Operating hours of CSG application portal

The COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG) provides assistance and job support to Singaporeans who have lost their jobs or experienced salary loss due to COVID-19. I asked the Minister for Social and Family Development, Mr Masogos Zulkifli, why online applications for the CSG can be submitted only between 9am and 6pm, and asked if MSF will consider allowing online applications 24 hours a day (except for periodic maintenance windows). 

His reply was that MSF had considered longer operating hours but decided against it so as to provide more maintenance hours each day (his full answer is below). I find this rather puzzling, since most other public-facing IT systems operate for much longer hours, and many are 24/7. Limiting the CSG portal’s operating hours means that we cannot assist residents, many of whom are not IT-savvy, with their applications during meet-the-people sessions, as these take place after 7.30pm. (To work around this, our volunteers arrange separate times during the day to assist them.) There could also be many other residents who have to work during the day and are only available to submit their applications after office hours. 

I hope the Government will take the different needs of citizens into consideration when planning the availability of government e-services.



Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Social and Family Development (a) why online applications for the COVID-19 Support Grant can only be submitted between 9 am and 6 pm; and (b) whether the Ministry will consider allowing online application 24 hours a day, except for periodic maintenance windows. 

Mr Masagos Zulkifli B M M: The COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG) provides assistance and job support to Singaporean & Permanent Resident (PR) employees who have lost their jobs, been involuntarily placed on No-Pay Leave (NPL), or experienced significant loss of salary due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

Since the scheme was launched in May 2020, we have received over 180,000 CSG applications, 96% of which were submitted online. Applications for CSG will remain open until December 2020. The online portal is open every day, including weekends and public holidays, to allow Singaporeans sufficient time and opportunity to apply for assistance. Our assessment is that this has been adequate to meet the needs of most applicants.

Prior to launch, we had considered the possibility of longer operating hours each day, but we eventually decided on daily operating hours of 9am to 6pm, taking into account the need to allow sufficient time each day to closely monitor system performance, perform system maintenance and updates, and troubleshoot problems in a timely fashion to minimise any unplanned downtime and to ensure that applicants would receive a sustainable and reliable level of service. We will continue to monitor the availability and level of service of the online portal, taking into account user feedback.

Source: Singapore Parliament Reports. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/sprs3topic?reportid=written-answer-na-6684

Singapore’s Justice System

Speech delivered in Parliament on 4 November 2020.

Mr Speaker,

Migrant workers face a unique set of challenges when navigating the justice system, due largely to the low socio-economic status in our society. Many of the problems they face will be in addition to those faced by low income Singaporeans, which my Workers’ Party colleagues in this House have highlighted.

Challenges faced by victims

First, I would like to discuss the challenges faced by migrant workers who are victims of abuse, salary non-payment or other offences.

Migrant workers face steep power imbalances when dealing with employers and government authorities. They are in a foreign land and many don’t speak our local languages well. They are far from their families and friends back home. Some migrant domestic workers don’t even have a local support network because they have limited interaction with peers outside of their employers’ homes. They are unfamiliar with our local laws and customs, and often do not know their rights.

When faced with a situation where they are mistreated or are denied their salaries, they may hesitate to make reports to the authorities. This was the case for Ms Khanifah, a maid from Indonesia who endured six months of horrific abuse at the hands of her employers in 2012. She was sent back to Indonesia just as she was due for a medical check-up, and chose not to tell immigration officers of the abuse, as she was happy to finally escape it. It was only when she returned to her village in Indonesia that her family discovered her injuries and made a report.

Migrant workers in these situations are often caught between a rock and a hard place: If they choose not to report the wrongdoing, it may continue or their perpetrators may get away scot free.

If they choose to report the offence and their case is taken up by the authorities, they will have to remain in Singapore to assist in the investigations and cannot immediately return home to their loved ones.

The legal process takes time. For maid abuse cases that go to court, the investigations alone can take at least a year, while the trial could take another year, not to mention appeals. By the time the final sentence is passed, the entire process may have taken two years or more. 

In the meantime, the worker may not be able to work to earn a living. This can be financially ruinous, as they are often the sole breadwinners of large families back home. 

While victims who are assisting in investigations are issued with a Special Pass to remain in Singapore, this does not grant them an automatic right to work. They are still required to seek permission from the investigating authorities before working. Fortunately, in most cases, permission is granted for victims.

However, this work may not come easily. Many employers are hesitant to employ domestic workers who are assisting in police investigations. Some victims may be so traumatised by the abuse that they do not wish to risk being in such dangerous situations again.

They also have to look for a place to stay. The burden of sheltering them currently falls mainly on non-government organisations (NGOs).

Taking a step back, there are other factors which may give migrant workers great pause before they make a brave move to report the abuse. 

First, many come from countries where corruption and abuse of authority is rife. This could make them inherently distrustful of the authorities. Some may even need to be assured that police officers in Singapore will not demand a bribe to take up their case.

Second, their employers sometimes make—or threaten to make—counter-accusations against them, for example accusing them of theft or damaging company property.

Third, in cases where there is no physical abuse but strong elements of coercion or psychological abuse, the investigation might end with a warning but no punishment for the employers. 
In all these cases, the end result for the worker will likely be termination of their current employment and repatriation to their home countries. 

The cost of premature repatriation is tremendous for these workers. To find work in Singapore, they would have incurred thousands of dollars of debts owed to recruitment agents in their home countries, which they would spend months—sometimes years—paying off on the back of their low salaries in Singapore. Being terminated and sent home will saddle them with huge debts, not to mention a loss of income and embarrassment for their families.

