A living wage for all workers

My speech in Parliament during the debate on the 2021 Budget Statement on 25 Feb 2021.

In line with the theme of the Budget Statement, I would like to examine four areas in which we can work together towards emerging in a stronger condition than we were in before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Redirecting our competitive spirits

First, I wish to address how we view and approach competition. Competition is a ubiquitous aspect of life in Singapore. In school, our children compete for grades, awards and places in top schools. Even in co-curricular activities, they compete for a spot in the school team to improve their chances of entering secondary school via the Direct School Admission scheme. We even grew a billion-dollar industry in the form of tuition centres, which have fuelled the competitive dynamic that is part of our education system.

Keen competition continues after finishing school. Employees compete with each other for raises and promotions, while enterprises engage in the survival of the fittest.

Competition in itself is not bad. It can draw out the best in each person and each firm. However, when competition starts taking on a negative edge, we need to re-examine our priorities. As we are told time and again, Singapore is a small and vulnerable country which needs to stay relevant and competitive. Therefore, we must ensure that our competitive spirits are directed towards the right targets, and adopt a more cooperative mindset with our fellow Singaporeans.

For example, Singaporeans at the workplace could orient themselves more towards looking out for each other and helping each other succeed. This is how professionals and workers from other countries instinctively operate, even when they are working here. We should not see our fellow workers as competition for promotions, but as partners we can cooperate with to improve the products and services of our companies, thereby improving the company’s earnings and contributing to our bonuses.

Government-linked companies (GLCs) could look at more ways to collaborate with SMEs in ventures overseas and form local consortiums with them, thus increasing Singapore’s competitive edge.

Middle income squeeze

Mr Speaker, the pandemic support measures have helped many low income families. However, we must not forget the plight of the middle income, who make up a growing proportion of our population. Middle income families often find themselves squeezed from both ends—their incomes render them ineligible for many government benefits, yet they still have to cope with high costs like their home mortgage, children’s education and aged parents’ medical fees. The increase in petrol duties adds to this squeeze, and so will the future hike in GST. All this leaves them with little buffer against the vicissitudes of life. An unexpected shock like a family medical emergency can throw them into financial distress.

We need to provide more help to this group. To be clear, I am not calling for universal handouts. Assistance should still be targeted, but I hope to see more flexibility when it comes to assessing the eligibility of applicants for schemes like the Covid-19 Recovery Grant. Individuals who narrowly miss the eligibility requirements or have circumstances that deserve special consideration should not be denied assistance. Such flexibility should be exercised at the first instance based on their merits. Government agencies should not wait for these individuals to pluck up the courage to send in appeals before they can get the help they need.

Essential jobs

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us all to re-examine what constitutes an essential job. Some supposedly higher skilled jobs have turned out to be less critical than their lower skilled counterparts. This was amply demonstrated during the just-concluded Australian Open tennis tournament, which was held in Melbourne under the shadow of the pandemic. To minimise the spread of the virus, all human line judges were replaced with Hawk-Eye, an electronic line judging system. Umpires are still featured, but their role seems to be relegated to calling the score, not adjudicating line disputes. It remains to be seen when they too will be made redundant.

On the bright side, ball kids face far better prospects, since it is harder to build a robot which can run, retrieve and throw balls on cue. Naturally, to gear up my kids to be future-ready, I signed them up to be ball kids at the ATP 250 Singapore Tennis Open, which is taking place this week at the Sports Hub. This tournament also uses electronic line judges.

Automation is by no means limited to the tennis court. Many other highly skilled jobs are either being taken over by machines or offshored to lower cost locations. According to the OECD, 14% of jobs in rich countries are highly automatable, while a further 32% are likely to change because many of their routine tasks can be automated. Robo-advisors are giving active fund managers a run for their money; X-rays can be read by radiologists in India; and mobile app development can be outsourced to developers in Vietnam or Romania.

The pandemic has also shown us that many so-called “3D jobs”—dirty, dangerous or difficult—have turned out to be more essential than some white collar jobs. We need to accord sufficient recognition to workers manning these positions. I am glad that nurses and healthcare workers are getting a much-deserved raise. But let us not forget our repairman, refuse collectors and delivery drivers. These everyday heroes kept our country running when we were all locked down at home.

