Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Smart Nation Launch

Vision of a smart nation is to make life better: PM Lee
Technology will also help Singapore to keep pace with world's top cities
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2014

THE need for Singapore to be a "smart nation", using the latest technology to benefit the country, is about making life better for the people and more.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also envisions it helping the nation to keep abreast of leading cities such as Shanghai, San Francisco and Sydney.

Bringing the current piecemeal uses of technology into a cohesive, nationwide whole "will make our economy more productive, our lives better, and our society more responsive to people's needs and aspirations", he said yesterday at the launch of the Smart Nation initiative.

To achieve this new goal, Mr Lee is setting up the Smart Nation Programme Office. It will come under the Prime Minister's Office and be led by Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who will give more details about it next month.

Previously, individual technological efforts came under the Smart Cities Programme Office, a unit of statutory board Infocomm Development Authority (IDA).

One major initiative will be to let people access maps and build up geospatial databases by contributing information such as animal sightings, traffic incidents or the best mee pok eateries.

During his 35-minute speech, Mr Lee also used an improved app for planning bus journeys, to demonstrate how technology can make life more convenient. "If we can automate the things that are routine, then we can concentrate on the things that really matter."

Access key official statistics with SingStat mobile app

Want to access statistics on Singapore? There's now an app for that
Channel NewsAsia, 25 Nov 2014

The Department of Statistics (DOS) has on Tuesday (Nov 25) launched a new app, SingStat, to make some national data more easily accessible to the public.

The app provides access to key official statistics in the form of close to 200 charts from 25 data categories, such as health, climate and air quality, gross domestic product, population, prices, labour, manufacturing, services and international trade, DOS said in a release. The app allows users to customise how they view the data.

DOS said that to enhance the user experience, the app adopts adaptive planning that allows for rapid prototyping and continual improvements based on user feedback.

Taxman on the lookout for PIC fraud

10% of 45,000 claims it received in Feb-Oct period flagged as 'high risk'
By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2014

COMPANIES that hire bogus employees or engage in undocumented high-value cash transactions can expect to have their Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) claims rejected by the tax authorities.

The Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS), which administers the popular PIC scheme, said at a media briefing yesterday that it is constantly monitoring applications for potential signs of abuse, even as companies come up with increasingly sophisticated attempts at fraud.

The PIC scheme was introduced in 2010 and offers tax deductions or cash payouts to companies that invest in areas such as staff training, information technology or automation equipment to boost their productivity.

IRAS received 45,000 PIC applications between February and October this year. Of these, about 10 per cent - or 4,500 - were flagged as "high risk" cases, with characteristics strongly indicative of illegitimate claims, said assistant commissioner for corporate tax Wilson Ong.

About a third of the "high risk" claims were rejected while the remainder were adjusted.

Some companies claimed to be unable to provide documentation for transactions, including qualifying PIC expenditure, because they were conducted entirely in cash. These include transactions valued in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

Firms have also resorted to fraudulent means to list three local employees on their payroll - one of the criteria for PIC cash payouts.

These "employees" are recorded as receiving Central Provident Fund contributions from the company, but might be related to the directors or shareholders of the business. They might also work for only a few hours a month, or hold down a full-time job with another company.

S'pore not headed for debt disaster

Contrary to sensational headlines on the matter, debt in Singapore is in fact low and manageable
By Siriwan Chutikamoltham, Published The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2014

IN RECENT years, there have been many concerns expressed in the media about the level of debt in Singapore, especially for mortgage and credit card borrowings.

These critiques have relied on a few different ways to measure debt, but most have arrived at the same conclusion that Singapore's households have a debt problem or are on the way to one.

Some have taken Singapore's gross debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio and compared it to that of other countries. For example, if the United States had a gross household debt to GDP of about 100 per cent in 2007 when the sub-prime debt crisis broke, then Singapore - where the ratio is 75 per cent and rising - must also have a debt crisis brewing, they say.

Others have raised the alarm based on concerns that Singaporeans' personal debts are growing faster than the overall economy, while personal bankruptcy filings and the loan default rate are also rising.

Such reports have brought about a sense of impending economic disaster. Some analyses went so far as to predict a credit meltdown for Singapore, similar to the sub-prime crisis in the US.

The widespread concern about debt in Singapore has triggered several government measures since 2012 to curb borrowings. These include property loan curbs and a cap on an individual's total debt repayments relative to his income.

Such measures were taken at the macro level - in other words, applied across the board for all borrowers.

But contrary to the sensational headlines on this subject, on an aggregate level, debt in Singapore is in fact low and manageable, considering most households' rock-solid balance sheets and the robust job market.

How much is too much?

LET'S start with the question of how much debt is considered too much to lead a person or a nation into financial trouble.