At the end of the whole trial, even if the perpetrator is convicted, the victim may not be financially compensated to the full extent of what they have suffered. While it is good that there is now a compensation framework for victims, this is not guaranteed, as the perpetrator can escape payment of compensation by serving a jail term in lieu or claiming bankruptcy.

Challenges faced by the accused

I will now move on to the challenges faced by migrant workers accused of crimes while in Singapore.

The same language hurdles encountered by victims are also faced by those accused of crimes. This was the case for Ms Parti Liyani, who, according to the High court judgment, was interviewed for some of her statements by investigators in a mix of English and Bahasa Melayu, while she spoke Bahasa Indonesia. Her recorded statements were read back to her in English, and translated into Bahasa Melayu by the investigation officer (IO). No Bahasa Indonesian interpreter was present for the recording of four of her statements . During cross examination in court, the IO conceded that there was a difference between Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia, and admitted that he could have understood Ms Liyani’s statements in Bahasa Indonesia differently from what she had meant . 

Justice Chan Seng Onn, in his judgment, also said that the likelihood similarly existed that Ms Liyani could have understood the IO’s questions during the interview and the recorded statements read back to her differently from what the IO had meant. He was thus satisfied that there was a reasonable doubt in relation to the accuracy of the translation for two of the statements .

Accused workers also need to remain in Singapore to assist with investigations. Ms Liyani was arrested on 2 December 2016 and spent almost four years in a shelter managed by the NGO, HOME, while waiting for her case to be concluded. She was fortunate that HOME was able to find someone to post bail of $15,000 for her. Most migrant workers accused of crimes may not able to secure such a bailor.

They face a similar dilemma as victims when deciding whether to plead guilty or claim trial. Should they plead guilty, the time it takes for them to serve their sentence may be shorter than the time it takes to go through the court process if they claimed trial. Ms Liyani was sentenced by the State Court to 26 months in prison, which was less than the four years she spent waiting for the outcome of her case. This presents an invidious choice for them, even if they know they are innocent. Bizarrely, it is actually expedient for the migrant worker to plead guilty even if they did no wrong—but is justice served this way?

Should they claim trial, they may not find a lawyer and will certainly not be able to afford one. The Minister for Law has mentioned that Ms Liyani’s fees would have come up to $150,000. Criminal legal aid is available but not by default, as they need to pass means and merits tests. Even if they do, they still may not find a lawyer willing to take up their case pro bono. Ms Liyani was very fortunate to have a Singaporean lawyer, Mr Anil Balchandani, representing her pro bono at the trial and the appeal. Justice Chan commended Mr Anil for showing much skill and dedication in his work for this case. 

Improving the system

I would now like to share some proposals on how we can make the justice system fairer for migrant workers who have to go through it, either as victims or accused persons. 

First, we have to tackle the upstream problems which severely hamper their bargaining power vis-à-vis their employers, and contribute to their unwillingness to report abuse.

We must find ways to reduce the high recruitment fees that migrant workers need to pay agents to find a job in Singapore. If workers don’t feel such a sense of obligation to their employer because of a need to pay back exorbitant fees to recruiters, they will be more likely to report abuse when it happens.

I shared one solution to this during September’s debate on the President’s address: To create a jobs portal that advertises all open positions for migrant workers. The positions should be open to only Singaporeans for a period of say two weeks, before being extended to foreigners. With increasing IT savviness, migrant workers can even search for such positions from their home countries and apply directly. This move towards jobs transparency will cut out the middle-man and reduce the need to pay exploitative fees to recruitment agents.

Second, support services should be provided for all workers who choose to make complaints against employers and find themselves without a home and a job. It should not be left entirely to NGOs and their limited resources.

This support should include the provision of basic needs like food and shelter, counselling services and help on understanding their rights.

Third, every individual, local or foreign, should have access to legal representation. If they cannot afford a lawyer, legal aid should be made available to them. To prevent abuse, means testing could be done so that only those who are in genuine need will have their legal fees covered. I note that Minister said earlier that a Public Defender’s Office is under consideration. I welcome this and hope this will be pursued further. 

And fourth, once the court orders a payment of compensation to the victim, the system must ensure that the victim receives their payment. Victims should not be left high and dry just because the convicted person is unable to pay. If necessary, a fund could be set up to ensure that victims are guaranteed to receive the compensation amount ordered by the court.

In 2014, the AGC announced that it had formed an internal working group to focus on improving court processes involving abused migrant workers. It mentioned several areas it was looking at, including:

One, exploring how to help more foreign maids get compensation for the losses they incur after they stop work because of abuse.

Two, improving court processes involving abused foreign workers.

Three, securing medical reports and witness statements more quickly.

Four, persuading the courts to fix early hearing dates.

And five, expanding the use of compensation orders, to help more maids obtain compensation for losses resulting from a criminal offence committed against them.

It has been six years since this announcement. What is the outcome of this working group? What were their final proposals and which of them have been implemented?


Mr Speaker, migrant workers are among the most disadvantaged members of our society. Even though they are foreigners, they are an integral part of our society—looking after our children and elderly, and building our skyscrapers and roads. As a developed country, it is our duty to ensure that they have equal access to justice if they suffer abuse or are accused of wrongdoing.

Sir, I support the motion standing in the name of Ms Sylvia Lim.

PDPA Amendment Bill

Speech in Parliament on 2 November 2020 during the debate on the Personal Data Protection (Amendment) Bill.

Before I speak, I would like to declare my interest as a director and shareholder of a technology company which manages and safeguards customers’ personal data.

