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Every Child Deserves Best Possible Help In Pre-School: Shanmugam

5 Aug

SINGAPORE – It’s common knowledge that middle-income parents are able to give their children a headstart. But how does Singapore make sure that other children, with fewer advamtages, also get “as best an education as possible even before they get into primary school”?

This was the question that Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam posed on Saturday night, at a National Day celebration dinner in Chong Pang.

“Our primary school system is very good, our secondary school system is very good, our universities are world class.

“I believe that the first six years are also extremely important, and we do a lot on the preschool system – but I personally believe that as a society, we can emphasise (the latter) even more,” he said.

In his speech at the dinner, the minister dwelt on two key fundamentals to Singapore’s success: Meritocracy and equality of opportunity. While these fundamentals do not change, the Government has to constantly re-examine whether its policies are consistent with the fundamentals, he said.

Singling out pre-school education, he said all children deserved it and should get the best possible help in their pre-school years. Every child from every background needs to be helped to achieve their full potential, Mr Shanmugam emphasised.

In an interview with TODAY earlier this week, Mr Shanmugam had also spoken of his “close interest” in pre-school education. In 2005, the Chong Pang PAP Community Foundation kindergarten piloted a programme – based on the Reggiano concept – to promote innovative thinking, curiosity and problem solving skills. He has raised over S$1 million to help subsidise the programme in his constituency.

The National Day celebration dinner on Saturday was attended by some 1,800 residents. Mr Shanmugam gave out bursary awards to 189 primary and secondary school students, in amounts ranging from S$50 to S$350. – CHANNEL NEWSASIA AND TAN WEIZHEN

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NUS Prof In Sex-For-Grades Scandal To Remain In S’pore

5 Aug

SINGAPORE – The National University of Singapore (NUS) law professor embroiled in sex-for-grades allegations appeared in court yesterday afternoon to withdraw his application to leave the country.

Tey Tsun Hang’s lawyer Peter Low told the court that, two nights ago, Tey was informed by the university that, as he had been suspended from active duty, NUS “will not approve his sabbatical leave or leave for academic or other purposes”.

“NUS is (also) not able to support his application to leave jurisdiction to teach at Hong Kong University”, said Mr Low.

Tey was supposed to teach at the Hong Kong University from September to May next year. He had made plans and arrangements for the sabbatical since last May, added Mr Low. In March, the law faculty confirmed that approval had been given for Tey.

Yesterday, Tey read out a statement in Mandarin to reporters before he entered court, saying he would do his utmost to defend against the charges which he strongly believes have no legal basis. He also requested for fair reporting by the media.

Tey, 41, a former district judge, is alleged to have given his former student Darinne Ko Wen Hui better grades between May and July 2010, in return for sex on two occasions.

Besides allegedly receiving a S$740 Mont Blanc pen and tailor-made shirts, Ko also allegedly paid for one of Tey’s bills amounting to almost S$1,300.

Tey’s next court hearing is scheduled for Aug 23. If convicted, he faces up to five years in jail and a fine of up to S$100,000.

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Govt To Provide ‘Ladders For Success’

5 Aug

SINGAPORE – Even as he reassured Singaporeans that the young have a good future, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday outlined what the Government will do better to improve opportunities for everyone.

He said the Government will make opportunities more equal at an early stage in life, provide “ladders for success” to Singaporeans after they leave school, and improve the delivery of subsidies to older Singaporeans.

Speaking at his constituency’s National Day Dinner last night at Taman Jurong, Mr Tharman said Singapore’s situation is “not bad” to start with.

Almost eight in 10 Singaporean parents were confident that their children will do better than them when they grow up, he said, citing a recent survey commissioned by The Straits Times and reported on July 21. This is in contrast to a global survey by Pew Research Centre, released on July 12, which found fewer than half of American parents feel the same way, Mr Tharman noted.

In Europe and Japan, the Pew survey found that fewer than half of parents there are confident of their children doing better than themselves when they grow up.

Mr Tharman said that not everyone does well in school, and it was important to help young Singaporeans after they leave school.

“We still have in Singapore too much emphasis on academic credentials,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we provide ladders to success for everyone, including those who do not do well in school. And there’s more work to be done in this regard, by the employers and by all of us as customers and as society.

“We have to pay more respect to blue collar workers, give them pride in their jobs, pay them fairly and help them progress in their careers up to the highest level their skills can take them.”

