Companies Participating in the Travel Smart Scheme

Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Transport (a) how his Ministry plans to increase the number of companies participating in the Travel Smart scheme from the current 12; (b) what is the Ministry’s target number of participating companies; and (c) what tangible incentives does the Government plan to give companies to implement flexi-work options so as to spread out peak hour commuter load on public buses and the MRT.

I asked the Transport Minister on 12 August 2013 about the Travel Smart Scheme, in which companies commit to implementing flexi-work options such as staggering working hours or tele-commuting.

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Transport (a) how his Ministry plans to increase the number of companies participating in the Travel Smart scheme from the current 12; (b) what is the Ministry’s target number of participating companies; and (c) what tangible incentives does the Government plan to give companies to implement flexi-work options so as to spread out peak hour commuter load on public buses and the MRT.

Mr Lui Tuck Yew : The Travel Smart project is a pilot study to help understand the impact of various organisational practices and interventions in shaping the travel patterns of employees. The 12 participating organisations, with a total of 25,000 employees, will develop and implement Travel Smart Action Plans, which include initiatives like flexi-work measures, and installation of shower and locker facilities and cycling facilities, amongst others. Each of the 12 organisations can claim up to $20,000 from LTA’s Travel Smart Reimbursement Grant to subsidise their costs. We will also be looking into customising travel incentive programmes together with the Travel Smart organisations to further encourage their employees to shift their travel times outside of the morning peak period.

Preliminary feedback has been encouraging. We will review the results in early 2014 before deciding how best to expand the programme.

Aside from Travel Smart, the Ministry of Manpower and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency had launched a one-stop programme called “WorkPro” on 1 April this year to build progressive workplaces for their employees. WorkPro includes a Work-Life Grant that provides funding support of up to $160,000 to help employers implement and sustain the use of flexi-work arrangements such as flexi-time to improve work-life harmony.

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Source: Singapore Parliament Reports (Hansard)

Indonesia’s Agreement to Share Concession Maps to Tackle Haze

Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) to what extent will Indonesia’s agreement to share digitised concession maps of its forests on only a case-by-case and government-to-government basis help with the identification of errant companies engaging in slash-and-burn practices; (b) what are the situations in which Indonesia has agreed, or not agreed, to share their concession maps; and (c) whether any date has been set for the launch of the ASEAN Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System (HMS) platform.

My Parliamentary Question following up on the haze issue, asked during the 12 August 2013 sitting.

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) to what extent will Indonesia’s agreement to share digitised concession maps of its forests on only a case-by-case and government-to-government basis help with the identification of errant companies engaging in slash-and-burn practices; (b) what are the situations in which Indonesia has agreed, or not agreed, to share their concession maps; and (c) whether any date has been set for the launch of the ASEAN Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System (HMS) platform.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan : Haze is caused by the burning of forests because this is the cheapest way to clear land. The Ministers of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution agreed to explore sharing concession maps and the use of satellite and mapping technologies to monitor hotspots and identify errant companies. Singapore was at the forefront of this effort by developing the technology platform to enable this – the ASEAN Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System (HMS). The overlay of Indonesia’s concession maps on the hotspot data will help to pinpoint which plantation companies are responsible for illegal slash-and-burn practices.

Unfortunately, the agreement that was reached among the Ministers at the 15th MSC meeting held on 17 July 2013 fell short of Singapore’s recommendation: a fully functioning system populated with comprehensive accurate concession maps overlaid with hotspot locations accessible to the general public. Unfortunately, Indonesia claimed there were legal impediments to greater transparency. Consequently, we could only get a consensus to adopt the joint haze monitoring system with data shared at the Government-to-Government level, subject to the ASEAN Leaders’ approval at the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in October 2013.

Nevertheless, even if the maps can only be shared on a Government-to-Government basis, the HMS should enable governments to identify errant companies and take appropriate enforcement action against them. We therefore hope that ASEAN will launch the HMS with the relevant country concession maps promptly in October 2013. We also hope Indonesia will ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution as soon as possible.

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Source: Singapore Parliament Reports (Hansard)

Death of Inmate in Prison

Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) whether the Singapore Prison Service’s restraining methods on inmates pose a continuing risk of fatal or permanent injury; and (b) whether there have been any changes to the restraining methods following the death of an inmate due to positional asphyxia.

I asked the Minister for Home Affairs these questions in Parliament on 12 August 2013 regarding the death of prison inmate Dinesh Raman in September 2010.

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12 Mr Ang Wei Neng asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs in light of the recent case where a senior prison officer was convicted of causing the death of an inmate by a negligent act (a) whether the deceased’s next-of-kin will be compensated and, if so, how will they be compensated; and (b) whether there was a delay in the investigation process given that the senior prison officer was charged in court almost three years after the inmate’s death.

13 Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) whether the Singapore Prison Service’s restraining methods on inmates pose a continuing risk of fatal or permanent injury; and (b) whether there have been any changes to the restraining methods following the death of an inmate due to positional asphyxia.

14 Mr Pritam Singh asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs regarding the recent case where a senior prison officer is convicted of causing the death of an inmate by a negligent act, why is the Ministry’s Committee of Inquiry looking into the circumstances surrounding the inmate’s death which occurred in September 2010 only able to submit its report in June 2013.

The Second Minister for Home Affairs (Mr S Iswaran) (for the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs) : Mdm Speaker, may I have your permission to take questions 12, 13 and 14 together.

Mdm Speaker : Yes, please.

Mr S Iswaran : Madam, all three questions concern the unfortunate death of a prison inmate, Dinesh Raman s/o Chinnaiah, who passed away on 27 September 2010 after he was restrained and relocated to a cell, following his unprovoked attack on a prison officer.

Madam, every case of death in prisons is taken seriously. Apart from the Singapore Prison Service’s own investigations, the Police conducts independent criminal investigations to establish the circumstances and cause of death; determine whether any criminal offences have been committed; and identify the persons responsible for the incident. The Police’s investigation findings and recommendations are then submitted to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to consider whether prosecutorial action is to be taken.

In addition to the Police’s criminal investigations, my Ministry will thoroughly review the incident, especially the actions of all parties involved, and the appropriateness of protocols and processes adopted by the Singapore Prison Service (Prison Service). Our aim is to ensure the safety and security of inmates and prison officers, and to maintain the integrity of our prison system of strict discipline and order.

Madam, let me first set out the timeline of events to put the incident, and the actions that followed, in perspective.
Prison Service reported Dinesh Raman’s death to my Ministry on 27 September 2010, the same day of the incident. Police commenced criminal investigations immediately. Separately, the Prison Service reviewed their processes and procedures for the use of Control & Restraint (C&R) techniques. The prison officers directly involved in the incident were redeployed from operational to staff duties, pending the outcome of investigations. The Police completed its preliminary investigations and referred its findings to the Coroner, who convened a Mention session on 4 November 2010. The Coroner’s Mention formally commences a public inquiry into the circumstances of a death.

On 17 August 2012, the Police submitted its consolidated findings to AGC. On 4 February 2013, after reviewing the findings and further clarification with the Police, AGC decided to take prosecutorial action.

On 1 March 2013, the Police informed Minister for Home Affairs that the investigations had been completed. After being briefed by the Police on its findings, the Minister decided to appoint a Committee of Inquiry (COI) to conduct an independent audit of Prisons’ broader systems, processes and protocols for bringing violent inmates under control. On 4 June 2013, Minister for Home Affairs accepted the findings and recommendations of the Committee of Inquiry and directed Prison Service to implement them immediately. All the recommendations have since been implemented, or are in the process of being completed.