The protection of personal data is a concern of all Singaporeans, particularly when they learn about mass data breaches suffered by public agencies and private companies, both here and abroad. There is now greater public awareness among members of the public and organisations of the need to safeguard personal data.

The public has a right to demand strong protections of their personal data. At the same time, policymakers have to be aware of the business cost of complying with stringent regulations. It is thus necessary to make periodic amendments to the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) and the Spam Control Act to bring our data privacy regulations more in line with current realities and global norms.

I will focus on three areas in my speech:

First, ensuring that personal data is protected where it matters to citizens, yet without unnecessarily burdening businesses with regulations.

Second, aligning the PDPA with the GDPR, the European Union (EU)’s General Data Protection Regulation, to avoid conflicting rules.

And third, harmonising the Government’s data protection rules with the PDPA, to ensure that government agencies safeguard personal data the same way that it expects private sector companies to.

Protecting what matters

Everyone wants their personal data protected from prying eyes and unwanted marketers. No one likes being interrupted by unsolicited phone calls from people they don’t know, trying to sell them things they don’t want, or tricking them into sharing confidential information. They certainly don’t want scammers using their NRIC, address or credit card numbers to take up unauthorised loans, buy stolen goods, or—worst of all—sell their personal data on the Dark Web.

We have made good progress in personal data protection since the introduction of the PDPA in 2012. However, some things are still slipping through. For example, despite being on the do-not-call registry since its 2013, I still get phone calls or text messages from individuals offering cheap loans, access to illegal gambling sites or asking me to pick up packages which I never ordered. More than 46,000 complaints on unsolicited calls and text messages have been made to the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) since 2017[1].

I have met residents who were scammed of tens of thousands of dollars by swindlers who persuaded them over the phone to reveal their internet banking passwords or one-time PINs. Still others had loans in their name taken out with loan sharks because their NRICs were misused. For most Singaporeans, these are the biggest concerns with regard to personal data privacy.

On the other hand, fewer people are concerned about what kind of cookies a website is using to track them, and many find the cookie notices on websites nowadays more of an irritant than a privacy-protection measure. There is a debate going on about how to stop Big Tech companies from hoovering up our personal data in order to serve us tailored advertisements. This is a valid concern, but not something that keeps the average citizen awake at night.

Privacy regulations should therefore give greater focus to the areas of data privacy that matter most to citizens.


I will now move on to discussing the PDPA and GDPR. The General Data Protection Regulation is a wide-ranging personal data protection legislation from the EU, which has extra-territorial effect.

The GDPR applies not only to European companies, but also to Singapore companies that offer goods and services to individuals in the EU, even if those companies do not have an EU presence.

The PDPA covers much of the GDPR, but there are many requirements in the GDPR that are more stringent than that of the PDPA. For example, the GDPR provides extra protection for “special categories of data”, which includes data about an individual’s race, religion, political opinions and health information. The PDPA does not specifically define what constitutes sensitive personal data, although guidance from the PDPC suggests that personal data of a sensitive nature should be accorded a higher level of protection as a matter of good practice.

The GDPR also sets a more stringent standard for consent, which must be obtained in a clear, open, specific and transparent manner. The PDPA is less strict in this respect.

Despite its less prescriptive approach compared to the GDPR, the PDPA’s model may be preferred by countries whose approach towards privacy is closer to Singapore’s than the EU’s. However, we should guard against the PDPA acquiring a reputation of providing a “GDPR-minus” standard of personal data protection. It would be much better if the PDPA were known internationally as a law that strikes the right balance between data protection and business efficiency.

While the PDPA may not be identical to the GDPR, it should not have provisions or interpretations which are in conflict with the GDPR. This way, Singapore businesses which need to comply with the GDPR will be able to rest easy knowing that they also comply with the PDPA. Based on my analysis of the PDPA, I am glad to note that this currently appears to be the case. I hope that this approach will continue through future amendments to the PDPA.

PDPA and the Government

My last point concerns the personal data protection obligations of the Government. Unlike the GDPR, the PDPA specifically exempts the Government from having to comply with it. The Government has explained that this is because it has its own set of data privacy standards, which are set out in the Public Sector (Governance) Act (PSGA), the Official Secrets Act (OSA), the Banking Act, the Income Tax Act (ITA), the Statistics Act and the Instruction Manual 8 (IM8), among others[2].

I have worked with the government, both as a civil servant and a government contractor, and am well aware of the robust rules and practices in place to safeguard personal data. However, complying with a different set of data protection rules from the private sector is problematic for several reasons.

First, the data protection provisions in the various Acts differ in their standard of protection. For example, the maximum fines for violations of the different statutes range from $1,000 to $250,000. This is not surprising, since these laws were enacted long before the PDPA, and without the specific purpose of general data protection in mind. Having public data controllers governed by a hodgepodge of separate legislation is likely to lead to differing standards and gaps in coverage.

Second, the lack of a single set of rules governing privacy leaves individual data owners unclear as to what level of personal data protection they are entitled to. Most individuals concerned about privacy would be more familiar with the protections provided for under the PDPA, than what is provided for under the PSGA, OSA, ITA, IM8 and others. In fact, the IM8 is not even a public document that ordinary citizens can access.

The Government’s exemption from the PDPA could lead to concerns among citizens about how their sensitive data is being used by the Government. For example, many are now worried about how the information collected by SafeEntry and TraceTogether will be processed. Others continue to worry about how our security services may be collecting and sharing sensitive information about citizens with little independent oversight.

