Debate on President's Address to Parliament: Day 2
Govt plan to engage public on ageing issues
Aim is to address concerns and celebrate people living longer
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
A NATIONAL action plan to help Singapore's seniors live meaningful lives as they age is expected to be ready by next year.
This "coherent national agenda" will include helping them learn new things, getting the workplace to be more welcoming, and making it easier for them to live with their families.
These measures will not just allow seniors to remain active, but also to have "their days filled with excitement", said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday.
This "Nation for all Ages" action plan he announced in Parliament will also cover employment, volunteerism, urban infrastructure, health care, retirement adequacy and research into ageing.
Mr Gan, who also chairs the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, said there will be a series of public consultations, starting from the middle of this year, to find out what people want. He said: "Ageing is a conversation that involves all of us - our aspirations for our silver years, how we hope to live our life to the fullest, how we wish to relate to peers and younger persons, and the kind of society we wish to live in when we age."
What Mr Gan wants to see is a shift in people's mindsets - "from worrying about the challenges that come from ageing to celebrating longevity".
Ageing and paying for health-care financing were hot topics on Day 2 yesterday of the debate on President Tony Tan Keng Yam's address at the opening of the 12th Parliament's second session. Suggestions on how to help seniors remain financially independent included higher Central Provident Fund contributions and better ways to unlock their flats' value.
Outlining in broad strokes the way forward, Mr Gan said it includes people having longer years of productive lives and how "the workplace can be made more welcoming and empowering for our seniors to put their experience and talents to good use".
He cited St Luke's ElderCare, which provides a range of day- care services for seniors, where 86 per cent of its local employees are 40 years and older.
The masterplan will also provide better support for multi-generational families in terms of housing and having care services in estates for seniors to age at home.
Although 5,000 more nursing beds will be added by 2020, the minister prefers to see seniors continue living at home by providing them with the services they need.
The whole-of-nation conversation will include not just the public, but also businesses, unions, academics and voluntary welfare organisations. Mr Gan wants experts to leverage on technology to make it easier for seniors to continue playing a role in society.
He hopes this national action plan will be ready by next year, when Singapore turns 50. "We will turn longevity into our advantage. MOH will help Singaporeans to live long, live well, and with peace of mind."
MediShield Life details being finalised
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
THE much-awaited premiums for the new MediShield Life, which provides cover for every Singaporean for life, are set to be announced next month.
But the report from the committee set up last year to recommend changes to the existing MediShield will likely be delayed by a month, Mr Bobby Chin, who heads the review committee, confirmed yesterday.
The report was due by the end of this month.
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament yesterday that the committee was still finalising details, but assured the House that the national health insurance scheme is on track to be implemented by the end of next year.
He also disclosed that the committee will share more details of the new scheme next month.
The committee has already announced that it plans to remove the current $300,000 lifetime limit, increase claimable limits and halve patients' co-payments.
The Health Ministry is agreeable to all of that.
Based on those recommendations, Mr Gan gave the example of Mr Yee Kwek Chin, 48, who was in a subsidised B2 ward for 14 days after suffering a stroke.
MediShield picked up $5,000 of his $9,800 bill.
With the changes, the insurance will pick up $7,300, leaving him to pay only $2,500.
Kidney-failure patient Hashim Abdul Rahim's claims will hit $300,000 in a few years' time. But with the change, he will continue to receive insurance coverage for his dialysis and hospital treatments.
While people welcome the improved coverage, they worry that premiums will be expensive.
Mr Gan said the committee has told him that most people hope the entire premium can be paid from Medisave, and will not require cash top-ups.
This is especially so in large families, where premiums have to be paid for children, as well as the elderly.
Mr Gan said the Government understands their concerns and again promised that the premiums will be "affordable".
The Government will help in three ways: permanent premium subsidies for the pioneers and the less well-off; Medisave top-ups for the elderly and low-income; and for those who still cannot afford the premiums, financial aid, like through Medifund.
Mr Gan, however, did not commit on whether the premiums can be entirely covered by Medisave, or whether cash top-ups will be needed by larger families, or those who do not qualify for subsidies.
Govt looking at ways to boost retirement funding
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
IMPROVEMENTS to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) scheme could include raising older worker contribution rates further, linking payouts to inflation and finding better ways for the elderly to unlock the value of their flats.
Senior Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor said these ideas, which have been raised by MPs, will be included.
