Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill

I delivered the following speech in Parliament on 29 January 2015

Madam Speaker, I echo the position presented by my Party’s colleague Mr Pritam Singh.

While I welcome additional measures to better manage unwanted and rowdy behaviour caused by drunkenness especially in residential areas, I am concerned if some parts of the Bill are too far-reaching.

The Bill makes it an offence to consume alcohol across Singapore during the prescribed no-public drinking period, which is currently planned to be between 1030 pm and 7am. The exception would be to drink at licensed premises or if consumption permission has been applied for and granted to an event organizer prior to the event.

Madam, I am of the view that there are public spaces where the consumption of liquor can be permitted without disturbing residents. An example would be in areas popular for barbeques and gatherings such as the Changi Beach, East Coast and West Coast Parks. I live near one of these parks and would often go there in the evenings. The people at the parks, even those who have been drinking, are generally well behaved. Many are the occasional social drinkers. They are also far away from any residence so there is also no disturbance caused to households.

I believe we can relax the Bill to allow the Minister to designate areas where drinking can be allowed at all times. If there are frequent undesired incidents related to drinking in these areas, the Minister can publish an order in the Gazette to restrict the drinking period or totally ban drinking in that area, just as the Minister will be able to do so for liquour licence holders under this Bill.  In any case, under existing laws and also under section 14 of this Bill, we will have the powers to deal with drunkennesss in public places at all times and against behaviours that cause public nuisance, so we have the means to take action against drunkards and those behaving in unruly manners.

I believe this will lighten administrative load of having to approve consumption permission for events in areas where drinking is unlikely to cause problems. During weekends and on public holidays, it is common to find many of the barbeque pits in popular public spaces occupied. How responsive will the processing of permits be? Will we have enough security personnel to patrol these areas to enforce the no-drinking rule? Is it necessary to have the police patrol such public places to catch people drinking?

Already, we have heard during the Committee of Inquiry, or COI on Little India that our police force is understaffed and highly stretched. Paragraphs 196 to 198 of the COI report had called for more officers but this issue has barely been addressed. The then-Commissioner of Police Mr Ng Joo Hee closed his testimony before the COI with a plea for another 1,000 more officers to be added to the police’s ranks

Given this situation, how ready are we to enforce this no-drinking rule in all public places across Singapore? If enforcement of this Bill is weak, it will not reflect well on our law enforcement officers

Next, I like to seek some clarifications from the Minister on the Bill.

First, there is some public disquiet over what may seem to people as excessive powers to search individuals for any container of liquor and to search premises. I like to seek clarification that an individual who was consuming liquor in a licensed premises and who leaves the licensed premises with opened and unconsumed liquor in a container during the prescribed no-drinking period has not committed any offence under this Bill, i.e.  the presence of liquor with the person in a public place but who is not at that point consuming the liquor, is not an offence, if the liquor was purchased in a licensed premises or during the allowed sales period.

Second, I seek confirmation that while a foreign employee dormitory is deemed to be a public place, it is only for the purpose of being drunk as defined by section 14(1) of this Bill, i.e. it is not an offence to drink in a foreign employee dormitory after 1030 pm unless the person becomes drunk.

Finally, I like to seek an update from the Minister that with this Bill and the designation of Little India as a Liquor Control Zone, what will happen to the measures that had been earlier imposed on Little India in the aftermath of the riot and subsequently with the temporary public order bill on Little India? There are a couple more months before the expiry of the Temporary Public Order Bill. Will the restrictions be immediately superseded when this Bill takes effect? What were the key lessons learnt on the ground from the imposition of the restrictions on Little India?

Madam Speaker, in conclusion, while I support the principle of this Bill, I like to urge the Minister to review the scope of the regulations to leave more flexibility for the sales and consumption of liquor in areas that are away from private residence. Thank you.

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Pawnbrokers Bill

I delivered the following speech in Parliament on 19 January 2015.