Third, the government regulations cover mainly internal checks on the government ministries and agencies, and criminal or disciplinary consequences for individual officers. A citizen who has incurred damages as a result of a data breach by a government agency has little recourse to pursue civil remedies against that agency. The PDPA, on the other hand, grants such recourse against offending organisations. This could be seen as a lower threshold of accountability on the part of the government.

Why should public data controllers be treated differently from private data controllers? I believe there is merit in having a universal standard of personal data protection that applies to both private as well as public data controllers. If there is a need to maintain discretion because of national security reasons, these exemptions can be explicitly written into the PDPA.

I hope the Government can eventually harmonise the data protection clauses in the separate legislations and bring them under the umbrella of the PDPA, and make the PDPA apply to government agencies as well.


Mr Deputy Speaker, the overarching goal of data protection legislation is to ensure that personal data is not misused in a way that causes harm to the individual. This can be achieved without causing undue inefficiencies in the functioning of businesses or the Government. We need to continue to update the PDPA to keep up with realities on the ground. The Government should hold itself to the same level of data privacy standards, procedures and accountability it expects of private sector companies.

Sir, I support the Bill.

[1] https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/sprs3topic?reportid=written-answer-na-5249

[2] https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/sprs3topic?reportid=written-answer-4736

Waste recycling in Singapore

During a recent sitting of Parliament, I asked Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu two questions about waste recycling in Singapore. First, I wanted to know what percentage of Singapore’s recyclable waste gets exported every year, and second, I requested an update on the expansion of our domestic waste recycling industry.

My concern was that, due to insufficient domestic capacity to recycle waste, much of the waste may be getting shipped overseas. This could result in an increased carbon footprint. More importantly, I feared that some of the waste may not ultimately get recycled. If that happened, it would negate some of the efforts Singaporeans are making to recycle their waste like household paper, plastics and metals.

In response to my first question, the Minister said that 34% of Singapore’s recyclable waste was exported last year. This had declined from 41% in 2015. (Note: This coincided with a 8.7% decline in the total waste recycled in that period, for reasons which were not explained in the answer.) The Minister pointed out that if there is no export market for recycled waste, or if the cost of recycling outweighs the value of the recycled product, the waste collector may treat them as general waste and send them to the incineration plant.

On the expansion of the domestic waste recycling industry, the Minister recognised this need. She pointed to a study by NEA which found that it was feasible to develop domestic recycling capabilities for both e-waste and plastic waste. She said that MSE and NEA will work closely with stakeholders to strengthen our local recycling capabilities.

I think it is important that we continue in this direction. Closing the “waste loops” will encourage more Singaporeans to participate in recycling efforts, and this will ultimately preserve our environment for future generations.

Here are the full answers to my questions on 5 Oct 2020:


Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Sustainability and the
Environment (a) in each of the last five years, how many tonnes and what percentage of Singapore’s recyclable waste has been exported; and (b) how does the Ministry ensure that the exported recyclable waste ultimately gets recycled instead of being incinerated or deposited in landfills overseas.

Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: We exported about 1,889,000 tonnes of recyclable waste in 2015, 1,757,000 tonnes in 2016, 1,637,000 tonnes in 2017, 1,579,000 tonnes in 2018 and 1,439,000 tonnes in 2019. This corresponds to 41% of Singapore’s total waste recycled in 2015, 37% in 2016, 35% in 2017, 33% in 2018 and 34% in 2019.

Ferrous and non-ferrous metals, paper and cardboard waste made up about 90% of the total amount of recyclables exported in 2019. These recyclables have commercial value and fetch competitive prices when exported.

Recyclables that are contaminated with hazardous or other wastes, are governed by the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (Basel Convention), which is a Multilateral Environmental Agreement that regulates the import, export and transit of hazardous wastes and other wastes.

Our companies are regularly reminded about Singapore’s obligations under the Basel Convention, and NEA will investigate and enforce against any violations. While we are aware of the countries where our recyclables are exported to, we do not have information on how the recyclables are processed and treated in the countries of import, or if they are further exported. We are unable to gather data from companies that are outside our jurisdiction.

Recyclables have an intrinsic value. The value is a function of the value of the recycled material, the market price of its substitute, and the cost of recycling, including transportation to an export destination. If there is no export market for it, or if the cost of recycling outweighs the value of the recycled product, the waste collector may choose not to collect the recyclables but to treat them as general waste and send them to the incineration plant. Therefore, my Ministry recognises the need to build up our local recycling capabilities. For example, we are working with the private sector to develop mechanical recycling solutions to turn waste plastics into plastic pellets for manufacturing new products. And chemical recycling to process contaminated plastics that cannot be mechanically recycled.

For e-waste, we are developing capabilities to recycle Large Household Appliances, ICT products, batteries and lamps to support the upcoming e-waste Extended Producer Responsibility framework. This will allow us to better extract resources from waste and close our waste loops locally through a circular economy approach.


Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Sustainability and the
Environment (a) whether he can provide an update on (i) the expansion of our domestic waste recycling industry and (ii) NEA’s study on e-waste and plastics recycling solutions and technologies and its assessment of their suitability for local adoption; and (b) whether there has been a cost-benefit analysis of exporting recyclables versus owning the capabilities to process them, considering the carbon footprint of transport and the environmental impact on developing countries that import recyclable waste.

Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: My Ministry recognises the need for Singapore to build local recycling capabilities. The National Environment Agency (NEA) commissioned a recycling landscape study in 2018, which found that it was feasible to develop domestic recycling capabilities for both e-waste and plastic waste. These recommendations provided the inputs to our circular economy approach outlined in the Zero Waste Masterplan that we launched in 2019. The Masterplan will enable us to better extract resources from waste, and create economic opportunities and good jobs for Singaporeans.