The charge against a Senior Prisons Officer, who was the direct supervising officer of the incident, was heard in court on 19 July 2013. DSP Lim Kwo Yin pleaded guilty to the charge of Causing Death by a Negligent Act and was fined $10,000.
Madam, it took 28 months from the commencement of Police investigations to the Attorney General’s decision to prosecute. This was due to the complexity of the case. Let me elaborate.

The police investigations included a thorough study of the Control & Restraint doctrine, training, protocols and techniques used in prison; it entailed meeting external experts, both domestic and international, to seek professional views and an assessment on the C&R techniques deployed; and it involved interviews with 130 witnesses comprising 72 prison inmates, 23 prison officers, eight prison medical staff, seven police officers, two CISCO officers and Dinesh Raman’s next-of-kin. In total, the Police conducted 144 interviews. Police investigators also went to the United Kingdom to consult a C&R expert from the National Tactical Response Group, under the UK Ministry of Justice.

In comparison, the recent Shane Todd case, which took 13 months for the State Coroner to reach a verdict, involved 60 witnesses. That case did not involve criminal charges. Another example is the Yishun Triple Murder case of 19 September 2008, which concluded with a conviction four years later on 20 November 2012, and that involved 68 witnesses.

Madam, the prison environment is complex, and the risk of security incidents is real and present. Strict discipline and control is essential to maintain a safe and secure environment, for both inmates and prison officers. While the number of violent incidents in our prisons is low when compared with other jurisdictions, they do happen. Last year, there were 61 assaults by inmates, 40 of which were against other inmates and 21 against prison officers. We have zero tolerance for any violence or abuse that could adversely affect order and discipline in our prisons because it is the foundation for the effective rehabilitation of inmates.

To achieve this, our Prison officers are trained in Control & Restraint techniques, which involve using both defensive and control methods, to subdue a violent inmate swiftly, safely, and decisively. Our Prison Service adopted these team-based C&R techniques from the UK C&R Training Centre in June 1990. They have been adapted to our local prison environment, and are in line with international best practices in the UK, US and Hong Kong. C&R techniques follow a fixed procedure that involves teams of prison officers, each with a specific role or task. The procedure enables prison officers to use reasonable force in a controlled manner, to restrain and manage violent inmates, and to gain quick control over the incident with minimal injuries to all.

Over the last four years, our prison officers have had to use C&R techniques 331 times to deal with a range of violent incidents. Prior to the case of Dinesh Raman, no prison inmate had ever died or suffered serious injuries as a result of C&R techniques.

The COI assessed that the C&R techniques are safe, useful and appropriate for managing violent inmates, as long as safety precautions are observed. The COI did not find any malice in the actions of the prison officers involved in restraining Dinesh Raman. However, the COI identified specific areas of improvements, given the way the C&R techniques had been used in this incident. For example, the officers involved did not maintain constant communication with Dinesh Raman as required by the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), in order to monitor his overall condition. The COI also found that officers should have been more conscious of the risk that the C&R technique might cause positional asphyxia, and of how to prevent this from happening.

All our prison officers are trained in C&R techniques. In addition, officers directly managing inmates are required to undergo C&R recertification biennially. In response to the COI recommendations, the Prison Service has reviewed its C&R doctrines, instruction manuals and training materials to place greater emphasis on the risk of positional asphyxiation, and preventive measures. The Prison Service has also reviewed its recertification requirement to ensure that all supervising officers are covered, including the superintendents of prisons even though they may not need to directly apply C&R techniques themselves.

In addition, the Prison Service has introduced new protocols, such as applying C&R techniques on violent inmates in a standing position where possible, to reduce the risk of positional asphyxia. These new protocols have been adapted from other jurisdictions, such as the UK Prison System and the Hong Kong Correctional Services.

Following the conviction of the senior prison officer on 19 July 2013, MHA has been in touch with the family of Dinesh Raman and their lawyer to discuss the family’s concerns, as well as the matter of compensation. AGC has informed the family and its lawyer in writing that the Government accepts liability and will compensate the family. As discussions are on-going, I am not able to provide details.

In closing, the COI has found that the Prison Service’s overall system and processes for managing violent inmates are appropriate, safe and effective. The COI made recommendations to improve specific aspects of the C&R techniques, which have since been acted upon.

MHA recognises that maintaining order and discipline for the safety and security of inmates and prison officers, is a difficult and challenging task. Nevertheless, we expect prison officers to perform their duties with integrity and professionalism. It is important that the Prison Service has a team of disciplined and well trained officers who obey the law, and manage inmates conscientiously according to rules and procedures.

We take a serious view of any professional misconduct, procedural lapses, neglect or excess of duty by prison commanders and officers, and will take firm action against them according to the law and civil service disciplinary processes. This is important in order to maintain public confidence in the institutions, and also in the people who continue to serve in them.

With the conclusion of the court case, MHA has initiated disciplinary action against the superintendent, supervisors and other officers involved in the incident.

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Mdm Speaker : Mr Gerald Giam.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song : I have got three supplementary questions. I would also like to extend my condolences to the family of Dinesh Raman. My reason for asking my original question was because I am concerned that even the approved Control & Restraint (C&R) techniques risk fatal or permanent injuries to inmates. So my first question is: was the restraining technique that caused the death of inmate Dinesh Raman on 27 September 2010 an approved technique? Secondly, has Prisons factored in the possibility that a combination of C&R techniques, even though they may be individually approved, could cause fatalities? Lastly, will the review of the C&R doctrine in Prisons apply to the Police and other security services so as to ensure that there is no repetition of such a tragedy, Government-wide?

Mr S Iswaran : I want to thank the Member for his questions. Madam, let me first re-state findings of the Committee of Inquiry, for the record. The findings were that the control and restraint method used in the Prisons is safe, effective and appropriate. The application in this instance may have had certain aspects that were wanting but the overall system and process were found to be appropriate, safe and effective.

Prisons adopted this system, as I said, from the UK system in 1990, and regularly reviews the system according to our own operating environment and also taking reference from any key developments in other jurisdictions. This is no different. In fact, Prisons reviewed it periodically and adapted one of the techniques in 2005 as a result of some changes in international norms, especially in the UK. So the C&R technique regime was applicable at the time of Dinesh Raman’s passing, were up-to-date based on Prisons’ active review of the processes. Whether a combination of techniques can lead to an unfortunate outcome, well, this is precisely why I emphasised the point. The purpose of the Control and Restraint technique — the protocols in the regime and the very well defined roles for individual officers — is precisely to ensure that reasonable force is used in a controlled manner in order to bring a situation under control with minimal injuries to all parties. That is the objective. So we have to understand the context of the prison environment and what its objective is. As I said, also for the record, we have had no incident since these techniques were adopted since 1990 where the death of a prison inmate or for that matter, serious injuries were attributed to the use of C&R techniques.

Finally, whether the review of C&R techniques can be shared with other agencies, where appropriate, the Home Team has platforms where our Departments share areas which are of common interest.