With the restrictions in supply of foreign workers and the reluctance of many locals to take up 3D jobs, the demand for workers in these occupations often exceeds their supply. Based on the law of supply and demand, these workers’ wages should naturally rise to reach a higher equilibrium price. In practice, however, many of their wages still remain painfully low. This is in part because of the structure of our industries and in part because our society does not esteem them highly enough. This is a market failure. The State needs to intervene to ensure that these workers’ earnings increase to match the value they bring to society. 

A living wage for all workers

In 2012, the Government introduced the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) to raise the pay of low-wage workers. Today, almost a decade later, the PWM still covers only 15% of workers in the lowest quintile of income earners, and only from three industry sectors—security, cleaning and landscaping. According to MOM, there are a residual 100,000 workers in other sectors who still earn less than $1,300 a month. The NTUC has announced plans to roll out the PWM to six more sectors. It is yet unclear when all three 100,000 workers will be covered.

The Deputy Prime Minister said in his budget statement that the Government’s aspiration is for every sector of the economy to have some form of progressive wages, echoing the NTUC’s call for a universal PWM. Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has termed the PWM a “minimum wage plus”. 

It is not my objective today to debate the merits or demerits of the PWM vis-à-vis the national minimum wage. I think the parties have stated their position on this issue. The WP has called for a national minimum wage, first set at $1,300 in take-home pay per month, and the Government and NTUC have explained why they have chosen the path of the PWM, while pointing out that they are not ideologically opposed to a minimum wage. 

I accept that the Government is heavily invested in the PWM, and so my goal today is to discuss how the PWM framework can be improved so that we achieve our common goal. 

Whether Singapore adopts the PWM, a universal PWM, a national minimum wage or minimum wage plus, I believe the common goal of everyone in this House is the same: To raise the wages of all our low wage workers and ensure they earn a living wage that can support their families, in what is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

A household budgets study by researchers from NTU and NUS in 2019 found that to meet basic standards of living in Singapore, a single elderly household needs $1,379 per month while an elderly couple needs $2,351 per month. According to MTI, the average household expenditure for basic needs (or AHEBN) for a four-person household was estimated to be about $1,300 a month in 2017. AHEBN is an estimate of the average that households spend on essential needs such as food, clothing and shelter every month. This is how the WP derived our figure for a national minimum wage, which will rise with the AHEBN.

However, the PWM’s goals are not limited to setting a basic minimum wage—something which the Government has emphasised is the very reason why it favours the PWM over a national minimum wage. The PWM also seeks to chart out skills ladders and career progression for workers. 

NTUC deputy secretary-general Koh Poh Koon shared plans to roll out PWM to six more sectors in the next two to three years. These sectors include strata management and solar technology, both of which do not typically employ low-wage workers. I find this rather puzzling. Why are we venturing into PWM for these industries when there are still so many more low wage workers who lack a basic wage floor to protect them?

The basic principle of the PWM is that higher wages must be the result of improvements in productivity, not government fiat. Higher productivity can be achieved by upgrading workers’ skills through training. With a better-skilled and more productive workforce, firms will be able to pay their workers better, while still remaining profitable. This sounds great in theory, but is less straightforward in practice. 

First, the training element of the PWM may be well-intentioned, but training can improve productivity only to a limit. In many low wage occupations, there is a skills ceiling due to the manual nature of the work. How many more HDB blocks can a conservancy worker sweep if we send him for more training? After completing basic training, further training will reap diminishing returns. Worse, it could cost the firms money and lost work hours, with marginal or no improvements to productivity. Even if the Government subsidises much of the training and absentee payroll, it does not mean training is free, because it is still borne by taxpayers.

Second, providing pathways for career progression for our low wage workers is also a worthy goal to strive for. However, it has limited utility for many low wage workers. How many elderly cleaners are striving to be promoted to be supervisors, where they will have to manage a team and churn out monthly reports for management? For most of them, their priority is first and foremost to earn enough to provide for their families.

And third, the PWM is designed to be rolled out to specific industries through licensing conditions set by the respective lead sector agencies—NEA for the cleaning sector, PLRD for security agencies and NParks for the landscaping industry. These lead sector agencies require that firms implement the PWM before they are issued an operating license. If an industry does not currently have any licensing conditions, the relevant lead sector agency will need to introduce a licensing requirement before implementing the PWM. This will be the case for the proposed rollout of PWM to the retail sector, which currently has no licensing requirements. This two-step process will be cumbersome for both the government agencies and the firms involved. It would surely introduce more red tape and dent productivity, leading to more overheads to firms, which may cost them far more than just a wage hike to meet a basic minimum wage. I’m glad that the NTUC is looking at a vocational PWM, and I look forward to more details of how this will be implemented.