The answer to this question does not depend on the ratio of debt to GDP, nor how rapidly the debt has grown.

What matters is the ability to service the debt. A debt amount is too much if the borrower cannot make debt repayments in a timely manner.

Big public-sector push to attract, retain engineers

Measures include review of pay and career progression, redesign of work
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2014

SINGAPORE's largest employer is stepping up efforts to woo engineering talent, as the country needs 1,000 more engineers each year for the next five years to keep public infrastructural projects going.

The Straits Times understands that the Public Service Division (PSD) is reviewing the pay and career progression of its engineers and will inject more variety into the work they do, in order to attract and retain such talent.

The PSD said that it has, for instance, come up with a structured programme to rotate its engineers to various agencies for greater exposure.

More design and operations work will also be introduced so that its engineers do more hands-on work instead of managing projects.

"We recognise that the young enjoy new challenges through variety and change, so we are redesigning some of our engineering work," said its spokesman.

Singapore needs more engineers as it has many infrastructural development projects, such as the underground rock caverns and the airport and port, she said.

But there is a general decline in interest in science and engineering among young people around the world, in places including the United States, Britain, Australia and Singapore, she added.

"This has resulted in fewer engineering university and diploma graduates pursuing careers in engineering," she said.

Volunteers chip in to help NUH elderly

They join therapists in boosting patients' alertness via mental games
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2014

ONCE a week, volunteer Nicholas Kng goes to the National University Hospital (NUH) to play games with elderly patients.

But this goes beyond befriending them or cheering them up.

He gets them to think - guiding them as they fit objects of different shapes into the correct spaces in a wooden block or arrange a set of cards in ascending order.

NUH has been engaging volunteers like Mr Kng to help its elderly patients, mainly those who suffer from delirium and confusion, in activities that stimulate their minds and aid their recovery.

"The activities are simple but they require patients to do some thinking," said Mr Kng, 24. who graduated this year and is looking for a job.

Other activities include colouring, sorting cards by their suits, solving crossword puzzles and stacking up a tower of Jenga blocks, a game which trains mental skills.

Mr Kng said he has noticed that this generally leads to an improvement in the patients' mental alertness and cognitive ability.

They may be able to better remember the day of the week or their own age, for instance.

About 35 volunteers are part of this programme, which has helped more than 60 patients since it started in October last year.

Previously, only occupational therapists conducted such activities. But with more helping hands, patients now spend one or two hours every alternate day on these games, compared with less than half an hour in the past.

Anti-immigration calls in Europe span political spectrum

Governments need to engage public in debate on both costs and benefits of new inflows
By Jonathan Eyal Europe Correspondent In London, The Straits Times, 24 Nov 2014

THE Swiss are a politically combative lot: Almost everything they do is decided by referendums. So, it's entirely unsurprising that at the end of this week, the Swiss electorate will be asked to vote on a proposal to restrict the number of foreigners allowed to settle in the country. After all, immigration is one of the biggest questions of our time, and the Swiss frequently had to wade into this debate.

Still, there is something highly unusual about the forthcoming Swiss referendum. For it is not, as one would expect, initiated by some rabid extremist nationalists foaming at the mouth about "hordes" of immigrants; instead, it was demanded by an ecological association which apparently cares about plants just as much as about people, and wants to impose strict quotas on migrants not because it fears foreigners, but because it wishes to preserve Switzerland's pristine natural environment from too many people.

This is a perfect example of how the backlash against mass immigration is now cutting across the political spectrum in Europe: It is being embraced not only by the boorish and blinkered, but also by those who otherwise pride themselves on their political moderation. This is a tidal wave of popular discontent and anxiety which current governments must confront with clear arguments and patience even if, ultimately, not many minds are likely to be swayed.

The received wisdom that anti-immigrant sentiments are the product of extremist movements on the right wing of politics has never been true. Communist regimes on the extreme left stamped just as hard on "foreign" influence. The charge of being a "cosmopolite" - which often meant nothing more than showing an appreciation for another culture - was sufficient to send an unfortunate individual to a labour camp in Stalin's Russia or Mao's China, and when Pol Pot ruled Cambodia, the mere knowledge of a foreign language meant a death sentence.

Nevertheless, political movements which are mainly associated with the far right have traditionally tended to elevate opposition to immigration to the top of their agenda. And their arguments are always the same: claims that immigrants dilute the "unique character" of their host nations, that immigrant habits allegedly contradict "historic principles" which bind nations together or that, ultimately, the new influx of people cannot be trusted to be loyal citizens.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

SG50 Baby Jubilee Gift: Goodies in store for babies born in 2015

Gifts chosen from over 6,500 ideas after round of voting by the public
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 24 Nov 2014

MORE than 200 parents and children had a sneak peek yesterday of a specially designed suitcase filled with items to be given to babies born next year, as part of the SG50Baby Jubilee Gift.