Auditor-General’s report and investigations

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance (a) whether the Auditor-General, on discovery of instances of non-compliance by public sector entities with Government procurement rules and principles, carries out independent investigations in all such instances to determine if any gratification has been paid or received corruptly by the transacting entities; (b) if so, what is the scope of these investigations; and (c) if not, how does the Auditor-General satisfy himself that there is no corrupt gratification involved that necessitates a referral to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau for further investigation.

I asked the DPM and Finance Minister these questions during the 12 August 2013 sitting in response to the Auditor-General’s report and following a letter to the Straits Times Forum by Mr Cheng Shoong Tat (“Any basis for graft probes?”, July 23), which I felt did not receive an adequate reply from the Auditor-General’s Office.

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Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance following the latest findings by the Auditor-General’s Office, what are the strategies that will be implemented to strengthen procurement practices and procedures in Government agencies and Ministries.

Ms Tan Su Shan asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance in light of the Auditor-General’s Report for FY 2012/2013 which showed lapses in procurement processes and oversight of external consultants (a) what remedial action is being taken by these Ministries and statutory boards to address the weaknesses; and (b) what are the enhanced controls that are being implemented to ensure that such lapses do not happen again.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance (a) whether the Auditor-General, on discovery of instances of non-compliance by public sector entities with Government procurement rules and principles, carries out independent investigations in all such instances to determine if any gratification has been paid or received corruptly by the transacting entities; (b) if so, what is the scope of these investigations; and (c) if not, how does the Auditor-General satisfy himself that there is no corrupt gratification involved that necessitates a referral to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau for further investigation.

Assoc Prof Tan Kheng Boon Eugene asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance (a) what are the processes and measures put in place to ensure effective follow up on the findings of irregularities and weaknesses indicated in the Report of the Auditor-General for FY2012/2013; (b) how many public officers have been disciplined in the past five years for lapses in proper accounting, management and use of public funds and resources, and non-compliance with the relevant laws and Government Instruction Manual; and (c) how often are Ministries and statutory boards audited by the Auditor-General’s Office and whether the frequency can be increased.

Mr Pritam Singh asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance in view of the Auditor-General’s remarks in the FY2012/2013 Auditor-General’s Report that procurement has continued to be an area prone to lapses for the last six years and that annual audits are conducted on a test-check basis and do not reveal all irregularities and weaknesses, whether the Government will immediately direct a thorough one-off audit of all Ministries and statutory boards with specific emphasis on procurement-related transactions.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance (a) whether the recent procurement lapses have led to increased time required to (i) approve projects within the public sector and (ii) award tenders and contracts to vendors; (b) whether time between the publication of tenders to the time of award has increased in the past year as compared to the previous years and, if so, what are the types and values of these projects; and (c) whether the Ministry has sought feedback from vendors on any added changes or procedures imposed on them due to the tightening of Government’s procurement process.

Mr Teo Siong Seng asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance whether the latest Report of the Auditor-General which highlights the need for public sector agencies to step up on monitoring of contractors’ performance will further increase the compliance costs of private sector companies bidding for public sector contracts.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance (Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam): Mdm Speaker, may I have your permission to take Question Nos 5 to 11 together, please?

Mdm Speaker : Yes, please.

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam : Members are rightly concerned about the lapses highlighted in this year’s Report of the Auditor-General (the AGO Report). As Deputy Prime Minister Teo as Minister in charge of the Civil Service has just stated, the Government is determined to uphold the highest standards of integrity and professionalism in the Public Service. This resolve certainly applies to the question of public sector procurements.

Before I get into the specific improvements being made, I want to emphasise that the system of checks and balances in procurement operates as a whole. It is not just about rules to ensure fair competition and value for money in public tenders, but also regular audits to detect lapses, and where appropriate, disciplinary actions against those responsible, including supervisors. And where there is any suggestion of corruption or fraud, it is investigated promptly and thoroughly, and the officer faces the full measure of the law, regardless of who he is.

So it is a whole system, and it is working, which is why Singapore is widely recognised internationally as having one of the cleanest and most efficient systems of government anywhere. Nevertheless, we take each finding of a procurement lapse seriously, and take action to minimise recurrence.

Our rules and procedures for procurement are comparable with those in most other reputable jurisdictions, and in line with World Trade Organization standards on open and fair competition.

We review the rules regularly, and especially when we observe weaknesses. Members may recall that in 2010 and 2011, we took major steps to reduce opportunities for procurement fraud. Last year, 2012, we introduced further checks to ensure that single bids offered competitive terms. We also extended the minimum opening period for suppliers to submit bids for quotations from four to seven working days. These are examples of how we review the rules when we see weaknesses and, where it is necessary to tighten, we tighten up.

This year, the AGO Report highlighted that a statutory board had procured a service from a related party in a manner that did not comply with our rules. The procurement rules require that any bid by a related party be treated on a strictly arms-length basis, and that a successful bid has to comply with the tender specifications regardless of ownership. The rules are clear. We are nevertheless reviewing if there is a need to further tighten approval processes for transactions involving related parties.

The procurement lapses cited in this year’s AGO Report are, in fact, all due to non-compliance with established rules, rather than gaps in the rules. It should also be noted that the majority of the findings concern lapses committed before 2012. This partly reflects AGO’s recent focus on Government procurement in its audits, which have included looking at procurements in previous years. Government agencies have since last year made special efforts to improve procurement processes. MOF has also strengthened training programmes for procurement, and developed and disseminated checklists to guide supervisors and officers on what to look out for at the various stages of the procurement process.

We are doing more to build up capabilities, to help officers and supervisors implement the rules well. That includes having the skills and knowledge to seek value for money, and not just accept the cheapest tender bid. As Minister of State Josephine Teo mentioned during this year’s Committee of Supply debate, we are developing a Procurement Specialist Track to build up a strong pool of officers with the skills needed, and with good career progression pathways. The new specialist track will be launched next year. Details will be announced in March.

However, in a system with 80,000 procurements each year, we cannot realistically expect to eliminate all lapses or human error. To seek to do so would be too costly and time-consuming, not just to Government but also to businesses and the public. Our approach, therefore, is to make every reasonable effort to minimise lapses, while undertaking regular audits to check for any that do occur and keeping open channels for suspected irregularities to be reported. Where any lapse is detected, we take actions to minimise recurrence.

MOF has required all Government agencies to ensure that they have an effective system of internal audit and control.
It is crucial that the top management sets the right tone. MOF has reminded the Permanent Secretaries and other Heads of Government Agencies to maintain active oversight of Internal Audit. They will also henceforth be required to report to MOF with an assessment of findings on procurement audits and follow-up actions in their agencies each year, as well as pre-emptive plans to avoid future weaknesses. This is a new reporting system which the Permanent Secretaries and Heads of Agencies will have to comply with. This would include follow-up actions on audit observations by both their internal auditors and the Auditor-General.

We will also keep up with the latest knowledge and techniques in supervision and audit of procurement, including good practices developed in the private sector. MOF will be making available additional analytical tools to help both auditors and senior management of the various agencies review procurement activities more effectively.

Let me turn next to the external audit of our agencies by the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO). AGO conducts annual checks of Ministries with regard to financial statements, as well as internal controls and processes that directly impact on the financial statements. On a less regular basis, AGO also selectively audits other aspects of internal controls in the Ministries, either based on its assessment of risks or arising from public feedback. The Statutory Boards are audited annually by private external auditors. In addition, AGO conducts audits of internal controls of nearly all statutory boards at least once every five years.