Someone on Reddit once remarked that the PWM is like a Rube Goldberg machine which tries to solve too many things at once, without solving anything well. This may be a rather harsh critique of the PWM and I know there are many officials who are working very hard to make the PWM work. However, I believe there needs to be a fundamental re-ordering of the PWM framework so that it can be rolled out faster, for the benefit of more of our low wage workers.

The current pace of rollout of the PWM is much too slow. At this rate, it will be another decade or more before all low wage workers are on the PWM. What’s more, we have to-date only picked the low-hanging fruit. It will be far harder to roll out the PWM, particularly in its current form, to the remaining industries and occupations. 

I believe it will be less bureaucratically complex and more efficient to first set a basic wage floor for specific industry sectors, and expand the list of sectors quickly so that we can eventually cover all local workers. The other aspects of PWM like training requirements and career progression ladders can still be brought in, but later.

Given the urgency of the problem that remains to be addressed—100,000 employed and self-employed workers earning less than $1,300 a month—we need to pick our battles more carefully and focus on what will move the needle the most and the quickest for our low wage workers. Since the PWM is a “minimum wage plus”, we should focus on implementing the “minimum wage” portion of the PWM across all industry sectors as soon as possible, then roll out the “plus” portion only later where practical.

I acknowledge that the pandemic period is not a good time to impose wage increases across a large swath of industries. To ease the transition for all employers, the Workfare Income Supplement can be used to temporarily top up wages to the minimum wage, and this can be eased off as the economy recovers, with employers taking over. Dr Koh Poh Koon said yesterday that the Wage Credit Scheme (WCS) could be used for this same purpose. 

Mr Speaker, rolling out a basic wage floor more widely and quickly will not only improve the welfare of thousands of our lowest paid compatriots and their families, it can also have positive effects on our economic recovery. The lower income have a higher marginal propensity to spend because they need to meet their basic needs, so putting more cash in their hands will have a multiplier effect on our GDP growth. Higher wages for these occupations will encourage more people to enter the workforce and ease the labour crunch in many essential industries. Those already in the workforce will be more motivated at work, resulting in improved personal productivity, and lower turnover and retraining costs for companies. It will be a win-win-win for workers, employers and our economy.

Changing paradigms

Mr Speaker, our people have demonstrated great resilience during this pandemic. However, in order to emerge stronger together from this economic downturn, we need to jettison some legacies that have lost their relevance in today’s world, and be willing to adopt new paradigms to bring our country forward.

Sir, I support the Motion.

TraceTogether and police investigations

My speech in Parliament on 2 Feb 2021 on the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill.

When I first read the January 4th Parliamentary Question by the Member for Holland-Bukit Panjang, Mr Christopher de Souza, I anticipated that the Government would answer it in one of two ways: 

One, that TraceTogether (or TT) data is not, and will never, be used for anything other than contact tracing, as per their earlier assurances; or two, that TT data may be used for criminal investigations in some circumstances. 

I thought the second scenario would be less likely. I shared with a colleague ahead of that day’s sitting that I did not think the Government would use TT data for non-contact tracing purposes. It would cause a public outcry, as it would violate the TT’s privacy policy and what the Government had been saying about TT’s privacy protections so far. More damagingly, it could lead to a lower adoption rate for TT, which would in turn hinder our battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.

As it turned out, option two was closer to reality. Minister of State Desmond Tan said that, “the Singapore Police Force is empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code or CPC to obtain any data, including TraceTogether or TT data, for criminal investigations”, and went on to assure the House that the data was secure and only authorised officers are allowed to access it. 

In response to my Supplementary Question, the Minister of State clarified that other than for the purpose of criminal investigations and protecting public safety and security, TT data is to be used only for contact tracing. 

The next day, on January 5th, the Minister for Foreign Affairs made a clarification, following a lot of unease expressed by Singaporeans about the previous day’s revelations, where he stated that the use of TT data would be restricted to “serious crimes”.

Three days later, on January 8th, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office announced upcoming legislative provisions for the usage of data from TT and SafeEntry, which are the Bill we are debating today.

