Examining the Minister’s take on Singapore’s construction sector

Last week,  Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing asked if Singapore was prepared to have 2,500 babies born here every year grow up to be construction workers?

He explained his calculations as follow: Singapore now has 300,000 construction workers. IF a Singaporean is three times as productive, then we will need 100,000 Singaporean workers. And over a 40-year period with Singaporeans replacing the foreign workers, we will need 2,500 a year, or about 8% of our babies each year.

He argued that therefore Singapore cannot cut down on foreign workers as other countries had because of our small size and lack of natural resources.

The Minister seems to suggest that this high reliance on foreign workers situation is inevitable. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Singapore’s journey to nearly 1.5 million migrant workers detailing the 30 years journey we took that saw this rapid explosion in number of foreign workers, especially the low wage workers. I will leave you to read that and will focus on looking at the construction sector in response to the Minister’s statement.

Let’s look at the Minister’s reasoning.

(1) The Minister has a way of exaggerating. His mathematics is based on 100% replacement of all workers in the construction sector by locals. Singaporeans are practical people. We are not calling for total replacement. We are calling a stop to this over reliance and ever-increasing number of migrant workers. We are calling for deliberate steps to correct the process and to seriously make careers in construction viable for Singaporeans so a more sizeable number can be in the industry.

The Minister’s question and the tone of it seems to make construction as a shunned career. It sadly adds to the poor image the industry is already having because we can only think of the low wage and low skilled migrant workers. The reality in many places is that skills in a strenuous job can pay well. Many of these jobs are not shunned by the locals in say Japan, Australia, Switzerland or Finland. And some aspects of the construction sector do include skilled specialists and trained experts.

(2) The Minister assumed that Singapore construction workers can eventually be three times as productive as currently. This figure is probably arrived at by looking at the best in class, where in places like Australia and Japan, the locals are indeed three times or more productive than a construction worker in Singapore currently.

It is a big ‘IF’. We are currently so far off the chart in productivity compared to other developed countries. Why are we not even attracting Singaporeans into this industry?

Singapore took a different path from other developed countries as we started to prosper in the 1990s. Entrepreneur Jack Sim shared some interesting observations in his Facebook post recently. Jack shared that when he started in the construction industry in 1979, there were very skilled Master Craftsmen, trained Skilled Craftsmen and Apprentices. Jack lamented that ‘the Shanghainese Masters have now passed away. The Singaporeans Master retired. The Malaysian Masters have returned home. The Thais who replaced them also returned home. The Japanese and Korean have also returned home.’ He observed that Singapore started to bring in many who ‘have never done a day of Construction work’. Jack Sim’s presentation involves some generalisation but we can all relate to our present-day situation. The salaries of the migrant workers in construction are low but the cost to employers is not low because of huge levies and accommodation costs. The effect of such a large-scale replacement of skilled craftsmen with low wage workers effectively made these jobs unattractive to locals.

Today, it is a fact that the productivity of construction workers in Singapore pales in comparison to locals in developed countries. We can only compare ourselves with our ASEAN neighbours. It is one thing to say in theory about how productive Singaporeans can be but another thing to do so in practice because what Australia and Japan have achieved took tremendous efforts. Where are we in this process today?

(3) Next, let’s examine the effect on construction cost in countries with high local participation and high-productivity. The Minister noted that ‘in many other countries, a proportion of local workers is allocated to the construction industry. In some cases, this leads to these workers becoming more expensive, and in other cases, projects take much longer to complete due to the lack of manpower.’

In the Turner & Townsend International Construction Market Survey 2019 (report available upon submission of request to company, relevant figure extracted below), we find that the construction cost of comparable projects are quite similar between Singapore, Australian and New Zealand cities and Tokyo. In another report by Rider Levett Bucknall on the international construction market 2016 (figure extracted below), the cost per sqm of gross floor area shows that total cost is quite similar between Singapore and Australian cities. An Australian construction worker earns an average of AUD$63,830 per annum. How much do construction workers in Singapore get?

Source: Turner & Townsend International Construction Market Survey 2019 (pg 17)

Source: extracted from Rider Levett Bucknall International Report on Construction Market Intelligence (3Q 2016). Note that prices are in local currencies AUD, NZD and SGD when comparing across Australia, NZ and Singapore.

If we look at Japan, their processes in construction are highly integrated and efficient. According to the Japan Construction Information Center Foundation, there is tight integration in the industry. When the construction specialist for foundation works is done, almost without delay the next team doing structure can be onsite the following day to start work. Their planning and project management tools can talk across companies. They also need to construct to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, which makes it a lot more challenging than construction in Singapore. Yet their overall construction costs are comparable to Singapore as well.

Higher wages local workers may not lead to much higher overall costs. Top local businessman and hotel magnate Ho Kwon Ping shared in an interview in 2011 that his company has construction development experience in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and so on. He was shocked that when they built their hotel in New Zealand, the number of workers they had to engaged was about 10 percent of what they did in Thailand — because the workers were well trained.

