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geraldgiam.sg

Alternative proposals for a better Singapore

Vaccinations for children (MOH)


Committee of Supply Debate, Ministry of Health, 12 March 2015

Sir,

The National Childhood Immunisation Schedule (NCIS) lists seven vaccinations against infectious diseases for children under 18 months. All are free at polyclinics, except the pneumococcal disease vaccination.

Although Medisave and the Child Development Account can be used to pay for it, these have alternative uses. Some parents may decide against this vaccination if they have to pay, especially if they are not aware of the dangers of this disease. It is the leading infectious cause of death in children worldwide, and can cause deafness, brain damage, paralysis and even death. There were 146 cases diagnosed last year in Singapore.

Can the Minister share what percentage of children above 2 years have been immunised against pneumococcal disease?

Why is pneumococcal disease on the NCIS as recommended by the Expert Committee on Immunisation, but not provided for free? Making it free could encourage a higher take up rate and build up herd immunity against the disease, which occurs only when a significant portion of a population is immunised.

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Data on health inequalities (MOH)


Committee of Supply Debate, Ministry of Health, 12 March 2015

Mdm Chair,

MOH has released a good amount of health-related data on its websites and in response to Parliamentary questions, and I appreciate the Ministry’s willingness to release this data. However, there remain some information gaps which I hope can be addressed.

We typically see health reports from MOH stratifying disease rates by ethnicity, gender and age, but seldom by income level. Several studies in other countries have found an association between income and health, with low income households tending to have poorer health.

Collecting data by income brackets could help the Government better calibrate social and health programmes. If socioeconomic factors indeed affect Singaporeans’ health status, then social interventions should be used to complement healthy-lifestyle campaigns targeting particular races, genders or age groups. If such data has already been collected, then it should be made available to researchers and the public.

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Drones and driverless cars (MOT)


Committee of Supply Debate, Ministry of Transport, 11 March 2015

Mdm Chair,

New transport technologies like drones and self-driving cars have the potential to improve our quality of life, increase productivity and contribute to economic growth. It is important that regulation stays ahead of the curve, so as to provide a welcoming environment for these technologies, while addressing safety and security concerns.

Commercial aerial drones have seen an explosion of interest in recent years. They have found an eager marketplace among movie-makers, online retailers and security companies, just to name a few. Even the National Environment Agency (NEA) is reportedly planning to use drones to search for mosquito breeding grounds. Global spending on drones could be almost US$100 billion over the next decade.

There are legitimate concerns about safety, security and privacy, but these can and should be addressed without stifling innovation. MOT said that it has started reviewing the regulatory framework for drones. May I ask for an update, including when the public consultation will take place and when the review will be completed?

Self-driving cars will revolutionise the urban transport scene. They are potentially safer, and can drastically reduce the car population, free up car park space and cut down on emissions. Many countries are in the process of passing laws to allow driverless cars to be tested on public roads, including Sweden, Japan and several US states. Big technology companies and major car-makers, as well as some local research institutions and companies, are all racing to develop their own self-driving cars.

As with drones, I believe Singapore is in an excellent position to lead the world in the adoption of driverless cars, but we must ensure that legislation promotes, and does not inhibit, the test-bedding and public use of these vehicles.

Government regulation in many countries often lags behind technology. Singapore should strive to do things differently, and be among the first to reap the social and economic benefits of these innovations.

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Public transport for people with disabilities (MOT)


Committee of Supply Debate, Ministry of Transport, 11 March 2015

Mdm Chair,

Public transport accessibility is a key enabler for people with disabilities to commute for work and leisure, empowering them to be more independent, and enjoy more fulfilling lives and productive careers. This will more fully tap the potential of many Singaporeans.

Much progress has been made over the years to make our buildings and public transport system more accessible. I am of the view that Singapore should strive to become a world leader in public transport accessibility.

We should strive provide accessibility from door-to-door, especially for wheelchair users and visually-impaired residents, including the “first and last mile” routes between bus stops and homes, which could be located anywhere on the island.

Currently only 14% of the 6,000 signalised pedestrian crossings in Singapore are equipped with audible pedestrian signals (APS). This means that visually-impaired pedestrians may still face difficulty crossing the remaining 86%.

Noise disturbance has been cited as a reason for not installing more APS or extending their operating hours. Can I suggest that tactile pedestrian signals be installed at all signalised crossings, as is common in cities like Geneva? (See Fig. 1 and 2 below.) These are little arrows located next to the crossings, which vibrate when the green man lights up.

Tactile announcements can also be used at all bus stops to inform visually-impaired commuters of the incoming bus service number, without disturbing nearby residents.

LTA says that about 50% of buses are currently wheelchair accessible and it aims for 100% coverage by 2020 while SBS Transit is aiming for 2023. Can MOT push for a fully wheelchair accessible fleet to be rolled out earlier, for the benefit of wheelchair users, which nowadays include an increasing number of elderly residents?