AGO’s resources have been significantly enhanced — its manpower has grown by over 50% over the last five years to about 180 staff currently. AGO has also, as I mentioned earlier, focused particularly on procurement issues in recent years. Every finding by the Auditor-General of a procurement lapse is taken very seriously within Government. It leads to improvements in procurement processes, and an awareness not just in the agency concerned but other agencies of the need to avoid the same problems.

AGO’s audits are for practical reasons conducted on a test-check basis. AGO cannot realistically cover all aspects of procurement in all agencies. However, from time to time, the Government does conduct thorough, one-off reviews of specific aspects of procurement across the public sector. For example, before we tightened our procedures in 2012 for handling single bids, we reviewed the procurement transaction data for the entire public sector.

Let me go on to disciplinary actions, which some Members asked about. The cases highlighted in the latest AGO report for fiscal year 2012/2013 were administrative or procedural lapses. There was no evidence of fraud or corrupt intent. That is, in fact, the case with most procurement-related lapses – they are either due to a lack of knowledge, carelessness or poor supervision. But that does not mean that officers are not responsible for their lapses. Agencies will still assess their officers’ roles in each of the lapses and take follow-up actions.

In the last two years, 60 officers and supervisors have been counselled, reprimanded or issued warning letters, depending on the severity of the lapse. Where warranted, officers were penalised in their performance bonuses or increments.

There have been cases in previous years where AGO has basis to suspect corrupt or fraudulent intent. It refers all such cases to the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) or the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) for further investigation.
Mr Zaqy Mohamad and Mr Teo Siong Seng have asked about the impact of our tightening measures in recent years on procurement efficiency and vendors.

Our main aim is to improve compliance, build capabilities and strengthen audit. These do not impact vendors directly. A number of the rules that were refined can, in fact, improve procurement efficiency and benefit vendors. For example, since we introduced new rules last year on single bids, and extended the minimum quotation period from four working days to seven days, the percentage of quotations receiving single bids has decreased to about 4% in 2013 to date, from 15% in 2012.

Mr Zaqy and Mr Teo’s questions, however, relate to a broader point. We should not burden Government procurement with ever-increasing rules and procedures. Doing so would slow down the Government’s functions and its responses to needs, and often impose higher costs. It can also deter some businesses from participating in government tenders.

We should keep instead to a sensible balance of rules, audit and enforcement actions, so as to minimise risk of wrong-doing without hindering the vast majority of legitimate procurements, or causing civil servants to become risk-averse and bureaucratic in handling procurements.

We have been taking steps in recent years, Mdm, Speaker, to strengthen the procurement system. However, the public sector’s procurement needs will grow and become more diverse in the years to come. We are placing greater emphasis, therefore, on supervision and top-level oversight, by requiring the Heads of Government Agencies to assess and report to MOF on follow-up actions where problems are found, and on their pre-emptive plans. MOF itself will monitor the timeliness and effectiveness of these actions, and review further practical ways in which we can preserve the well-functioning of government procurement.

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song (Non-Constituency Member): Madam, I have three supplementary questions for the Deputy Prime Minister. Firstly, of the many procurement lapses discovered by the Auditor-General in this year’s report, were there indications of gratification being paid, given or received by public servants in any of them? Secondly, does the AGO presume that any procurement lapses may involve gratification and, therefore, conducts specific investigations to discover that? Thirdly, if there gratification is found to be involved, does the AGO presume that there may be corruption involved, unless the contrary is proven, in accordance with Section 8 of the Prevention of Corruption Act?
Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam : First, with regard to this year’s procurement lapses, there was no basis to suspect gratification. There was certainly no evidence of it; no basis to suspect fraudulent or corrupt intent. Where there is any evidence of gratification, then by definition and presumption, there is corruption. In fact in some of the cases in the last five years – not this year’s report but previous years’ – there was reason to suspect that there might be some fraudulent or corrupt intent. In those instances, AGO refers the cases to either the Commercial Affairs Department or CPIB. That, in fact, is being done.

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Source: Singapore Parliament Reports (Hansard)

Sectoral median wages and wage shares

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Trade and Industry (a) how does Singapore compare with developed economies in terms of median monthly wages and wage shares; (b) how do the biomedical sector, general manufacturing sector, and the accommodation and food services sector in Singapore compare with their counterpart sectors in developed economies in terms of sectoral average monthly wages and sectoral wage shares; and (c) how does Singapore compare with developed economies in terms of productivity growth and median wage growth.

In January 2013, during my Parliamentary speech on the debate on the Population White Paper, I had said:

The generous supply of foreign workers has lowered the bargaining power of local workers, forcing them to accept lower wages in order to be competitive. This has led to much of the benefits of our stellar GDP growth accruing to company profits instead of workers’ wages. Our workers’ wage share as a percentage of GDP is relatively small compared with most other developed countries. In 2011, just 42.3% of Singapore’s GDP went to workers’ wages (SingStat 2012, 9). In contrast, according to OECD data, the wage share is 47.5% in Australia, 49.2% in the European Union and 52.3% in Canada (OECD 2011).

On 23 May 2013, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) published an article “A Look at Wage Share and Wages in Singapore” in their Economic Survey of Singapore (First Quarter 2013).

The MTI article wrote:

Some argue that this shows that workers in Singapore are underpaid, and that Singapore’s economic growth has disproportionately benefitted multinational companies and capital owners at the expense of workers. This article…finds that higher wage shares do not necessarily translate to higher wages.

The Straits Times did a report on this MTI article (“Lower wage share doesn’t mean wages are lower: Salaries are correlated with productivity, says MTI”, Straits Times, 24 May 2013), stating:

Over the years, this trend has led economic watchers as well as the Workers’ Party to argue that Singapore’s workers are underpaid and that economic growth has benefited companies at the expense of workers.

During the 8 July 2013 sitting of Parliament, I asked the Minister for Trade and Industry for more information regarding median wages in different industrial sectors in Singapore and their wage shares vis-a-vis those in developed economies. This was my question and the answer I received.

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Trade and Industry (a) how does Singapore compare with developed economies in terms of median monthly wages and wage shares; (b) how do the biomedical sector, general manufacturing sector, and the accommodation and food services sector in Singapore compare with their counterpart sectors in developed economies in terms of sectoral average monthly wages and sectoral wage shares; and (c) how does Singapore compare with developed economies in terms of productivity growth and median wage growth.

Mr Lim Hng Kiang (Minister for Trade and Industry): Between 2007 and 2011, Singapore’s wage share of GDP averaged at 41.5 per cent. This was lower than the wage shares of many developed economies, which were typically at 50 per cent or more (see Table 1 below).

Over the same period, the PPP-adjusted real median gross monthly income of full-time employed residents in Singapore was $2,7204, higher than the median income of workers in developed economies such as Germany and the United Kingdom, but lower than that of workers in economies like the United States.

Between 2007 and 2011, the PPP-adjusted real average monthly wages of workers in Singapore in the biomedical cluster, general manufacturing cluster and the accommodation & food services sector were $4,880, $2,840 and $1,640 respectively (see Table 2 below)5. The corresponding wage shares were 6.8 per cent, 52.3 per cent and 56.0 per cent respectively.