The eight items, which were announced in June, are a medallion, a shawl, a baby sling, a set of baby clothes, a diaper bag, a scrapbook, a photo frame and a set of baby books. The gift set is to commemorate the country's Golden Jubilee next year.

The designs of two of the items were revealed last week: a white, five-picture photo frame and a scrapbook with colourful stickers.

Yesterday, the suitcase and the designs of the rest of the items - except the medallion, which will be shown on Jan 1 - were unveiled by Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu at a community event at Suntec City mall.

Ms Fu said staff of the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) under the Prime Minister's Office worked with various partners over nine months to decide on the gifts.

Singaporeans also contributed their views in focus group sessions and public voting sessions held over two months.

More than 6,500 suggestions were collected by the NPTD, which is leading the SG50 Baby Jubilee Gift project.

An advisory panel of five parenthood advocates shortlisted 15 ideas from the suggestions.

The 15 items were put up later for another round of voting by the public and eight were picked.

Ms Fu thanked Singaporeans who contributed their ideas.

"Each contribution by the community is meaningful, making it truly a gift for Singaporeans, by Singaporeans," she added.

Leaving your kids with neighbours

Some Singaporeans do not ask neighbours to help with childcare, but mums in a group called Kampung Wives are looking out for one another
By Venessa Lee, The Sunday Times, 23 Nov 2014

Asking her neighbours for help to look after her children never crossed Ms Bliss Tan's mind - not even when her younger son suddenly had an attack of food poisoning.

"Reece was taken ill and vomitted just as I was about to take my elder son Riley to school, which was 10 minutes away by taxi. Usually, I would take the kids together but I had to leave Reece alone at home," says the 39-year-old teacher of the incident that took place last year. Riley is now eight and Reece, five.

Ms Tan adds: "When I got back, I could hear Reece crying for me in the toilet. I felt terrible but there was nothing else I could have done. I couldn't have taken him with me in the taxi waiting downstairs because he was vomiting."

She did not think of approaching a neighbour for help because "there's very little interaction" among the neighbours in her condominium block. "It doesn't feel right to burden a neighbour I don't know when a child is sick," she says.

Like her, other Singaporeans who live in close quarters would not think of approaching their neighbours for help to take care of their children.

In a year-long study reported in June, about 2,200 residents in five HDB towns ranked "exchange of greetings/small talk" as the most frequent activity with their neighbours. Displays of trust such as safekeeping of house keys, and borrowing and lending household items ranked the lowest. Analysts have said that such behaviour is common in cosmopolitan cities.

Parenting the Swedish way

The Swedish find it strange if dads don't stay home with the child
More couples are splitting their 16 months of parental leave more equally
By Tan Tam Mei, The Sunday Times, 23 Nov 2014

In his spare time, Mr Viktor Wallstrom, 29, grabs his hiking boots, windbreaker and hunting gear and sets off for his cabin in the woods north of Stockholm for a week. He also packs lots of diapers for his 14-month-old son Henry.

Bundled in warm clothing, the toddler gets a ride on dad's back, snug in a modified baby seat. Mr Wallstrom packs light for these father-and-son trips: no baby bottles, no baby toys, and no prams.

Though this might seem like a scene out of Survivor: Baby Edition, he is doing what many Swedish fathers do - he is on long parental leave to look after his child while his wife is at work.

"I'm the outdoorsy one, and my wife is the musical one. I like going into the woods, hiking and plucking mushrooms. So I usually take Henry on these expeditions since I'm the one on parental leave now," he says.

He is part of a growing tribe known in Sweden as "latte papas" - men who go on state-funded leave to be their children's primary caregivers, a role still associated mainly with mothers. While their wives or partners are at their jobs, the men do everything for their babies and toddlers, mostly still bottle-fed and in diapers.

Latte papas can be seen everywhere in public, one hand on a stroller and the other holding a mug of coffee. You see them in parks, or chilling with fellow dads and kids in cafes.

Mr Wallstrom, into his fourth month of parental leave, took time off from his public relations job in a telecommunications firm to stay home, look after Henry and handle the cooking, washing and cleaning up.

He plans to stay at home for six months until Christmas. His wife Linnea, 31, stayed home for almost a year after Henry's birth before returning to her job as an international coordinator with the Stockholm police.

"Taking parental leave is good for everyone. My wife gets to go to work, it's a good thing for her career. Henry gets to spend time with two parents who are active in his life. I get to bond with him during this stage of his life, so I think being on parental leave is fantastic," says Mr Wallstrom.

Experts in Sweden say that when fathers take more parental leave, it benefits not only their own families but can also enrich the labour market and reduce gender discrimination.

Forty years ago, Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce parental leave, giving both parents an equal chance to stay at home with the child.