Why did the Government choose to make this revelation only on January 4th, more than nine months after TT was launched? All that time, the TT privacy statement contained a more absolute assurance: “Any data shared with MOH will only be used solely (sic) for contact tracing of persons possibly exposed to Covid-19” (see Annex A below). This changed only sometime after 12.25pm on January 4th—the afternoon that the PQ was answered—with a new clarification that it can also be used for criminal investigations (Annex B).

On 8th of June 2020, the Minister for Foreign Affairs had stated in a press conference that TT data is “only used for contact tracing.”  While the Minister has since admitted that he had not thought of the CPC at that time and I appreciate his explanation, why didn’t anyone in Government come out sooner to correct his misstatement? 

Many Singaporeans downloaded the TT app and collected the TT tokens in large numbers, in part because they trusted the Government’s assurances of privacy and limitation of use. 

This unfortunate sequence of events may make many Singaporeans more wary of taking Government statements at face value. Some may now adopt Ronald Reagan’s adage: Trust, but verify.

We may now have a 80% adoption rate for TT, but we should not rest on our laurels and become complacent. First, the more people use TT, the more effective contact tracing will be. We should always aim for maximum adoption and usage, and minimise any obstacles to adoption, for example privacy fears or poor app performance.

Second, just because 80% of residents have downloaded the app or collected the token, it doesn’t mean they are actually using it. There are many ways that TT can be disabled. There is even a pause function within the TT app itself. Suffice to say, one does not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to legally disable the TT app or token.

With the 4th January revelation, people who anticipate engaging in even minor misdemeanours may choose to disable TT just to avoid detection. Some might even do so to avoid being called as a witness in a court case. Others might do so, as a matter of principle or because of their lack of trust in the Government. All these might add up to a not-so-insignificant proportion of our population.

We may think that these people are holding out on TT for unjustifiable reasons, but we cannot control every action that individuals make with their electronic devices. Ultimately, TT relies on user consent. Perception will drive behaviour. The net result may be a lower than desired usage of TT, which will hamper our contact tracing efforts.

The Government does not want to constrain itself by committing to never use TT data for crime fighting. However is the potential cost of slower containment of the community spread of Covid-19 worth it?

Put another way: If the Covid-19 situation were to take a turn for the worse, overwhelming our healthcare system, would the police still use TraceTogether data if it inadvertently suppresses the adoption rate and hinders contact tracing efforts? Mr Murali Pillai said in his speech earlier that it is worth using the contact tracing data if even one serious crime is solved. On the flip side, is it worth it if even one Covid-19 cluster goes undetected because a few people deactivated their TT app out of privacy concerns?

I will, with some reluctance, be prepared to support this Bill. However, I hope the Government and the police will consider this question carefully in deciding how often and to what extent it uses the broad powers conferred on it by Section 20 of the CPC and this Bill.

Mr Speaker, I have some further clarifications for the Minister on the Bill.

First, we now know that SafeEntry data is also accessible to the police. Since its launch, how many times have the police used SafeEntry data for investigations and how many of these investigations were outside of the seven serious crimes in the Seventh Schedule?

Second, the sunset clause under the proposed section 82(8) gives a lot of power to the Minister to determine if we still need digital contact tracing and when the contact tracing data will be deleted. The pandemic may last another four to five years, as Minister Lawrence Wong has recently alluded to. In an even more pessimistic scenario, Covid-19 may never be fully eradicated but will become endemic in our population. If this happens, will these digital contact tracing systems ever be stood down? What is the criteria that will be used to determine this?

Third, do the safeguards in section 82 of the Bill cover data that has been uploaded to MOH databases for the purposes of contact tracing? If so, will the police still be allowed to access this data, even after the pandemic is over?

I asked a similar question on January 5th and the Minister answered then: “I believe that once the pandemic has passed, that data – certainly, the specific, personalised data – those fields should be eliminated.”

Can I confirm that this remains the intent of this Bill?


Annex A

TraceTogether privacy statement, 4 Jan 2021, 12.25pm 

Annex B

TraceTogether privacy statement after 4 Jan 2021

Addressing our Climate Emergency

My speech in Parliament on 1 Feb 2021 on the Climate Change Motion.

The climate situation is a looming crisis that has been growing in urgency for some time. United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the severity of the problem during the Climate Ambition Summit in December 2020: The world is 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than before the Industrial Revolution, and if current trends continue, global temperatures will rise by 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Mr Guterres noted that the G20 nations have spent 50% more of their respective stimulus packages on fossil fuel production and consumption, than on low carbon energy. He called on all leaders worldwide to declare a state of climate emergency in their countries until carbon neutrality is reached, noting that some 38 countries have already done so.