(4) The Minister is correct to say that Singapore has a small population. Well, so do New Zealand, Switzerland, Finland, Hong Kong and other small developed countries with high local participation in construction. The Minister also said, “If we lose out in that relative game compared to other people, then unfortunately, I think the future of Singapore will not be what we expect it to be.”

Some of these countries are globally competitive too despite relying mostly on locals for their construction industry. Some are in fact competing fiercely with Singapore to be regional hub and to be a financial centre.

Having said all these, what can we do now? I believe we cannot leave it to the market to correct itself. I recently shared in my Facebook about the preschool sector which I am more familiar with. I will use this as an example.

I recall in the 2000s, the preschool sector was shunned by young Singaporeans. In 2007, I was invited to be on a national workgroup on education and human capital. At the first meeting, we were discussing possible areas for the committee to focus on during our two-year term. Many topics from K-12 and higher learning were discussed.

Then I shared a story. My wife met by chance a former staff of a preschool we had previously operated. The teacher had already attained diploma in teaching and in leadership and was a senior teacher with us until we sold our centre. My wife had not met her for several years and asked where she was working at then. She had become a masseur and her basic pay as a rookie was already higher than what she commanded as a senior teacher after more than 10 years in the industry and after having gone for the training required for the industry.

Those who were not in the industry in the committee were shocked. They probed further about pay and prospects in the sector. In the committee, we had another long-time leader in the industry. She confirmed the situation and added her own stories. Staff turnover was high and it was tough to attract good locals to the sector. There were increasingly more foreign teachers in the sector as employers could not find locals. That sharing decided what we were to focus on for our committee’s term. Several bold recommendations were made after extensive research into the sector. Unfortunately, the government was not ready then for these changes. It was only after 2011 that a national drive was put into the sector, including the government running their own kindergartens, massive training and scholarship opportunities for pre-service and in-service teachers, merging of MOE and MSF preschool sectors into an agency (ECDA) and lots more funding. All these were actually recommended by our committee earlier and the boldest and what we felt were most necessary of our recommendations, were then turned down.

The effect of the massive government push is that the preschool sector today attracts young Singaporeans. There are now good career prospects. My daughter for one, decided to take up early childhood on her own when choosing what to study at the polytechnic. She was attracted to the scholarship for her studies and the security of the job. She found that she liked the industry and has stayed on and even went for further studies in the same field.

My niece is a nurse. She had excellent A levels results but she chose nursing. This was another industry that used to suffer from poor image and low pay. After much concerted effort at developing the industry at the ITE, polytechnics and universities level, added with scholarships, better pay and improved career prospects, coupled with aggressive marketing, young locals are moving into this industry once more. Even the SAF used to be unable to attract people until it was rebranded and career prospects became better.

Today, when there is talk that we have become too reliant on migrant workers, the industry associations quickly responded to say that cutting down on migrant workers would kill businesses and destroy the economy. They are not totally wrong. The situation has become so bad that we cannot just leave it to the market to correct itself. We cannot just tell employers to be more productive with their workers, cut staffing and to find their own ways to hire Singaporeans. The companies that try to do this now may find themselves priced out of business in the short run. We will need to tackle sector by sector, those sectors with low productivity, mostly untrained workers and low take up interest from Singaporeans. Many aspects of the whole system are broken. We need to fix it at the national level with a big push from the government side, including perhaps to take the lead in several areas. The recruitment and training aspects for foreign workers is messed up. Middleman make huge money and the workers coughed up large sums to come here, laden with debts. Many have not even worked in construction or the trade they are recruited for in their own country. Dormitory operators make huge profits housing migrant workers in what many consider as crowded and relatively poor living conditions.

Singapore had taken a different path from other economies as we started to prosper. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Finland, and many other developed economies do not have this huge reliance on low cost migrant workers, such as in construction. There is decent pay for their locals in the sector and they are better trained, more productive and manage automation better. These have evolved over the years because their government had decided that they cannot rely on low cost migrant workers from the start. To correct decades of neglect in Singapore, we cannot just ask the market to correct itself. Private companies are forced to accept the current market situation because each by itself cannot correct the industry. For years, the preschool sector could not correct itself and was moving towards the path of large number of foreign teachers, poor pay relative to peers, and low interest by locals to be preschool teachers. Painful and difficult though it might be, the situation has to be changed with major government interventions.

In case I am being accused of simplifying the problem, I acknowledge that this is a monster of a problem to solve, way more difficult than the other sectors I had cited. I am not an expert in this industry. I am gleaning data from around the world to look at the problem we have created for ourselves in order to offer my views. It will take many years to correct the unfortunate path we had taken to become too overly dependent on low wage migrant workers. We pride ourselves to pay the best in the world to have the Team A in government (and with constant reminders that Singapore can never have a Team B). We pride ourselves to plan 20, 50 and even 100 years down the road.

But the experience of other developed countries like Japan, Australia and Europe shows us it is possible to have a higher skilled, more productive, largely locally-manned construction industry that pays decent wages and where construction work is a skilled and respectable profession. While we may take years to get there, it is clear that it will take a concerted industrial upgrading effort by government to do so. If anything, this Covid-19 crisis has underlined the important strategic need to do so both in construction and in other industries which have through our misplaced labour intensive growth policy, created a low wage industry far too dependent on migrant foreign workers and low wages for working class Singaporeans.

