON SINGAPORE’S ECONOMIC GROWTH

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Trade and Industry (a) whether the Government is satisfied with labour productivity growth of 2.2%, -1.4% and -0.2% in 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively vis-à-vis its stated target of 2-3% per year from 2010 to 2020; (b) what is the impact of this low productivity performance on overall economic growth; and (c) how much longer the Ministry expects it will take for 2-3% productivity growth per year to be achieved.

Mr Lim Hng Kiang: In 2010, we set a target of 2-3% annualised productivity growth over the decade starting from 2009. This ambitious target was set because productivity growth had been weak in the decade before 2009, at 1% per year, and we had assessed that there was significant room for improvement. Tracked against this target, we have achieved an annualised productivity growth of 2.9% so far[2].

However, a large part of this was due to the strong recovery in 2010. Annualised productivity growth since then has been weaker, at 0.2%. Nevertheless, we were still able to record good overall economic growth during the 2010 to 2013 period. Annualised GDP growth was 4.1%, which is within the 3-5% projected for the decade.

Some sectors have also done better than others. From 2010 to 2013, productivity grew 2.1% annually in the export-oriented sectors like Wholesale Trade and Financial Services. Such sectors make up just over half of the economy. Being globally competitive, they are able to transform and adjust processes quickly to changing market conditions.

In comparison, domestic sectors like Construction and Retail performed more poorly, with an annualised growth rate of -0.3%. The National Productivity and Continuing Education Council (NPCEC) is focusing its efforts on measures that will significantly uplift productivity in these sectors. For example, we are taking more aggressive upstream measures in the construction sector. These promote greater use of pre-fabrication and other high-impact technologies to enhance productivity. It will take some time for these efforts to be reflected in the productivity numbers.

Overall, we have made progress in our productivity drive, but more remains to be done. Economic restructuring is a long-term process and we will press on with it.

[2] This refers to our productivity performance from 2009-2013.

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Medical disciplinary cases where courts reduced legal costs to be paid by losing parties


Parliamentary Question on 4 November 2014

MEDICAL DISCIPLINARY CASES WHERE COURTS REDUCED LEGAL COSTS TO BE PAID BY LOSING PARTIES

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Health (a) of all the unsuccessful legal challenges by medical doctors to disciplinary committee proceedings brought against them by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) in the past three years, how many of such cases have had their legal costs that the losing parties are ordered to pay reduced following the court’s taxation of the bill of costs; (b) what has been the total quantum of costs taxed down; and (c) whether these have resulted in SMC paying the full quantum of costs that have been taxed down.

Mr Gan Kim Yong: For the 44 SMC disciplinary proceedings that concluded between 2011 and 2013, taxation has been completed for seven cases, of which six had a proportion of the bill reduced after taxation. In these cases, between 37% to 78% of the costs were recovered after taxation and the cumulative amount that was taxed down amounted to about $926,000. The remaining bill was eventually undisputed. These taxation cases do not include cases which are pending cost negotiations and outcomes of appeals. In each of the cases taxed, SMC paid the legal fees that were incurred.

Taxation is a procedure that determines the proportion of the costs of the winning party that the losing party is made to bear when the costs are disputed. It must not be confused with whether the legal fees incurred were reasonable, and as the Law Society explained, the taxation framework is such that there is usually a considerable difference between what a losing party eventually pays and the costs incurred by the winning party in the disciplinary proceedings. For that reason, most cases that undergo taxation would result in the winning party not being able to recover a proportion of the costs incurred.

Invariably, the legal expertise required and the costs of the disciplinary process increase with the complexity of the cases. SMC must carry out its public duty to ensure that patients’ interests are protected. If it fails to pursue such cases due to financial considerations, there will be a loss of confidence in its ability to safeguard the interests of patients and in the integrity of the medical profession. SMC will continue to ensure that the legal fees of the law firms engaged are reasonable and commensurate with the work done.

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Debate on the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill


Mr Deputy Speaker,

Human trafficking is a gross human rights violation and a moral atrocity. According to International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates, there are at least 2.4 million trafficked persons around the world at any given time, with 56% of these in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet there are only a few thousand convictions of traffickers every year. Most victims are not identified and consequently never receive justice for the damage and hurt inflicted on them. Disturbingly, human trafficking remains a low-risk enterprise with high returns for traffickers. The ILO estimates that profits generated from human trafficking are as high as US$32 billion every year.