This Bill seeks to update the Pawnbrokers Act which was last amended in 1993. Amongst others, it removes the existing auction system, requires pawnbrokers to provide an indicative valuation of a pledge to a pawner at the point of pawning and at the end of the redemption period, and raises the minimum paid-up capital of pawnbrokers for their first outlet and for each subsequent branch.

Madam Speaker, I support the Bill. I am concerned though about the rise in the number of pawnshops and in the total value of pawnbrokering loans in recent years. The number of pawnshops has grown from 114 in 2008 to 217[1] as at June 2014. The value of pawnbrokering loans rose more than three times from S$2 billion in 2009 to a peak of S$7.1 billion in 2012[2]. Many of the pawnshops are in the HDB heartlands. In an earlier parliament reply, we are told that HDB does not generally limit the number of shops for each trade and leaves it to market forces to determine the trade mix of shops. Market forces have indeed led to the rise of the pawnbroking industry.

In our geographically small island state, with some 217 outlets, access to pawnshops for a quick loan is easy. This has prompted some journalists to cast the spotlight on our pawnbrokering industry which now has three publicly listed pawnbrokers as key players in the market. A Bloomberg report in June last year titled “Rolex for Casino Cash Fuels Singapore Pawnshop Growth”[3] highlighted stories and statements by industry players about the rise in pawnbrokering activities being driven by gambling. The report, as well as other reports[4] [5], also pointed to soaring living costs as another reason for Singaporeans to turn to easy credit sources such as pawnbrokers to cover their living expenses.

Madam Speaker, there is very little data available on the profile of pawners. The ministry has said that it does not track the reason for non-redemption of pledges[6]. While the overall percentage is small at 5%[7], 5% of 4 million valuables pawned in 2012 works out to around 200,000 items that were unredeemed and had to be sent for auction. We do not know how many of these 200,000 items were from pawners who repeatedly failed to redeem their valuables. We also do not know the reasons for these non-redemptions.

I’d like to call for a more detailed study on the profile of pawners and on the industry. In particular, we should look at those who do not redeem their valuables to understand the underlying reasons. Also, in order not to become a society with excessive pawning, the study can also look into the appropriate number of outlets in each neighbourhood and if the level and content of advertising should be subjected to some controls. I believe better data will be useful to help look into the underlying causes for the rapid rise in the pawnbrokering trade and how we can tweak the Pawnbrokers Bill in future to continue to keep pace with this industry’s changing landscape.

Thank you.

[1] http://business.asiaone.com/news/pawnshops-the-rise

[2] http://tablet.todayonline.com/singapore/removal-auction-system-among-proposed-pawnbrokers-act-changes

[3] http://mobile.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-17/rolex-for-casino-cash-fuels-singapore-pawnshop-growth.html

[4] https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/singapore-cost-living-sees-pawnshops-043309125.html

[5] http://www.fool.sg/2013/11/04/the-battle-of-the-pawnbrokers/

[6] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006308-WA&currentPubID=00006301-WA&topicKey=00006301-WA.00006308-WA_1%2Bid-da07f921-38d6-46fc-8a85-f7f746df8cfd%2B

[7] http://news.asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130527-425418.html

 

减少学校班级学生的人数 – Towards Smaller Class Sizes in School

The following is a Chinese article reproduced from my submission to WP’s Hammer article published in December 2014. The English translation is provided for your convenience.

A school in Singapore

A school in Singapore

减少学校班级学生的人数      

 

在新加坡,大多数的学校每班有40名学生。自2005年以来,小学一年级和二年级的班级人数逐步减少到30名学生。这虽然是一个令人感到鼓舞的趋势,也符合工人党呼吁减少学校班级学生人数的目标。但是,如果与经济合作与发展组织(OECD)成员国统计数据中的平均每班21名学生来比较,我国的学校班级学生的人数还是相对的多。

 