We need to start somewhere and start it in a massive and decisive way. Let’s not use mathematics and rhetoric to brush the problem aside for the next generation to solve.

Note: Written by Yee Jenn Jong. The views expressed here are that of the author.

——— Additional notes ——-

In response to some online comments on my FB post, I decided to summarise the solutions. I am posting them here for those who are interested to follow up on what solutions we can have. As mentioned, these are purely my personal views on a topic I had become interested in since the 2013 Population White Paper Debate when I had the chance to look deeper into the numbers and speak with experts.

(1) Recognise we have a deep and urgent problem that requires immediate attention.

(2) Market cannot resolve this mega problem anymore. Not even the industry association can solve this.

(3) As what had been done in other industries, it has to be a big national effort. This is way more complex than preschool or nursing.

(4) Make construction viable as a career for Singaporeans again – start at the schooling level. Make pay decent enough, and even support with scholarships, career pathways, some sort of wage subsidies for Singaporeans in initial phase, etc.

(5) government may need to intervene in some of the processes at national level such as recruitment, training (even at source countries), dormitories, etc. Learn from the Japanese how they integrate the whole project management processes for swift handover between teams and companies on a project with technology.

(6) Lastly, the gravity of this situation due to decades of neglect is so bad that it will take years to solve and has to be across ministries and with specialised agencies to drive the initiative. The worrying thing from the Minister’s statement is that the government does not seem keen to want to start in a serious manner. It is such a big problem warned by experts from years ago and will have to be a mega national effort. The earlier we start, the better for our future.

Police, police on the streets, who is the fairest / smartest of them all?

One of the things you will definitely notice in Pyongyang, the capital city of the DPRK with a population of around 3 million, is the sheer number of smartly dressed police women and men on the streets. There seemed to be more police women than men, and many of the ladies are fairly young. They used to control traffic flow, although now traffic lights are available in most street corners of the city, most of which have been put up just a few years ago. They do not quite control traffic now but are nevertheless interesting to watch as they move about smartly, often turning sharply to the left or right in a military fashion.

Roads are not very busy but sometimes I worry for them when I see them in the middle of the road with big vehicles passing so near to them, but somehow knowing exactly how to avoid them.

So who is your favourite cop?

TrafficPolice1TrafficPolice2trafficPolice3TrafficPolice4TrafficPolice5TrafficPolice12-middle of junctionTrafficPolice13TrafficPolice7TrafficPolice8TrafficPolice9TrafficPolice10TrafficPolice10-withTaxiTrafficPolice11TrafficPolice12-middle of junctionTrafficPolice13


Photo Essay of a Visit to the DPRK

In September, we visited the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK but more commonly referred to as North Korea).

The next few blog posts will document, mostly in photos, what I saw and felt as a curious outsider as I moved through this country still rather restricted in trade (due to longstanding trade sanctions) and travel. It is a country that is portrayed so differently by the western press and by its own highly controlled media.

Crowd Cheering March Past

Crowds of people lined the streets to cheer the military contingent as it went pass the streets of Pyongyang on 9 Sep. Many were shouting “Kamsahamnida” (which means thank you) as the soldiers passed by. I reckoned some 1 million North Koreans were out in Pyongyang celebrating the event, with probably up to 100,000 in the performing / marching contingents. Unfortunately we were not allowed to bring cameras or phones into the parade square. It was a most spectacular and well synchronized performance. We could only take photos from the streets after getting back to our hotel from the parade.


Flags adorn the streets of Pyongyang especially during their national day celebrations of 9 Sep. This year is the 70th anniversary.


The Air Kroyo plane that took us from Beijing and back. Scheduled commercial flights are few, namely from Beijing, Shenyang and Vladvostok. Chartered flights can be arranged from China, Russia or Mongolia. Alternatively, many take the 24-hour train  from Beijing to the border of North Korea or an even longer ride from Moscow.


American best-selling author, H. Jackson Brown Jr. had this advice: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

That quote was made several decades ago, when travel was slower, more expensive and difficult. Today, with our highly interconnected world, it is so much easier to set off to explore the world. Perhaps more than just travelling, we can set our minds to sail away from the safe harbours of the mundane things we have become familiar with.The world is now constantly on the move. So we can set ourselves the target to learn something new each year. Challenge yourself to master a new skill or to do things differently.

As the year 2016 comes to a close, perhaps the best word to summarise my 2016 is the word “Go!”. Amongst other places, I finally visited the remaining two countries in ASEAN that I had then yet to visit. We even started business projects there, albeit cautiously on a small scale first.

2016 was a year that I set myself the target to venture out – in business, in travel and even in the things that I do. Driving a manual left-hand drive car in the crowded streets of central Vietnam was a first, and quite an adventure too, especially when the online navigator took us onto small paths we later found out were for motorbikes only. I had hesitated to turn into the small alleys but my Vietnamese friend with me (who was himself unfamiliar with the roads there), said, “Just go lah!”. Thankfully, we made it through after an arduous 30 minutes, with the car unscratched, squeezing with motor bikes and with padi fields inches to our left and to our right.

