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Alternative proposals for a better Singapore

Revocation of local companies’ IP rights by govt agencies and GLCs


Parliamentary Question on 29 January 2015

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Law since 2001 (a) how many times have our Ministries, agencies and statutory boards, or Government-linked Companies (GLCs) applied to the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) for revocation of patents, registered trademarks or registered designs belonging to local intellectual property (IP) owners; (b) how many revocations have been granted; (c) what are the main reasons for revocation; and (d) how many complaints has the Government received from local IP owners about our Ministries, agencies and statutory boards, or GLCs infringing their IP rights.

The Senior Minister of State for Law (Ms Indranee Rajah) (for the Minister for Law): Madam, there have been two revocation applications made since 2001. These were not made to IPOS but in the High Court, in the context of counterclaims to proceedings.
The first case was Mobilestats Technologies Pte Ltd v Attorney-General. The plaintiff claimed in court that the defendant had infringed its patent. The Court held that the plaintiff’s patent was invalid and revoked it.

The second case was Yiap Hang Boon v Housing Development Board. The court held that the patent was invalid and revoked it.

The Ministry of Law and IPOS have not received any other complaints which allege that the Government has infringed the IP rights of local IP owners.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Mdm Speaker, I have four supplementary questions for the Senior Minister of State.

First, I understand IPOS has its own established process for parties to apply to revoke a patent. What are the considerations for Government agencies in deciding to go to the Courts instead of to IPOS to apply for revocation of patents?

Second, does IPOS grant patents for inventions which are not patentable, meaning they are not new, they do not have an inventive step or do not have industrial applications?

The third question: The patent search and examination process is a highly technical and complex process to determine if an invention is patentable. It has taken years for IPOS to build up its patent search and examination capabilities. So, how much technical expertise do our Courts have to subsequently decide which patents that IPOS has granted are now invalid?

Lastly, I am sure the Senior Minister of State agrees that patents are very important to the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Singapore because they encourage inventors to invest time and money to develop their ideas and have the assurance that others will be prevented from using and profiting from their inventions. Have the recent cases of patent battles, including these two cases which the Senior Minister of State has mentioned, between entrepreneurs and Government agencies, affected in any way the confidence among businesses, both local and foreign, that Singapore is a good place to develop and launch their intellectual property?

Ms Indranee Rajah: Mdm Speaker, may I just clarify with Mr Giam on the first question? He referred to IPOS having its own processes and he asked what considerations were taken into account. But he asked the second question following that – not a separate question but pertaining to the first one – can I just understand his full question so that I can answer it appropriately?

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: The first question was regarding why the Government agencies would go to the Courts instead of going to IPOS to apply to revoke patents, since IPOS has its own patent revocation process. Why do they go to the Courts? The second question was—

Ms Indranee Rajah: That is fine. That was the part I needed to clarify.

With respect to the first question which was what considerations IPOS takes into account, the patent protection accorded varies from country to country. Patent protection in each country is granted by its patent office, and most countries adopt the internationally recognised criteria of novelty, inventive step and industrial applicability to ascertain whether a patent should be granted. Each patent office conducts its own search and examination. The determination of whether an invention meets the criteria for obtaining a patent depends very much on the relevant body of knowledge and technology that the examiner is able to find in the public domain within the time available and his evaluation of the information found.

With respect to the second part of that question, Mr Giam asked in what circumstances would Government agencies go to the Court instead of IPOS. As I had mentioned earlier, the two cases in question arose in the context of counterclaims.

With respect to the second question, Mr Giam asked whether IPOS would grant patents for inventions which are not patentable. As I mentioned earlier, each patent office will do its own search and examination. It will look at the criteria of novelty, inventive step and industrial applicability and ascertain whether, on the face of it, the patent can be granted. I should say, however, that all patents that are granted are potentially open to challenges by other parties. The grant of a patent does not guarantee that the patent will never be successfully challenged in Court since the patent office grants patents without the benefit of hearing arguments by other parties as to why a patent should not be granted. Recognising that it is not possible for a patent examiner to be aware of all the relevant body of knowledge and technology that is publicly available worldwide, patent systems in the world generally allow for the validity of patents which have been granted to be contested, and Singapore is no exception.

With respect to the third question, Mr Giam asked about the search and examination process. He mentioned that it was highly complex and he asked how much expertise the Court has to determine the validity of a patent. This is no different from any other subject matter brought to the Court which is of a technical or complex nature. In the usual course, the Court will have the benefit of the assistance of expert witnesses in order to do this.

In the fourth question, Mr Giam said that intellectual property is important to entrepreneurship and asked whether the recent cases would affect confidence in Singapore as a place for protection of intellectual property. As far as the Ministry of Law is aware, it has not affected the confidence of investors and entrepreneurs in the intellectual property regime in Singapore.