The United Nations (UN) points out that almost every country in the world is affected by human trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims. The US State Department said in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report that Singapore is a destination country for women and girls from China, India, and parts of Southeast Asia who are victims of sex trafficking, and a transit country for Cambodian and Filipino men subjected to forced labour on fishing vessels that stop at Singapore ports. The report stated that many foreign workers here have assumed large debts to recruitment agencies in both Singapore and their home countries, making them vulnerable to forced labour, including debt bondage. The report further said that some foreign workers reported confiscation of their passports, restrictions on their movement, illegal withholding of their pay, threats of forced repatriation without pay, and physical and sexual abuse, which are all potential indicators of trafficking. The Government has responded to this report, saying that it remains of the view that the US needs to adopt a more objective methodology in future reports.

Last year, there were 53 reported cases of sex trafficking and 49 reported cases of labour trafficking in Singapore. Of these, only seven have been prosecuted, while investigations for most of the other cases are ongoing.

Human trafficking is covered under UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. The Protocol came into force in 2003. Singapore is neither a signatory nor party to this Protocol, although it has ratified the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which is the parent convention to this protocol.

Singapore currently does not have a dedicated anti-trafficking law; this Bill will be the first. Currently, human trafficking is covered by several different pieces of legislation such as the Women’s Charter and the Children and Young Persons Act.

This Bill represents progress in acknowledging the problem of human trafficking in Singapore instead of conflating human trafficking with other crimes such as human smuggling or illegal migration as used to be the case. It also makes an attempt to move beyond the perception that the bulk of human trafficking offences are related to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, and acknowledges that labour trafficking is also a problem.

The main focus of this Bill is to criminalise trafficking by imposing penalties, and stepping up enforcement efforts to weed out traffickers. There are also some provisions for victim protection and assistance.

The Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons was set up in 2010, and is co-chaired by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Manpower. The Taskforce came up with the National Plan of Action in 2011 which aims to combat human trafficking through the “4Ps” framework of prevention, prosecution, protection and partnership.

In this Bill, of the 4Ps, prevention and prosecution feature strongly; protection of trafficking victims is provided for but is lacking in some areas; while partnership is largely absent. My speech will focus on the victim protection and assistance measures in the Bill.

Trafficking victim assistance and protection

The Bill has some provisions for protection and assistance to victims. Clause 18 protects victims of sexual exploitation by providing for in camera court proceedings, and a publication gag order to prevent the identification of victims. Clause 19 empowers the Director of Social Welfare to provide victims with assistance, including temporary shelter and counselling services, as he or she considers “practicable and necessary” in the circumstances of the case. However these are provided administratively at the discretion of the Director.

Sir, the provisions for victim protection and assistance in the Bill need to be strengthened further. There are two key reasons why this is necessary. First, it is the right thing to do for victims of human trafficking. Many victims would have suffered horribly in the hands of their traffickers, and may be in a state of shock, misery and disorientation in a foreign land. As a developed country, Singapore should do all it can to lessen their physical, mental, emotional and financial burdens while they assist in investigations and await the trial of their victimisers.

Second, strengthening the protection and assistance framework would encourage more trafficking victims to come forward to report their plight to the authorities. As human trafficking is a clandestine activity, there is often no paper trail and the prosecution relies heavily on the cooperation of victims to report and testify against suspects. In the absence of a strong victim protection and assistance framework, trafficking victims may decide that they are better off suffering in silence or may be reluctant to cooperate fully with authorities. This will make it harder for the authorities to hunt down traffickers and for prosecutors to secure convictions. Traffickers will then be able to brazenly continue with their evil deeds, and harm even more innocent victims.

There are several ways the victim assistance and protection framework can be improved. First, in addition to shelter and counselling, Clause 19(1) should also mention that victims should be provided with food and healthcare.

Second, victims should be allowed to work during the time their case is ongoing. Most foreign workers who leave their home countries and come to Singapore, do so to seek better work opportunities. The fear of not being able to carry on working while they undergo a lengthy court case, which may last up to three years, could discourage victims from coming forward, as most have families back home relying on their remittances and many would have incurred hefty debts to come to Singapore. While temporary employment is currently permitted where merited, this is done on a case-by-case basis. There is no public mention of the criteria and merits used to determine this. This will result in a degree of uncertainty for victims who are deciding whether or not to report trafficking.

Third, genuine victims should be assisted to safely return to their country of origin without unreasonable delay after the conclusion of the trial. One of the initiatives proposed in the 2011 National Plan of Action (NPA) by the Inter-Agency Taskforce was to “facilitate the re-entry and return of victims to their home countries” after conducting a review of provisions to allow this. The review was due to be completed in 2013 , but this provision is nowhere to be found in the Bill. May I ask if the review been completed and what its conclusions are?