Learning to ski at 51 seemed ambitious and I had some nasty bruises to show for the many falls. Fortunately, I survived to continue with the rest of an all-AirBnB self-planned budget trip across South Korea with my family. Learning the hover board was thankfully much easier. Doing a live storytelling session was interesting, especially with a top radio DJ and a prize winning storyteller from USA in the same session as me. Doing live doodling performances on stage without my artists in three cities in China in front of officials and business leaders was initially intimidating. Learning to cook certainly benefited my family. I now have some decent dishes to show for a year of regular cooking :).

Not sure what 2017 will bring. Hopefully more interesting things to do, more projects to get ourselves busy with, and more places to see. Life is too short to hold back. Happy New Year and just go lah!


When life throws curve balls at you

We just returned from our first trip to Myanmar. It was a packed trip, driving from Yangon to Mandalay immediately upon arrival and then back two days later via driving again, as we had several meetings in Mandalay, Naypidaw and Yangon.

It was a good first trip to this beautiful and resource-rich country. I had many good first impressions. One that impressed me deeply was our meeting with Ms A (not her real name).

Ms A returned to Myanmar 3 years ago after studying and working abroad for over 10 years. She explained that she had 2 young children with severe special needs and it was best to return home so that her retired parents could help look after the children. Having been trained as and worked as a preschool teacher abroad, she decided to start her own preschool centre back home.

She described the many challenges faced, as people initially did not believe in her centre’s style of learning through play in a country where people are used to having children learn from completing worksheets and mastering spelling lists. Nevertheless, she started with just three children in her centre. She had to cope with hiring teachers who were not used to the style of learning she wanted, and more so with her own young children with special needs. Both her children, sadly, passed away this year within months of each other.

She described their passing away so calmly that we thought we heard her wrongly the first time round. Their deaths were quite recent too. It must have really hurt. Yet we saw a vibrant centre filled with over 200 children enrolled there, a huge jump from just three customers when she started off three years ago. How could someone manage to put so much energy to running a start-up whilst struggling with the tragic circumstances at home?

As we toured the centre, she pointed to a class which she said were children with special needs. Given her own circumstances, she wanted to also provide for others with special needs. Those who could not pay were charged subsidised fees. I saw a teacher massaging the legs of a child. She explained that the child could not walk properly and they were trying to strengthen the muscles to help him to walk.

Towards the end of the visit, I could not help but asked how she could cope with the huge demands of the new business given her own personal circumstances. She said that she could choose to be depressed but there was nothing she could do to reverse the situation. She would rather overcome her sorrows by putting her energy into doing something that will make a positive difference in the lives of others.

It was a very powerful message that I will remember for a long time. Yes, life is sometimes unfair. Some people get the short end of the stick. Life throws difficult curve balls at you. One can choose to live in depression and sorrow, or one can choose to put in extra energy to overcome the sadness by doing something positive. Ms A chose the latter and we could see the huge impact it has already made in her society.

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.

Building an Asian Community: Promoting Peaceful Developments and Embracing Political Diversity

The following is my speech delivered on 19 September 2014 at the International Conference of Asian Political Parties, 8th General Assembly at Colombo, Sri Lanka. The theme for the General Assembly was “Building An Asian Community”.

I had attended the ICAPP 8th General Assembly held in Sri Lanka from 18-21 September with 2 colleagues from WP Youth Wing. Also from Singapore were representatives from the Singapore People’s Party. The event provided an interesting exchange of ideas with some 300 politicians from the ruling and opposition parties of around 30 countries. Asia has very diverse cultures, religions, geographies, ideologies, types of governments and state of economic developments.

Delegates from WP and SPP of Singapore at ICAPP 2014

Groupie of delegates from WP and SPP of Singapore at ICAPP 2014

Throughout the proceedings, many speakers including myself had referred to the Asian century. As I listened to the optimism and occasional words of caution sounded by the speakers of the enormous potential of Asia, I was reminded of a discussion during my General Paper (GP) tutorial class in college over 30 years ago. The topic then was about Africa. After World World II, there were many countries that were gaining independence. Africa was exuberating with confidence as their resource-rich countries broke away from their colonial master. Sadly, with wars and mismanagement, the huge potential of Africa did not materialise, perhaps not yet. Asia is now indeed racing ahead with many of its huge economies on the rise. However, political leaders must guard against terrorism, internal and external conflicts and narrow-minded policies that can tear a country apart.

Yee JJ delivering speech at ICAPP, 19 Sep 2014

Yee JJ delivering speech at ICAPP, 19 Sep 2014

Building an Asian Community: Promoting Peaceful Developments and Embracing Political Diversity

Good afternoon, Mr Chairman and honourable delegates of ICAPP. As introduced, I am a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament in Singapore’s 12th Parliament. I am here with two Youth Wing colleagues of the Workers’ Party. They are currently in the youth wing session delivering a speech.

Thank you for inviting us to be at this gathering of political parties across Asia.