The assurance came on the second day of debate on the President's Address, amid calls from backbenchers to improve retirement adequacy.
"I acknowledge that it is not a perfect system, and I assure (MPs) that we will continue to review how else we can improve it, taking into account feedback and suggestions," Dr Khor said yesterday.
Earlier, Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) had urged "a higher rate of return on our CPF monies", continuing a theme which was raised on Monday by other legislators.
She also wanted more flexibility for the use of CPF money, to let those "in dire straits" address pressing needs, such as their children's education.
This might mean "a higher risk that some Singaporeans will not have enough in their old age", she acknowledged. But those cases are likely to be in the minority, she added.
Several suggestions were also given by Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Heng Chee How.
CPF savings can be strengthened by putting more money into accounts, such as by raising contribution rates or the contribution ceiling, he said.
Alternatively, such savings can be made to "work harder", such as by ensuring that the "best possible preferential rates are used".
He renewed his call for the re-employment age ceiling to be raised from 65 to 67, as one way to increase CPF savings.
Firms must now offer re-employment to workers who turn 62, up to age 65. Mr Heng, who is deputy secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, has long pushed for this ceiling to be raised to 67. "This is to give older workers who wish to do so such a choice," he said.
In reply, Dr Khor noted that the tripartite committee looking at this move is also taking the chance to review related issues. These include guidelines on wage adjustment upon re-employment, and updating the tripartite guidelines.
"We are finalising the proposals with our tripartite partners and should be ready to share these plans later this year," she said.
She also addressed "misconceptions" about re-employment.
"Raising the re-employment age does not mean that we do not want Singaporeans to retire," she said. "It means that we want to help those who wish to continue working to be able to do so."
MP cautions against politicising health care
Puthucheary says that such tactics affect the health of the nation
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
MEDICAL don Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) cautioned against politicising issues as important as health care as he defended what Singapore has achieved and took to task those who put short-term electoral interest before the nation's health.
Dr Puthucheary, a paediatrician, said he worried about the picture being painted of Singapore's health-care system, which he lauded as one of the world's best.
"The facts are out there," he said, pointing to Singaporeans living longer and healthier, and having a better quality of life. The health-care system also does "pretty well" in accessibility, safety, provision of cost-effective and high-quality care, and investments to prevent disease.
And yet there are "a whole host of hysterical, irresponsible and inaccurate claims about a catastrophically dysfunctional system", he said.
In his 27-minute speech, he contrasted such claims to the constructive politics that President Tony Tan Keng Yam had called for in his speech at the opening of Parliament, and which Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang had countered on Monday.
In a rare move, Government Whip and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong sought and secured the House's consent to extend the PAP backbencher's speaking time beyond his allotted 20 minutes.
While Dr Puthucheary praised the public health-care system, he also raised questions about its current structure, pointing out that it relied on the market to drive preventive health measures, such as diet and exercise, and took a centralised approach when it came to complex acute expensive care.
"This kind of outcome-driven, evidence-based restructuring is what we will need to think about 20, 30 years ahead," he said.
But he warned that short-term political interests could derail reforms for long-term benefits.
"The more politicians play with health care, the worse the health of the nation... It would start with sound-bite politics, like making comments about active ageing as a joke about corridor beds, when these are not reflective of the health outcomes."
He also addressed Mr Low's criticism that the Government equates constructive politics with compliant politics.
Dr Puthucheary said a diversity of opinions alone were insufficient to make hard choices, and that agreeing with someone else's policies is not compliant politics.
"If the policy is good, and it achieves its outcomes for a better life for citizens, then attacking it does not generate better politics. If the Government has a good policy, then the civil service supporting it is not just being compliant, they are serving the best interests of our nation."
Rather, he said, it was not good politics to fail to acknowledge the good, and to avoid discussion of consequences and trade-offs.
Rounding up his speech, Dr Puthucheary said the politicisation of health care would "look like using anecdotes to create fear and anxiety, telling carefully selected stories about unusual situations with a view to persuading people that everything is bad and needs to be changed".
This does a disservice to the hard work of health-care workers, and the excellent health-care outcomes Singapore has achieved, he said to enthusiastic thumps of approval from the front bench and fellow MPs.
Clash over MediShield premiums v payouts
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
MEDISHIELD premiums and its payouts were at the centre of a robust debate between Workers' Party Non-constituency MP Gerald Giam and the People's Action Party's Janil Puthucheary yesterday.