Fourth, victims should also be given access to legal aid and representation. They should also be provided with information on the criminal and administrative proceedings related to their cases, including advice on pursuing civil action against their traffickers to obtain compensation.

Fifth, the courts should study if it is possible to allow victims of human trafficking to attach civil claims to the criminal case, as many will not have the means to take out separate civil lawsuits. As brought up by Ms Sylvia Lim in this House earlier this year, traditional criminal proceedings are aimed at punishing the offender, while the victim usually receives no compensation for injuries or losses from the crime. I would like to suggest that Singapore could consider a scheme practiced in the Netherlands, which allows trafficking victims to attach a civil claim to a criminal case, so that the criminal court can decide on claims at the sentencing stage.

And sixth, with respect to victim protection, the Bill should clarify that trafficking victims will not be prosecuted for offences committed by them, if such offences are a direct consequence of their situation as trafficked persons. Without an assurance that they will not suffer repercussions for speaking out, many may opt not to report their abuse.

Some may argue that providing strong victim assistance and protection could incentivise false reporting. I think this fear is overstated. As a matter of principle, we should not compromise the interests of the vast majority of genuine victims in our attempt to prevent a small minority of false reporters.

A clear definition and guidelines of what constitutes trafficking will help prosecutors and investigators correctly classify trafficking cases based on their circumstances. Genuine trafficking victims should be spared from prosecution. To provide the necessary deterrence, those who engage in wilful false reporting should be prosecuted. This is already provided for under Clause 20 of this Bill.

Other suggestions

Apart from victim assistance and protection, I have several more suggestions on how this Bill and its subsequent implementation could be enhanced to better meet its objectives.

First, after this law is enacted, there needs to be sufficient public education provided to foreign workers, employers and members of the public who may come into contact with trafficked victims. This is so that they will all be more aware of their rights and responsibilities under this law, and report violations when they occur.

Second, the penalties for human trafficking under Clause 4 of this Bill should be enhanced further, given the terrible nature of the crime and the fact that human traffickers often make a tidy profit off their victims. Clause 4 specifies a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment, a 100,000 dollar fine and caning for the first offence. In comparison, under Proposition 35 which was passed in the state of California in the US to enhance penalties for human trafficking, the maximum fine is 1.5 million US dollars and prison sentences of 15-years-to-life.

Third, the Government should reveal how it plans to measure the success of anti-trafficking efforts following the passing of this Bill. The Government should conduct benchmarking studies every few years to measure the scale of the problem, and how effectively we are rooting out trafficking. The methods, data, and findings should be made available to the public.

And lastly, the fourth “P” in the anti-trafficking framework – partnership – is not mentioned at all in the Bill. Partnership with civil society and cross-border cooperation is a key tenet of a broader anti-trafficking strategy. Human trafficking is a problem that has to be tackled simultaneously on different fronts, and there has to be effective collaboration between different organisations and governments for this to succeed.

Conclusion

Mr Deputy Speaker, this Bill is a step forward in tackling the serious and extensive problem of human trafficking in the world. However, in order for the Bill to achieve its intended objective, the 4P’s of prevention, prosecution, protection and partnership need to work hand-in-hand. We cannot over-rely on prevention and prosecution. Greater protection and assistance to victims of human trafficking is both a moral obligation and a practical imperative to securing more convictions.

The key success indicator of this legislation is if it enables the authorities to identify more victims, to prosecute and convict more culprits of human trafficking, and lower the incidence of this heinous crime. Once this Bill is passed, I urge the Government to expeditiously sign and ratify the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

Sir, I support the Bill.

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Retirement adequacy and low take-up rate of Lease Buyback Scheme


Parliamentary Question on 8 October 2014

LINK BETWEEN RETIREMENT PROVISION ADEQUACY AND LOW TAKE-UP RATE FOR LEASE BUYBACK SCHEME

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Manpower whether there is any evidence to support the Ministry’s view that the low take-up rate for the Lease Buyback Scheme among eligible home owners may be a positive sign that most seniors have other forms of support and are adequately provided for in retirement, as opposed to any shortcomings in the design of the scheme, lack of awareness of the scheme or other reasons.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Most seniors have various sources of financial support in retirement. Based on the findings of the latest Household Expenditure Survey, a retiree household in 2012/2013 received $1,740 of non-work income on average a month. The sources of income include monthly payouts from CPF, contributions from family members, rental income and investment income. Results from the National Survey of Senior Citizens 2011 also indicated that about two-thirds of senior citizens received income transfers from their children.