I am happy to be back in Colombo. My last trip here was for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s conference in 2012, also in the month of September and also in this same venue. I had received warm hospitality from the host during that trip so I am glad to be able to come back for this ICAPP General Assembly.

Geographically, Singapore is a small country by land size, somewhere in the middle of South East Asia and Asia. Since the founding of Singapore by the British nearly 200 years ago, the country had thrived by being a trading hub and more recently as a business, financial and technology hub. Next year will be the 50th year of our independence. Four years after that will be our 200th year since Sir Stamford Raffles founded modern Singapore.

As a small trading nation and business hub, peace and cooperation with other countries, especially in our region has been very important to Singapore.

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.

Singapore is a multiracial society comprising of four main races – Chinese, Malay, Indians and Eurasians. We also have many new immigrants amongst us, especially from Asia. Foreigners comprise nearly 40% of the population in Singapore today. Hence we have a rather diverse Asian community within Singapore. It is a challenge that we have to take on an ongoing basis to preserve the peace and harmony amongst one another. The relative peace between different ethnic groups and people of various faiths has been a key to enable our economic progress.

Hence I look forward to peaceful developments in countries across Asia, despite the challenges of many diverse religions, ethnic races and ideologies. Only peaceful development and cooperation with one another can help realize the potential of the Asian century.

The Workers’ Party of Singapore was formed in 1957. As the name implies, we started with a socialist incline. Currently on the political spectrum, we can be considered as being centre-left.

Those who follow Singapore politics may know that the ruling party has been in power since the self-independence of Singapore in 1959. From 1968-1981, there was no opposition presence in parliament. From 1981-2011, there were between 1-2 members of the opposition in parliament.

In 2011, the Singapore electorate voted in a record six members of the opposition at the General Elections. Today, there are seven elected opposition members and three non-constituency opposition MPs in our parliament. While this is still a very small number compared to that of many countries here, it was nevertheless an important political milestone for us.

I believe greater political competition and political diversity is yet another important development in our relatively young country’s progress. I believe we are not alone in Asia in moving towards greater political diversity as the proliferation of social media and the rising levels of education of the people have driven the desire in many countries for more political diversity.

Our team is happy to be here in the midst of so many political parties in Asia, the largest and most populous continent on Earth with so much political diversity. We look forward to fostering friendship and cooperation with the many political parties here. Thank you.

Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill

The following is my speech delivered on 5 August 2014 in Parliament and a follow-up question for MEWR Minister. Source: Parliament website – http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006478-WA&currentPubID=00006482-WA&topicKey=00006482-WA.00006478-WA_1%2Bid-4067f594-ea00-4e20-ac4b-1ad5493c5b74%2B


[speech by MEWR Minister and other members…]

Mr Yee Jenn Jong (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, I rise in support of the Bill. Since 1991, Singapore has endured recurring haze episodes resulting from land and forest fires in Indonesia, with last year’s being the worst ever. While I appreciate the efforts of our officials over the many years in trying to find workable solutions with our ASEAN neighbours on this issue, I have been concerned about our lack of ability to take more actions that are within our controls.

Hence, two years ago, I had asked the Government to consider legislative measures to allow us to prosecute companies found guilty of causing haze in Singapore through illegal burning, even if the acts were committed outside of our shores [1]. This Bill now gives us a new legal lever to exercise our rights to clean air, covering both criminal and civil liabilities for commercial entities responsible for land clearance if their actions outside of our territorial boundaries cause haze pollution in Singapore.

This Bill signals Singapore’s seriousness in combating this issue. Agricultural companies that wish to do business with Singapore or have their operational headquarters here will have to think seriously about their practices if they are not already practicing good land clearing practices.

My speech will focus on some details of the Bill and the potential challenges to put it in place, which the Minister and other Members had also pointed out.

Presumptions. First, there is a string of sweeping presumptions under clause 8 of the Bill which we need to especially convince our regional neighbours that these are fair and reasonable.

Clause 8 contains a series of legal presumptions to assist the prosecution to pin guilt on entities. There will be much controversy surrounding clause 8(4), which presumes the accuracy of land maps obtained by the Singapore Government from the foreign government or any person requested by the Singapore Government to furnish a map. If the Singapore Government decides to rely on that map, it is presumed under clause 8(4) that the entities reflected on the map as occupying particular geographical areas will be presumed to be doing so unless the entity proves otherwise. Is this presumption from a map reasonable? Therein lies a potential minefield.

Experts in agrarian land laws have cited the complexity of the law related to land in Indonesia [2] and the need for reforms in land registration [3 and 4]. There are reportedly ambiguities in land rights between the customary law or adat, which deems land as belonging to communities, and the formal law called the Basic Agrarian Law giving individual title to land. There are thus unregistered but valid land rights which would not show up in maps as they are generally not recognised by the State.
A further complication is that, under the Basic Forestry Law of 1967, all forest land is deemed to belong to the State, even when communities recognise their customary rights to the forest land among themselves. The Basic Agrarian Law of Indonesia recognises four types of land tenures that can be registered: (a) the right of ownership; (b) the right to use; (c) the right to exploit; and (d) the right to build. Different entities can hold the four different rights to the same piece of land. Many of the rights given to the urban and rural land in Indonesia have not been registered. In addition, foreign entities also team up with local entities to get de facto rights to the land, making it unclear as to who is the actual entity that is in charge of activities on the land parcels.