While the average wage and wage share in Singapore’s general manufacturing cluster tended to be lower than those of developed economies, our average wage and wage share in the accommodation & food services sectors were comparable with those of other economies. A similar comparison for the biomedical cluster could not be made as comparable wage and wage share data for this cluster were not available for the other economies.

Singapore’s labour productivity growth from 2007 to 2011 was 0.2 per cent per annum, slower than that in many developed economies such as the United States, Germany and Hong Kong, but comparable with the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain (see Table 3 in the Appendix). Productivity can be affected by economic cycles, and should be viewed over a longer period of time. Our labour productivity growth from 2002 to 2011 was 2.4 per cent per annum. This outpaced the labour productivity growth in developed economies such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States.

The growth in the real median gross monthly income of full-time employed resident workers in Singapore was 2.6 per cent per annum over the period of 2007 to 20116. This was faster than the real median income growth for workers in developed economies such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and Hong Kong.

Table 1

Table 2

Table 3

4 Income data were averaged across 2007 to 2011, Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) adjusted, and expressed in constant 2011 dollars.
5 Wage data were averaged across 2007 to 2011, Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) adjusted, and expressed in constant 2011 dollars.
6 For the ten-year period ending 2011, real median gross monthly income of full-time employed resident workers in Singapore grew by 1.3 per cent per annum. However, comparable data for other economies were not available before 2005. We hence made comparisons for the growth from 2007 to 2012.

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Source: Singapore Parliament Reports (Hansard)

New licensing framework for online news sites

On 8 July 2013, Parliament debated the Government’s new licensing framework for online news websites. These are the questions I asked the Ministers for Communications and Information and his responses.

On 8 July 2013, Parliament debated the Government’s new licensing framework for online news websites. These are the questions I asked the Minister for Communications and Information and his responses.

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Communications and Information (a) how many times in the past has MDA directed Internet Content Providers to remove content from, or prohibit access to, websites because of objectionable material in violation of the Internet Code of Practice; (b) what are the content of these materials; and (c) whether the Internet Content Providers have complied with MDA’s directive and, if not, what action has MDA taken against them for non-compliance.

Assoc Prof Dr Yaacob Ibrahim (Minister for Communications and Information): Madam, Members have raised questions about various facets of MDA’s new licensing framework for online news sites. I will answer them in terms of its rationale, what MDA introduced, its expected impact, and the notice period given for the change.

Madam, a “healthy” public discourse, in Mr Chen Show Mao’s words, must be grounded in accurate facts. This is true whether the discourse takes place online, or in the physical world. Entities that publish the news have a duty to ensure that the news is accurately and fairly reported because they provide the basic elements of information upon which individuals make decisions or form judgements and opinions on any matter. Hence, traditional news providers in broadcast and print have always operated under individual licensing.

As the media landscape converges, news is published not only in print and broadcast, but also on the Internet. As online sites have become a more significant source of news, our regulatory framework has to evolve to keep pace with the changing landscape. The new licensing framework seeks to place online news sites and traditional news sites on a more consistent regulatory basis, while recognising that they are not identical.

Mr Pritam Singh asked whether MDA considered the efficacy of introducing rules that apply to traditional media, into the online space. I would like to stress that we have never taken the approach that the Internet space is to be unregulated. If online conduct leads to offences under the Penal Code or other laws of the land, the persons responsible are held accountable. As far as other content is concerned, we have regulated with a light-touch through the Class Licence Scheme, introduced in 1996. This has not changed, Madam. The new licensing framework affects only 10 sites, and they are subject to a few more specific obligations under their licence, commensurate with their role as news providers.

In the new licensing framework, online news sites will be individually licensed if they (i) report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a continuous period of two months; and (ii) are visited by a monthly average of at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore over the same two months. Requiring these news sites to take up individual licences also places a stronger onus on the licensees operating these websites to be aware of their legal obligations, and to report incidents and occurrences responsibly.

The online news site licence will require licensees to adhere to a set of content standards which are no different from existing standards under the Internet Code of Practice and Class Licence. These content standards are meant to safeguard racial and religious harmony, public order, as well as good taste and decency. I wish to stress that nothing in the content standards prevents licensees from commenting on Government policies. Since the content standards have not changed, licensees will enjoy the same freedom of expression they have hitherto enjoyed under the Class Licence Scheme. Fears that the new licensing framework will stifle Internet freedom are unfounded. The vibrant online environment that critics purport to cherish emerged under the same set of content standards in the Class Licence Scheme.

There are only two additional requirements which will be imposed on licensees. Firstly, when directed by MDA, they have 24 hours to take down content which is in breach of the content standards. This is important, as news on these high-reach sites can go viral very quickly and have a detrimental impact on society if they undermine racial harmony or raise public order concerns.

Secondly, licensees have to provide a $50,000 performance bond. A similar requirement is imposed on other individual licensees, such as niche TV licences. This is to ensure that licensees exercise their best efforts to keep their websites free of prohibited content and when there is such content, to remove it expeditiously within the timeframe of 24 hours when directed by MDA. The performance bond need not be provided in cash to MDA, but can be in the form of a banker’s guarantee, or insurance. None of the licensees of the 10 sites have raised any concerns with posting the performance bond.

Madam, we do not expect the new licensing framework to affect in any way the operations of the 10 online sites identified for individual licensing.

Several Members have asked about the scope of the licensing framework and the types of sites that will be covered.

In general, bloggers, Internet commentators and niche sites provide their personal perspective of issues, and do not regularly report on the news and current affairs of the day. As a result, they have not been determined to be reporting on Singapore news and current affairs, and so these websites do not fall within the scope of the licensing framework. However, should these websites morph into online sites reporting on Singapore news, MDA will have to separately assess if they meet the two criteria for licensing. For now, MDA is working with the organisations that own the 10 sites. MDA is not considering individually licensing any other sites at this point in time.

Some sites claim that if subject to individual licensing, they will not be able to furnish the $50,000 performance bond, or even a guarantee. I would like to make three points here, Madam. Firstly, the $50,000 performance bond was set in view of the financial means of the 10 identified online sites. Secondly, the MDA has already stated that if the performance bond is beyond the financial means of a future licensee, it is willing to consider the specific circumstances of that licensee and adjust the performance bond accordingly. The key is that the performance bond must provide a meaningful incentive to the licensee to make the best effort to comply with the licensing conditions. Thirdly, and in response to Mr Zaqy’s question, it would not be a sound regulatory approach to exempt entities on the basis that they intend to operate non-commercially. Our rationale for this new licensing framework is based on the special responsibility that news providers hold. This responsibility is not diminished simply because the operators choose to operate on a non-profit or non-commercial basis, if they indeed set themselves out as providers of news content.

Another concern expressed by sites not identified for individual licensing is that it has a “chilling effect” on their activities. I think, Madam, this is far-fetched. In any case, I do not think they are so easily ‘chilled’. I have already explained that the MDA will set a reasonable performance bond commensurate with the financial position of a future licensee. The intention is not to prevent the site from operating under a licence. On the contrary, the intent is to allow a qualifying site to continue to operate, under an individual licence.

Members have asked about the manner in which the licensing framework was implemented and whether the potential licensees were engaged. The licensing framework is a refinement of the existing Class Licence Scheme which Internet content providers are already familiar with, and is not a major shift. The 10 potential licensees were informed of the new licensing framework before it was introduced, and MDA’s engagement with them on the exact terms of the licence is on-going. The entire process of engagement, which started in May, is expected to take four to five months, after which the licence will actually take effect. This, Madam, should provide sufficient time for the industry to give its feedback on the detailed licence conditions.

