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Alternative proposals for a better Singapore

GE2015 Hougang Rally – National Minimum Wage


Speech on 2 Sep 2015 at Hougang field

Hougang Rally

Residents of Hougang and from all corners of Singapore, good evening!

It is so wonderful to be back here to speak with you.

During my house visits in East Coast GRC, a few residents have asked me what the opposition can do for them in Parliament. Some think, if we only have a few elected MPs, we can’t get laws changed or prevent bad laws from being passed. We can only make speeches and hope for the best.

I believe that our value as an opposition party is not just about taking up more seats Parliament or making speeches. It is much more than that.

First of all, if you elect a sizeable number of opposition candidates into Parliament, it will send a signal to the PAP that all is not right with their policies and their attitude towards the people. On the other hand, if you give the PAP an overwhelming vote, they will take it that you strongly support their policies on manpower, immigration, public transport and healthcare, and they can continue on the same path.

Second, once we have a critical mass of capable MPs in Parliament, we would have more resources, time and manpower to scrutinise government policies more closely, propose better alternatives and put pressure on the government to implement these policies. We need enough MPs to be able to effectively examine the work of over 16 ministries, 66 statutory boards and many other government organisations.

Third, by sending a good batch of Workers’ Party candidates into Parliament, you are helping to build a stronger and more credible alternative party that can form a bulwark against any incompetent government that may arise in the future. No governing party lasts forever. History around the world is filled with governing parties which started out well, but eventually lost the support of their people. The real political risk for Singapore is not an opposition that causes gridlock, but not having an alternative to the PAP if it fails the people.

National Minimum Wage

So what are the policy changes that we are pushing for in this election?

I would like to invite you to read our Manifesto, entitled “Empower Your Future”. It is available for sale here at the rally or you can download it from our website for free. It is 46 pages long and contains over 130 proposals for improving the lives of Singaporeans.

Today, I will talk about one major economic proposal in our manifesto: The introduction of a national minimum wage.

What is a national minimum wage?

A minimum wage is the lowest salary that employers are legally allowed to pay their workers. A national minimum wage will apply the same wage floor across the country, instead of having it only apply to certain industries.

The minimum wage is not a new concept. The first minimum wage law was introduced in New Zealand in 1894 and now almost all countries in the developed world have minimum wages or some way of ensuring a wage floor. We are one of just a handful of countries that do not have a minimum wage.

Why do we want to introduce a minimum wage? There are many reasons, and I will outline just a few today.

First, we want to reduce poverty in our country. This is a basic responsibility of any government.

There are about 110,000 full-time employed Singapore residents who earn less than $1,000 per month. This is based on 2011 figures provided to me after I asked the Manpower Minister a Parliamentary Question. This means that together with part-time employees, there could be well over 110,000 Singapore residents who earn less than $1,000 per month or the hourly equivalent of $5.25 per hour.

Ask yourself: Can you support a family in Singapore with less than $1,000 a month?

According to the government’s Household Expenditure Survey, the average monthly household expenditure for the poorest 20% of households is $2,230. This means that even if both parents in a household are working but earning less than $1,000, it is still not enough to cover their expenses. According to another government statistic that I obtained in Parliament, a family of four on average spends $1,250 per month just to pay for basic needs.

I think most of us would agree that in the world’s most expensive city, which is what Singapore is according to the Economist Intelligence Unit , it is not reasonable to expect a household to live on less than $1,000 a month.

The second reason we are calling for a minimum wage is to encourage more people to join the workforce. There are currently many women and older persons who choose not to work because the wages they would earn are not able to cover costs like transport and childcare. So it is more worthwhile to stay at home and look after their children.

This is an untapped labour pool in our economy, particularly at a time when we are faced with a labour crunch. If we can encourage more people to enter or re-enter the workforce, it could help to improve economic growth and at the same time reduce our dependence on foreign labour.

Third, we have cannot afford to wait much longer for productivity to rise before raising the incomes of our lowest paid workers.

The PAP government set a target of achieving 2 to 3% productivity growth per year up to 2020. But for the last 4 years since the last election, productivity growth has been close to zero or negative. In fact, a minimum wage could push employers to raise the productivity of low-skilled jobs. It could incentivise them to provide better training for their low-skilled workers and introduce automation, to help raise workers’ productivity to match the higher wage levels.