Given the state of affairs, how reliable would land maps from Indonesia be? Do the Indonesians themselves accept their government maps as accurate? This may call into question the reasonableness of the presumptions under clause 8(4).
Besides clause 8(4), the rest of clause 8 also places the burden of proof on a suspected entity to disprove its guilt. Clause 8(1) presumes that haze pollution in Singapore is caused by a land or forest fire outside Singapore if the meteorological data suggest so. Clause 8(2) presumes that an owner or occupier of the land alleged to have caused haze pollution in Singapore had engaged in conduct that caused or condoned the haze pollution. Clause 8(3) presumes that if any entity is believed to have caused or condoned haze pollution in Singapore, any other entity that participates in the management of the first entity has also caused or condoned haze pollution in Singapore.

While presumptions have been used in Singapore laws before, such as in the Misuse of Drugs Act, shifting the burden of proof to persons is likely to be more demanding, and even more so when the evidence is overseas. Where a legal presumption operates against an accused, it is not sufficient for the accused to cast a reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s case; instead, the accused has the burden of proof to rebut the legal presumption on a balance of probabilities. In order to do so, the accused entity is expected to bring its witnesses and documents to Singapore and foot the expenses of such. Even assuming that a foreign entity does all these things and is acquitted, there is no provision for it to recover its expenses or legal costs, since this is a criminal proceeding. A challenge will be that some foreign entities may not be interested to clear their name at their own expenses in Singapore.

Next, on the defences provided in the Bill. The Bill provides as defence to condoning haze pollution that if the accused Primary Person proves on a balance of probabilities, that the Primary Person took “all such measures reasonable” to prevent or stop or reduce substantially such conduct by the Secondary Person, if the haze pollution has already happened.
It will be good for parliament to clarify what standards of behaviour are the Primary Persons expected to implement to constitute a good defence? It would be a perverse policy outcome if Primary Persons are able to get away by simply inserting clauses in their contracts with their supplier Secondary Persons that the Secondary Persons must not engage in conduct that causes haze, and with the rights to terminate their contracts in the event of a breach.

Should we expect a higher standard of behaviour to be met before the clause can be invoked, such as for the Primary Persons to conduct regular audits of their contractors, plus provide resources to fight fires once they have broken out, and to do everything possible to prevent and fight haze fires?

The Bill provides for a fine of $100,000 per day if a party is found guilty of causing haze, plus $50,000 per day for failing to comply with preventive measures, up to a cap of $2 million. This was an increase from the earlier draft for caps of $300,000 to $450,000.

The Minister had said that we need to increase the overall level of deterrence [5]. For the purpose of clarity to the public, I would like to know the processes which the Government had used to arrive at these figures. Were other methods of computations for caps considered? I feel it is important for the Government to have a principled basis for these figures so that there will be greater acceptance of this Bill by our regional neighbours.

Enforcement. The Bill provides for the Director-General of Environmental Pollution or an authorised officer to give notice to any person, whether within or outside of Singapore to furnish information or documents. The challenge is to get the cooperation of contractors or sub-contractors, when the persons or corporations that do not have presence in Singapore or are not even managed from Singapore. Large plantation companies often work through contractors. Our courts will need to have concrete evidences if we wish to prosecute these plantation companies. Would this make it vulnerable for prosecution under this Act to fail due to the lack of evidence because of the lack of cooperation?

There are provision under Sections 4, 6(3) and 6(4) for “extra-territorial application”. Singapore currently does not have any umbrella extradition treaty with Indonesia. If the accused person fails to appear in court, a warrant of arrest is issued under Section 17. This will likely have little or no effect if the person is not in Singapore. We have many examples of such cases in other aspects of our laws. For example in divorce-related maintenance issues, there are many cases that have stalled for indefinite periods at this stage of the legal process because the accused is in a country which Singapore does not have an adequate extradition treaty with, such as Indonesia.

Good evidence is needed given the complex nature of the ownership and operations of plantations in Indonesia. Last year in the midst of the haze, several large plantations were flagged out publicly as possible culprits. The press reported that several of the named companies said that they followed strict no-burning policies, demanded their contractors to do the same, and had in fact worked to put out fires in neighbouring areas [6]. They also stated that while the permits for lands may be listed as belonging to them, they were not conducting activities on these concessions, or the permits have expired, or were not under their control as parts of the land may be occupied by others.

Regional Cooperation. While having this new legislation is good for signalling Singapore’s strong intent to fight transboundary haze, we will still have to rely heavily on good old-fashioned diplomacy and extending our strong support to our neighbours to help them prevent and fight forest fires. We also need their cooperation to ensure that prosecution and the enforcement of punishment can be carried out.