Tactile pedestrian signal
Fig. 1: Tactile pedestrian signal in Geneva

Tactile pedestrian signal
Fig. 2: Tactile pedestrian signal (view from below)

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Dedicated Government Telecoms Network (MCI)


Committee of Supply Debate, Ministry of Communications and Information, 9 March 2015

Sir,

Last month, the Government announced that it is planning to build a dedicated telecoms network for public sector use, as part of the ‘smart nation’ push. Instead of leasing connectivity, as is usually the case now, the Government will own the network backbone infrastructure.

IDA (Info-comm Development Authority) said this is to provide a platform that is secure and trusted to safeguard potentially sensitive information used across multiple government agencies.[1]

There are many security and privacy mechanisms that can be put in place to prevent unauthorised access by both outsiders and insiders. Just because a network is owned by the Government does not, in and of itself, make it more secure than if it were owned by private entities. In any case, the Government plans to commission private sector telcos to operate this dedicated network on its behalf, so they will still have access to it.

The other reason cited is that the Government wants to build a common infrastructure to support the deployment of smart nation applications. Can this not be achieved by expanding the capacity and resiliency of existing infrastructure?

I am not sure if these reasons justify the cost to the public purse of building a dedicated network.

Can the Minister share what is the estimated cost of building this dedicated telecoms network?

How will the Government ensure that its dedicated network does not end up with excess capacity, while the public networks become increasingly clogged?

Lastly, can we be sure Government will not sell away its telecoms network infrastructure to private enterprises in the future, like what happened to OpenNet, which was sold to a SingTel-owned company in October 2014?

——

[1] Tham, Irene, “Govt to get own telecoms network in smart nation push,” The Straits Times, 4 February 2015.

Update (10 March): The Minister for Communications and Information has pointed out that OpenNet was not owned by the Government. It was a consortium of companies and its sale was approved by the telecoms regulator, IDA.

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Wealth inequality (MOF)


Committee of Supply Debate, Ministry of Finance, 9 March 2015

Sir,

Much has been discussed in recent years about income inequality and the steps that have been taken to reduce it. What is less discussed, but no less troubling, is wealth inequality, which refers to the unequal distribution of assets, including land, property, stocks and inheritances.

Wealth inequality can increase income inequality over the long term. The wealthy can increase their income from not just high salaries and bonuses, but also from their assets, in the form of rent, dividends, interest, profits, capital gains or royalties.[1] Those with less wealth depend almost exclusively on income from their own labour.

According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, the top 1% of Singapore’s wealthiest people hold 29% of the country’s wealth, and the top 10% hold 60%. Wealth inequality in Singapore fell slightly during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, but since the economic recovery, it been showing an uptrend again.

Of course, complete equality of income and wealth are both unrealistic and undesirable. However, reputable studies have shown that in advanced economies, greater income inequality is associated with diminished social mobility and less equality of opportunity.[2]

Does the Government share my concern about wealth inequality in Singapore, and if so, what are its strategies and plans to narrow this gap?

How are statistics on wealth inequality being tracked by the Government? The Department of Statistics has said it will continue to monitor international developments in the compilation of wealth statistics, and review the feasibility of doing so in Singapore. Does MOF take the same approach, and if so, have there been any developments in compiling wealth statistics?

—–

[1] See Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”
[2] See speech by Janet Yellen (Chair, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System), “Perspectives on Inequality and Opportunity from the Survey of Consumer Finances,” 17 October 2014.

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Sectoral Minimum Wages (MOM)


Committee of Supply Debate, Ministry of Manpower, 9 March 2015

Mdm Chair,

A minimum wage aims to protect employees from exploitation and enables them to afford the basic necessities of life. But critics say it makes lower skilled workers uncompetitive, resulting in job losses as companies move overseas or hire fewer workers.

There is no national minimum wage in Singapore. Salaries are subject to negotiation and mutual agreement between employers and employees or the trade union representing the employees.

However, the wages of those in the lowest income group are not enough to cope with the high cost of living in Singapore. According to the Household Expenditure Survey, there are almost 85,000 resident households with a monthly income of less than $1,000. Yet these households spend an average of $1,461 per month – or 46% more than they earn.

The Progressive Wage Model is being implemented for the cleaning and security sectors, and soon the landscaping sector. However, these are not the only sectors which suffer from the malaise of low wages. Low wage jobs can be found in other domestic-oriented sectors like F&B, retail and personal services. In these sectors, jobs are usually performed locally, for customers who are in Singapore, so there is less risk that such jobs will move overseas even if wages rise.

The Finance Minister pointed out in his Budget Statement that productivity growth in the domestic-oriented sector is less than a fifth of that for outward-oriented sectors, yet employment growth has been mainly in the former. This lends weight to the need for these sectors to be upgraded to improve their productivity.