海外进行的各个研究项目已经觉察到较少学生人数的班级所带来的正面效应。美国的布鲁金斯研究院(Brookings Institution)的研究显示,大量减少班级学生人数能对学生的学业成绩有显著而且长期的效应。这些效应似乎是越早推行少人数的班级就越有效果;而且,对于来自家庭背景比较不良好的学生有利,并能实现更好的教育成果。

 

在美国田纳西州进行的“学生与教师成就比率”研究项目(Tennessee STAR – Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) 和在威斯康辛州实行的“学生教育成就保证”计划 (Wisconsin SAGE- Student Achievement Guarantee in Education)也都显示出较少人数的班级对学生的认知和非认知学习成果有着正面的效应。这些正面的效应在学生整个的学校生活中持续不断。其他研究也显示出较少人数的班级能让来自家庭背景比较不好的学生受益。

 

在新加坡,我们学校里班级学生人数多有其弊端。教师们必须处理更多与纪律和行政有关的事项,与此同时,学习能力较弱的孩子也有可能被忽略;因为教师有限的时间都分给了所有的学生,因为班级学生人数多,个别学生所能获得的时间也相对减少。

 

不过,要更好地促进学生的学习进展,减少班级学生的人数并不是唯一的途径。它必须从整体上与其它的教学策略一起实施。教育部一再强调,教学质量比班级人数的多少来得更重要。当然,教学质量是重要的,在这方面的投入是理由充足的。然而,我认为我们也应该同时策划把学校一般班级的学生人数减少,并为此设定目标。

 

随着生育率的下降,从教育部的统计数字来看,报读小学的人数一年比一年少。以2012年来说,小六学生人数有将近4万9千名,相比之下小一和小二学生人数每个年级则少于3万9千名,差别为1万名学生。反观教师的人数则一直在平稳增长。从事教育服务的教师人数已经从2009年的少于3万人增加至2012年的3万1千8百人,预计在2015年将会达到3万3千人。在所增加的教师人数中,其中的一部分学校会灵活地决定分派担任一些特定的职务,比如“学习支援计划” (Learning Support Programme),指导学习进度比较慢的学生,一些时候甚至安排一班里有两名教师。

 

我认为,现在正是施行减少班级学生人数计划的最佳时机。由于学生人数逐年减少,我们或许不需要聘请比教育部原先计划中的更多的教师。比方说,小三和小四的班级可以先开始减少学生人数到每班30名学生,然后逐步将这个比例扩展到小五和小六,朝人数较少的班级的目标前进。这或许需要重新设计学校里的一些基础设施并增加多一些课室。

 

较少学生人数的班级使教师能更好地了解每一个学生。新加坡的教育体系正朝向一个更加强调全面化的教育、品格和以价值观为基础的方向发展,教师对个别学生的了解因而就显得更加重要。此外,好些家长总是觉得学校里的老师无法有足够的时间和注意力来教导他们的孩子应付学校的课业和考试,这是他们认为孩子必须上额外补习课的原因。班级人数少也有助于教师的课室管理的工作,使他们能有多余的时间关注那些学习能力比较弱的学生。

 

English Translation:

Towards Smaller Class Sizes in School

 

Most schools in Singapore have a class size of 40. Since 2005, Primary 1 and 2 classes were progressively reduced to 30 students. While this is encouraging and is in line with the call by the Workers’ Party for smaller class sizes, it is still large compared to the OECD countries’s average of 21 students per class.

 

Various research projects overseas have noted the positive effects of smaller class sizes. The Brookings Institution noted that large class-size reductions can have significant long-term effects on students’ achievement. These effects seemed to be largest when introduced earlier, and for students from less advantaged backgrounds. The Tennessee STAR and Wisconsin SAGE projects also demonstrated the positive effects of smaller classes on students’ cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes. These effects persisted throughout the school life of the students. Other studies also show smaller classes have benefited students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

 

There are drawbacks to the large class sizes we have in Singapore. Teachers have to deal with more disciplinary and administrative issues, while weaker children risked being marginalised because the teacher’s time is divided amongst all students.