There are other reasons for introducing a national minimum wage, and there are exceptions that are usually granted to reduce their negative impact on businesses. I do not have time to elaborate on them in my speech, but the Workers’ Party welcomes a national debate on this issue. We will be happy to address this issue in more detail during the course of this election campaign.

Conclusion

The national minimum wage is just one of the many proposals that we will be pushing for in Parliament, if you elect us as your representatives. Our goal is not to oppose everything the government is doing, but to work with the government to identify better solutions and to put pressure on them to implement those solutions, for the benefit of all Singaporeans.

Fellow Singaporeans, we stand at a critical moment in our history as a young nation. We are no longer a developing country that is struggling for survival. We have achieved enviable level of economic development and peace, due to the hard work of our pioneer generation and many others that followed, and our commitment to work together despite our differences. Yet there are segments of our population that have not reaped the full benefits of our economic growth. We need to do more to uplift the lives of these fellow citizens, and so create a more equitable society and dynamic economy.

The Workers’ Party has and will always stand on the side of Singaporean workers and their families. Please support us in this election, so that we can continue to push for more compassionate and sound economic and social policies.

Vote, for the Workers’ Party. Vote, to empower your future!

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Debate on Bus Services Industry Bill


Delivered in Parliament on 18 August 2015

Mdm Speaker,

The Bus Services Industry Bill seeks to regulate the provision of bus services, and the operation of bus depots and bus interchanges in Singapore. It also gives effect to the recently-introduced bus contracting model via a bus services procurement framework.

The Workers’ Party welcomes the government’s shift towards taking over the ownership of bus assets, the planning of bus routes and the setting of fares, while contracting out bus operations to the private sector. This will hopefully give the government greater control over the service quality and affordability of public transport, which is an essential public service.

I have a few queries on this Bill and the bus contracting model in general, which I hope the Minister can address.

First, on the maintenance and renewal of bus assets. Under this Bill, bus operators will be responsible for the maintenance of bus assets, which will be owned by the government but leased to operators. LTA’s lack of direct involvement in bus operations could result in information asymmetry between the regulator and the operators. Essentially, LTA may not have a full understanding of what is going on under the hood of bus operators, and hence may not be able to take the necessary regulatory or enforcement action should maintenance be lacking.

How will LTA ensure that bus operators conduct proper maintenance of these buses? How will LTA mitigate the risk that the buses may be poorly maintained or abused because the operators do not own them, resulting in shorter lifespan or more frequent breakdowns?

Which entity will be responsible for the renewal and replacement of essential operating assets when they approach their end of serviceable life?

The broader question on this issue is: How will the Ministry of Transport manage any possible conflicts between LTA and the operators, to ensure that there is proper accountability, so that disagreements between the two entities do not result in delays or failure to conduct proper maintenance and renewal of essential operating assets?

Next, on buses and crisis response. Currently, most public bus operators are also MRT train operators, and they can reallocate resources internally to respond to incidents like MRT breakdowns. This is likely to change in the future, with the bus routes eventually tendered out to different operators. How will LTA marshal bus resources from different operators to respond to crises like the massive MRT disruption we saw last July? Is there any provision in the bus operator contracts that state that operators must make their bus resources available to the government to respond to crises?

Third, I would like to ask about the transition between bus operators. The bus contracting model is likely to see more frequent transitions between bus operators. How will LTA ensure that the incumbents maintain high service levels as they transition out of areas where they will no longer be providing bus services? I am particularly concerned about manpower transitions that may affect service levels for the commuter.

Fourth, on the removal of the CEO of bus operators. Clause 19 requires bus operators holding a Class 1 bus service licence to obtain LTA’s approval before appointing, re-appointing or removing its CEO or board chairman, failing which LTA can issue a direction to reverse that decision. However, if a current CEO of a public bus operator is incompetent or unable to provide effective leadership to ensure the smooth operation of the bus services under their contracts, does LTA have any power to remove that CEO before the expiry of his or her contract?

