Monday, April 12, 2010

Parliamentary Speech - Noise

Construction projects are signs of progress and renewal. They are a welcome sight. However, in a small country like ours, they inevitably cause inconvenience. They issue is how to balance the different interests, and whether we have got the balance right.
I ask the Minister to review that balance where the issue of noise in concerned. I have raised this issue before, but complaints from my residents compel another try.
It is an important issue as it affects our well being. International organizations, such as the WHO, have highlighted the negative effects of noise on the physical, psychological or social functions of people.

Currently, the Environmental Protection and Management (Control of Noise at Construction Sites) Regulations sets out the noise levels permitted at different areas. The levels vary according to time, place, and duration. The current regulations permit construction work to be carried out near housing estates on Sundays. It only provides for very slight adjustments in terms of timing and noise levels. For example, Part II of the Second Schedule states that the maximum permissible noise level between 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. for construction sites affecting residential buildings located less than 150m from the site is 75 decibles. From 7 p.m – 10 p.m., the contractor is allowed 55 decibles. In both cases, there is only a 15 decible reduction from that allowed from Mondays to Saturdays.

But more importantly, construction work does not progress at a steady hum. There will be instances where the work will from time to time exceed the limit, but not breach the regulations because it is not sustained. This is of little comfort to those who have had their rest disturbed.
I propose that construction activities near housing estates should cease, or at least be heavily restricted, on Sundays.

Sir, Sundays are an important time for recreation. For most people, it may be the only time in the week they get to rest at home and spend quality time with their families. Yet, the current laws allow construction work to begin as early as 7a.m. on Sunday mornings, and for construction work to continue throughout the day. This is not the case in some other developed countries. In the UK, several town councils, including the City of London, prohibit construction work on Sundays and bank holidays. New York City goes further. The New York City Noise Control Code provides that construction activities can only take place on weekdays between 7a.m. – 6 p.m. These cities recognise that managing areas of high human density require special rules. Is there any reason why residents in Singapore receive different treatment?

The inevitable argument is that such rules will delay projects and increase costs. However, has a study been done to determine the extent of that increase? Are developers suggesting that such rules will not make developments commercially viable? It is difficult to believe that. In any event, can the developers not work smarter and conduct other kinds of activities on Sundays? Is this not a situation where we are leaning too much in favour of corporate interests?

I therefore ask the Minister to review the rules on noise.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Parliamentary Speech - Government-run Student Loan Program

The Government has frequently highlighted the importance of continuing education for all Singaporeans, to upgrade their skills and increase their productivity and employability. It also provides financial assistance to needy Singapore Citizens until Junior College (or Centralised Institute) level. This is commendable. However, in this day and age, more and more employers demand education levels beyond Junior College level. Technical qualifications are also critical.

Currently, the Government provides some relief by allowing Singaporeans to use their CPF savings from their Ordinary Account to pay for their children’s or their own tuition fees. However, only full time subsidized courses at approved education institutions are included under this scheme.

For example, institutions like the BCA conduct many useful, practical courses. However, those who are not employed or who are self-employed may not obtain a subsidy or have a sponsor for their course fees. This is particularly so if they wish to switch industries and pick up new skills.

If they do not have the means to pay course fees, they must turn to commercial banks. But it is not easy to secure student loans from commercial banks. There are strict eligibility requirements. It only applies to certain designated partner institutions, there are minimum income requirements and some applicants must furnish guarantors.

For example, to be eligible for a study loan from Citibank, either the applicant or his/her guarantor must earn at least S$30,000 per annum. Even the POSB Further Study Assist loan, which has lower income requirements (applicant or guarantor must earn a minimum gross annual income of S$12,000 or S$18,000 respectively), is not applicable to all.

Furthermore, repayment terms of commercial banks are not friendly. In some cases, payment kicks in after drawdown, interest rates are high and the repayment period is strict.

Could the Minister look into the possibility of establishing a government-run student loan program to help Singaporeans of all ages improve themselves? This would be in line with the Government’s vision of a Learning Nation – a social environment that promotes lifelong learning in our people.