 

Class size reduction is not the magic bullet to better student development. It has to be implemented together with other holistic policies. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has repeatedly emphasized that teaching quality is more important than smaller class sizes. Certainly, teaching quality is important and investments in this area are well justified. However, the time is right for us to also plan towards having general class sizes that are smaller as well.

 

With falling birth rates, it appears from MOE statistics that the cohort of students in primary school is getting smaller each year. In 2012, there were nearly 49,000 students in primary 6, versus less than 39,000 students per level in primary 1 and in primary 2; a difference of 10,000 students a year. In contrast, the number of teachers has been steadily increasing. The Education Service has grown from under 30,000 education officers in 2009 to 31,800 in 2012 and is projected to reach 33,000 by 2015. Some of the increases have been and will be used by schools to decide how the teachers will be flexibly deployed in specific situations, such as for Learning Support Programmes for the slower learners and sometimes to have two teachers in a class of 40.

 

The best time to do the planning for smaller class sizes is now. With increasingly smaller student enrolment, we may not need many more teachers than what MOE has already planned to recruit. We can start to move towards smaller class sizes, say starting at 30 students per class from primary 3 and 4, and then gradually moving towards that ratio for primary 5 and 6. This would also necessitate some re-design of the physical infrastructure in schools to have more classrooms. The ratio can be further reviewed at a later stage to aim to reach the OECD’s average.

 

The smaller class size will also allow teachers to better understand individual students. This is even more important now as Singapore move towards a more holistic character and values-based education system. Also, an oft cited reason for parents to have tuition for their children is because they feel teachers are not able to provide the attention needed by their children to catch up with our demanding syllabus. It will also help make classroom management easier for teachers, who may otherwise not be able to pay attention to the weaker students.

Confronting the dangers of radicalisation into violent extremism

The massacre in central Paris yesterday shocked me. It shocked the world. 12 lives were lost, 4 more were critically wounded and several more were injured. Masked gunmen had stormed into the office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and opened fire randomly at people. Supporters of the ISIS movement have already openly praised the attack.

I offer my deepest condolences to those that have lost loved ones in this tragedy.

Last month, it was the siege incident in a popular downtown Sydney café by a lone gunman who was making demands to support the ISIS movement. It resulted sadly in the death of two of the hostages.

Four months ago at a gathering of Asian political parties in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I gave a speech calling for the promotion of peaceful developments and to embrace political diversity. I had shared my fears of remote conflicts spreading their influences to places all over the world, including Singapore. Text from speech extracted as follows:

“I am personally alarmed and saddened by the recent increase in violence and conflicts globally, such as in the Middle East. Even though the Middle East conflicts are far away from Singapore, in our interconnected worlds, it is nevertheless very close to home. Once a while, we hear of volunteers from Singapore and from our nearby region joining the ISIS movement. Yesterday, as I was travelling here, I heard the news that an ISIS network was broken up in Australia, fortunately before they could strike within Australia. These are dangers we must constantly guard against if we wish to build a strong Asian community.”

In particular, I am very apprehensive of what the ISIS movement may mean to the world. There are many supporters of the movement being won all over the world. These include those born into good families with comfortable lives in developed countries. Some of them have excellent education and professional backgrounds. Not all will join the fight just in Syria and Iraq. Some will carry the fight into places everywhere. Singapore is not immune to this too.

In the multi-racial, multi-cultural and highly interconnected world that we live in, we need to be constantly on our guards to safeguard peace and to embrace diversity. Only then, progress can be made. It is important especially for those in positions of influence to speak out against misunderstanding of teachings that may lead to radicalisation. It is equally important that we should not form stereotypes and be biased against others of different beliefs because of the actions of some in their community. It is good to know that some leaders have indeed spoken out against extremism. Let’s work to preserve the peace and harmony in our community.

My 50 Years With Singapore

Photo with mum and siblings taken at the old Nantah University at age 9. I am on the extreme left.