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Requirements for pre-flight briefings for pilots of commercial flights


Parliamentary question on 29 January 2015

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Transport (a) whether the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) requires pilots of all commercial flights departing from Singapore to undergo pre-flight briefings; (b) if so, who conducts these briefings and what are the contents of these briefings; and (c) whether the conduct and contents of pre-flight briefings are left to the discretion of individual airlines or flight operators.

Mr Lui Tuck Yew: The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) requires all Singapore carriers to provide their pilots with relevant information for their preparations before each flight. This must include weather information, Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), status of the aircraft, the estimated passenger and cargo load for the flight, and the recommended flight plan, amongst others. Our airlines usually provide the information through a pre-flight information package prepared by the respective airlines’ flight operations centres. CAAS does not mandate that such information for the pilots be provided through pre-flight briefings. This is consistent with international practice.

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Foreign spouses of Singapore citizens who are ineligible to work in Singapore


Parliamentary question on 29 January 2015

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs as at 31 December 2014, how many foreign spouses of Singapore citizens have (i) social visit passes; (ii) Long Term Visit Passes (LTVP); and (iii) an immigration status which makes them ineligible to work in Singapore.

Mr Teo Chee Hean: The number of foreign spouses of Singapore Citizens (SCs) who enter Singapore as social visitors is not available as ICA does not track this statistic.

As at 31 December 2014, there were 14,694 foreign spouses of SCs on Long-Term Visit Pass (LTVP) and Long-Term Visit Pass-Plus (LTVP+).

Foreign spouses who are Permanent Residents or on LTVP, LTVP+ or on a work pass are eligible to work in Singapore.

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Repatriation of foreign workers for dependency ratio ceiling violations by employers


Parliamentary Question on 19 January 2015

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Manpower given a recent instance of a foreign worker being repatriated for a Dependency Ratio Ceiling violation whereby the ruling was subsequently reversed on appeal but the foreign worker was not able to return as a work permit holder, what provisions are in place to ensure processing of appeals prior to repatriation or to allow for the reversibility of rulings post-repatriation.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Business employers are required to keep within their Dependency Ratio Ceiling (DRC) when hiring foreign workers. The DRC is calculated based on the company’s local workforce, as reflected via its CPF contributions to its employees. When a company reduces its local workforce or fails to make its CPF contributions on time, its Dependency Ratio will exceed the DRC.

MOM will then request the company to rectify the situation by either increasing its local workforce or cancelling some work passes so as to keep within the DRC. In such instances, employers are given a choice as to which work pass holders to retain and which to let go. Employers are given ample opportunity to take remedial action before MOM cancels any work passes. We will also take in appeals from employers if the situation is rectified before the workers are sent home. Employers may still re-hire the workers if they have sufficient room within their DRC.

To avoid unnecessary disruption to business operations, employers should ensure that they maintain sufficient local workers to keep within its DRC.

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Publishing income & expenditure statistics by individual in addition to by household


Parliamentary question on 19 January 2015

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Trade and Industry whether the Department of Statistics can publish income and expenditure statistics by individuals in addition to by households so as to provide more precise measurements on poverty since individuals in a household may have different access to the household income.

Mr Lim Hng Kiang: The Department of Statistics provides detailed statistics on households’ monthly expenditure and income based on the Household Expenditure Survey (HES).

Data from the HES is analysed on a household basis, and not on an individual basis, to reflect the sharing of goods and services as well as income resources within the household. Many expenditure items including food, utilities and household goods are shared among members of a household, and it would not be feasible to attribute a specific share of the household’s expenditure on each item to individual household members. In addition, income resources are commonly pooled to support household members who are not earning an income, such as children, the elderly or a non-working spouse. Similar to the case for expenditure, it would be difficult to ascertain how much income resources each household member has consumed.

The use of the household as the basic unit of analysis for the HES is in accordance with international best practices recommended by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and is also adopted by other national statistical offices such as those in Australia, Hong Kong and the United States.

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HDB rental flats for low-income families waiting for their BTO flats


Typically, HDB rental flats are allocated to only families which do not already own a flat. However, families waiting for their BTO flats to be completed — which could be several years — will still need to find a place to stay. This question was to ascertain if it is possible for them to still be allocated a rental flat if they meet the income criteria.

Parliamentary question on 19 January 2015

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for National Development whether families with a monthly household income of $1,500 or less who have booked a 2-room HDB BTO flat and are awaiting the construction of the flats are eligible to rent a flat under the Public Rental Scheme.

Mr Khaw Boon Wan: We can consider their application, but they will have to compete with other needy applicants. We will give priority to those who have no other housing option and no family support. One option is for them to rent a flat under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme, especially if they do so jointly with another family, so as to further reduce their rental expenses.

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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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