National Transport Corporation

Madam, the bus contracting model is now in its second year of implementation. Only two contracts have been awarded so far. It is too early to gauge whether this model will indeed drive greater cost efficiency and service quality for commuters, while keeping fares affordable. All stakeholders, including the government, should monitor this model closely over the next few years to assess its results. If it turns out that cost efficiency and service quality have not improved as a result of this model, the government should be prepared to explore different models, including having a government-owned National Transport Corporation take over the running of public bus services on a not-for-profit and cost-recovery basis, to ensure that service quality for commuters is not compromised.

Finally, Madam, I would like to record my thanks to Minister for patiently answering all my PQs (Parliamentary Questions) and responding to my speeches on transport over the last 4 years, and I wish him all the best in his future endeavours.

Madam, I support the Bill.

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Parliamentary Questions for 13 July 2015


I will be asking Ministers the following questions in Parliament today (13 July 2015):

Questions for Oral Answer:

*7. To ask the Minister for Manpower (a) what accounts for the drastic fall in job growth from 28,300 jobs in Q1 2014 and 40,700 jobs in Q4 2014 to just 300 jobs in Q1 2015; (b) whether this trend has continued into Q2 2015; and (c) what implications does this have on Singapore’s economy.

*40. To ask the Minister for Trade and Industry (a) whether the Government can provide a Gini coefficient trend line on income distribution for the past five years that includes the foreign population living and working in Singapore; and (b) how this Gini coefficient compares with other major cities like New York, London and Hong Kong which incorporate these segments of their populations in their Gini calculations.

*76. To ask the Minister for National Development (a) whether the Government is concerned about the recent record price of $31 million paid for a coffee shop in Bukit Batok which follows the $23.8 million transaction in 2013 for a coffee shop in Hougang; and (b) what measures is the Government taking (i) to mitigate the downstream impact of such high transactions on stall rentals and the price of cooked food in those coffee shops; and (ii) to prevent property speculation in coffee shops which many lower income residents depend on for affordable food.

Questions for Written Answer:

23. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs (a) what is the Government’s foreign policy on the Rohingya situation in Myanmar which is causing a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia; and (b) whether the Government has raised any concerns on the situation with senior members of the Myanmar Government and Opposition and, if so, what are their responses.

27. To ask the Minister for Transport whether the Government will consider reducing the contribution rate of de-registered Category D (motorcycles) COEs to Category E (open) from the current 10% to 0% in order to return more COEs from de-registered motorcycles to Category D and mitigate the price of quota premiums for motorcycle owners, many of whom are from lower income groups and need their motorcycles for work.

———-

The numbers next to the questions denote the order in which the questions will be answered (for questions for Oral answer). The above questions do not include questions on the MRT breakdown on 7 July as this disruption took place after the deadline for filing PQs.

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WP issues statement on 7 July 2015 MRT disruption


This is the statement issued by the Workers’ Party on the massive MRT disruption on 7 July 2015:

WP Statement on NSEWL MRT Breakdown

The Workers’ Party is deeply worried over the 3.5 hour disruption of train services along the entire stretch of both the North-South and East-West MRT lines on 7 July 2015. The severe inconvenience caused to an estimated quarter-of-a-million commuters during the evening rush hour makes this the most serious MRT disruption in Singapore’s history.

The latest breakdown comes on the heels of repeated assurances by both SMRT and the authorities about the improved reliability of our transport system. Yet, the number of significant train delays reached an all-time high of 12 in 2014 and stands at 8 in 2015. This is despite billions of dollars of government funds being pumped into improving the existing MRT infrastructure since 2011.

Even as the LTA and SMRT work together with their engineers and external consultants to identify the precise cause of the breakdown, we find it particularly troubling that two of our country’s main rail lines can be fully disrupted by what appears to be an electrical fault. This raises questions about our transport system’s resilience, particularly as such a system-wide failure could have repercussions on our nation’s economic and national security interests.

We call on the authorities to enforce a more rigorous maintenance regime on the rail network, with effective measures in place to ensure that commuters’ interests take precedence over corporate profits. For key performance indicators (KPIs) such as the number of unscheduled train withdrawals per 100,000 train kilometres and the number of service delays exceeding 30 minutes, concrete targets must be set and disclosed to the public.