Mr Tharman cited two employees he met on Thursday at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, who started out as waiters before subsequently upgrading themselves. One of them, Branden Chia, 31, attained his diploma and is now earning nearly three times the S$1,100 he started out with 12 years ago.

Some older Singaporeans have expressed concerns about low pay and healthcare costs, and Mr Tharman said the Government will help via increasing productivity and wages through the tripartite approach, via Workfare, and via the healthcare framework of Medisave, MediShield and Medifund.

“Many of them are still worried about their healthcare costs and we will improve how we deliver our subsidies, how we explain upfront how much they can receive, so they don’t have to worry so much before their treatments,” he said.

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What Was PM Doing At Bishan Park?

5 Aug

SINGAPORE – The Prime Minister recorded his annual National Day Message at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park – which faces his Teck Ghee ward – yesterday morning.

This is the first time that Mr Lee Hsien Loong has recorded his message entirely at an outdoor location. The message will be broadcast on television on the eve of National Day.

Later in the day, Mr Lee posted a picture on his Facebook wall with an update: “Snapped at Bishan-AMK Park this morning. An impromptu audience watching me record my National Day Message.”

Within hours, Mr Lee’s post attracted more than 1,500 “likes” and more than 70 comments. Joni Chua, one of those who commented, wrote: “Cool. Going closer to the ground is a good approach in engaging the people. Like the idea. Look forward to the ND (National Day) msg.”

Catch the Prime Minister’s National Day message on Channel NewsAsia on Aug 8 at 6.45pm.

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NTUC Wants More Workplace Support For Breastfeeding Mums

5 Aug

SINGAPORE- The labour movement’s U Family unit has called on more employers to support back-to-work breastfeeding mothers through providing flexible lactation breaks, and for office building owners to provide functional nursing and family corners.

According to a U Family Survey on Breastfeeding conducted in April of 1,318 married women, 98 per cent were aware of the health benefits to mothers and babies if babies are breastfed for a minimum of six months.

Yet, 30 per cent of mothers said they weaned off breastfeeding before their babies turned six months old when they returned to work.

Close to 50 per cent who did not breastfeed, or planned not to breastfeed for at least six months, felt that there was a lack of support at the workplace – such as lactation breaks and functional lactation corners. Half said employer support at the workplace was “most important” for them to continue breastfeeding after returning to work.

Some challenges cited included inconvenience, a non-conducive office environment, disruption to work, lack of time to express milk during office hours and lack of support from employers and co-workers.

Many believe it is the basic right of a female employee and breastfeeding mothers to be given lactation support by the company: 798 respondents said they would approach their supervisor or HR representative to ask for support.

If their employer still did not provide support for breastfeeding after they had requested for it, nearly half (48 per cent) respondents admitted they would stop breastfeeding or cut down on their pumping sessions altogether.

As for the type of help they prefer, 44 per cent wanted lactation support such as functional lactation corners, lactation breaks and storage facilities. And 23 per cent wanted the option of flexible work arrangements, while 21 per cent hoped for employers to be more understanding and accommodating.

Based on the survey findings, U Family urged employers and managers to work out a flexible arrangement with breastfeeding mothers, so that they can take 20 to 30 minutes – beyond their regular meal breaks – to prepare and express their breast milk.

The union also pointed that there is no requirement for building owners to provide family or nursing corners in office buildings, including those in the Central Business District. It is not uncommon for nursing mothers to pump their breast milk in toilets and utility rooms.

The union called on owners of office buildings and public areas with a considerable workforce size and financial resources, to consider building baby-friendly infrastructure — like a safe, clean and private area equipped with storage facilities for mothers.

One supportive employer cited was Sembcorp Industries, which not only provides hospital grade lactation pumps but also a steriliser and refrigerator in its nursing room – even though a vast majority of employees at its Jurong Island office are male. Such facilities are offered at Sembcorp’s corporate headquarters as well.

On Saturday, more than 3,000 parents and babies thronged the National Trades Union Congress’ third Baby’s Day Out bash – an annual networking event for parents – at The Lawn@Marina Bay .

They set the record of Singapore’s largest national flag made up of more than 1,000 milk bottles, in a show of support for baby-friendly practices at the workplace.

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Two Men Jailed For Sex With Underage Prostitutes

4 Aug

SINGAPORE – Two men were jailed today for having sex with underage Vietnamese prostitutes.