The Government is committed to wider consultation on issues that affect the public. Over the past few months, Singaporeans have given their views on various Government policies as part of “Our Singapore Conversation”. However, in this instance, the licensing framework only applies to a small number of news sites and does not affect the overwhelming majority of Internet content providers. Besides, content standards have remained unchanged and the licence will not impact the public in general. So therefore, when implementing the framework, we did not feel there was a need for wider public consultation before the licensing framework was announced. Nevertheless, Madam, we will continue to engage stakeholder groups on this issue to allay any concerns that they may have.

As to whether the framework would be extended to overseas-based websites, the issue will be studied further in tandem with planned amendments to the Broadcasting Act. The broad intent is to ensure that overseas broadcasters that are specifically targeting Singapore will be covered under our regulatory frameworks. This has become imperative with technological advances increasingly blurring the line between local and foreign broadcasters. However, we recognise that this is a complex issue and will therefore consult widely before tabling the amendments to the Broadcasting Act in Parliament sometime next year.

Madam, let me now deal with the remaining issues raised by Members.

Mr Gerald Giam asked about past issuance of takedown notices by MDA. Since 1996, MDA has issued 24 take-down notices. One instance was for a religiously-offensive video, 21 were for pornographic content or advertisements soliciting sex or sex chats, and two were for inappropriate gambling-related content. MDA has not encountered any instance where a site-owner has refused to comply with a take-down notice. The track record has shown that, notwithstanding that the same contents standards have been in existence since 1996, MDA has not directed websites to take down content just because it is critical of the Government. There is therefore no cause for concern that the new online news licensing framework would reduce the vibrancy of online discourse or negatively impact the promotion of a more active and engaged citizenry.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad suggested setting up an independent body to review sites to be included in the licensing framework, content to be taken down, as well as hear appeals from licensees. MDA has convened panels drawn from members of the community, to help it provide input on community standards. However, Madam, it would be wrong in principle for MDA to abrogate its regulatory responsibility, and to pass decisions such as whether an entity should be licensed, to another body. There are already established processes for parties aggrieved by a regulatory decision under the Broadcasting Act to seek redress.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad also asked whether media accreditation is a potential end-result of the licensing framework. Accreditation is accorded to news organisations that cover government events and functions regularly to facilitate their work. Accreditation is not compulsory for news-related organisations to engage in news-gathering and many organisations do operate without seeing the need to apply for accreditation. The criteria considered before accreditation is conferred include the reach or distribution of the media organisation and its professional standing. Accrediting media organisations and licensing news sites are assessed and determined on very separate considerations.

Madam, in conclusion, I want to reiterate that the new licensing framework is designed to enable identified sites to move seamlessly from the existing class licence to hold an individual licence. The rationale for the change is based on the special responsibility that news providers have, because the news they produce is used by the public to come to informed decisions and opinions on matters of public interest. The licensing framework places traditional news providers and online news providers on a more consistent regulatory framework. We do not expect the new framework to have any effect on the degree of expression that currently exists in the online space. Since the introduction of the Class Licence framework in 1996, the MDA has shown itself to be balanced and restrained in the exercise of its powers to regulate online content. It has never used them to order the removal of content that is critical of Government policy or Government Ministers. Concerns that the Internet will be stifled are thus far-fetched and will prove to be unfounded in due course.

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Madam, I thank the Minister for revealing that there have been 24 take-down orders since 1996 and that all of these take-down orders have been complied with. May I just ask: Were these take-down orders complied with within the time frame that MDA gave? If not, which are the sites that did not comply? Second question is since the Class Licence Scheme is working fine, why does the Government see a need to introduce this new scheme so urgently?

Assoc Prof Dr Yaacob Ibrahim: For the 24 sites that I mentioned earlier, they were subject to the Class Licence rules. Under the Class Licence rules, there is no time frame for the take-down. It is defined as “the best effort”. We worked with the website owners, discussed with them, and in most cases, the take-down was almost immediate. Out of the 24 cases, I was told by my staff, 23 cases were public complaints. People saw something on the sites which they did not agree with – it had to do with sex or gambling. The site that was featuring the video on “The Innocence of Muslims” took us some time to work through because it was hosted by a different entity altogether.

On the change, I mentioned earlier that the Class Licence Scheme has worked and – you are right. But the environment has changed; the landscape has changed. There is now a growing number of online news sites, reporting. I mentioned the example of Yahoo, but The Global Mail from Australia has been operating as an online news site.

Let us anticipate that this will grow, and put a framework in place. The framework is not so onerous. Yes, you may argue that the $50,000 bond is a challenge. As I mentioned in my reply, we will work with the companies. If they really cannot meet that, then there are other ways in which we can overcome that.

The 24-hour take-down order was really because of the nature of online news. If it goes viral and it creates havoc and panic, we need to be able to take it down within 24 hours. Even then, as I mentioned in my reply to the media when I met them after the announcement, MDA will be flexible, we will seek to understand your circumstances. You may need to take some time. We are not going to ramp this down their throat and say “You must take it down, whatever the case may be!” There may be other constraints that they are facing. And we will work with them to understand their circumstances.

The fact that there is a notice, they know that they have to behave responsibly. I think is an important point for all of us, so that we can sleep better that these sites are doing their work responsibly because they are reporting news. And news – we must all agree – is an important part of our lives and we make decisions based on the news. We have to make sure they report accurately and responsibly.

Mr David Ong (Jurong): Mdm Speaker, two supplementary questions. One, is to ask the Minister how confident the Ministry is in compelling global online news sites to remove objectionable content in breach of the MDA’s content standards within 24 hours notice, given their internal take-down regime as well as time zone differences? Secondly, why should the online news sites’ performance bond of $50,000 be pegged to the same requirement of niche TV broadcasters?

Assoc Prof Dr Yaacob Ibrahim: For the Member’s second question, I have mentioned in my reply when we looked at what criteria we wanted to impose on the online news sites, the performance bond has worked well for the niche TV licensees. Again, the $50,000 I mentioned in my reply was based on the financial means of the 10 sites. We think the idea of a bond is very important because it will hold them accountable to their actions. As I mentioned in response to Mr Giam earlier, we will be very flexible and work with the companies. If they cannot meet those requirements, we will see how best to come to an arrangement which is mutually acceptable both to MDA and the licensee.

On the first question as to whether 24 hours is a reasonable time frame for the take-down order for companies, again, we are not going to rush in and make sure we clamp them down within 24 hours. We will have to work with them. But it is something which we think is important, to hold them accountable for, whether they make the best efforts. MDA will definitely have to study each case because each company is different. So we will seek to understand the merits of their case, and if they really cannot do it within 24 hours, we can be flexible about it but at least they recognise that this is objectionable content, and that they have to take it down, and they have to make their best effort to do so. We will then see what we can do to ensure that they meet this requirement.

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Source: Singapore Parliament Reports (Hansard)

Ensuring indoor air quality during occurrence of haze

On 8 July 2013, Parliament debated the Government’s response to the perennial haze problem. These are the questions I asked the Minister for National Development and Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, and their responses (Part 3 of 3).

On 8 July 2013, Parliament debated the Government’s response to the perennial haze problem. These are the questions I asked the Minister for National Development and Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, and their responses (Part 3 of 3).