In the meantime, engineering and front-line staff should also be provided with proper support by their employers to ensure that they are equipped to handle any similarly challenging situations in the future. Their efforts and tireless work – many working through the night – should be recognised, and we would like to express our appreciation for their hard work.

THE WORKERS’ PARTY
9 July 2015

The original statement can be found HERE.

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Caught in the NSEWL MRT breakdown


Screenshot from the MyTransport app on my phone

I was caught in the massive breakdown of the North-South and East-West Line (NSEWL) of the MRT yesterday evening as I was heading to a meeting at the WP HQ in Jalan Besar. When I reached Dover station at about 7.05pm, the eastbound train was already at the platform but with all its cabin lights off. I got onto the train anyway, but waited almost 5 minutes before it finally moved off. The westbound train on the opposite track was similarly stalled. My train stopped midway to the next station and all its lights went out again. This pattern was to repeat itself several more times over the next 25 minutes. When I reached Outram Park station at about 7.35pm, the lights in the train went out a final time and we were told to detrain as it was no longer in service.

The PA system announcements at the station informed us that train service on the entire NSEWL had been suspended and free shuttle buses were available. So I exited the station thinking I could hop onto one of the buses. Big mistake! The street level was packed with people and there were no buses to be seen and no directional signs to guide the stranded commuters. Someone asked me where the buses were. I told him honestly that I had no idea.

Knowing that it would be pointless to attempt taking a cab, I headed back down to the station, against the flow of the crowd, hoping to get in again and take the North-East Line (NEL). But all the fare gates were closed and I was told by an SMRT staff that I had to exit and walk around the station to get into the NEL entrance. I finally boarded the NEL and arrived at my meeting almost half an hour late.

I consider myself fortunate that I was able to hop onto the NEL. The guy sitting next to me on the East-West Line train (before it stopped at Outram) said that he was heading to his home in Simei. I think he, like hundreds of thousands of other commuters, probably got home much later than usual.

This 3.5 hour service disruption, which happened simultaneously on the two busiest MRT lines during the Tuesday evening rush hour, was probably the most serious service disruption ever. I had flashbacks to November 2011, when I had another close shave — I just missed getting on one of the trains from City Hall station that was to eventually stall in the middle of the tunnel.

According to SMRT and LTA, the outage was due to a power fault. Preliminary investigations found that a faulty train could have caused the power to trip. I find it astonishing that a fault with a single train could cause power to be cut to trains at all 58 stations on the NSEWL. Is there so little redundancy in the system? Or are all the circuits strung together in series like a cheap set of Christmas tree lights?

As of the time of this writing, it is still unclear if the MRT service will be available in time for the Wednesday morning rush hour. SMRT has already advised commuters to make alternative travel plans. Both the Minister for Transport and LTA have come out to apologise for the breakdown and demanded that the faults be investigated and rectified. That is little comfort for the quarter-of-a-million or so commuters who suffered this massive inconvenience and frustration.

The Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the November 2011 MRT disruptions had identified maintenance (or lack thereof) as a key cause of the multiple breakdowns then. Now, almost 4 years later, with a new CEO at the helm who promised to focus more on engineering and maintenance capabilities, we seem to be back to square one. What can we expect moving forward? Another COI?

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Unmanned Aircraft (Public Safety and Security) Bill


Speech in Parliament on 11 May 2015

Amazon's Octocopter

Mdm Speaker,

Unmanned aircraft, also known as an unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or “drones”, are aircraft which can be operated without a human pilot on board. This Bill introduces a new regulatory framework to address security and safety concerns posed by unmanned aircraft flying in Singapore’s airspace.

Until recently, drones were better known for their ability to spy on enemy movements in the battlefield or deliver precision strikes on terrorists in troubled regions. However, in the past few years, drones have been more commonly mentioned for their commercial and civilian, rather than military, uses.

There is the “Octocopter”, which online retailer Amazon is planning to use to deliver packages in as little as half an hour after the purchase. Drones are also being used for aerial photography, patrolling of secure areas, inspecting ships and oil spills, and search and rescue operations, to name just a few.

In introducing this new regulatory framework, the Government should take care to avoid hindering commercial developments by placing too heavy a regulatory burden on the drone market. This is so that our companies and our local entrepreneurs can benefit from, and contribute to, some of the promising innovations in this exciting new space.

