(Delivered in Parliament on 5 August 2019)
The fire safety culture in Singapore needs to be improved. There is a common occurrence of HDB bin chute fires, and electrical fires caused by overloading and charging e-scooters and batteries. The density of our high-rise environment makes fire safety critical. As such, I am supportive of the rationale of this Bill to give further authority to the SCDF to require fire safety enhancements to buildings, to regulate fire safety products and to enhance SCDF’s investigation powers.
Nevertheless, I wish to make some observations and seek clarification on three issues: first, imposing fire safety upgrades on existing buildings; second, the handling of the recent cases concerning non-compliant claddings; and third, the proposed use of third party officers as routine inspectors.
Fire Safety Upgrades on Existing Buildings
Under the proposed Section 20A of the Act, the Commissioner of SCDF will be empowered to mandate building owners to install critical fire safety upgrades. This will effectively mean that buildings that were compliant with fire safety requirements at the time they were constructed, may have additional requirements imposed on them. In the MHA press release of 8 July, it was stated that in imposing these additional requirements on existing buildings, SCDF would “adopt a judicious, risk-based approach in identifying buildings for fire safety upgrades.” It was further stated that in deciding whether to impose such requirements, SCDF would consider the buildings’ fire risk profile and factors such as building age, purpose and the profile of its occupants. The Senior Parliamentary Secretary earlier mentioned that about 500 such buildings have been identified.
Sir, I appreciate the need to have robust fire safety requirements to prevent loss of life and limb and why this additional power given to the Commissioner of SCDF is critical. At the same time, I note that SCDF has expressed that it would be “judicious” in its approach. There is indeed a need to assess each older building to determine whether the upgrades are critical for safety, or are good-to-haves which may be costly and have limited utility.
Let me illustrate the point generally. About six years ago, a cluster of 7 HUDC blocks in my ward in Serangoon North built in the 1980s underwent privatisation. In connection with this exercise, the residents were advised that they needed to do Additions and Alterations Works to bring the cluster up to the current requirements of the Fire Code. The residents then undertook the works, such as installing fire doors at every staircase landing and making enhancements to their lifts. These works caused ground frustration as they affected residents’ daily lives in terms of inconvenience, dust and lift shutdowns, and also involved expenditure. After the estate was privatised in 2014, discussions resumed to obtain approval for an en bloc sale of the estate. Within 3 years, the estate was sold en bloc to a developer. If you were to visit the site today, you will see that all the former blocks have been demolished. That leads to a reasonable question: to what end then were the fire safety enhancements made to the old blocks?
Moving forward, while the HUDC privatisations are over, there may be older buildings that are expected to be sold to developers or be otherwise redeveloped. Can MHA further elaborate on the “judicious risk-based approach” that SCDF will undertake in deciding whether certain upgrades are critical?
Recent Cases of Non-Compliant Cladding
The fatal fires two years ago at Toh Guan Road and London’s Grenfell Tower were a wake-up call.
After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, I filed a Parliamentary Question asking what preliminary lessons could be learned. The Minister’s reply then was that the SCDF would study the investigation report of the London Fire Brigade when it was released, to see if changes to our fire regulations were needed. In addition, he touched on the existing regulatory regime for construction projects, where the registered Qualified Person (QP) was responsible for ensuring that building materials conformed to the prevailing Fire Code. Among the requirements were that all claddings used in buildings had to meet the stringent Class ‘0’ industry standard. It was further stated that after the QP signed off, a Registered Inspector would have to inspect the building to ensure that all fire safety requirements had been met. It was only thereafter that SCDF would issue a Fire Safety Certificate, allowing the premises to be occupied.
It was thus surprising that in the months thereafter, SCDF issued notices to owners of more than 40 buildings that their claddings were non-compliant with the Fire Code. I assume that many of these buildings would have been issued with Fire Safety Certificates by SCDF, indicating that they were compliant with requirements.
Be that as it may, SCDF has since reviewed the regulatory regime and identified points of weakness that led to non-compliant materials being used. These gaps involved the upstream supply chain, from manufacture and storage to testing and supply; there were instances of materials of different gradings being mixed and stored in the same place without proper distinguishing marks. To address this, this Bill introduces the new Part V on Regulated Fire Safety Products, to tighten those weaknesses in the supply chain.
Regarding SCDF’s investigations into the cladding cases, I note that for the Toh Guan incident, the cladding supplier and its marketing manager have been charged in court with several counts of cheating, and the case is pending before the courts. Are SCDF investigations still ongoing into other cases of non-compliant cladding being supplied and used, and whether other offences were disclosed?
Whatever happened upstream, the downstream purchasers of these materials may well have been unaware and acted innocently to complete the projects with the non-compliant materials. In cases where Fire Safety Certificates were issued by SCDF before occupation, these parties would also have relied on the certificates to assume they were compliant. SCDF subsequently cited these buildings for having non-compliant cladding, requiring replacement with compliant materials. Could the Ministry explain what role SCDF then played in assisting or supporting these innocent parties during the rectification works?
Third Party Officers
Finally, I have a query about third party officers to be appointed. Under the proposed Section 8F, Commissioner SCDF can appoint third party enforcement officers to do routine fire safety enforcement checks and building inspections. MHA has stated that the rationale for this supplementary resource is to allow SCDF officers to focus on more complex enforcement inspections. These third party officers would be deemed “Public servants” under the Penal Code and receive the protections under the Penal Code. According to the proposed Section 8F, such persons are to be individually appointed and could include employees of a public authority. Would these third party officers be restricted to Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, or would foreigners also be eligible for these deployments? At the steady state, how large a force of third party officers does SCDF expect to maintain? Earlier the Senior Parliamentary Secretary explained how these outsourced inspectors will take over visits to premises. Is there any concern that SCDF may lose valuable ground knowledge by outsourcing routine inspections?
I am supportive of the Bill and would also like to take this opportunity to thank SCDF for its important and life-saving work. Nevertheless, for a better understanding of how the regime would work, it would be most helpful if my queries could be addressed.