In this respect, it is very encouraging that Indonesia’s President-elect, Mr Joko Widodo, who also happens to be a forestry graduate, has backed our plans to impose heftier fines on transboundary polluters, but with a caveat to respect the sovereignty of Indonesia.[7]

Ultimately, the fires are burning in a sovereign foreign country. We need to have accurate and up-to-date land concession maps in order to have evidence against the companies implicated in unlawful forest fires. Most of all, it is best to be able to prevent these fires from starting.

An important step to solve the regional haze problem is for Indonesia to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Indonesia has remained the only ASEAN country not to have ratified the Agreement, with some officials citing the need for detailed protocols to guarantee Indonesia’s sovereignty. As the Minister and others had also pointed out, the haze, unfortunately affects ordinary Indonesians even more than it does to their neighbours as those in Riau and Kalimantan are where the most intense fires are. Our diplomacy efforts can extend towards helping Indonesia achieve their stated aim for a more sustainable agro-industry.

Last year, the Minister shared about Singapore’s collaboration with the province of Jambi [8]. He had termed it as one of our more successful efforts that saw a greater reduction in the number of hotspots in Jambi Province during our years of collaboration, compared to other fire-prone provinces in Sumatra. He attributed the success to the strong support given by the then Governor of Jambi, Pak Zulkifli Nurdin. The collaboration was not renewed, unfortunately, after 2011.

I believe our officials must be hard at work trying to build up that same level of close collaboration that we had back then with Jambi province and with other Indonesian provinces. This is a tireless effort that must not stop. With the signal of support sent by President-elect Mr Joko Widodo to have greater ASEAN collaboration on various environment issues, let us hope the Minister can soon share more success on this front of preventing fires at the frequent hotspot areas.

Mdm Speaker, notwithstanding the challenges to operationalise this Bill, I am pleased that we now have the legislative means to allow us to do more in the fight for our right to clean air. Thank you.

… [Speeches by other members and Minister’s response]

Mr Yee Jenn Jong: Thank you, Madam. I thank the Minister for the clarifications. I just have one question which is actually from my speech. I would like to know what would be our Singapore Government and the Minister’s expectations as to the Primary Person’s responsibility. How do you define “taking all such measures reasonable to prevent, stop and reduce substantially such actions by the Secondary Persons”? The reason I am asking this is it is very simple for large companies to insert clauses into their contracts with sub-contractors and then say that they have, therefore, safeguarded themselves. If a forest fire happens, they can then simply say it is the responsibility of their sub-contractor and, therefore, they have taken all reasonable measures. Thank you.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: I thank the Member for that query. I do not think the simple insertion of a few clauses into a contract will be a sufficient defence. But I will leave it to the judge in the court of law to assess whether that controlling entity has really done the best to prevent a fire, or did not know about the actions that led to the fire, or having known that the haze has being caused, did not take adequate action to put it out. These are issues which have to be settled in court. I do not think just having a clause in the contract absolves you of your responsibility and of your liability.



[1] http://www.landcoalition.org/sites/default/files/publication/1357/2012AsiaLandForum_AdeCholikMutaqin.pdf

[2] http://www.landcoalition.org/sites/default/files/legacy/legacypdf/angoc/ch2/ch2p06.pdf?q=pdf/angoc/ch2/ch2p06.pdf

[3] http://usaidlandtenure.net/Indonesia

[4] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00078137-WA&currentPubID=00078220-WA&topicKey=00078220-WA.00078137-WA_1%2BhansardContent43a675dd-5000-42da-9fd5-40978d79310f%2B2

[5] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/up-to-s-100-000-fine-for/1243194.html

[6] http://www.straitstimes.com/the-big-story/the-haze-singapore/story/haze-update-companies-reject-claims-they-were-behind-fires-20

[7] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-07-29/haze-fines-win-indonesia-s-support-with-caveats-southeast-asia.html

[8] http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00000206-WA&currentPubID=00000140-WA&topicKey=00000140-WA.00000206-WA_1%2Bid-631404fd-00cb-43b5-a98b-4d0b51828ccb%2B16

MEWR – Transboundary Haze Pollution

I delivered the following speech during the MEWR Committee of Supply debate on 10 March 2014:

Sir, the haze is at our doorstep again. Singapore has been affected by recurring haze episodes resulting from land and forest fires in Indonesia since 1991, with last year being the worst ever. These had an adverse impact on our tourism, economy and the health of our people.

I had previously in this House, called for legislation to empower our authorities to punish those found guilty of transboundary haze pollution in Singapore through their deliberate actions, even when committed outside of our shores. I am glad to see that the ministry is contemplating a bill to this effect that can impose criminal and civil liabilities on guilty entities. While some may argue that it is hard to impose our rights outside of Singapore, we should bear in mind that many of the large plantations have operations in Singapore or are public-listed here. We want to do business with companies that are responsible.

Many Singaporeans desire to know if the products they buy have been produced through illegal land clearance. While the fines may not seem large, the proposed legislation will now empower our government to have the means to take legal actions in our own courts against offenders. Such actions will signal to our consumers whose products they should and should not support. It will also signal to the region of our determination to solve this perennial problem and can hopefully spur other countries to enforce actions on offenders as well.

Happy Lunar New Year 2014

As we celebrate the Chinese New Year of the wooden horse, many of our Asian friends of other cultures are also celebrating their new year.