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for National Development during this haze period, whether BCA is taking any steps to inspect the air-conditioning and mechanical systems of commercial and industrial buildings to ensure that the indoor air in these buildings does not contain an unhealthy level of contaminants.

The Senior Minister of State for National Development (Mr Lee Yi Shyan) (for the Minister for National Development): Mdm Speaker, under the Building Control Act and Regulations, building designs are required to comply with the performance requirements for fresh air intake and air change specified in the Singapore Standard called SS553. This is the Code of Practice for Air-conditioning and Mechanical Ventilation in Buildings. The design standard in SS553, such as air change and fresh air intake, are based on the standards published by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which are internationally recognised standards.

After any buildings are completed, building owners are responsible for the operation and maintenance of the buildings. For office buildings, building owners may refer to NEA’s “Good Indoor Air Quality in Office Premises” guidelines and Singapore Standards SS554, which is the Code of Practice for Indoor Air Quality for Air-conditioned Buildings. The SS554’s requirements are also aligned with international best practice. For example, guidelines on filters to protect building occupants from airborne particulate matter are aligned with test methods published by ASHRAE.

The recent extreme haze level was unprecedented. The 24-hour PSI hit a high of 246, while the previous high was 142 in 1994. At such a high level of outdoor pollution, the building owners may have to monitor its indoor air quality and take steps to minimise open contact with the outdoor fresh air and also to take steps to maintain air filters more frequently if the haze is a prolonged situation.

We have earlier commissioned a multi-agency team – involving NEA, BCA, MOM, MOH and MSF and local research institutes – to review the indoor air quality of various premises to determine if the current Codes of Practice need to be further refined. More measures may be introduced based on this study.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Mdm Speaker, I appreciate the Senior Minister of State’s explanation of the regulations in place. My question was: During this period of the haze, were there any extra steps to enforce or monitor building owners to ensure that they actually do what they are supposed to do.

Mr Lee Yi Shyan: Mdm Speaker, I would just like to clarify that, currently, both BCA and NEA have no regulations on indoor air quality per se. What NEA has introduced is a code of best practices that building owners would want to adhere to for maintaining their air conditioning in office buildings. These are guidelines.

Instead of running the risk of over-legislation, we have to, in this instance, depend on the indoor users — the office workers and those people working in the air-conditioning environment — to take some responsibility and make sure that they provide feedback to the owners and the facility managers for building maintenance.

So this is a premise that we are working on and it has worked well. Whether we would want to refine subsequent best practices for indoor air quality, we will have to wait for the technical study that is being carried out. Necessarily, we would require quite a bit of data support to establish the difference between outdoor and indoor air quality. And, of course, as a technical standard, the Member will appreciate that it has to be implementable and also measurable when we publish the standards.

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ADVICE ON WAYS TO REDUCE LEVEL OF INDOOR AIR POLLUTION

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) whether the Ministry can provide more advice to parents with young children (including newborns) and pregnant women on how to reduce indoor air pollution levels; and (b) what advice can the Ministry provide to households, childcare centres, kindergartens and schools on the appropriate types of air cleaning devices that may be needed to reduce the level of indoor air pollutants during the haze period.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: During the smoke haze episodes, the main air pollutant of concern is particulate matter.

When the outdoor haze situation deteriorates, young children and pregnant women are advised to stay indoors and reduce their activities. Doors and windows should be closed to reduce the entry of outdoor air pollutants. Fans and air conditioners could be helpful for air circulation. Any activity that generates more particles and particulate matter indoors such as cigarette/cigar/pipe-smoking, burning of candles, vacuuming, dry dusting and sweeping should be avoided.

During the periods of haze, air cleaners may be helpful in households, kindergartens and childcare centres. There are three main types of air cleaners which remove particulate matter: mechanical air filters, electrostatic precipitators and ionisers. Ozone-generating cleaners should be avoided as ground-level ozone is a harmful pollutant. As soon as the outdoor air quality improves to healthy levels, windows could be opened to enhance natural ventilation.

More information is available at the NEA Haze website at www.haze.gov.sg.

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Source: Singapore Parliament Reports (Hansard)

Safeguarding Singaporeans’ health during occurrence of haze

On 8 July 2013, Parliament debated the Government’s response to the perennial haze problem. These are the questions I asked the Health Minister and his responses (Part 2 of 3).

On 8 July 2013, Parliament debated the Government’s response to the perennial haze problem. These are the questions I asked the Health Minister and his responses (Part 2 of 3).

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Health (a) what is the increase in the weekly number of respiratory, heart, eye and skin problems reported at polyclinics, private clinics and hospitals since the onset of the current haze situation compared to the weekly average in the month before; (b) how many private clinics have signed up for the Government scheme which offers subsidised treatment for haze-related illnesses; (c) what is the Ministry doing to ensure that more private clinics participate in this scheme so that more Singaporeans can benefit from it; and (d) what are the details of the Ministry’s contingency plans to cope with the expected surge of patients with illnesses caused by the haze.

The Minister for Health (Mr Gan Kim Yong): Mdm Speaker, may I have your permission to take Question Nos 21 to 23 together?

Mdm Speaker: Yes, please.

Mr Gan Kim Yong: Madam, Dr Lam asked about the short and long-term effects of air pollution. For healthy individuals, short-term exposure to haze may cause temporary minor irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin. Such irritation typically resolves on its own in most cases.

However, the haze particles can aggravate lung diseases, cause asthma attacks and acute bronchitis in people who already have chronic lung diseases, and trigger off heart attacks and irregular heartbeat in people with heart problems. Thus far, there has been no clear evidence of long-term health effects of short-term haze, like that we have experienced.

Mr Gerald Giam asked about the impact of the haze on healthcare services. So far, the impact has been manageable. When the haze was more severe in the week of 17 to 23 June, we saw a 16% increase in polyclinic attendances for relevant conditions compared to the week before, but attendances at hospital accident and emergency department did not show any significant increase. The air quality improved in the last week of June and polyclinic attendances correspondingly decreased to just 4% higher than the level before the onset of haze. Attendance at A&E departments for the relevant conditions actually decreased by 23% in the last week of June.

Ms Lee asked about N95 masks. The N95 masks are not specifically designed for use by children, nor have they been certified for effectiveness for such use. To be effective, N95 masks need to maintain a well-fitted seal at all times, which may be difficult to achieve in young children who are smaller and of varying sizes. It is possible for the older children who may be able to fit smaller sized N95 masks for adults. Parents who wish to buy these masks for their children should ensure proper fit and usage of the mask.
When haze reaches unhealthy levels, children should really be kept indoors as much as possible. This has been communicated to the public through various platforms including the mass media and online media. Since schools reopened last week, MOH has been working with the Ministry of Education and schools on the various mitigation measures, based on the health advisory of the day.

Dr Lam and Mr Giam asked about long-term measures to protect the health of Singaporeans. The Ministry of Health has worked with our healthcare institutions to put in place plans in three areas, to ensure that we are “haze ready”.

First, managing the expected surge of patients at our polyclinics and hospitals for haze-related conditions. The Ministry has already implemented a special scheme where those who suffer from respiratory problems or conjunctivitis because of the haze need only pay $10 when they seek treatment at participating GPs. The scheme applies to Singaporeans aged 18 years and below, or 65 years and above, and those in low-income groups. The scheme will enhance the accessibility and affordability of primary care for haze-related conditions.

