TODAY: WP urges President to appoint panel to probe JI leader’s escape

LEONG WEE KEAT
weekeat@mediacorp.com.sg

THE Workers’ Party (WP) is urging the President to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to look into the escape of detained Jemaah Islamiyah leader Mas Selamat Kastari, instead of the committee appointed for that purpose by the Minister for Home Affairs.

Party chairman Sylvia Lim noted that under the Inquiries Act – a new law passed last September – the President of Singapore can appoint a Commission to look into any matter “for the public welfare or in the public interest”. He can also direct that the inquiry “proceed in public”.

Her party’s concern is that the current Committee of Inquiry, as established under the Prisons Act, allows the Minister to “retain the discretion to release the findings as he sees fit”.

“The problem is that the Prisons Act states that such inquiries shall not be open to the public … This raises important questions as to how much the public will eventually be told,” Ms Lim said in a statement, even as she noted that it was technically “not wrong” to convene the inquiry under the Prisons Act since the Whitley Road Detention Centre – from which Mas Selamat escaped on Feb 27 – is gazetted as a prison.

The current committee is headed by retired High Court judge Goh Joon Seng, with former Police Commissioner Tee Tua Ba and the Home Affairs Ministry’s deputy secretary for security and corporate services, Dr Choong May Ling, on board.

In response, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesperson said that Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng has stated that “after the Committee of Inquiry completes its inquiry, we will give a full account to the public on how Mas Selamat escaped and what has been done to tighten security to prevent such a thing from happening again”.

Pointing out that the escape of a “high-risk terror suspect” was a matter of “high public interest”, Ms Lim, who is a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, said that if the concern was that “release of certain sensitive information will jeopardise the national interest”, the Inquiries Act allows the President to direct that such facts not be made public.

Ms Lim added that “since Singaporeans have been marshalled to assist the authorities to hunt for Mas Selamat, the least the Government could do is to keep us fully informed of the inquiry and its findings”.

Straits Times: Workers’ Party wants presidential inquiry

BY PEH SHING HUEI

SALUTED: Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim praised the security forces for their hard work in the islandwide manhunt.

THE opposition Workers’ Party (WP) has called for an alternative panel to be set up by the President to look into the escape of terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari.

Instead of the committee that was set up by Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng, the WP proposed yesterday that President S R Nathan appoint a Commission of Inquiry under the Inquiries Act so that investigations “can proceed in public as the President shall direct”.

In a press statement signed by chairman Sylvia Lim, the WP noted that Mr Wong’s Committee of Inquiry is being set up under the Prisons Act.

This is not wrong, since the Whitley Road Detention Centre is considered a prison under this law, said Ms Lim.

However, she pointed out: “The Prisons Act states that such inquiries shall not be open to the public. The Committee will submit its report to the Minister, and no part of the proceedings may be released to anyone except with the Minister’s written permission.

“This raises important questions as to how much the public will eventually be told, since the Minister retains the discretion to release the findings as he sees fit.”

As announced by the government, the independent committee is headed by former High Court judge Goh Joon Seng and will look into how Mas Selamat, 47, broke out of the detention centre a fortnight ago and recommend changes to prevent similar breakouts.

“In a matter of such high public interest as the escape of a high-risk terror suspect from a government-run facility, what assurances or checks are there that the public will be given full information?” asked Ms Lim, who is also a Non-Constituency MP.

“In the interest of transparency, other governments have conducted public hearings into sensitive matters such as intelligence failures.”

Since Independence, seven Commissions of Inquiry have been formed, including one on the Sentosa cable car accident in 1983 and another on the Hotel New World collapse in 1986.

In recommending that the President appoint a commission of inquiry under the Inquiries Act, Ms Lim noted that this would “allow the inquiry to proceed in public as the President shall direct”.

“If there is concern that release of certain sensitive information will jeopardize the national interest, the President may direct that certain information not be made public,” she added.

She asserted: “Since Singaporeans have been marshalled to assist the authorities to hunt for Mas Selamat, the least the Government could do is to keep us fully informed of the inquiry and its findings.”

But Ms Lim also gave credit to the security forces, saying they have been “hard at work in an island-wide manhunt” and that the immediate priority has “rightly” been placed on Mas Selamat’s recapture.


Reply from Home Affairs Ministry

“Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng has stated that after the Committee of Inquiry completes its inquiry, we will give a full account to the public on how Mas Selamat escaped and what has been done to tighten security to prevent such a thing from happening again.”
HOME AFFAIRS MINISTRY SPOKESMAN, in response to The Straits Times yesterday

Straits Times: Squeeze money from motorists? Minister rebuts Low

BY CLARISSA OON

TRANSPORT Minister Raymond Lim yesterday rejected opposition MP Low Thia Khiang’s accusation that the purpose of the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme was to generate revenue and “squeeze money out of car owners”.

That is a “popular” assumption which “flies against the facts”, said Mr Lim.