Drone regulations

The Bill empowers the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), with the approval of the Minister for Transport, to make orders and regulations with regard to unmanned aircraft. The detailed regulations have not been spelled out in this Bill, although some have been mentioned in media reports (and in the Minister’s speech).

I would like to clarify if the following regulations are on the cards:

First, will the regulations specify that drones must keep a safety distance from persons, vehicles, buildings or structures, as well as from congested areas or large groups of people, such as sporting events or concerts?

Second, on requiring “geo-fencing”. Flying drones within 5 kilometres of an aerodrome is already prohibited under the Air Navigation Order. However, there is a risk that drone operators may unintentionally fly too close to an aerodrome or military installation. This will pose not just a security risk, but also a safety threat to aircraft taking off and landing. As such, has the CAAS considered requiring drones above a certain weight or size to be equipped with geo-fencing capabilities? Using geo-fencing, the drone can be programmed with the co-ordinates of aerodromes and security-sensitive areas in Singapore. If it tries to enter these areas, it will be forced to turn around or land. I understand that many commercial drones already come equipped with geo-fencing capabilities, so it should not pose too much of a regulatory burden for these drone operators.

Third, CAAS regulations currently prohibit a drone from being flown beyond the normal unaided “line of sight” of the person operating it. However, there are currently beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) technologies being developed, which enable a drone operator to make course changes to avoid obstacles, including other aircraft, using on-board cameras. It was recently reported that the US Federal Aviation Administration is working with private companies to test commercial drones that can fly beyond an operator’s line of sight. This will open up the possibility for more sophisticated drone operations such as package delivery. While it is still early days for this technology, I hope that CAAS remains open to issuing permits, on a case-by-case basis, to companies to test-bed such technologies in Singapore so that we maintain an edge over our overseas competitors.

Fourth, it was reported that all commercial drone operators will need to apply for a permit. Can the Minister explain why is this requirement being imposed on all commercial operators? Is the risk posed by commercial operators higher than that of, say, hobbyists? Would it not be fairer to require permits only for drones above a certain weight or size, rather than placing a permit requirement on all commercial operators?

Fifth, if commercial operators are required to apply for a permit, then it is important that the assessment criteria for permit approvals be made transparent, in terms of the specifications of the drones, the types of commercial uses that will be allowed and whether there would be any requirements for operators in terms of training and qualifications. If this law is to be effected on 1 June 2015, which is just over two weeks from now, then sufficient time must be given to operators obtain the permits without interrupting operations.

And sixth, CAAS has said it will serve as a one-stop centre for all drone permit applications. This is a welcome move. I hope this will help reduce red tape and the time taken for permit approvals. Can the Minister share what the typical waiting time for a permit approvals is expected to be, so that commercial operators can better plan their schedules and operations?

Security

I have some security concerns about the risk of drones being used for terrorist activities. While this Bill will probably be effective in preventing law-abiding drone operators from unintentionally causing harm to persons and property, it is unlikely to stop a determined terrorist from using a drone to fly explosives, or chemical or biological agents into key installations or large crowds, causing mayhem, fatalities and serious injuries.

It is important that our security agencies develop plans for detecting, intercepting and taking down rogue drones. These include acquiring systems to “detect and defeat” drones. I note that Clauses 13 and 17 give the authorities the power to direct a drone operator to change course or assume control of the drone, by force if necessary, to end the flight of the drone in the fastest and safest practicable way.

However, detecting and defeating rogue drones is not a straightforward task. Most drones are small, move slowly and fly low, which makes it difficult for radar to detect them. To “defeat” a detected drone by shooting it down or jamming its control signals could risk injuring innocent bystanders when it plunges to the ground, particularly if it contains a hazardous payload.

According to The Economist, there are currently systems that can hijack a drone’s navigation and control systems, and fly it to a desired location, or to use another drone to catch the rogue drone in a net. In addition, there are technologies available to track the control signals of a rogue drone back to its human operator, and intercept the operator. Has the Government already acquired such systems to deal with rogue drones?

Also, will there be any enhanced penalties for anyone convicted of using a drone to carry out a serious crime, as is being proposed in the state of Washington in the US?