Photo with mum and siblings taken at the old Nantah University at age 9. I am on the extreme left. Once in a while, we will get all dressed up and dad would drive us to interesting places in Singapore. I remember admiring the grandeur of the place, built mostly by donations from the Chinese community. The next time I would set foot in the university was as a student representing Temasek Junior College in the annual pre-university seminar in 1982. By then, Nantah had ceased to exist and it was part of the National University of Singapore. Much later in the 1990s, I completed my MBA from the Nanyang Business School, which is located near where this picture was taken. It had by then been changed into the Nanyang Technological University, our 2nd university. So in my first three occasions to step into the university, it had three different identities, a reflection of the changing situation surrounding its controversial early years.

The Straits Times featured me alongside four other Members of Parliament in its article of the same title today. My original text is reproduced below. Added other photos too to complete this post.

On growing up in Singapore over the last 50 years:

I grew up in Opera Estate, living with my parents – both of them teachers – and three siblings.

Just behind our house was Kampong Chai Chee, which had some small farms then. The farmers would sometimes take food waste from our house for their animals and give us eggs on festive occasions.

Afternoons were usually spent exploring the neighbourhood on my rickety bicycle, or playing with neighbours. Once in a while, we would get a supper treat when dad came home with his pay from giving tuition.

I have happy memories of schooling, which were all in neighbourhood schools in the east. Many of my friends went through the same schools from primary school till junior college.

I remember the numerous campaigns in schools, such as Use Your Hands (encouraging students to take care of their surroundings), Anti-littering, Courtesy, and so on. I enjoyed these campaigns and other shared experiences with my peers.

I now have children of my own. My wish is to see a more resilient new generation of Singaporeans so that we can chart a better future for our children.

My wish for Singapore politics in the next 50 years:

I hope to see a more resilient political system, where people of different ideologies can play their parts to develop Singapore, and where there are strong and independent institutions to provide checks and balances for a stronger democracy.
I have always believed that Singapore has enough talent for more than one team. I hope to see the day that enough people will come forward in the political scene so that there will be viable alternatives in the political system.

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Yes, growing up in Singapore was memorable. I could only use about 200 words for the ST article. I had found other interesting photos while searching for the above for ST, which I have inserted below.

With paternal grandmother in Ipoh. I had lived the first 2 years of my life with my grandparents in Gopeng (near Ipoh) as both my parents had to work and they already had two elder siblings to look after.

With paternal grandmother in Ipoh. I had lived the first 2 years of my life with my grandparents in Gopeng (near Ipoh) as both my parents had to work in Singapore and they already had my two elder siblings to look after.

At the tower of Seletar reservoir with family on another outing at around 7 years old. I must have opened my mouth to shout into the wind.

At the tower of Seletar reservoir with my family on another outing at around 7 years old. As a cheeky boy, I must have opened my mouth to shout into the wind.

Received a surprise gift of a live chicken from my college classmates for my 18th birthday in school.

Received a surprise gift of a live chicken from my college classmates for my 18th birthday in school.

I went to St. Stephen’s School near my house because dad wanted us to have an English-based education. My parents were Chinese teachers but they realised that it would be a dead end for us to go to a Chinese school given the strong switch to English as the medium of education throughout Singapore then. Most of my schoolmates and I graduated to St. Patrick’s for secondary school and later to Temasek Junior College. We studied hard but we also played hard. I ended up taking part in five CCA groups in college, something unheard of these days.

I had received my education entirely in Singapore, including for my postgraduate courses. It was during my working years that I got to travel more widely and became exposed to different forms for governance and political systems. I started to write to the forum pages of newspapers and international magazines.

With NUS Computing colleagues in Tokyo for my first overseas conference. My first job was teaching computer science at NUS.

With NUS Computing colleagues in Tokyo for my first overseas conference (3rd from left). My first job was teaching computer science at NUS while undergoing my postgraduate programme.

In Boys' Brigade officer uniform with my eldest child, then around 2 years old.

In Boys’ Brigade officer uniform with my eldest child, then around 2 years old. I had continued my active involvement in the community with various organisations even after I had started working.