Prime Minister’s Office Committee of Supply 2020 – Cuts by WP MPs and NCMPs

(Delivered on 28 Feb 2020)

Pan-ASEAN Climate Change Initiatives – Pritam Singh

Sir, it came as welcome news late last year to read of the government-owned company SP Power looking to de-carbonise our electricity sector in favor of renewables by working with our neighbors such as Malaysia and Indonesia. With spare land to install solar panels or wind turbines, something practically impossible to undertake on a large enough scale in land scarce Singapore, building transmission lines to connect to our neighbours would allow Singapore to readily tap on clean power and significantly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation. It would also significantly enlarge our green footprint and boost our contribution to reduce the debilitating effects of climate change.

In addition, on the prospects of a pan-ASEAN electricity grid, an SP official was quoted as saying that Malaysia already has connections to Thailand which in turn has connections to Laos. Hypothetically therefore, Singapore could invest in clean energy projects in neighboring countries beyond our immediate neighbours and use renewable energy credits to receive the same amount of electricity from Malaysia.

Sir, could the PMO share more details about these initiatives and confirm the timeline of these projects that look at tapping electricity from regional power grids. What does this mean for the consumer and power generators in Singapore not to mention the price of electricity? I understand some discussions have already taken place with Malaysia for greater cooperation in this regard. What risks does the Government anticipate in reducing our carbon footprint by diversifying and tapping on regional electricity grids, and how can these be overcome?

Finally, the regional and global consequences of climate change provide a unique opportunity to look into further ASEAN-wide collaborations that promote green policies. In view of easier access to the markets and our R&D sector, how can Singapore contribute to addressing regional climate change challenges and imagining commercial solutions in view of the active interest in addressing climate change a top policy priority for younger Singaporeans in particular?


Population Plans and Integration – Pritam Singh

Sir, Singapore’s economic circumstances and multiracial meritocracy are a unique feature of our country. While Finance Minister’s budget speeches in this term has focused consistently one security, economy, society and Singaporeans, we know that our evolving population policies are existential to the future of the Singapore core. The vast majority of residents are permanently invested in this country and do not have the luxury of imagining a home away from Singapore and nor would we have it that way.

Sir, our Total Fertility Rate numbers are weakening with the Budget Book estimating the number for FY2020 to hover around 1.1 to 1.2. However, the Population in Brief 2019 data released by the PMO reveals that the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) number for the Chinese and Indian residents has fallen to around 0.98 and 1 respectively, compared to 1.14 and 1.19 a decade ago. The same document however records an encouraging rise in the TFR for the Malay community. From a high of 1.91 in 2008, the number fell to 1.66 in 2013 before steadily and consistently moving up to 1.85 in 2018. Has the PMO’s Strategy team assessed the policy reasons behind this upturn for the Malay community and are there are insights that can be highlighted or even ported to the other communities?

Similarly, the latest data also records a rise in the number of citizen ever-married females deciding to have no children or only one child compared to ten years ago. Likewise the proportion of married Singaporeans with three children or more has also fallen considerably over the same period. Fortunately, most citizen ever-married females who have two children has hovered around the 43% mark, similar to ten years ago. While the decision to have children or no children is a deeply personal one and one we must respect, what new strategies and plans the PMO has to push couples to have at least two or more children? Has the Government engaged couples who have only one child to find out what their key concerns are? I believe work-life balance and cost of living concerns have been raised previously as a major impediment and it would be important to see what more can be done in this area with buy-in from private sector employers.  After all, without a thriving Singapore core, it is hard to foresee a thriving and confident Singapore.

Sir, as previously announced by the Government, our population plans and policies are due for a review this year. Numbers aside, the Government needs to take a relook at our integration efforts. As PRs and foreigners who we hope will take up citizenship are connected through technology to their motherlands, more so than earlier generations of immigrants, integration may not just take more time but may not be as linear as previously imagined with our schools and institutions such as National Service the major agents of adhesion.