Vietnamese celebrate Tết, a shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán (節元旦) , which is translates into “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”. It takes place from the first day of the first month of the Vietnamese calendar until at least the third day. Vietnamese prepare for Tết by cooking special holiday foods and cleaning the house. They visit the homes of friends and relatives, perform ancestral worship, send New Year’s greetings and give lucky money to children and elderly people. Tết is also a time for family reunions. As Tết is on the first day of spring, it is often called Hội xuân (spring festival).

Singaporeans in Hanbok costume

Singaporeans in Hanbok costume

Koreans celebrate the Korean New Year or Seollal. Celebrations start on New Year’s Day and lasts for three days. Many would return to their hometowns to visit their parents and other relatives, where they perform an ancestral ritual. Traditionally, Koreans would dress up in their colourful hanbok, or traditional Korean clothing. Sebae (deep formal bow) is a traditionally observed activity on Seollal, and is filial piety oriented. Children wish their elders a happy new year by performing one deep traditional bow and say “saehae bok mani badeuseyo (새해 복 많이 받으세요)” which translates to “have a blessed New Year”. Parents give their children new year’s money in luck bags made with beautiful silk design and offering them words of wisdom.

Mongolians celebrate the Tsagaan Sar, or literally White Moon. It is the first day of the Mongolian lunar calendar. Around the New Year families burn candles at the altar symbolizing Buddhist enlightenment. Also people greet each other with holiday-specific greetings such as “Is there peace?”. Mongols visit friends and family to exchange gifts. A Mongol family will usually meet in the home of the eldest in the family. Many people will be dressed in full garment of national Mongol costumes. When greeting their elders during the White Moon festival, Mongols perform the zolgokh greeting, grasping them by their elbows to show support for them. The eldest receives greetings from each member of the family except for his/her spouse. During the greeting ceremony, family members hold long, typically blue, silk cloths called a khadag. After the ceremony, the extended family eats sheep’s tail, mutton, rice with curds, dairy products, and buuz (a grilled side of sheep and minced beef or minced mutton steamed inside pastry). It is also typical to drink airag (fermented horse milk) and exchange gifts.

The day before Tsagaan Sar is called Bituun (dark moon). On the Bituun day, people thoroughly clean around home, herders also clean the livestock barns and shades, to meet the New Year fresh. The Bituun ceremony also includes burning candles to symbolize enlightenment of the samsara and all sentient beings and putting three pieces of ice at the doorway so that the horse of the deity Palden Lhamo could drink. The deity is believed to visit every household on this day. In the evening, families gather together to see out the old year by eating dairy products and buuz. Traditionally, Mongolians settle all issues and repay all debts from the old year by this day.

Author in Bhutanese Gho at Bhutan's parliament house

Author in Bhutanese Gho at Bhutan’s parliament house

The Tibetans, Bhutanese and Nepalese celebrate Losar, the Tibetan word for “new year”. It is also celebrated by Tibetan Buddhists Worldwide. Before the Tibetan New Year, Nyi Shu Gu is celebrated on the eve of the last night of the year.

Losar is celebrated for 15 days, with the main celebrations on the first three days. On the first day of Losar, a beverage called changkol is made from chhaang (a beer-like drink). Losar occurs near or on the same day as the Chinese New Year, but the traditions of Losar are unique to Tibet, and predates both Indian and Chinese influences.  Losar this year is celebrated from 2 March. Originally, ancient celebrations of Losar occurred solely on the winter solstice, and was only moved to coincide with the Chinese and Mongolian New Year by a leader of the Gelug school of Buddhism. 31 Jan 2014 is the traditional day of offering in Bhutan, the 1st day of the 12th month of the Tibetian calendar. It was said to be the original new year day celebrated in Bhutan.

Losar celebrations in Bhutan include a traditional morning meal, as well as a midday meal and afternoon snack. Sugar cane and green bananas are considered auspicious foods, the presence of which helps to ensure the New Year will be a good one. Bhutanese hold archery competitions (archery is their national sport), and play darts and other games. Families picnic, people dance and sing, and offerings are made.

Archery competition in Bhutan

Archery competition in Bhutan

It is also the year of the horse (wooden horse for most) for these countries.

Japan used to celebrate new year on the same day as the Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians and Vietnamese. However, in 1873, five years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar and 1st January became the official and cultural New Year’s Day. In the Ryukyu Islands, a separate cultural New Year is still celebrated based on the Chinese lunar calendar. New year is still celebrated in Okinawa island based on the lunar calendar.

A common theme in all these new year celebrations is the strong tradition of family ties and respect for the elders, something we should strive to preserve even as we face the influences of new cultures through the media and the Internet.

Also, despite the differences that these great ancient cultures have with one another, there are also many similar practices. Sometimes when we see differences in others, it is also helpful to remember the many similarities that we share.

Happy Chinese New Year, happy Tết, happy Seollal, happy Tsagaan Sar and happy Losar. Hope I have not missed out others through my limited knowledge of the cultures around us.

Sources: Wikipedia and published holiday calendars.