As a tropical island state, Singapore is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and changes in weather patterns resulting from climate change. Given the way our economy is intertwined with the global economy, disruptions resulting from climate change in other parts of the world could have a deleterious effect on our country as well, for example on our food security. The Government has already recognised all these risks. It is thus important for Parliament to acknowledge that our country is in a climate emergency, in order to further focus our national priorities on mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Rebuilding the economy with green characteristics

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has hit the global economy hard. However, the crisis has also provided an opportunity for us to reshape our fractured economy. We have a chance to develop industrial sectors which are less destructive to the environment and thus enhance our overall resilience.

We can rebuild our economy to be “greener” by introducing and improving measures such as: 

(i) the provision of grants, loans and tax relief directed towards green transport, the circular economy and clean energy research; 

(ii) financial support to households and businesses for energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy installations; and 

(iii) new funding and programmes to create jobs and stimulate economic activity in green industries.

There are other steps that we can take towards reshaping our economy in this fashion. The Government is aiming to fully electrify transport by 2040. Can we be a bit more ambitious and bring forward our timeline to 2030? Norway is aiming to reach this milestone by 2025, and the UK and Germany have aimed to do the same by 2030. In fact, Norway is very much on track to do so and has just become the first country in the world where electric car sales outstrip those powered by other means. Our 10-year COE system makes it easier than in most countries to have a fully electric automobile fleet sooner.

In the last few weeks, we have seen an outpouring of support for the conservation of Clementi and Ulu Pandan Forests. Rather than using our limited remaining forests for urban development, we should look into first redeveloping existing industrial land and golf courses instead.

Raising a Green workforce

Our workers are the backbone of our economy. It is crucial that we find ways to leverage on our manpower resources and develop a talent pipeline for the Green Economy. The hard reality is many industries, particularly those in the fossil fuel-related sectors will be hard hit. Royal Dutch Shell’s pivot away from crude oil towards a low-carbon slate of fuels will cost Singapore 500 jobs and half of the processing capacity on Pulau Bukom in the next three years, while ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron will be cutting their global workforces as well. Keppel Offshore and Marine recently announced that it will be pivoting away from its offshore rig business to clean energy, in large part due to depressed global oil demand. More than 10,000 workers will be impacted by this move, and it remains unclear how many will end up losing their jobs.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), in its Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies, recommended several active labour market policies, such as:

(i) helping enterprises and workers transition to the green economy by facilitating access to jobs, employment and training;

(ii) giving particular attention to workers at risk of unemployment in industries affected by climate change, including those in the informal economy; and

(iii) introducing well-targeted subsidies that allow workers to acquire skills through work experience and on-the-job training.

In this vein, I propose extending the Special Employment Credit scheme to provide time-limited wage support to all Singaporean workers who are taking up their first job in the Green Economy. This will incentivise companies to expand their ventures in the Green Economy and hire and train workers in this growing industry. 

In order to formulate more effective policies, it is important that we improve the quality and quantity of statistical data on the Green Economy. Such data is necessary for us to assess the impact of climate-related policies on our economy, health and social inclusion, so that we can fine tune and adjust them.

Green Public Purchasing and Sustainability Reporting

The Government should take the lead in promoting more sustainable practices through Green Public Purchasing (GPP). One of the ways it can do so is in making sustainability a criteria in more public sector procurements. This will provide industry with incentives to develop environmentally-friendly works, products and services. It could also lead to savings in public expenditure, especially if full life-cycle costs of contracts, and not just the purchase price, are considered during the procurement process. Enhancing GPP practices will also equip public officers with more knowledge and experience to meet evolving environmental challenges.

GPP in Singapore has already been introduced via the Public Sector Taking the Lead in Environmental Sustainability initiative. Under this initiative, public sector agencies have been encouraged to put in place environmental sustainability measures like energy efficiency, water efficiency and recycling. Other green factors which can be considered in public procurement could include reducing single-use plastics, data centre efficiency and reduction of food wastage in catering.

There is increased demand for corporate performance metrics on a range of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, as more investors seek to align their stock holdings with their issue interests and values. In the biggest survey of its kind ever done, the UN Development Program’s “People’s Climate Vote” found that more than 60% of the 1.2 million respondents aged between 18 and 59 see the climate situation as urgent, with 58% of those above 60 affirming. We can thus expect more investors placing environmental issues as a priority. 