When ERP was introduced, several charges were reduced. They include the additional registration fee (ARF) on cars, excise duty and road tax. In all, they add up to $1.2 billion in revenue forgone and this recurs every year, he said.

In comparison, the current revenue from ERP charges is about $100 million.

Later, when Mr Low suggested again that the expansion of the ERP scheme would “benefit and enrich” the Government’s coffers, Mr Lim trotted out more figures.

Against the $70 million projected from additional ERP charges this year, the Government will forgo some $110 million annually from the reduction of road tax, he said.

Mr Lim said: “Since 1998, every time we have adjusted the ERP system and relied more on usage charges, we have brought down quite significantly the vehicle ownership taxes.”

What this means is that the burden of taxation has shifted from car ownership to car usage.

ERP, which charges vehicles for the use of busy roads, is meant to control congestion and “is not a revenue measure”, stressed Mr Lim.

Earlier, an impassioned Mr Low had said vehicle taxation has become a “strong revenue-generating model” for the Government, noting the 35 per cent year-on-year increase in the latest estimates for vehicle tax collection. A fresh round of ERP hikes are expected in July.

Playing on Mr Lim’s earlier remark that the efficient public transport system here was “uniquely Singapore”, Mr Low countered that what was unique about the country was “perhaps private car users pay through their nose with the highest car price and probably (highest price for) road usage in time to come”.

Mr Lim firmly refuted this, pointing out that the Government had lost much more through reducing ARF, excise duty and road tax, than it had gained by expanding ERP.

Mr Low also asked the minister to spell out the criteria for deciding where to place ERP gantries in the heartland. The MP suggested that Ang Mo Kio had been spared because it “happens to be the Prime Minister’s constituency”.

“That’s not the way we do things,” Mr Lim said sharply.

“You know that it’s a congestion measure and if there are indeed roads in there that are congested, ERP would have been effected.”

But how high are ERP and car certificate of entitlement (COE) charges likely to go, quizzed Mr Low. He wanted to know what was the “optimum car population being targeted” by the Transport Ministry.

The minister questioned in return if there really was such a thing as “an optimal mix” for ERP and COE fees.

“It really depends on the congestion levels and you need, therefore, a dynamic system. You can’t sort of say that ‘I want to fix it this way’.”

The cardinal rule, he said, is that “the vehicle population growth rate cannot grow faster than the rate at which our roads are growing”.


ERP and MRT queries: Minister responds

NO ANOMALY: Transport Minister Raymond Lim explained why ERP gantries have been erected in Toa Payoh but not Ang Mo Kio.


OPPOSITION MP LOW THIA KHIANG (HOUGANG)

Mr Low said he received feedback that roads in Ang Mo Kio experience congestion levels similar to those in Toa Payoh during morning peak hours.

But, he noted that ERP gantries have been erected in Toa Payoh, not in Ang Mo Kio, “which incidentally happens to be the PM’s constituency”. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC.

Mr Low wanted Mr Lim to clarify this “anomaly”.

MR RAYMOND LIM’s RESPONSE

Mr Lim said he was “disappointed” with Mr Low’s remarks.

“That’s not the way we do things. You know that it’s a congestion measure and if there are indeed roads in there that are congested, ERP would have been effected.”

Besides, key access roads to Ang Mo Kio GRC already have ERP gantries, he noted.

Straits Times: Pegging educators’ pay to results: Students affected?

BUDGET DEBATE – DAY 7

BY CLARISSA OON

OPPOSITION MP Low Thia Khiang (Hougang) yesterday took issue with the way one school principal told a class of Secondary 5 Normal (Academic) students to forget about sitting for their O levels, and to apply for places in the Institute of Technical Education instead.

The incident involved a mission school for girls, which was not named, and caused a stir when it was reported in January.

Yesterday, Mr Low asked the Education Minister if pegging educators’ pay to the school’s performance comes at the expense of weaker students.

From next month, the pay and bonuses of principals and teachers will be tied more closely to their performance.

Mr Low asked exactly how they are assessed and if factors such as the school’s ranking and the mean subject grade of the class are considered.

If so, he felt that educators are “unwittingly being transformed into technocrats, crunching and manipulating numbers either to meet a personal goal or a national objective”.

In reply, Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said principals and teachers are assessed on a range of competencies, and not just based on school awards or rankings or their students’ academic results.

This transparent appraisal system for educators is called the Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS).

Among its criteria is whether teachers “are able to teach creatively and effectively, whether they go out of the way to look after the needs of their students” and “whether they contribute to better teamwork in their department”.

The bottom line, said the minister, is their “passion and commitment to nurture the whole child”.

He said that when the incident mentioned by Mr Low was first reported, he did a careful study of the school and the performance of its Normal stream students.

He found that almost all its Secondary 4 Normal (Academic) students moved on to Secondary 5.

Under the same principal, the school’s successive cohorts of Secondary 5 students also did better in their O levels compared to other schools.

He suggested that she had her own method of motivating the students.