Privacy

Finally, this Bill does not appear to address data protection or privacy issues with regards to the use of drones. My concern is mainly with the possibility of drones being used to take photographs of people or private property in a manner that infringes individuals’ privacy. Do current laws already provide for data protection and privacy from drones? I hope the Minister can explain how these laws are adequate and what the penalties are for violators.

Madam, I support the Bill.

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Third-Party Taxi Booking Service Providers Bill


Speech in Parliament on 11 May 2015

Taxi booking mobile app

Mdm Speaker,

This Bill introduces a framework to regulate third-party taxi booking service providers, which include taxi booking mobile applications.

In recent years, the near-ubiquity of smart phones in Singapore has facilitated the entry of several taxi booking mobile apps like Uber, GrabTaxi and Easy Taxi. Most of these apps allow passengers to book rides with any taxi driver, even independent limousine drivers, unlike the booking services run by taxi operators which are limited to a smaller pool of drivers. This can provide better matching of passenger demand with taxi supply.

Some of these apps allow passengers to track the cab driver’s location, contact the driver directly, rate their drivers and even share a cab with others who are travelling the same route. They help reduce transaction costs, while encouraging taxi drivers to maintain high levels of service.

They are a win-win for both passengers and taxi drivers. Passengers enjoy greater convenience booking cabs, and drivers have easier access to a wider pool of passengers. I understand some enterprising Singaporeans have started their own limousine companies and receive their bookings through these apps. A larger supply of drivers could help address the perennial problem of not enough taxis being available during peak hours or when there is a heavy downpour.

With these “disruptive” technologies, the dominant taxi operators have to up their game or risk losing drivers to rivals. Their drivers could decide to switch to other operators who charge cheaper taxi rentals, while still receiving enough bookings via mobile apps. This could put downward pressure on rentals charged by taxi operators, which will benefit cab drivers.

Third-party taxi booking services could encourage greater competition, innovation and service quality, and improve customer satisfaction. In regulating third-party taxi booking service providers, the Government should focus more on maximising benefits to consumers and taxi drivers, and less on protecting a particular business model or existing taxi operators.

I would like to seek clarification from the Minister on Clause 10(b), in which the regulator, in deciding whether to register an applicant, “must have regard” to the demand for third-party taxi booking services in Singapore. Does this mean that if supply of these booking services exceeds demand, as assessed by LTA (Land Transport Authority), the regulator may decide not issue a taxi booking service licence?

Can the Minister explain why the LTA needs to base its licensing decision on demand for third-party taxi booking services? Is it not the responsibility of potential entrants to assess the viability of their own business models? If the service being provided by the new entrant is more attractive, this will give consumers more choice and consumers will naturally gravitate to them, with weaker players fading out. I don’t think the Government needs to make this decision for consumers.

Overall, I am glad to see that this Bill does not go the way of several other cities that have implemented outright bans on drivers accepting bookings via certain ridesharing apps. It is not a free-for-all, where any private car driver can accept bookings via these apps. At the same time, the regulations require basic consumer protections to be in place, like requiring drivers to be properly insured, conducting background and health checks on drivers and prohibiting overcharging of passengers.

Madam, I support the Bill.

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Limits on transport of gold in and out of Singapore


Gold Bars

This is the transcript of the exchange I had with Mr S. Iswaran, Second Minister for Home Affairs, during Question Time in Parliament on 13 April 2015. My question was prompted by reports that a North Korean diplomat was caught at the airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with 27 kg of undeclared gold, after arriving on a flight from Singapore, where he had transited.

In his reply, the Second Minister said that there is no weight limit on the amount of gold that travellers are allowed to transport in and out of Singapore. He added that it is “not uncommon, especially for travellers to certain parts of the world to carry what you and I might consider not insignificant amounts of gold in their personal baggage. If they are able to give a clear explanation that these are their personal effects or for personal consumption purposes, generally they would be allowed to carry on with their travel with those items.”