The Singapore Exchange introduced sustainability reporting in 2016 for listed companies. This complements existing reporting requirements, and shows the risk posed by ESG factors, managed for future returns. However, no such requirement is placed on private companies. ACRA could consider requiring simplified environmental sustainability reporting for private limited companies with a revenue of over $100 million and with more than 200 employees. The Government could also provide grants to incentivise SMEs to also submit sustainability reports. This will aid our local firms in their ventures overseas, where they may face increasingly stringent demands for sustainable business conduct, and help them to be more globally competitive. We should equip our local firms before they are affected by such de facto barriers to trade.

Addressing our energy needs sustainably

It is vital that we look into improving our energy efficiency, towards reducing our consumption of fossil fuels and emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs). Much has already been put in place by way of the Energy Conservation Act of 2013.

I would now like to talk specifically about energy efficiency in the power industry, which produces 39.7% of GHG emissions in Singapore. Singapore’s total registered power generation capacity was 12,582 MW in 2020, while the highest peak system demand since 2005 has been 7,404 MW. This currently leaves a spare capacity of some 5,178 MW in the system.

Combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) operate at a lower thermal efficiency when partially loaded. For example, the Alstom GT26 Gas Turbine CCGT, of which there are several in Singapore plants, has a thermal efficiency of 59% at full load but suffers a 14% points drop in efficiency at a 30% part load.

Given that the power industry is the single largest source of Singapore’s GHG emissions, even a small energy efficiency gain will reap a significant GHG abatement. Based on Energy Market Authority (EMA) data, the average thermal efficiency of power plants in Singapore in 2019 was about 50%. Can efficiency be increased by operating gas turbines at a higher average part load? 

For example, a 4% points improvement in thermal efficiency of power plants will reduce CO2 emissions by 1.65 million tons of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e), or about 5% of Singapore’s 2050 CO2 reduction target. It will also save almost $100 million a year in natural gas costs at current prices.

In this regard, I would like to know if the EMA has looked into what impact the power generation sector’s overcapacity has on energy efficiency of power generation in Singapore, and whether it has explored ways to increase average part loads and therefore improve the thermal efficiency of our power plants. Given the completely deregulated market mechanisms that are currently in place, I acknowledge that this will be a challenging task. However given the potential benefits to be gained, surely we can find a way towards a win-win situation. For example, is it possible to maintain the present deregulated system but revert to some form of efficiency-driven central load dispatching?

Driving innovation through decentralisation 

The final point I wish to make is on creating an innovation-oriented sustainability strategy. Environmental protection has traditionally been the domain of governments, which set the regulatory framework and push it down to industries and households to comply. However, as Yale environmental studies professor Daniel Esty, pointed out in his article, Red Lights to Green Lights, this command and control framework is now widely recognised as slow and inefficient. The government does most of the work of spotting problems, analysing causes of various harms, spelling out standards and requiring specific technologies to be adopted by particular industries. But an over-reliance on the government as the central actor leads to high costs, avoidable inefficiencies and disincentives for innovation. 

Instead, more government incentives should be put in place to encourage broad engagement in environmental problem-solving that draws on all stakeholders, including companies, entrepreneurs, academics, civil society activists and ordinary citizens in the pursuit of a sustainable future. These practical incentives will induce innovation and help embed a “green mindset” in all firms and households.

Conclusion

Mr Speaker, while I acknowledge that Singapore has taken many steps to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, the urgency of the problem grows stronger with each passing day. I have suggested today some ways to enhance our efforts to integrate more environmentally-friendly and sustainable practices in our firms and households.

Given the urgency of the climate situation, I call for the House to acknowledge that a state of a climate emergency exists in Singapore.

Sir, I thank Mr Louis Ng for taking this Motion and I support the amendments to the Motion proposed by the Member for Hougang, Mr Dennis Tan.

Meritocracy and collaboration in post-pandemic Singapore

These were my opening remarks at the panel discussion on Politics in Singapore 2030, at the Singapore Perspectives 2021 conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, on 25 January 2021.

I would like to thank the Institute of Policy Studies for inviting me to be here today. Thank you, Dr Gillian Koh for moderating this panel. And I thank most of all those of you in the audience, including those at home, for spending your Monday afternoon with us.

I joined Workers’ Party three months after first child was born. My daughter is now in secondary one, which means this is my 13th year in politics. There have been many ups and downs during this time, but one of the most rewarding activities I have participated in is contributing to three Party election manifestos, which outline our vision for the country and our proposals for a better future.