In addition, as alluded to by Minister Chan recently, unlike in the past, even in the economic realm, Singapore may not be able to attract the quality of the individuals it seeks. Does this anticipate some changes to our population plans with a desire to attract immigrants from further afield, specifically non-traditional countries classified as “others” which currently account for 6.3% of SC and PRs granted in 2018, as compared to 62.5% from Southeast Asian countries, and 31.2% from Asian countries. What shifts in our population strategies is the Government planning so as to deal with the new challenges in supplementing our population through immigration? Has the Government conducted surveys of new citizens over the last 10-20 years for us to have a better perspective on how to improve integration?

Finally Sir, can the Government share how many PRs have transited to become citizens over the last 10 years and 20 years respectively, and how many choose to remain as PRs. What are the main reasons for not transiting to citizenship?


Smart Lamp Posts – Pritam Singh

Sir, it was previously reported in the media in the last quarter of 2018 that Singapore Technologies Engineering had won a $7.5m tender for the “Lampost-as-a-Platform” project to, I quote “fit lamposts here with sensors and cameras that can collect a wide range of citizen surveillance data”. The new camera system was able to analyze faces, down to race, gender and age, and  a trial was to be held at one-North and Geylang before the project is potentially extended to the more than 100,000 lamp posts in Singapore.

Sir, there has been wide range of feedback both on the upside and downside potential of the Smart Nation Sensor Platform, with different countries taking different views of the problem. In fact, some jurisdictions like San Francisco have banned such smart technologies. Others are seriously looking at how best to balance and manage the privacy concerns that accompany such platforms. On the flip side, in light of manpower constraints and the prospect for effective monitoring and deterrence – the public’s difficult relationship with some users of PMDs come to mind – the benefits of these new technologies are readily apparent.

We have read about rogue public officers including police officers illegally accessing government information in our newspapers in the past. While these numbers are very small, new technologies embedded in smart platforms host so much more information and data of a personal nature that people can lose confidence and trust in public service very quickly should an untoward incident occur. There is also the attendant risk of cyber-security incidents.

It has been two and half years since the Prime Minister announced details on the Smart Nation Digital Platform at his 2017 National Day Rally. What have been the results of the pilot project thus far? Not just from the technical data acquisition perspective, but the processing, handling and control perspective? Is it the PMO’s view that our data protection laws are fit for purpose to accommodate the advent of these new technologies which have significant repercussions on individual privacy?


Safer Banking for Elderly and All – Png Eng Huat

Sir, the number of scams involving e-commerce, loan, credit-for-sex and impersonation rose by 53.5 per cent last year.  There were about 9,500 scams reported in 2019, up from 6,000 over cases the previous year.  The total amount cheated in the top 10 types of scams came up to a staggering $168m.

Scamming is not only lucrative, it is also getting more sophisticated.  Some scams do not prey on the nature of greed.  They are disguised as service calls from telcos, banks or government authorities.  These scams capitalize on the victim’s lack of knowledge or how things function in the internet age.

An innocuous service call is all it takes for the scammers to try to gain remote access to the victim’s computer, bank account information, personal identification number, and one-time password.  The end results are often heart-wrenching.  Victims of tech support scams lost $13.9m of their hard earned savings in 2019.

Just last November, a 65-year-old woman picked up a call on her landline thinking it was a customer service call from her telco.  She spent over 2 hours on the line with the scammer and by the end of the call, over $300,000 of her savings were wiped out from her bank account.

It is very painful and sad to read in the news about elderly Singaporeans being scammed in this manner time and again, despite all the efforts by the police to educate the public about such crime.

In the pursuit of a cashless society and a smart nation, have we made life a breeze for one generation but more vulnerable for another?  I am for progress but I am deeply concerned that some Singaporeans would be exposed to untold danger in a digital jungle.