We are making good progress in developing local recycling capabilities, working with the private sector. Over the next three years, we expect three new e-waste recycling facilities to be set up that will allow us to recycle more than 64,000 tonnes of e-waste per year. At the same time, we are working with research institutes and companies to develop solutions in treating and recycling e-waste in a more energy-efficient and eco-friendly manner. For example, the NTU Singapore-CEA Alliance for Research in Circular Economy (SCARCE) is developing innovative solutions to treat and recover resources from e-waste like lithium ion batteries and silicon solar panels, and finding ways to detoxify and recycle plastic parts in e-waste.

We are also exploring mechanical recycling and chemical recycling solutions for plastics with industry players. Chemical recycling is an added option to process contaminated plastics that cannot be mechanically recycled. More recycling capabilities are expected to evolve with our upcoming Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework for packaging waste, including plastics. To recover more plastics from our waste for recycling, NEA is also conducting a feasibility study for a pilot Plastic Recovery Facility (PRF). If feasible, the pilot PRF will be the first such facility built by the government.

We have not done a cost-benefit analysis to compare exporting recyclables with processing them locally. While we are aware of the countries where our recyclables are exported to, we do not have information on how the recyclables are processed and treated in the countries of import, or if they are further exported. We are unable to gather data from companies that are outside our jurisdiction. Nevertheless, we are committed to building up our local capabilities to treat and close our waste loops locally, where feasible, both physically and economically, to enhance our resource resilience. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, we are vulnerable to global supply chain disruption, including disruption to cross-border flow of our recyclables for recycling. As such, my Ministry and the NEA will continue to work closely with all stakeholders to strengthen our local recycling capabilities.

The cost of returning $52 billion to the reserves

Delivered in Parliament on 14 October 2020 during the debate on the Supplementary Budget.

The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented in scale and depth. This crisis also marked just the second and third time in history that the Government drew on its past reserves to fund the recovery package. At $52 billion, these were the largest ever draws on past reserves—13 times what was drawn in 2009 during the Global Financial Crisis.

During the debate on his Ministerial Statement in June, the Deputy Prime Minister clarified that there is no legal or constitutional obligation for the Government to restore the draw from past reserves. Nevertheless, he said that the Government is committed to rebuilding the reserves, although he said that the Government cannot be definitive about how long that would take.

Can the DPM now clarify if the Government intends to return all of the $52 billion drawn and if it will include interest?

I am concerned that a commitment to restore $52 billion within a short timeframe may subject our people to unnecessary levels of austerity and constrain the Government’s fiscal space. Austerity can have a contractionary effect on the economy. It could slow economic growth and cause some painful cuts to public services, which might impact the poor.

Can the DPM assure Singaporeans that they will not have to go through a period of austerity after the economic crisis is over, in order to restore the reserves?

If the Government’s commitment remains to restore the full amount to the reserves, then will the DPM share the broad timelines for this restoration?

I am aware that he responded to similar questions from Members back in June, but he did not give any indication as to how long it will take. He only said that it would depend on Singapore’s economy emerging stronger so that we would be in a better position to build up our resources.

Sir, a timeline of two years, 20 years or 30 years will make a huge difference in the provision required in the budgets of current and future governments. This will translate to vastly different levels of tax hikes and spending cuts required to meet these provisions.

For example, a restoration timeline of two years will require the provision of $26 billion a year. This is clearly impossible even in the best of times, as the Government’s highest ever budget surplus was $10.9 billion in FY2017, which was an exceptional year. Even a timeline of 30 years will still require a provision of $1.7 billion a year on average. This is more than the combined FY2020 budget for the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

During this 30-year period, we could also face multiple economic crises where more deficit spending might be necessary. There might even be a need for a further draw on past reserves to battle another deep crisis, which would set the timeline back even further.

Given the budget impact of potential provisions to restore this extraordinarily large amount to the reserves, I feel it is important for the Government to provide more clarity about its broad timelines to do so.

The $52 billion draw on past reserves during this crisis was necessary to prevent excessive job losses, make up for a decline in investments, boost consumer spending and stabilise aggregate demand. The reserves have served their purpose in this crisis. As we plan beyond this current crisis, let us consider carefully how much we want to burden the next generation of Singaporeans with the committed repayment of this draw on past reserves.






Caring for vulnerable members of society

This is a speech I made during the debate on the President’s address at the opening of Parliament on 4 September 2020.

Mr Speaker, I support the Motion of Thanks to the President for her address.

I would first like to express my gratitude to the voters of Aljunied GRC for giving me the opportunity to contribute in this House again. I cherish the trust that you have placed in my teammates and I, and we will do our very best to represent your concerns and work towards building a better future for Singapore.

While we may be called “the Opposition” for historical reasons, we stand here not necessarily to oppose, but to work with Parliamentary colleagues, along and across the aisle, to refine existing policies and propose new approaches to the challenges we face as a nation. Singapore’s economic, social and security challenges have grown more complex over the years. The policy responses must rise to the challenge. To do so, we need earnest and robust discussions on substantive policy matters both in and out of Parliament.

Today I would like to discuss ways in which we can improve how we care for some of the more vulnerable members of our society. I will touch on the concerns of people with disabilities, means testing, healthcare expenses and the welfare of migrant workers.

People with Disabilities

People with disabilities (or PwDs) are not a homogeneous group but a diverse community. They include individuals with physical, sensory, intellectual and developmental challenges of varying degrees.