WP’s vision for Singapore is for all Singaporeans able to achieve their dreams in life. That we can forge a dynamic economy with more competitive, homegrown firms. That Singaporeans will work together to build the home we want. And that we can have an accountable democracy with robust institutions that outlast any political party.

Many conditions are needed to achieve this vision: Families need to be resilient to weather storms of life. Schools need to prepare students for life, not just exams. Our social safety nets need to assure citizens that someone will catch them if they fall. Our companies need an environment where they can thrive, so that they can provide rewarding jobs for our workers. And we as a nation must embrace a diversity of views and encourage robust but responsible debate about the way forward.

Our common goal is to achieve a better quality of life for all Singaporeans, and for life to improve for each successive generation. Most Singaporeans already enjoy good quality of life, but for some, life is still quite kang kor (difficult). We meet these Singaporeans during house visits, at meet-the-people sessions, and through the many phone calls and messages we receive. For a few, their situation may be a result of bad decisions they made, like committing a crime. But most of them struggle despite their best efforts to improve their lives. We need to better understand them without judging them, and find more ways to help them. We should do this not just to achieve justice and equality, but because our collective happiness, prosperity and progress as a nation depends on all Singaporeans having a share in our success.

Meritocracy is often touted as being a guiding principle of our country, even though it is neither in our Pledge nor in our National Anthem. Meritocracy is a good guiding principle for combating corruption, cronyism and nepotism, but I believe it leads to sub-optimal outcomes if every citizen is seen through the lens of their abilities and achievements. Do we practice this type of meritocracy with our children? If our child comes home with bad grades, do we make him sleep in a smaller room or eat only Maggi mee for dinner? No. Yet, this is what we take as a given in our society: If you don’t earn as much, you have to settle for a poorer quality of life

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not expecting equal outcomes, but we cannot be content with providing only equal opportunities. Not everybody is able to seize these opportunities because there may be complex factors working against them. In the race of life, some people start 10 metres behind the starting line and some 20 metres in front. Some may have their path cleared for them, while others may have to leap over high hurdles all the way. Some have good coaches or mentors, while others have none.

In a meritocracy, we are rewarded solely for our achievements. But we are a nation, not a corporation. We are our brothers’ keeper. We need to pick each other up and finish the race together.

Problems we face today are more complex than before. There are so many more factors to take into account, and so many more stakeholders to bring on board. There are also legacy issues stemming from previous policy approaches. Complex problems require deeper brainstorming to come up with solutions. These solutions may not come from only the government. Neither do they come only from academia, civil society or political parties. They require contributions from all stakeholders. This can only come about if all stakeholders, including the government, are prepared to listen, explain themselves clearly and adjust their position where necessary.

This is not a gameshow to see who has the best idea and can hit the buzzer first. It is also not a fairy tale where there is a hero and a villain—the villain being the person who opposes your point of view and must be demolished. Those who hold different views do not deserve to be called names or accused of impure motives. All stakeholders should be collaborating—not competing—to find optimal solutions to the challenges we face.

Unfortunately, the headlines are dominated by negative examples of how other countries muddle their way through problems. Some powerful countries are allowing political tribalism to tear themselves apart, while others are suppressing all dissenting voices and creating a pressure cooker which could explode in the future. We in tiny Singapore have the opportunity show the world a better way to respect each other and resolve our differences.

In a post-pandemic world, it is more vital than ever that we make a greater effort to craft a new chapter in our history without being inhibited by a preference for the familiar past. I thank you for hearing me out and look forward to taking your questions later.

Conditions on foreign companies to develop Singaporean employees

What specific conditions are imposed on foreign companies which receive tax incentives, and does the Government track the growth of the Singaporean Core of such companies over time?

I asked Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Seng these questions because many foreign MNCs benefit from huge tax incentives, so it is important to quantify the extent of knowledge and skills transfer to Singaporeans. For example, are we seeing more Singaporeans in management roles in these companies over time?

Mr Chan said that these companies must meet a stringent set of criteria including job creation, total business expenditure, fixed asset investment and a deep commitment to grow capabilities in Singapore. He also said that employees may change jobs along the way so it is “not meaningful” to just look at the number of Singaporeans in any particular set of companies, pointing out that healthy employment and wage outcomes of Singaporeans “give us confidence” that we are heading in the right direction.