Many of our seniors today also have savings in their housing assets which have appreciated significantly. A typical retiree household who owns a three-room or a four-room flat has $300,000 or $400,000 worth of net equity in the flat respectively. The Government has introduced schemes such as the Lease Buyback Scheme (LBS) to provide Singaporeans with additional options for unlocking the savings in their flats to supplement their retirement income if they wish to do so. Seniors who have other forms of financial support might not see the need to take up LBS, or they may choose to move to a small flat or rent out rooms in their flats instead. One in 10 elderly households aged 55 and above sublet a room or the whole flat. These are alternative monetisation options for those who prefer to bequeath their flats to their children.

There is ongoing interest and enquiries about the housing monetisation schemes which indicate awareness of these options, but not all enquiries translate to actual applications. Nonetheless, the Government will continue to study ways to improve the range and features of housing monetisation schemes to ensure that they meet the needs of our seniors while providing flexibility to suit different preferences. MND and HDB recently announced enhancements to the LBS, which include extending LBS to 4-room HDB flats, relaxing the top-up requirement to the CPF for households with two or more lessees, and having the flexibility to choose the amount of lease to retain. These enhancements were made in response to feedback on the LBS. We will continue to take in feedback for future reviews.

———-

Source: Singapore Parliament Reports

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Special access for Indian businesses under CECA


Parliamentary Question on 8 October 2014

UPDATE ON SPECIAL ACCESS FOR INDIAN BUSINESSES UNDER BILATERAL FREE TRADE AGREEMENT

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Trade and Industry if he will provide an update on the Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement (CECA) negotiations and, specifically, whether India is entitled to special access to Singapore’s labour market or banking licences under the terms of CECA.

The Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr Lim Hng Kiang): Mdm Speaker, the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) entered into force on 1 August 2005. CECA provides for reviews to examine issues related to the Agreement. The first review was completed in 2007 and the second review is on-going.

CECA has increased trade and investment flows between India and Singapore. Bilateral trade grew from S$16.6 billion in 2005 to S$25.5 billion in 2013. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from India into Singapore grew from S$1.3 billion in 2005 to S$20 billion in 2012. This has helped to create good jobs for Singaporeans.

CECA serves to bring conveniences to businesses by allowing temporary entry on both sides for certain categories of persons, including business visitors, professionals, and Intra-Corporate Transferees.

Under CECA, Singapore agreed to grant three bank licences with Qualifying Full Bank (QFB) privileges to Indian banks, subject to the prudential requirements of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). Two Indian QFBs, namely State Bank of India and ICICI Bank, have been approved to date. At the same time, India agreed to allow the three Singapore banks to open a total of 15 bank branches in India and 11 branches have been approved so far.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song (Non-Constituency Member): I have two supplementary questions, Madam. I understand that India is claiming that our Work Pass framework, which has been tightened in recent years, somehow violates CECA, or they are saying that they are entitled to allow more workers to come in here. So, can the Minister share with us his interpretation of what India’s claims are?

Secondly, can the Minister also share Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI)’s position on this, and also give us an assurance that the Government will stand up to pressure from the Indians to allow more of their nationals to work here?

Mr Lim Hng Kiang: Under the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that we negotiated, there is an exchange of preferential treatment. In India’s case, in CECA’s case, one of the privileges we extend to India was to create greater conveniences for business people to move between the two countries, Singaporean businessmen to India, and vice versa.

One category is Intra-Corporate Transferees. That means if you got employees that you have employed and you are setting up a business in Singapore, we facilitate the transfer of your corporate employees to help you set up and run the business.

Under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) in World Trade Organization (WTO), we grant such Intra-Corporate Transferees, say five years. In India’s case, we allow them to do so for eight years. These are the kind of privileges.

All these privileges do not deviate from our right to apply measures to regulate the entry as well as a temporary stay. So, the overall immigration and employment rules that we regulate have to be maintained. But where the special privileges are negotiated in the FTA, then, of course, the counter-party will enjoy those privileges. And we will follow these rules strictly.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Madam, I understand the point about the privileges. My question is, are we granting them all the privileges that they are entitled to under the CECA, or are they saying that we are not granting them enough? If it is the latter, would that mean that, effectively, the Indians are asking for more Work Passes for themselves?

Mr Lim Hng Kiang: The privileges are clearly delineated in the FTAs and in CECA. As I had explained just now, say, for example, Intra-Corporate Transferees, if the Indians dispute that we are not giving them eight years as we agreed, then they can refer the case to us and, ultimately, there is a dispute settlement process.

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Source: Singapore Parliament Reports

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