I raised disability issues seven years ago during my previous term in Parliament, specifically about improving public transport and pedestrian infrastructure accessibility for the visually-impaired. I am glad to see some progress has been made since then, although some gaps still remain.

For example, most junctions with traffic lights still don’t have audible pedestrian signals (APS) and for those that do have the chirping sound turned off at 9 or 10pm to avoid disturbing nearby residents. This could pose a safety risk for visually-impaired pedestrians who are out at night.

I hope MOT will re-consider my proposal to add vibrotactile walk indications at these crossings. These are special buttons positioned at the traffic signals which vibrate when it is safe to walk. These complement the APS and can continue to operate even late at night without disturbing the peace.

In my conversations with PwDs, the number one issue on their minds is jobs — not unlike most other Singaporeans. They are not asking for handouts, but more equal opportunities in employment. However, PwDs face much higher hurdles, and not just because of their disabilities.

One such hurdle is that it is common for employers to assume PwDs will not be able to perform on the job just because of their limitations. PwDs have shared with me their unpleasant job search experiences, whereby they met all the job requirements, only to be rejected when the employer learned that they had a disability. In fact, with modern assistive technologies, PwDs can be as productive at work as their able-bodied colleagues.

The government has done well to provide schemes like the Enabling Employment Credit and the Assistive Technology Fund. This needs to be complemented with better public education, for both employers and the general public, in order to clear misconceptions about PwDs in the workplace. We also need to ensure that employers do not discriminate on the basis of disability by introducing anti-discrimination legislation.

Means testing

Another area that needs to move forward faster with the times is our approach to means testing for social assistance schemes. The process often requires too much paperwork and imposes an undue burden on the very people we are trying to help. Mr Leon Perera, also raised this issue in his speech on Tuesday.

The application for Public Assistance, for example, requires applicants to submit at least 10 documents to prove their neediness. Some of these documents require applicants to log in to government websites with their SingPass and print out documents such as CPF statements, both of which can be an obstacle for those with no computers and printers at home. When they apply for assistance schemes with other government agencies, or need to renew their assistance, the same exercise has to be repeated.

The process for PwDs applying for disability support is not a walk in the park either. They need to get a doctor’s certification of their disability — and pay the clinic for this service. They then need to repeat this process for every agency they are applying for support from.

All this is a painfully low-tech way of means testing. In fact, we already have the capability to integrate and automate such systems. For example, the Tax Portal from IRAS pulls data from multiple sources to fill up a taxpayer’s income, deductions and reliefs, and computes their taxable income after just a few clicks. The Government has also been building its capabilities in data analytics.

We clearly have the technical capabilities to collect taxes efficiently and seamlessly. Can we now develop the same capabilities for disbursing social assistance to deserving individuals and families? For PwDs, the Government could create a centralised system that keeps track of each individual’s disability, which can be tapped into by various agencies to assess if they are qualified for disability benefits.

I am glad to learn from the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative in his addendum to the President’s address that all Government services will be digital from end-to-end by 2023. I hope our means testing process will be one of the first to go paperless and “presence-less”. By doing so, deserving citizens can receive the help they need more quickly and conveniently, and won’t fall through the cracks just because they have difficulty gathering and submitting the necessary documents.

Healthcare expenses

My third area of concern is helping Singaporeans cope with the burden of healthcare expenses.

Chronic diseases are imposing an increasing burden on our ageing population. The Ministry of Health has said in its addendum to the President’s address that it will look to identifying best practices that can help us in our fight to better manage diabetes and other chronic diseases.

A key challenge in chronic disease management is ensuring that patients follow their treatment regimens and show up for their regular appointments with their family doctors. I have met residents who have lamented about the high costs of treatment for their chronic conditions. Some have shared about missing appointments because of cost concerns. In the long run, missed or delayed treatment will cost both the patients and the healthcare system more if their conditions worsen and they need to be hospitalised.

I welcome the introduction of the MediSave700 scheme, which allows patients with multiple conditions to draw up to $700 a year from their MediSave accounts. This is up from $500 a year currently.

However, I remain concerned about the limitations of the scheme. Patients whose condition is not one of the 20 chronic conditions specified under the Chronic Disease Management Programme, or whose treatment costs exceed $700 a year, still have to fork out cash for their treatment.

I have two suggestions for MOH to consider. First, that MediSave withdrawals be allowed for the treatment of all chronic conditions, not just those on the CDMP list. This will ensure that no one is excluded just because they suffer from a less common chronic condition. Second, the annual withdrawal limits for MediSave should be removed for patients who have sufficient MediSave balances and are over the age of 60.

To reduce the risk of a “buffet syndrome”, these two changes can be rolled out first at polyclinics and restructured hospitals, where tight procedures are already in place to ensure that only medically-necessary treatment is prescribed.




Migrant workers’ welfare

My fourth area of concern is the welfare of migrant workers. These are some of the most disadvantaged yet invisible members of our society. They are neither voters nor Singaporeans, but they are part of the Singapore community and their interests must be protected too, as is befitting a developed country like ours.

At the heart of many of the issues that migrant workers in Singapore face, is their lack of bargaining power vis-à-vis other parties like employers, the government and employment agencies. This makes them susceptible to being taken advantage of. NGOs have reported that migrant workers often pay as much as $10,000 to secure jobs in Singapore. The costs include agent fees, course fees and sometimes kickbacks. When their contracts end, some are asked to make cash payments of up to $4,000 to third party “agents” to renew their contracts or find subsequent jobs.