Read full Q&A below.

______________________

Parliament, 4 Jan 2021

CONDITIONS ON FOREIGN COMPANIES TO DEVELOP SINGAPORE EMPLOYEES

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Trade and Industry (a) what specific conditions are imposed on foreign companies which receive tax incentives to invest in Singapore to develop their Singaporean employees; and (b) whether the Government tracks the growth of the Singaporean Core of such companies over time.

Mr Chan Chun Sing: Our economic schemes, including tax incentives, are means to encourage companies to upgrade their capabilities and expand their operations in Singapore to promote economic growth and create good job opportunities for Singaporeans. Companies, local or foreign, that are keen to qualify for the incentives must be prepared to make significant investments in Singapore. They are also required to meet a stringent set of quantitative and qualitative criteria which include job creation, total business expenditure, fixed asset investment and a deep commitment to grow capabilities in Singapore.

Over the years, we have attracted many local and multinational companies to grow their businesses in Singapore and create job opportunities for Singaporeans. In addition, the government partners these companies on several initiatives on knowledge transfer and skills training, such as the Singapore Industry Scholarship, Industry Postgraduate Programme and SkillsFuture Leadership Development Initiative.

Our range of economic and manpower development schemes reinforce each other to support companies and workers. It is therefore not meaningful to attribute specific employment outcomes to any one specific scheme. A well-functioning dynamic labour market also means there will be a healthy churn of Singaporeans moving in and out of specific firms to others with better paying jobs. In turn, it is also not meaningful to just look at the number of Singaporeans in any particular set of companies – be it local or foreign companies; or those who received more incentives and those who receive less incentives.

The overall effect of our economic and manpower schemes is that we are able to constantly create new and better paying jobs for the current and future generations of Singaporeans. This is manifested in the overall employment and wage outcomes for all Singaporeans. To this end, the healthy employment and wage outcomes of Singaporeans over the years give us confidence that we are heading in the right direction.

Let me also share some examples of how Singaporeans have benefited through these efforts. One example is Mr Samson Tan, who joined the inaugural batch of Salesforce-NUS EDB Industrial Postgraduate Programme in 2019 to investigate novel techniques to increase the robustness of language AI systems to linguistic variation and adversarial attacks. Through the programme, he has gained exposure to industry practices and the application of AI in commercial production. Today, he continues to research on the ethical use of AI at Salesforce while concurrently pursuing his PhD at NUS. Over time, we hope to build a pool of postgraduate manpower like Samson with relevant experience in commercial-driven research, who are ready to take on more complex R&D roles in the industry.

Our programmes go beyond just formal training, but deliberate efforts to develop local leaders to hold critical functions and leadership roles. Let me share another example – Mr James Lim started out as an Engineering and Facility Manager in global medical technology firm Becton Dickinson, twenty years ago. Since then, he has received many opportunities to gain new skillsets and experiences in various facets of the company’s business – from R&D to plant operations, and subsequently to lead as the Director of Operations for Asia Pacific. In 2012, James was appointed as Becton Dickinson’s President for Greater Asia, a post he holds till today.

There are many other stories like that of Samson and James. We are constantly engaged and working with companies to develop our local workforce and leadership, and to draw long-term benefits for our people from our investment promotion efforts.

Source: https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/sprs3topic?reportid=written-answer-na-6908

Operating hours of CSG application portal

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

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

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

——-

SUBMISSION OF ONLINE APPLICATIONS FOR COVID-19 SUPPORT GRANT LIMITED TO WORKING HOURS

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

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

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

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

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

Singapore’s Justice System

Speech delivered in Parliament on 4 November 2020.

Mr Speaker,

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

Challenges faced by victims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges faced by the accused

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving the system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two, improving court processes involving abused foreign workers.

Three, securing medical reports and witness statements more quickly.

Four, persuading the courts to fix early hearing dates.

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

PDPA Amendment Bill

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

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

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

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

I will focus on three areas in my speech:

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

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

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

Protecting what matters

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

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

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

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

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

PDPA and GDPR

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

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

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

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

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

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

PDPA and the Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Sir, I support the Bill.


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

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

Waste recycling in Singapore

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

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

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

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

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

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

PERCENTAGE OF SINGAPORE’S RECYCLABLE WASTE EXPORTED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXPANSION OF DOMESTIC WASTE RECYCLING INDUSTRY

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

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

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

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

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

The cost of returning $52 billion to the reserves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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