At the heart of it was Mr Giam's assertion that the Government was collecting more in premiums than it was paying out in claims for the national health insurance scheme.
The loss ratio on MediShield, he said, averaged just 63 per cent from 2001 to 2012. This meant that just 63 per cent of the premiums collected was paid out to those insured.
Mr Giam contrasted the figure to America's health insurance scheme - the Affordable Care Act, in which the government mandates a minimum loss ratio of between 80 and 85 per cent.
Dr Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said this was not a valid comparison as it pit Singapore's public social insurance scheme against the US private and for-profit system.
He added that the American model was also not one to copy since "the short-term electoral outlook (there) significantly constrains their ability to take a long-term strategic vision for the health-care system of their nation".
He warned that if payouts ended up being higher than the premiums collected, it could see MediShield becoming "insolvent". This could lead to the scheme being "unable to support the health-care needs of a generation possibly".
Mr Giam countered that a "social insurance scheme (such as MediShield) should have a much higher loss ratio than a commercial insurance scheme because commercial insurance wants to make money".
He also said that it was "relatively easy" to project the likely payouts for medical insurance, and premiums could be adjusted to cope with the "increase in cost". If there was an emergency situation, like "Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) that year", the Government could step in.
Both Dr Puthucheary and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong argued against Mr Giam's claim that medical expense is easy to predict.
Mr Gan said it was "very difficult" to estimate health-care costs because of the variety of factors affecting it.
"Ageing is one aspect. Development of new technology is another aspect. Easy access would also drive up demand and demand will drive up costs," the minister said.
Dr Puthucheary added that it was because of the Government's prudent approach that when "something like Sars comes along", it is able to step in.
Giam: Govt transferring risks to S'poreans
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
NON-CONSTITUENCY MP Gerald Giam yesterday criticised the Government for "transferring" risks to Singaporeans through various policies, saying it could lead to feelings of uncertainty.
Citing the CPF and MediShield schemes and "marketised" public services, he said the Government had been "very good at managing its own risks but less so the risks faced by citizens".
He noted, for example, that while the CPF minimum sum amount is pegged to inflation, the CPF Life annuity payouts are not.
When the Government restructured public services such as transport and health care, it had also exposed Singaporeans to service providers that could pass on business risks to customers, he said.
Mr Giam, who is from the Workers' Party, said this "regressive transfer of risk from Government to citizens" in the last 10 years could explain why Singaporeans feel uncertain about life, and are therefore less willing to start businesses or volunteer their time to serve others.
He noted, however, that the Government is starting to bear a larger share of risks, by delinking BTO flat prices from resale market valuations, for example.
Even so, worries about the cost of living, retirement adequacy, health-care affordability and job security still plague Singaporeans, and the Government should take heed, Mr Giam added.
He also said the means-testing criteria for public assistance was too stringent. While it was meant to discourage reliance on handouts, making the needy "jump through hoops" for financial aid would not help them "pull themselves up by their bootstraps".
He urged the Government to turn its focus on "incentivising hard work" to the major industries, through guarding against "rent-seeking behaviour" by trying to make more money without producing more for customers. The casino, real estate and construction sectors were identified by the Economist magazine as being prone to this, he said.
He also suggested the Government look at increasing the net investment returns contributions or taxes on profits derived from economically non-productive activities, when seeking new revenue streams to pay for increased social spending.
"These should be done before considering raises to the GST or personal income taxes for middle- income earners," he said.
Outreach to pioneer generation on track
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
EFFORTS to communicate the benefits of the Pioneer Generation Package to recipients have been gaining traction, Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said yesterday.
For instance, more than a thousand health-care staff have been trained to address questions about the scheme.
Staff at Senior Activity Centres as well as Senior Care Centres, who are in frequent contact with those in the pioneer generation, will also help get the word out, she added.
This communications push comes amid concerns that many pioneers might still be in the dark about or have limited knowledge of the package, which was the centrepiece of this year's national Budget.
Dr Khor, who co-chairs the Pioneer Generation Taskforce with Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo, said the Government recognises the need to go beyond English and use vernacular languages in its outreach.
The taskforce has published advertorials about the Pioneer Generation Package in the Chinese, Malay and Tamil newspapers, and put out radio advertisements in six Chinese dialects, said Dr Khor.