“Different schools have different methods. The ministry tries not to scrutinise everything they say or do, as long as they don’t make serious mistakes.

“In fact, this same school had a requirement some years ago, where all its girls had to wear a petticoat. It was the school’s decision and parents understood the ethos of the school,” said the minister.

He noted that striking the right balance between “affirming” and “challenging” children is “a complex matter” and that both are needed for effective results.

A recent international study by the United States’ Brookings Institution found that the most confident eighth-grade maths students came from the Middle East, Africa and the US.

Yet students from East Asia – such as those from Hong Kong, Korea and Japan – did better in terms of international maths test scores, even though they ranked among the lowest in self-confidence.

“The study found that the least confident student in Singapore did better in mathematics than the most confident American student,” said Mr Tharman with a smile.

Schools and principals, he concluded, have to find their own way of pushing students to do better, and only time will tell which are the right methods.

Straits Times: Low queries PA’s financial reports

BUDGET DEBATE – DAY 6

HOUGANG MP Low Thia Khiang yesterday queried financial disclosure standards of the People’s Association (PA).

He asked why its audited financial statements did not include financial information on the grassroots organisations (GROs) – such as community clubs and residents’ committees – under its charge.

This non-inclusion means that PA’s auditors could qualify its financial statements on the basis that the GROs were not included, he observed.

“Such qualified audited reports of the PA do not help to enhance the reputation of the public sector.

“Moreover, PA handles hundreds of millions of public funds,” he noted.

Replying during the debate on the budget of the Ministry of Finance (MOF), Minister of State Lim Hwee Hua gave five reasons why PA feels that the GROs’ accounts should not be consolidated:

>> First, the money belongs to the GROs.

>> Second, government grants and cost of staff support are already accounted for in the PA’s financial statements.

>> Third, the GROs are operationally self-funding through revenues from activities, courses and donations.

>> Fourth, the GROs decide on how their money should be spent on residents.

>> Fifth, proper procurement procedures, financial control and good corporate governance practices apply to the GROs.

Mr Low also asked if it was acceptable to the ministry that the financial statements of the GROs, under the management and supervision of the PA, be left outside of the PA’s financial statements, “and effectively out of public scrutiny and accountability”.

Mrs Lim replied: “The Accountant-General’s Department and the Ministry of Finance are discussing this issue with PA.”

LI XUEYING

Straits Times: Contradiction? No, means testing not urgent back in 2006

BUDGET DEBATE – DAY 6

BY LI XUEYING

HEALTH Minister Khaw Boon Wan and Workers’ Party MP Low Thia Khiang crossed swords yesterday over whether the former was “contradicting” himself by now pushing ahead with means testing for payment towards public hospital stays.

Speaking in Mandarin, the Hougang MP pointed out that just before the May 6, 2006 General Election, Mr Khaw had said that he had not considered the issue. Yet, he was now going ahead with means testing.

The minister declared there was no contradiction, because what he had said in 2006 was that means testing was not urgent on his agenda then.

“I had many other urgent issues to attend to. I wanted to further reform Medisave … and reform MediShield to allow larger payouts.

“So these were the key issues…at the top of my head. I said, at some stage we’ll probably do means testing but it’s certainly not urgent. And I even said I don’t see myself implementing it in the first year,” he said.

“So I have not contradicted what I said during the GE,” said Mr Khaw.

The minister also took on Mr Low’s charge that means testing takes away Singaporeans’ right to decide if they have the means to pay their hospital bills.

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Low said: “This is a fundamental change. Currently, a patient can gauge his own financial well-being and decide which ward he wants to be in and thus which subsidy to qualify for.

“Under means testing, even if a patient thinks he cannot afford it and so decides to go for the C-class ward, the Government can – after assessing his financial ability – still make him pay higher fees.”

He also questioned the Government’s motive in implementing means testing.

“Means testing allows the Government to legitimately reduce its subsidies to those patients whom it thinks can afford it,” he said.

“This will result in higher bills for some – and perhaps, in future, the majority of – B2- and C-class patients.”

Ultimately, hospitalisation subsidies are the “final line of defence” in Singapore’s social safety net, he argued.

“Once hospitalisation means testing is implemented, Singaporeans’ anxieties about a lack of social security will increase.”

Mr Khaw replied that all Singaporeans – regardless of income level – can still opt for C-class wards.

The only difference is that for richer Singaporeans, “your subsidy need not be as high as someone who is earning a fraction of your income!”

Mr Low then argued that means testing would end up hurting the middle class the most.

“Does the minister not agree that the outcome of means testing will be for the not-so-rich to pay more? The real rich will go to private hospitals,” he noted. “Is the Government unable to afford improving health care, without implementing means testing?”

Mr Khaw conceded that means testing could hurt the middle class. He pointed out however that the Government had “erred on the side of generosity”, by adopting $3,200 as the personal income cut-off.

This way, almost 60 per cent of the population will still qualify for full subsidies in B2- and C-class wards, he noted.