————–

LIMITS ON TRANSPORT OF GOLD AND OTHER PRECIOUS METALS IN AND OUT OF SINGAPORE
(Whether diplomatic immunity extends to such transport)

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) what is the weight limit on the transport of gold and other precious metals in and out of Singapore by individual travellers; (b) whether diplomats are exempt from this limit, if any; (c) whether the Police is aware of a diplomat carrying up to 27 kg of gold bars in his luggage on a flight out of Changi Airport in March 2015; and (d) what measures are in place to ensure that diplomats do not abuse their diplomaticimmunity to carry precious metals, drugs or weapons in and out of Singapore in their luggage.

The Second Minister for Home Affairs (Mr S Iswaran) (for the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs): Mdm Speaker, there is no weight limit on the amount of gold and other precious metals that can be transported in and out of Singapore by travellers. In line with the international standards set by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, our measures and controls are focused on the point of sale of such items in Singapore.

All precious stones and metal dealers (PSMDs) are required to conduct customer due diligence and file a Cash Transaction Report (CTR) with the Suspicious Transaction Reporting Office when they sell any precious stone, precious metal or precious product to a customer in cash exceeding S$20,000. This is supplemented by the general suspicious transaction reporting (STR) regime, which requires all persons in Singapore to report any knowledge or reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct which comes to their attention in the course of business or employment.

Police is aware of media reports of a case last month where a person allegedly attempted to import gold into another country without making the proper customs declarations, after arriving on a flight originating from Singapore. Police records indicate that the person, who is a foreign diplomat, but not accredited to Singapore, did depart on a flight from Changi Airport where he was screened before boarding and no security threat items were found on him.

All diplomats, like other travellers, are screened for threat items before they are allowed on board an aircraft. This involves the use of metal detectors for person checks, and x-ray screening for their belongings. Although the personal baggage of diplomats are generally exempted from inspection under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), a diplomat’s personal baggage will be inspected if there are serious grounds for believing that he is carrying prohibited or controlled items, such as weapons and drugs.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song (Non-Constituency Member): I thank the Second Minister for the reply. I have two supplementary questions: first, why was there no detection of the alleged items in his baggage, given that it was detected when he arrived in Bangladesh? The Second Minister said that no security threat items were discovered. I suppose this does not include gold. Would the diplomat have been allowed to transport that amount of gold, allegedly, through Changi Airport on that day?

Secondly, under the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations, diplomatic bags carried by diplomats are protected from search and seizure. This means they need not pass through security screening. How does the Police ensure that this is not exploited as a security loophole for terrorists or trafficking activities? I am concerned about this because there is no limit to the size of the “dip bag” (diplomatic bag), and there have international incidents in the past where “dip bags” have been used to smuggle a variety of banned items, including drugs, weapons and even people.

Mr S Iswaran: Mdm Speaker, I thank the Member for his questions. First, gold is not a security threat item, and that is why it was not subjected to a security threat screen. Our officers would conduct a normal security threat screen, and if items such as weapons or suspicious objects, or things like large amounts of cash are detected, then they tend to follow through on further checks, as required by the protocol. So, the Member should be clear that this is the context. There was no lapse in terms of security threat assessment and the checks that go with it, as part of the pre-boarding screening.

Secondly, the Member talks about diplomatic bags and I think he is getting a few things mixed up here. The “dip bags” are separate to the personal bags of diplomats. Diplomatic bags have a certain kind of treatment, but diplomats who are travelling and carrying personal bags are subject to pre-board screening, like all other travellers, as I have said. That is the protocol that is observed, not just in Singapore but internationally, because that is what is necessary to ensure safety in aviation and in travel.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: I thank the Second Minister for his replies. Two points: first, in response to his second point, I am aware that only the “dip bags” are excluded from screening. So, my question is: given that these bags are excluded from screening, would that pose a security threat or threat of smuggling of any other items.

On the first point about the gold, I acknowledged that it was not a security threat item. But would this amount of gold have been allowed to pass through if it was detected without being declared.

Mr S Iswaran: Madam, on the first question, if there is suspicion or serious suspicion that there is a matter of security threat, then the police and the relevant agencies are not constrained from making the appropriate checks on the various items that may be carried by diplomats. It is an international protocol that we observe. So, any risk that the Member imputes to be associated with such practice is a risk that is internationally acknowledged as well. It is not peculiar to the Singapore regime.