Several groups of volunteers and organisations have also stepped forward to offer their help in reaching out to pioneers.
During yesterday's debate, Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) also highlighted the importance of raising awareness about the package.
Many among the pioneer generation have lived through tough times and had limited education, while a number may also have lost their family members and are fending for themselves, she said.
"It is imperative that we help our elderly to navigate our complex and seemingly daunting health-care system so that they can seek the treatment they need without fear," she added.
'S'poreans first' hiring not good for economy in the long term
Firms may relocate if manpower needs are not met, says Amy Khor
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
A "SINGAPOREANS first" policy would not benefit the economy in the long term, said Senior Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor.
It might constrain firms' hiring decisions and prompt them to move out of the country, she cautioned yesterday.
She was responding to Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC), who had called for firms to give qualified Singaporeans priority over foreigners for professional, managerial and executive (PME) jobs on Monday.
Other MPs have also argued for more protection and support for PMEs since the parliamentary debate on the President's Address began on Monday.
Said Dr Khor: "We are in fact putting the interests of Singaporeans first when we say that we want to grow the economy and job opportunities. But we need to be practical about how we go about doing it."
Ms Foo yesterday clarified that while she agreed the country must remain open to international talent, Singaporeans with the right skills should be given the first pick of jobs.
She asked "if the Ministry will consider, going forward, that... (if there are) two equally qualified persons, that the Singaporean will be given the opportunity first".
Dr Khor said the Manpower Ministry's Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), which will take effect from Aug 1, will give Singaporeans with the relevant skills "a fair chance" to compete for jobs.
The ruling requires companies to advertise on a jobs bank for 14 days before applying to hire foreign PMEs on employment passes.
However, the firm's eventual hiring decision is left up to them.
Compelling employers to hire local PMEs who might not have the right skills is likely to "introduce significant labour market rigidity", said Dr Khor.
This could ultimately hurt Singaporeans, if companies relocate because their manpower needs are not met.
Instead, the Government's approach has been to maintain a level playing field, and help equip Singaporeans with the skills they need to fill "quality jobs".
"In the globalised economy, competition for jobs tend to be between countries and not only within countries," she said.
Data sharing to help build 'tech-driven Smart Nation'
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
ESTATE maintenance issues in Kampong Chai Chee are now solved in hours rather than days, thanks to a WhatsApp messaging group set up for that purpose.
Residents in the group send in pictures of problems. Maintenance staff follow up with photographs of the repair work.
Raising this example of what citizens can do with ordinary technology, Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan saw an important role for citizens in building a technology-driven Smart Nation.
But they must be given the data needed, he added yesterday.
"Citizens must be empowered and have access to information. The Government will need to create the environment for this to take place."
The groundwork has been laid with the Open Data initiative, with over 8,000 government datasets available on the Data.gov.sg website. Since 2011, more than 130 apps have been created with such data.
Praising this initiative, Mr Lee added: "We will continue to see what we can do to facilitate the Government's efforts to share more data."
Such openness will help citizens and businesses "develop innovative solutions to improve the experience of city living".
But the impact will not just be on how we live and play. The information revolution and the rise of massive datasets known as Big Data will also create jobs and change business practices, Mr Lee said. For instance, the rise of e-commerce will create demand for logistic companies, warehousing, IT analysts and delivery workers.
"We will need to prepare our PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) with the right skill sets as Big Data changes our industries," he said.
Telecommunication companies with mobile networks are also sitting on "information goldmines".
For instance, with their ability to track shoppers, these firms could advise mall operators on the pattern of consumer traffic.
Big Data will also be useful in industries such as transport, health care, education and hospitality, he said.
And the Government can tap Big Data too, such as by analysing feedback received through apps.
This, he said, "will help our government agencies develop a holistic view, anticipate trends and requests, and adapt accordingly so we stay ahead of the curve."
Denise Phua calls for elected presidency to be scrapped
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
THE elected presidency (EP) ought to be scrapped and the role should return to a ceremonial one, said Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC).
She had argued in 2011 that with more vocal People's Action Party backbenchers and an increased opposition presence in the House, there was no longer a need for additional checks on the Government.
Picking up on the same theme, she said: "If the conditions under which (the elected presidency) have changed, let us have the courage to slay these sacred cows before they become obese and unhealthy."
Her concerns are twofold. First, she is worried about the powers given to the President, such as control over financial reserves and key public office appointments.