Fifty four-year-old Wee Lian Kee, a subcontractor, was jailed nine weeks for paying a girl, who was then 16 years old, for sex.

Forty six-year-old Yee Yew Seng was jailed three months and one week for having paid sex with a girl, who was then 17 years old. Yee, a former storeman, was also found guilty of a second charge of theft.

He stole various electronic items, including fans and cordless jug, from a store at Shunli Industrial Complex in May this year.

Wee and Yee are part of the six men who were previously charged with paying for sex with Vietnamese girls, aged between 16 and 17, in July last year.

Court documents revealed that both men met the Vietnamese girls on separate occasions in Geylang.

When they asked about the girls’ ages, they were told that the girls were of age. However, the court heard that the men did not verify the ages.

Both men later paid them between S$180 and S$200 for their sexual services at nearby hotels.

Previously in mitigation, Wee’s lawyer had said that his client was “careless” in trusting the girl’s claim of her age. Wee, a father-of-three, was also said to be “shocked and frightened”.

Also pleading for leniency, Yee’s lawyer told the court today that Yee was remorseful.

For having paid sex with underage girls, both men could be jailed up to seven years and fined. CHANNEL NEWSASIA

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Heineken Agrees Deal To Take Control Of APB

4 Aug

LONDON – Global brewer Heineken announced that it has reached an agreement to acquire its stakes in Asia Pacific Breweries at S$50 per share.

It agreed to a US$4 billion-plus (S$5-billion plus) deal today to take control of Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) by agreeing to buy a stake in the Singapore-based brewer from partner Fraser and Neave (F&N).

Heineken had given F&N a deadline of Friday to agree to a sale, and a deal has been agreed in principle and has gone to the F&N board for rubber stamping, sources said. REUTERS

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NUS Law Professor Withdraws Application To Leave Singapore

4 Aug

Singapore – The National University of Singapore (NUS) law professor in the alleged sex-for-grades case appeared in court this afternoon to withdraw his application to leave the country.

Tey Tsun Hang’s lawyer, Mr Peter Low told the court that two nights ago, the university informed Tey that as he had been suspended from active duty, NUS “will not approve his sabbatical leave for academic or other purposes”.

“NUS is not able to support his application to leave jurisdiction to teach at Hong Kong University”, added Mr Low.

Tey was supposed to be on sabbatical at the Hong Kong University’s law faculty from September to May next year. He had made plans and arrangements for the sabbatical leave since May, said Mr Low.

Earlier, Tey made another statement to the media before his court appearance. In the statement which he read in Mandarin outside the Subordinate Court, Tey Tsun Hang reiterated that he will be defending himself against the charges, which he says have no legal basis. He also requested that the media be fair in its reporting.

Tey, 41, a former district judge, is alleged to have given Ms Darrine Ko Wen Hui better grades between May and July 2010, in return for sex on two occasions.

He allegedly also received tailor made shirts and a S$740 Mont Blanc pen. Tey also had one of his bills amounting to almost S$1,300 paid for by Ko.

The academic was suspended from the university after he was charged. His next court hearing is scheduled for 23 Aug at 2.15pm.

If convicted, he faces up to five years in jail and a fine of up to S$100,000.

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Understanding Their Concerns, One On One

4 Aug

SINGAPORE – It’s not often a Singapore citizen writes a critical post on his blog about national policy or emails a Government leader with his views, and winds up invited to a private face-to-face chat with said minister.

But at least three individuals in the past two months have found themselves offered that unique opportunity to meet Mr K Shanmugam one-on-one.

Blogger and train officer Alan Tang, 48, who uses the moniker Gintai, had in April written a post questioning housing prices and postulating that Permanent Residents seemed to have more benefits than Singaporeans.

The post was widely circulated and found its way to Mr Shanmugam’s Facebook page and his email inbox. Two months later, in June, Mr Tang was exchanging views with the Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs, in an hour-long session at the latter’s office.

“I read (the post) … I assessed him to be sincere and genuine, so I wanted to meet up with him,” Mr Shanmugam told TODAY earlier this week, in an interview this paper had requested.

“I went into it thinking that it was an off-the-record discussion, and then he wanted to blog about it,” he said, on being surprised by Mr Tang’s detailed post about their discussion afterwards. “It’s a new experience – now I know,” he added good-naturedly.