Secondly, on the amount of gold and whether therefore it would have been allowed to pass, I want to reiterate first the point that we do not have any controls on the quantity of these precious metals, et cetera, that are being exported out of Singapore, and usually there are certain basic conditions that they observe when they do so. The Member should also be aware that it is not uncommon, especially for travellers to certain parts of the world to carry what you and I might consider not insignificant amounts of gold in their personal baggage. If they are able to give a clear explanation that these are their personal effects or for personal consumption purposes, generally they would be allowed to carry on with their travel with those items.

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Source: Singapore Parliament Reports

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Update on TPP negotiations


Parliamentary Question, 13 April 2015

UPDATE ON TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP NEGOTIATIONS

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Trade and Industry (a) if he can provide an update on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations; (b) when is the Agreement expected to be successfully concluded; (c) what are the key obstacles that need to be overcome; (d) to what extent the TPP is likely to improve market access for Singapore-based firms in US, Japan and other markets; and (e) what are our economic agencies doing to prepare Singapore firms, especially SMEs, to take advantage of the improved market access that a successfully concluded TPP can bring.

Mr Lim Hng Kiang: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is envisioned as a high-quality agreement that will boost regional economic integration and improve market access for our exports. It also serves as a possible pathway towards an eventual Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

Significant progress has been made over the past five years of negotiations. All Parties are working hard to conclude negotiations as soon as possible given the economic and strategic importance of this agreement.

Singapore already has bilateral FTAs with nine of the eleven TPP Parties. The additional economic benefit of the TPP will come through enhanced cooperation on regulatory measures, and integration of this region into a single manufacturing base and market. Our businesses will find it easier to operate across all TPP countries, and participate in the global supply chain. Furthermore, common trade facilitation rules across TPP Parties will reduce compliance costs for businesses and generate substantial gains in supply chain efficiency for traders operating across them. These benefits are particularly important for SMEs, which will be able to operate with reduced cost and greater certainty. The TPP will also include disciplines on new growth sectors such as e-Commerce and Intellectual Property, which will help foster innovation and commercialisation of new insights and discoveries to benefit consumers.

IE Singapore promotes the awareness and utilisation of the various FTAs we have signed among Singapore-based companies, big and small, through both customised and broad-based outreach efforts. These include one-on-one briefings and consultations to companies and industries, as well as seminars co-organised with Trade Associations and Chambers to inform and educate the business community on the benefits of each FTA. There are also a range of capability-building initiatives such as the FTA Certificate Programme for companies and train-the-trainer sessions for Trade Associations and Chambers. Feedback channels are also open to companies to assist them with FTA implementation issues.

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Early CPF withdrawals on medical grounds


Parliamentary Question, 13 April 2015

STATISTICS ON APPLICATIONS FOR CPF WITHDRAWALS

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Manpower for each year since 2005 (a) how many CPF members have successfully applied for CPF withdrawals on each of the following medical grounds: (i) permanently incapacitated from ever continuing in any employment (ii) terminally ill with a life expectancy of 12 months or less (iii) suffering from a severely shortened life expectancy (iv) mentally incapable of handling and receiving monies (v) other reasons; (b) what is the proportion of successful applications which have been granted a full CPF withdrawal; and (c) how many applications have been rejected.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: CPF members with serious medical conditions can apply for an early withdrawal of CPF savings under the CPF Medical Grounds Scheme. The current scheme was introduced in July 2006, and there are four grounds for qualifying under the scheme. Members who wish to make withdrawals on any of these grounds will need to have their medical conditions certified by a doctor either from a public medical institution or the CPF Board’s panel. Members who are terminally ill will be able to withdraw their retirement savings in full. Members who are permanently incapacitated from ever continuing in any employment, suffer from an unsound mind or have a severely reduced lifespan will be able to withdraw their retirement savings after setting aside a reduced Retirement Sum at the point the application is granted.

The number of CPF members who have successfully applied for CPF withdrawals under the Medical Grounds Scheme since 2007 is as follows:

CPF Withdrawals on Medical Grounds

About two-thirds of applications between 2007 and 2014 under the Medical Grounds Scheme were successful. The remaining applications were rejected as the applicants were unable to provide the required certification from the approved doctors.

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