There are now more than 600 GP clinics participating in this scheme. Information on the participating GP clinics is on the MOH website, and also shared through community organisations. The Agency of Integrated Care (AIC) has been actively reaching out to individual GP clinics to encourage them to sign on. To increase awareness amongst members of the public, posters have been distributed to GPs so that the participating clinics can be easily identified.

The Ministry of Health had also earlier worked with the hospitals to retrofit suitable spaces within the hospital campuses to ready additional bed capacity in the event of a demand surge due to an increase in dengue cases. We have stepped up efforts to transfer stable patients from the hospitals into community hospitals and nursing homes to free up acute bed capacity.

Should the haze worsen and there is a need to free up bed capacity further, non-urgent services and elective cases at the hospitals may be scaled back.

Secondly, we will take care of the patients in our public sector hospitals and healthcare institutions so that they are not adversely affected by the haze. If the haze situation is bad, these institutions will close their windows and doors to reduce the inflow of dust particles. And if necessary, air coolers and fans will also be used to improve the ventilation for patients in non-air conditioned wards.

For especially vulnerable patients, we will put in place air purifiers to help reduce the impact of the haze on these patients during significant haze.

We will also facilitate home delivery of medication for chronic patients if necessary so that they can get their needed medication without having to visit our clinics.

Third, our hospitals and polyclinics have adequate equipment and supplies, including adequate medication stocks, on standby to support the continuation of critical services. Our hospitals also have plans in place to ensure adequate manpower to staff critical services such as the A&E, Intensive Care Unit and operating theatres.

At the national level, we are re-building our stockpile of N95 masks so that we will be ready should there be a disease outbreak during this period.

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Madam, now that the haze seems to be behind us at least for this year, will the scheme offering subsidised treatments for haze-related illnesses continue or will it be revived when the haze comes back again? Is there a certain threshold PSI that will trigger off the scheme and will the GPs who have signed up this year continue to be on the scheme next year?

Mr Gan Kim Yong: Mdm Speaker, I would hesitate to say that the haze is over for this year as I think Dr Vivian Balakrishnan has reminded us all that the dry season is not yet over so we have to remain vigilant and to be well prepared. So, for the time being, the scheme will still remain in place and will be reviewed again at the end of the dry season to see whether it is necessary to be continued, whether we will re-introduce it next year or we could refine the scheme to make it a better scheme when the haze does return. We hope it does not, but in the event that it does return, whether we will need the scheme or whether we need a different scheme. We will look at the situation at that point in time but for the time being, this being the dry season, the scheme will remain in place.

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Source: Singapore Parliament Reports (Hansard)

Long-term strategies for dealing with environmental aspects of haze

One of the big causes of anxiety among Singaporeans was the unavailability of N95 masks at the height of the haze. How will the Government ensure in the future that its stockpile of face masks gets to the distribution points faster? Since the Minister said that the ratification of the ASEAN Haze Agreement is being held up not by the Indonesian central government, but by the Indonesian House of Representatives, the DPR, are there any plans to engage the Indonesian legislators directly to persuade them to ratify the agreement expeditiously, for example, by engaging them at the upcoming ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly?

On 8 July 2013, Parliament debated the Government’s response to the perennial haze problem. These are the questions I asked the Ministers and their responses (Part 1 of 3). The other two parts will be published over the next few days, together with questions and answers to my other Parliamentary questions during this sitting.

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song (Non-Constituency Member): Madam, I have two questions for the Minister of Defence. First, one of the big causes of anxiety among Singaporeans was the unavailability of N95 masks at the height of the haze. How will the Government ensure in the future that its stockpile of face masks gets to the distribution points faster? Secondly, are there any laws in place that require retailers to ration the sale of essential products the moment such emergencies break out, rather than a few days after the fact, so as to mitigate the effects of hoarding, and to ensure that the genuinely vulnerable people get the necessary protection that they need?
Dr Ng Eng Hen: They are relevant questions. In terms of anti-hoarding laws, I will leave it to MTI to answer, because there are some Parliamentary Questions based on that subject. What have we learnt from the run on masks or the panic buying of masks: if you look at what happened, based on that particular day – 21 June — the number of people that really ought to have been wearing masks was nowhere near the masks that were sold. This was anticipated demand, exactly as the Member has said. They were thinking, “What if the haze lasts for week and I am the last one without a mask in Singapore?” That fed into a frenzy. Why was there a difficulty in getting the masks from these warehouses where we had 9 million to the distributors: there was a reason. The masks that were stocked up by MOH were not for the public. They were for their healthcare workers. By the way, that stockpile is quite important, in case the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) viruses come here and infect us. So they were meant for health workers to make sure that there was sustainability and the way that they were stored, and so on and so forth, assumptions were made on a particular rate of use. There are very few systems that are prepared for a situation where from one day to the next, your demand of masks is 5,000 and the next day, 1 million. Very few distributors will stock that amount. If they do that as a business model, many of you would say that they would not survive. There are reasons for it.

Back to the Member’s question on how do we plan ahead: first, we have stocked up our masks, not only for the haze, but for contingencies like MERS or SARS or other infectious diseases. Secondly, MOH will be looking at packaging and see how we can roll it out in terms of our distributorship chains. All in all, it did not reflect badly on our system that we were able to react fairly quickly, including using the SAF to move the masks from the warehouses to the constituencies and retailers like NTUC Fairprice activating their supply chain to get the masks straight from the warehouses to their retail outlets including to other retailers, shows that there is a certain nimbleness or robustness in our system. We can do better but we did not do that badly.

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Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: On the subject of engaging all levels of government in Indonesia, since the Minister said that the ratification of the ASEAN Haze Agreement is being held up not by Indonesians’ central government, but by the Indonesian House of Representatives, the DPR, are there any plans to engage the Indonesian legislators directly to persuade them to ratify the agreement expeditiously, for example, by engaging them at the upcoming ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly?

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: Unfortunately, my colleague from Foreign Affairs is not here but certainly, if Members of this House meet your colleagues in DPR, by all means, please persuade them of the wisdom of ratifying that agreement.

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Source: Singapore Parliament Reports (Hansard)

WP’s Parliamentary Questions (15 Sep 2010)

Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim is to query Ministers on YOG expenditure, anti-speculation measures for properties, non-Singaporeans working as security officers and about persons connected to Yong Vui Kong.

Workers’ Party chairman and NCMP Sylvia Lim will ask the following questions in Parliament on 15 September 2010:

1. To ask Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports:

(a) why is the final budget for the Youth Olympic Games more than triple the original estimate;

(b) where were the additional funds drawn from;

(c) whether any of his Ministry programmes were cut back for this purpose; and

(d) what was the amount paid for the tickets purchased by the Ministry of Education and whether this was also part of the YOG budget.

2. To ask the Minister for National Development:

(a) if he will explain the basis on which the new anti-speculation measures announced on 30 August 2010 were devised; and

(b) whether any assessment was done on their impact on genuine home buyers and Singaporean investors.

3. To ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs:

(a) what is the proportion of licences that are issued to non-Singapore citizens to work as security officers; and

(b) what proportion of licensees are not working in that industry.

4. To ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs whether the Government has detained under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act any person believed to have been organising drug trafficking activities which involved Yong Vui Kong, an inmate on death row.