Most of these scams leverage on one thing in common to make a clean getaway – the speed of online banking transaction.  By the time a police report is made, the victim’s money would have disappeared into thin air.  Even if anyone is caught, here or overseas, there is very little hope for the victim to see his life savings again.

Would it not be possible for the ministry to mandate the banks to offer more protection for the elderly and vulnerable from falling victim to such scams?  Would it not make more sense for the gatekeeper of the conduit for interbank transfer to play a bigger role to combat such crime?

Let me relate another case.  One of my residents was tricked into giving out his one-time passcode in a similar tech support scam.  He ended up losing his life savings kept in two local banks.  The scammer did his homework and contacted the resident late on a Friday evening.  By the time this resident realized that something was not right, the banks had closed and he could only call the after office helplines for assistance.

The perplexing part of this case is that only one bank could stop the illegal transfer while the other could not, and both financial institutions are using the same international remittance network.

Another of my residents was so spooked by such scams that he asked his bank to issue him an ordinary bank card with no wireless payment feature or link to any international debit or credit service provider.  He was told there is no such card anymore, but he could request the bank to limit the transaction amount or disable the debit feature.

If such features can be disabled with a phone call, what safeguards are there to prevent scammers from reversing them?  This is exactly what the elderly resident was worried about.  He just wanted a simple bank card for cash withdrawal.  This educated resident told me he needs to be careful because he knows his reflexes, cognition, memory and everything else he took for granted in the past are ageing too.

Sir, could we not ask the banks to institute additional safeguards that are designed specifically for this group of users so that they will not fall victim to scammers, and their hard earned savings will not be stolen so easily in a blink of an eye.

While the scammer may work on his victim for hours, the success of such scam hinges on the split second transfer of money out of the victim’s bank account.  If we have cooling-off period for direct sales, can the banks offer such feature for interbank transfer on demand as well?  Any change of mind for such a “cooling-off” service would require a visit to the bank in person.  Although this sounds like a low tech approach, it can certainly buy some time, and time is what the scammers do not want.

I am not asking the authority to slow everything down.  I am only asking the authority to get the banks to provide an option for the elderly and vulnerable to protect their life savings.  The Police could only do so much to investigate after the crime has been committed.  It does not have the weapon of choice to stop or slow down the scammers from laying hands on their ill-gotten gains.

Sir, such scams are not going away when there is easy money to be made.  It was reported in the news yesterday that the number of banking scam calls or messages went up sharply in January this year with 105 cases reported, compared with 38 cases for the previous 3 months combined.  To me, that is a red flag for the authority to take the lead to fight scammers that capitalize on the current banking system to steal from the elderly and vulnerable.


Role of PMO – Mr Leon Perera

Mr Chairman sir, when I first entered this House, in 2016, the estimated budget for the PMO was $ 488m. In the estimates for FY 2020/2021, the budget has risen to $ 1.05b. Some functions housed under the PMO cut across Ministries, like climate and population. But over the years the PMO has come to acquire co-ordinating and leadership roles in a number of areas where there would seem to be a more natural fit with domain Ministries.

For example, why is the National Research Foundation Program under the PMO rather than MTI, since research should be pursued in such a way as to maximise multipliers and benefits to industry and to the economy, which is MTI’s purview.

A similar point could be made for:

  • National Security and Intelligence Co-ordination Program vis-a-vis MINDEF, which would seem the natural location for ownership of total defence programs
  • SNDGO vis-à-vis the Ministry of Communications and Information

In the debate on the Govtech Bill in 2016, I asked why the CSA was at that time located in the PMO rather than within MINDEF. The answer was “It is to give CSA the ability to oversee cybersecurity at the national level…etc.”

Does this mean that all policy-making fields that function at the national as opposed to sectoral level and cut across Ministries to some degree will eventually come under the PMO?

If so, how would we ensure that duplication of functions and expertise is minimised vis-à-vis domain Ministries which generally have more staff with expertise in the domains? How would we also ensure that due weight in policy-making is given to subject matter experts in the domain Ministry?