I urge the Government to look into introducing sectoral minimum wages under the Progressive Wage Model to more domestic-oriented industry sectors, so as to ensure that Singaporeans in those sectors are paid wages that are enough for themselves and their families to live on.

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Effectiveness of Jobs Bank (MOM)


Committee of Supply Debate, Ministry of Manpower, 9 March 2015

Jobs Bank

Mdm Chair,

The Jobs Bank portal was launched in July 2014. It now boasts of thousands of jobs postings, registered employers and Singaporean jobseekers. However, none of these point to its effectiveness in meeting the objective of ensuring that Singaporeans are fairly considered for jobs before firms hire foreigners. This is a key plank of the Fair Consideration Framework.

I would like to make some observations about the Jobs Bank and provide some suggestions for improvement to meet this important objective.

First, the outcomes of the Jobs Bank postings do not seem to be effectively tracked. MOM should require employers who post advertisements on the Jobs Bank to subsequently indicate whether those positions were filled, and if so, by Singaporeans or foreigners. It should be done whether or not the successful candidate came through the Jobs Bank.

This will enable MOM to track what proportion of jobs in a particular company or industry were filled by Singaporeans or foreigners. This will help track those companies’ compliance with the Fair Consideration Framework, and will also provide the Government with more detailed data about what types of jobs have local skills shortages, so as to better plan education and training policies.

Second, employers are not required to provide any evidence that they fairly considered Singaporeans for the post. They just need to advertise on the Jobs Bank for 14 calendar days before applying for an Employment Pass. In other jurisdictions, including Hong Kong, employers are required to state justifications for employing a foreign candidate and the reasons why the post cannot be filled by locals, before an employment pass is issued.

Third, S-pass applications do not require a prior Jobs Bank posting. These should be included as well, so that Singaporean PMETs have greater opportunities to apply and be fairly considered for these positions.

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Government surveillance on citizens (MHA)


Committee of Supply Debate, Ministry of Home Affairs, 5 March 2015

Mdm Chair,

In 2013, a scandal broke out in the US over reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been collecting telephone data of millions of its citizens, and had access to the servers of several technology companies, including Facebook and Google, to track their customers’ communications. The scandal soon widened to Europe when it was reported that GCHQ, the UK spy agency, had tapped fibre-optic cables carrying global communications data and shared it with the NSA.

Both governments justified this mass surveillance in the name of national security and insisted they were lawful. But many people were upset that they were unaware that their private communications were being monitored. Some questioned their legality and the insufficient oversight by their courts and legislature.

Singapore is a technologically advanced country which places a high priority on security. Singaporeans who have been following these developments in the US and Europe may be concerned that they may be subject to similar types of surveillance here. The Personal Data Protection Act governs the collection, use and disclosure of individuals’ personal data by organisations, but the Government is exempt from this Act.

I understand and agree with the need for some surveillance for legitimate security purposes to keep our country safe, but I have several concerns:

What safeguards are in place to ensure that surveillance on individuals, particularly Singaporeans, is done only for legitimate purposes, like security operations or criminal investigations?

How is the data and intelligence protected to ensure that it is not misused or leaked by those who have access to it?

Which of our laws authorise surveillance of individuals who are not targets of security operations or criminal investigations?

And lastly, what independent oversight, like the Courts or Parliamentary Committees, are in place to guard against abuse?

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Responding to China’s territorial claims (MFA)


Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 5 March 2015

Mdm Chair,

Recent years have seen an escalation of tension over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China has been increasingly assertive in its claims to islands that are hundreds of miles from its own borders but within the Exclusive Economic Zones of our ASEAN neighbours, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China also claims waters within its self-declared “Nine Dash Line” demarcation, which envelopes almost the entire South China Sea.

To assert its claims, China has been building airstrips and facilities, and reclaiming land, on and around these features. As The Economist[1] put it, the extent and speed of China’s “building boom” on the disputed islands flout the spirit of the declaration on the conduct of parties it signed in 2002 with ASEAN.

Singapore is not a claimant to any of these disputes and has maintained that these disputes can only be settled by the parties directly concerned.

I appreciate that Singapore seeks to build friendly relations with all countries, including China. However, I am concerned that China’s extensive and robust territorial claims may, now or in the future, infringe on freedom of navigation and overflight for vessels and planes travelling to and from Singapore. This could impact our trade with the world, which is a vital, and also our security.

The Minister has said before in Parliament that “only a united ASEAN can credibly play a central role in engaging major powers towards the common goal of promoting regional peace, stability and prosperity.”

I would therefore like to ask, should the actions of China in the South China Sea infringe on the freedom of navigation and overflight for ASEAN members, including Singapore, what will Singapore do on its own as well as in solidarity with ASEAN to respond and protect our interests?

[1] “Reclamation marks”, The Economist, 28 February 2015.

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Map of South China Sea
Photo credit: BBC News

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