Mr Shanmugam said he “enjoyed the conversation”. “What he said left me with some things to think about, and I think I also left him with many things to think about.”

‘THE KIND OF PERSON WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND’

Just the day before this interview, on Monday, Mr Shanmugam had spent one-and-a-half hours with an unhappy Nee Soon resident, who had been sending “many critical emails” expressed in “somewhat intemperate language” to him and other government agencies.

Noted Mr Shanmugam: “He is a beneficiary of our system because he runs his own business, he is not quite middle-aged … He’s well-spoken, he writes well. So this is the kind of person we need to talk to and understand, if he would talk to me.”

The minister emailed the resident, and they met and spoke about a range of issues such as housing and foreign workers. Mr Shanmugam said the man, who was angry because he felt the Government was not listening to feedback, “went away knowing that I was serious about talking to him”.

He added: “I told him it’s not going to be easy, but I will try to see him and, in the meanwhile, read the papers he promised to send.”

Mr Shanmugam has met other individuals privately as well and, two days ago, on Thursday, he was due to meet – for the second time – a Singaporean undergraduate studying in Boston. (The meeting was cancelled, as the student could not make it.) The student, who had contacted the minister via email, had a keen interest in foreign policy and commented on Singapore’s policies.

‘I CAN’T MEET EVERYONE’

Dialogues between ministers and the public are regular affairs, be it through events such as the Pre U Seminar or during community visits. For Mr Shanmugam, a busy minister managing two portfolios on top of the affairs of his Chong Pang ward, the obvious question is: Why set aside time to meet with individuals?

Such one-on-one sessions are “not usual”, Mr Shanmugam clarified. “It depends on who I come across, how much time I have, and specific issues.”

“It’s not possible for me to meet with everyone who wants to see me, then I can’t do any work,” he added, though he did not rule out such further private chats. “I’ve been engaging a variety of people and, where useful, I will engage others, provided of course they want to talk to me.”

More often, Mr Shanmugam turns to group discussions, where he meets 30 to 40 people. Sometimes it is only five or six young lawyers, other times, up to 200 students in a junior college.

VIEWS FROM A CROSS-SECTION

Speaking to a broad variety of groups on diverse issues – including those not directly under his purview as minister – gives him “a good feel for the cross-section on how people feel on different issues,” he explained. “Actions by the Government impact on people in a number of ways, and we need to understand exactly how is it impacting across a cross-section.”

He has met with groups such as the Association of Muslim Professionals, Singapore Soka Association, self-help groups, as well as senior citizens and students. His work in animal welfare is also well-known; as he put it, “a lot of people link me closely with some of the NGOs involved in animal welfare”.

He also has a “close interest” in pre-school education, which he believes every child should have access to. In 2005, the Chong Pang PAP Community Foundation kindergarten piloted a programme to promote innovative thinking and problem-solving skills; Mr Shanmugam raised over a million dollars to help subsidise it in his constituency.

Even if the people he meets are not influential in, say, shaping public opinion, Mr Shanmugam states: “If it helps me, I will talk to them. It helps me when I can better understand what people in the different sectors think.”

“The reason I meet them is because it gives me a raw, unedited, unexpurgated viewpoint on issues,” he added.

SERIOUS ISSUES

Not everyone takes up an invitation to a personal chat, however.

In September last year, Mr Shanmugam wanted to meet with blogger Andrew Loh after coming across an article that pointed out the flaws of Section 157(d) of the Evidence Act. Mr Loh had sent the article, written by volunteer writer Lisa Li, to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Law Ministry, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and government feedback unit REACH.

The piece had identified issues “in the context of the kind of things women had to face if they wanted to make a complaint about rape or sexual assault. So this is a serious piece, the issues raised were serious and had to be dealt with,” recalled Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Loh, however, had explained that what was written was based on feedback from the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), and thus referred him to AWARE. Mr Shanmugam met with the non-government organisation. Months later, Mr Shanmugam presented a Bill to amend the Evidence Act, include deleting Section 157(d).

In an email to TODAY, Mr Loh said AWARE had conducted in-depth research on the issue, and so he felt it would be more productive for the minister to speak to the women’s group instead. But he did meet Mr Shanmugam eventually at an AWARE function, and the minister followed up with a phone conversation with Mr Loh.