The downsides are limited. Frivolous cases can easily be detected and rejected and most recipients will likely pay back the loan. The upsides are however, unlimited. A better educated and trained Singaporean will be an asset to his employer and the country, and will return the investment many times over. The institution of such a facility will also be a clear message to all Singaporeans of the Government’s commitment to life-long earning, and that its determination to help Singaporeans to achieve their highest potential.

Parliamentary Speech - Housing in Singapore

My parents bought their first and only HDB flat in 1976 for $30,000. It was the first house they ever owned, and helped them raise nine children in a stable home. My parents passed on some years ago, but the house remains with my family. Most of us have got married and moved out, but our old flat will always be home to us. All over Singapore, there are countless number of similar stories. The houses HDB built improved the lives of the majority of Singaporeans. It provided us with a good home and financial security. Most importantly, it gave us a stake in this great nation of ours. It also allowed the Government to promote national policies, such as racial integration and even marriage.
But the HDB’s success, and its attempts to meet the aspirations of Singaporeans, have created some disquiet. Some of the complaints we have read and heard about high prices and unavailability of flats are politically driven. Some, not all.

The important question is whether the current situation continues to promote our national policies? If a couple puts off marriage because their flat will only be ready in 3 years, and they cannot afford a resale flat, how does that help them or Singapore? How does it help integration if different ethnic groups are allowed to congregate by renting flats near each other? Would my parents have been able to buy a flat and raise a family today?
I am not asking HDB to re-write its policies. There is no need to. But I do urge the HDB to implement rules which encourage home ownership, and not property ownership. It should significantly advantage first-time owners, and have no room for those who wish to speculate, or treat it as an investment. I have four suggestions to make this happen.

First, let’s start with a positive principle. Let any Singaporean who wants to buy a HDB flat do so. Lift or do away with the salary cap. Those who earn high salaries will probably rather buy private property anyway. But there may be high earners who, for various good reasons, wish to start off in a HDB flat. They may want to be financially prudent, and we should encourage that. There may also be those who have heavy financial commitments, such as supporting their aged parents and children. If they wish to live in public housing, let them.
But the right to buy public housing must come with restrictions. That is only fair. We should therefore disallow individuals who own private property from purchasing HDB flats, including resale flats. Why would private property owners buy public housing, unless it is to speculate or invest? Why should an individual be allowed to live in public housing while earning an income off his private property or vice versa? Those who have the means, and who wish to buy or invest in private property, should not take up public housing. Parents who wish to buy HDB flats for their children can put the units in their children’s names and make a loan or gift to them. Nominee or trust holdings should be made illegal, as we do with landed property.

Secondly, the HDB should maintain a small but ready stock of flats reserved for first-time owners, so that those wish to get married may get a flat more quickly.
Thirdly, there should be more control over the subletting of HDB flats. Currently, no approval is required for the subletting of rooms and there is only a time bar for subletting an entire flat. I propose that all rental of HDB be subject to approval, whether it is for a room or for the entire flat. Having it as uncontrolled as it is now only encourages the mindset that HDB flats make good investments.

Fourthly, there should be an increase in the time bar before a HDB flat bought on the resale market can be sold. It currently stands at one year. Why? A one year bar encourages speculation. The point is not whether the unit is bought with a subsidy or concessionary loan. Public housing is public housing, whether new or resale. They should all be treated alike. Resale flats give the buyer more choices in terms of location and immediate availability, and he pays a premium for that. There should be no other difference or advantage. Make it 5 years, like new flats.

Private Property

For private property, market forces should be the prime driver, although I appreciate that the government has to from time to time implement temporary measures to address bubbles.
But there are two things I would like the Government to consider doing on a permanent basis.
First, we should discourage foreigners from speculating in our property market. I have no difficulties with genuine investors. It is the “flippers” that we should target. How do we benefit from their activities? I therefore ask the Government to impose a capital gains tax on foreigners who sell their properties within, say, 3 years of purchase.
Second, we need to address option flipping. Buying and selling options is purely speculative activity. It adds absolutely no value, other than to artificially drive up prices. Make options non-transferable, or impose a tax on profits gained on transfer.