Her call echoes Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang's speech on Monday, views which Ms Phua said she shares. Mr Low had on Monday described the presidency as a "weakness" that could cause the very gridlock President Tony Tan Keng Yam discussed in his opening address on May 16.
The Government can be paralysed by the President exercising his blocking power if they do not see eye to eye, he said.
These powers were awarded following a constitutional amendment in 1991, to prevent the possibility of a rogue government that might dip into the reserves to pursue a populist agenda.
Until then, the presidency was a ceremonial role. And Ms Phua said yesterday she longed for a return to those days.
Recalling former presidents Yusof Ishak and Benjamin Sheares, she said she wished for statesmen "who need not be slugged through yet another political campaigning process that divides the country instead of healing and uniting the people of Singapore".
Second, she expressed concern about the lower qualifications of EP candidates.
Among others, a key requirement for the EP candidate is that he must have been a chief executive of a Singapore company with paid-up capital of at least $100 million.
In the 2011 presidential election, doubts surfaced over the eligibility of candidates Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian.
The former helmed an asset company that did not meet this, while the latter last served as head of NTUC Income - a co-operative, not a company.
Ms Phua said that the scheme "has admitted candidates who were non-executive chairmen of companies or portfolio managers with no strong solid executive experience, expecting them to exercise the very critical executive functions expected of the Elected President".
Scrapping the EP is timely, she added, arguing that citizens should learn to bear the consequences of their votes, instead of looking to a president to protect them.
"If the government of the day is elected by popular vote, the electorate has to live with its elected candidates and remove them at the next General Election should there be better choices," she said.
In addition, she urged the public service to "upgrade its operating system". It must consider how it selects and develops leaders.
"There is a need to re-think the kinds of competencies we need for leadership in the civil service," she said. "Is there still a need for an elite admin service which primarily admits persons of a specific form of intelligence?"
Without these changes and a more compassionate and inclusive society, she is fearful that the President's assurance of a brighter future may be misplaced.
She said: "Until the majority of us agree on the social contract that governs our society, I am afraid our best days may be over."
Empowered citizens or risk of free-for-all debates?
Some MPs want more voices; others, civil and informed debates
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
WHILE some asked for citizens to be empowered, others warned of the dangers of free-for-all debates driven by misinformation.
As the House entered the second day of debate on the President's Address, constructive politics continued to be a running theme, with nine out of 17 MPs raising the issue yesterday.
Two camps of thought emerged, largely along party lines.
For the PAP MPs, keeping debates civil and informed is critical to constructive politics.
"Debate with words dripping with hate cannot possibly help.
"It may even cause a rupture in our social stability," said Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) in Mandarin.
Social media, in particular, can derail constructive politics when many "insidious untruths" are spread online, said Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC).
He singled out a segment of society which is "louder, more demanding and less willing to accommodate changes" as culprits who stoke distrust and hatred online.
Dr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang) said that such acts can have undesirable consequences in the governance and policymaking of a country, a view echoed by Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC).
Mr Edwin Tong (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) said the policies the Government has introduced in the last three years to address concerns over housing, transport and health care, did not happen by chance.
"They happen because we have a Government committed to constructive politics of proactive consultation, robust debate, and then, most importantly, translating that debate into real tangible outcomes for Singaporeans. That, in a sense, is what each of us should be here for. Taking a position in a debate is a means, not an end," he said.
For the Workers' Party (WP) and Nominated MP Laurence Lien, constructive politics involve everyone in society and not only politicians.
"We can embrace a more deliberative form of democracy where there are authentic deliberations among representatives, meeting as equals," he said, adding that the creative energies of people should be harnessed, "even if they have a few sharp edges".
A wider market of voices was also embraced by Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong of the WP, who called for political education in schools to teach students how to handle diversity and differences in opinions. "Such education programmes can help our future generation be more confident in dealing with the diversity of views in the public spaces."
Mr Yee's fellow Workers' Party NCMP Gerald Giam also noted that vigorous and passionate debates do not necessarily lead to gridlock and paralysis.
The converse is also bad - policies which are rushed through can cause much unhappiness and may have to be later reversed, he said.
"It would be much better to have a proper and informed debate, both inside and outside this House, make adjustment in response to feedback from MPs and the public, then roll out better schemes for Singaporeans."
Fear not, as Singapore improves... with ageing
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014
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