“The minister was cordial and friendly,” said Mr Loh. The minister, he recounted, expressed interest in hearing views “from the ground” and wanted to hear views on other issues such as public housing and transport.

DOWN-TO-EARTH SINCERITY

Mr Henry Kwek, 35, a grassroots volunteer who helped arrange the meeting between Mr Shanmugam and Mr Tang, believes such discussions are important for the minister.

“On average, Minister strives to meet youths twice a month. He also attends numerous dialogues, outreach efforts and one-on-one meetings. I have been personally involved for more than 20 of them,” said Mr Kwek.

Other than ensuring that Mr Shanmugam gets “accurate ground sentiments”, the face-to-face sessions “also allow him to catch all the nuances and put the feedback in the proper context”, he noted.

On the feedback from those whom Mr Shanmugam has met, Mr Kwek said young people find him “sincere and patient” as well as “persuasive”. “Many times, the youths are surprised to find that their conclusions are not that different from prevailing policies.”

He noted: “Perhaps it is because they have expanded their viewpoints from that of an individual, to that of a society. Naturally, there are occasions when they end up with differing views. But they at least appreciate that policies are designed with the betterment of society in mind.”

As for blogger Mr Tang – whose first reaction on being invited to a private chat was that it was a prank call – that one-on-one meeting with Mr Shanmugam led to a follow-up group session with fellow train drivers last month.

“They raised several specific issues, and I said I will deal with them,” said Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Tang said they spoke about social issues, housing and cost of living over the two-hour meeting. “All of us agreed with my earlier assessments of him,” the blogger said. After the first meeting, he had been “very touched by the minister’s sincerity and down-to-earth approach”.

“We discussed everything – no holds barred. He was a super cool guy. No temper, soft-spoken and sharp-minded,” he said. “He patiently explained and asked me probing questions whenever I threw him a tough question.” The chat helped him “to appreciate the complex problems facing the Government”.

His colleagues were also “impressed with his handling of questions and explanation of issues”, said Mr Tang, adding that Mr Shanmugam had showed he was “willing to engage with us fully on our level”.

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‘Did I Jump The Gun? I Don’t Think So’

3 Aug

SINGAPORE – Although the internal investigation over the National Parks Board’s (NParks) controversial purchase of 26 foldable Brompton bicycles was ongoing at the time, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that he did not “jump the gun” by commenting on the matter on his blog.

On July 4 – prior to the Ministry of National Development (MND) concluding there could have been bias in the procurement process and reporting the matter to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) – Mr Khaw had said that he had been satisfied with NParks’ justification for the purchase, which drew flak from the public over the cost.

The bikes cost S$2,200 each and S$57,200 in total.

“Did I jump the gun? I don’t think so. There had been many Singaporeans writing to me expressing concern about the issue. The public have a right to know, and I thought that I should share this interim finding with the public, so long as what I disclosed did not affect the ongoing audit,” Mr Khaw wrote in a blog post yesterday – giving his first comments on the issue since the matter was referred to the CPIB.

“I wrote then that the decision to buy foldable bikes was justified. However, to signal my dissatisfaction and to convey a public message (not just to NParks but to all MND officers) that we should always seek value for money and ensure contestability when procuring goods or services, I added that I thought the procurement could have been better handled and NParks could have gotten a better deal,” he said.

Mr Khaw also explained what went on in the days leading up to the suspension of Mr Bernard Lim, the NParks Assistant Director in charge of the procurement.

On June 30, Mr Khaw commissioned an MND Internal Audit Team to “dig impartially and more thoroughly into the transaction” as he was “not happy with the procurement outcome”.

At the time, he had “no reason to question the integrity of the officer(s) involved”.

Meanwhile, from July 14, comments were circulating online on the friendship between an NParks officer and the owners of the company supplying the bikes, which were noted by the audit team, said Mr Khaw.

The MND audit was completed on July 20, and the findings found that, while the reason for the purchase was valid, there were “certain discrepancies which suggest a possibility of bias”.

“Over that weekend, I discussed the audit findings with PS/MND (Permanent Secretary of the MND) and we decided to report the matter to and share the audit findings with the CPIB,” said Mr Khaw.

The report was made on July 23, a press statement was issued the next day and the NParks officer was suspended from duty.

“This is how the subject was dealt with in MND during the past one month: Firm but measured action, balancing between the resolute pursuit of justice and the need for fairness and due process,” said Mr Khaw.

Timeline

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