For both these fees, they take up huge loans and spend many months servicing them on the back of their salaries of around $500 to $800 a month. This makes them almost like indentured labour for much of their time in Singapore. A few unscrupulous employers are in on the act, working with illegal agents to profit off the workers they employ.

Because such payments are usually made in cash, there is often no paper trail to prove the offences if they file a complaint with MOM. Furthermore, workers risk losing their jobs and being sent home if their employers find out they have filed a complaint. Hence many violations go unreported.

I urge MOM to step up enforcement and intelligence gathering, so that errant parties will be taken to task and made an example of.

We could also set up a jobs portal for employers to list available jobs so that workers don’t have to go through intermediaries to find new companies to work for once their contracts end. This will reduce the opportunities for collecting kickbacks and correct some of the power imbalance that currently exists.


Mr Speaker, it has been said that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. The President alluded to this in her address too.

We have come so far as a country, uplifting the standard of living of generations of our people. Let us take this progress to the next level as we further improve how we care for the vulnerable members in our society.

Thank you.

[1] NRIC of all adults in household, birth certificate of all children in household, latest CPF statement, bank book, medical certificates, marriage/divorce certificate, latest power supply bill, latest S&CC bill, latest HDB statement.

A new path for our nation

These are the remarks I made as part of the first Hammer Show of General Election 2020: Why should you vote for WP?

The Covid-19 crisis has been a wake up call for many Singaporeans who saw with their own eyes that the PAP is not infallible. We went from “gold standard” to “cautionary tale” in just a matter of weeks.

While not everything about the virus could have been anticipated, there were clearly some blind spots that the PAP missed. To be clear, it is only fair that I acknowledge that they have done a competent job over the years in making Singapore a safe and efficient country with a good international reputation. We have no intention of undoing these gains.

However, many older Singaporeans have observed that the PAP of today is a shadow of the PAP of previous generations. They have done well to maintain the status quo, but the status quo falls short of what we aspire to as a nation. Singapore deserves much better.

We, the citizens of Singapore—and not just the Workers’ Party alone—must begin to chart a new path for our nation, for the sake our children’s future.

We need a new economic model, which places a premium on the talents and passion of Singaporean workers.

We aspire to a new social compact, where every Singaporean is assured of a strong safety net to catch them if they fall on hard times, so they can bounce back stronger.

We want to live in a secure home where families are strengthened and parents can raise happy, well-rounded children.

And we desire a newfound freedom for our people to embrace a diversity of ideas and engage in constructive debates to forge the best way forward.

Over the next few days, my colleagues and I will be sharing more details about our vision for Singapore. I invite you to tune in to assess us for yourselves before making your choice. We in the Workers’ Party are ordinary citizens just like you. We face the same challenges you do—earning a living and raising children.

My wife and I both work full time, and we have two young kids. My older one is sitting for the PSLE next month, while her “tutor” has taken time off to campaign in this Election! I joined the Workers’ Party almost 12 years ago, a few months after she was born. I had a comfortable job and a happy family. “Why put that all at risk?”, people asked me.

My answer then, and now is: Singapore needs a strong and credible opposition to progress to our next level of development, and I want to do my part to build it. I’m pleased to report that never lost my job. My 10-year old son helps me at grassroots events and my wife is the wind beneath my wings.

I was an NCMP in the 12th Parliament of Singapore. During that time I asked over 150 Parliamentary Questions. I debated policies with cabinet ministers and presented counter proposals on many issues, including our response to the population white paper, reducing the cost of healthcare, MRT breakdowns and salaries for low wage workers.

If you give us a chance to serve you again, we will continue to work hard to take good care of you and your estate. We will tap on the knowledge of experts and the wisdom of Singaporeans to come up with practical proposals in Parliament.

We will work for Singapore, and walk with you. :)

Constituency Political Broadcast – Aljunied GRC

Source: Mediacorp Channel 5

This is the text of the Constituency Political Broadcast for the Workers’ Party’s Aljunied GRC team, which was aired on 3 July 2020 on Channel 5.

Voters of Aljunied GRC, the PAP keeps saying there’s no need to vote for the opposition as the NCMP scheme ensures your voice in Parliament. Don’t be swayed by this argument.

Parliament is not just a talk shop where MPs make speeches. It exists to make laws, which are voted on by MPs.

The PAP will feel safe as long as their two-thirds majority is not threatened. But once the opposition gains more seats, they will be forced to consult you, and you will also get a more responsive government.

I have been an NCMP before and I know the limitations of that position. Without constituents to serve and a town to manage, it’s hard to establish a base.

I worked the ground for almost four years in Fengshan SMC after the 2015 Election. We ran a food distribution programme for over 240 families.

For the last few months, I have been covering the duties of Mr Low Thia Khiang in Aljunied GRC. This has allowed me to walk the ground, familiarise myself with the constituency, and get to know many residents, in ways I could not when I was an NCMP.

When I was in Parliament, I filed over 150 questions and spoke on healthcare, transport and manpower issues. I debated with ministers over the population white paper and Medishield insurance payouts.

Please allow me to use the experience I have gained to serve a second term in Parliament.





Make your vote count. Vote for the Workers’ Party!

Resolving the $100 million TraceTogether dilemma

Image: GovTech

Japan recently announced that it will soon launch its own contact tracing smartphone app. According to the Straits Times, to protect users’ privacy, the app does not collect names, phone numbers, user locations or any other personal information. This follows the launch of SwissCovid, an app built in Switzerland which boasts of similarly strong privacy protections.

Both apps use software jointly created by Apple and Google, called the Exposure Notifications System, which uses Bluetooth technology to help health authorities perform contact tracing, while ensuring that user privacy and data security remain central to the design.

Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) built its own TraceTogether app on a different protocol. Jason Bay, TraceTogether’s product lead at GovTech, wrote in a blog that since March, GovTech had been working with Apple and Google on the specifications for contact tracing technology which “allows cross-border interoperability.” He wrote this on April 10th, the day that Apple and Google announced their partnership to create the Exposure Notifications API.

It is widely known that TraceTogether does not work well on Apple’s iPhones, which are used by a third of smartphone users in Singapore. This is because iOS, the operating system running Apple devices, suspends Bluetooth scanning when the app is running in the background, preventing it from collecting data from contacts in the proximity of the user.

Mr Bay posted as recently as April 20th that GovTech will continue to work with Apple and Google to improve TraceTogether using the new API. It therefore came as a surprise when on June 5th, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, told Parliament, “We have had repeated discussions at both the technical and policy level with Apple, but we have not yet been able to find a satisfactory solution.”

The government has not announced any further plans to use the Apple-Google API. Instead, it plans to issue a wearable device to all Singapore residents and make it mandatory for everyone to carry it around. On June 13th it was reported that the government had already awarded a tender to a company to manufacture the first 300,000 units of the device. Based on the tender price for the pilot batch, CNA estimated that the device will cost $110 million to be rolled out nationwide.

Why couldn’t TraceTogether be made to work with the Apple-Google software? Dr Balakrishnan did not elaborate on what the technical and policy issues were. However, an examination of the two main protocols used by contact tracing apps around the world could give us some clues.

Centralised vs decentralised contact tracing

TraceTogether uses BlueTrace, a centralised report processing protocol. When a person tests positive for Covid-19, they will be required to upload the entire contact log from their phones onto a central server managed by the government for the purpose of contact matching and tracing.

TraceTogether’s current protocol also has no special privileges over normal apps, preventing the app from running Bluetooth scanning in the background.

Contact Tracing
Image: BBC

Exposure Notifications, on the other hand, employs a decentralised report processing protocol. User data is not stored in a central server and the matching of Covid-positive cases is done on users’ devices. Users can still opt to share their phone number and details of their symptoms with health authorities through the app, so that they can be contacted and receive advice on the next course of action to take.

Because the Exposure Notifications protocol is implemented at the operating system level, it allows for more efficient operation as a background process. It could also extend battery life and improve detection across iPhone and Android devices.

Several countries which initially pursued the development of centralised contact tracing apps have now decided to adopt the decentralised architecture pushed by Apple and Google. In late April, Germany abandoned a home-grown app design in favour of a “strongly decentralised” approach after Apple refused to budge on the settings of its iPhones.

At least 22 countries have now received access to use Exposure Notifications, including Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Poland, and several U.S. states.

Even Australia, which created its COVIDSafe app based on TraceTogether’s open source code, is now exploring a switch to Exposure Notifications.

Why do we need a contact tracing app?

With all the privacy risks that contact tracing technology brings, why do we even need to use it? Don’t the traditional modes of contact tracing suffice?

Effective contact tracing and widespread community testing have been recognised as the twin keys to enable the safe and wide opening of economies from Covid-induced lockdowns, of the sort we have endured in Singapore for the past three months.

Manual contact tracing involves interviewing the patient and asking them to recall all their movements for the past 14 days to determine whom they came into close contact with. Large teams of contact tracers then track down these contacts to instruct them to self-isolate or get tested. This is a laborious exercise which can take a few days. The delay could result in an infected person roaming the streets for several days, unknowingly transmitting the virus to others.

Contact tracing apps, if widely adopted, can instantly alert all the close contacts of a new case and instruct them what to do next, drastically reducing the time needed for contact tracing and stopping the spread of infections.

Contact Tracing 1
Contact Tracing 2

The win-win solution for Singapore

The Covid-19 pandemic has done much damage to our economy, with as much as a 7% GDP contraction expected in 2020. It is the worst recession in our nation’s history. Therefore any solution that will allow us to safely reopen our economy should be considered. Contact tracing apps can provide a way forward.

We need not make a false choice between privacy and public health. The Exposure Notifications System provides both privacy protections and privileged operating system access to allow contact tracing apps to work on almost all smartphones, even when they are locked.

By improving privacy protections and reducing the battery drain on phones, an enhanced TraceTogether app will become more attractive for Singapore residents to install on their phones, improving its current 25% adoption rate to a level closer to what is needed for effective contact tracing.

As more coronavirus-torn countries manage to contain their outbreaks, talks are underway on the establishment of “travel bubbles”. This would allow quarantine-free movement across borders. An important prerequisite would be effective contact tracing.

Interoperability between contact tracing apps would certainly help. As more countries around the world decide to adopt the decentralised protocol created by Apple and Google, it makes sense for Singapore to move in sync with them, to enable TraceTogether to “talk” to apps in other countries.

Given that 91% of the population in Singapore uses smartphones, rolling out a working contact tracing phone app can be done much more easily and cheaply than issuing a hardware dongle to all 5.7 million residents. It is also more seamless to fix bugs or add enhancements to an app and roll out an update to App Store or Play Store. If the hardware token has a serious bug, that’s $110 million down the drain.

It is still not too late to reverse course. The TraceTogether app should be re-programmed to adopt Apple and Google’s Exposure Notifications system. This will enable the app to run effectively on all smartphones, maximise adoption, protect privacy, enable cross-border interoperability and, most importantly, become a real weapon in our battle against Covid-19. The wearable device then only needs to be issued to the 9% of residents who don’t own a smartphone, saving taxpayers over $100 million.