Category: Current Affairs
Published on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 00:00
Written by Shawn Danker
Here are some of the parliament questions that were filed in the last Parliament sitting for the GE (Note: we report the parliamentary Q&As as is as opposed to the MSM's abridged versions to help give you, our readers, a clearer idea on what is being done in the house in your name.)
On explaining what caused the massive train disruption of July 2015
Filed by Mr Gerald Giam: To ask the Transport Minister:
1. How an electrical insulation problem in one "third rail" cover between Tanjong Pagar and Raffles Place MRT stations can cause a catastrophic failure across the entire North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL);
2. Whether this is an indication of a lack of built-in redundancy or poor system design of the MRT's electrical network;
3. Whether engineers have assessed that a massive overhaul of the NSEWL is needed to prevent such failures from recurring; and
4. If so, what it will take in terms of time, cost and system downtime for such an overhaul to be completed.
Response by Minister Lui Tuck Yew:
As explained at the LTA-SMRT joint briefing on 29 Jul 2015, the 7 July disruption on the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL) was caused by intermittent tripping of the power system at multiple locations. Chloride deposits, possibly exacerbated by a water leak in the tunnel, lowered the electrical resistance of a third rail insulator between Tanjong Pagar and Raffles Place stations. This allowed electricity to flow through the insulator to the ground and led to a higher than normal voltage difference between the running rail and the ground. Because the running rail is connected throughout the NSEWL, the higher voltages would show up at multiple locations across the network. The movement of trains further elevated the voltages. When confronted with abnormal voltage, the 64P safety mechanism would be activated as a safety precaution. This safety mechanism is widely used in overseas systems such as Japan's, as well as in all our rail lines. In this instance, the safety mechanism was activated to trip the power at multiple locations across the NSWEL.
As to whether it was design or maintenance flaws that precipitated the incident, LTA's investigation is ongoing and I should not pre-judge its conclusion. In the interim, SMRT is replacing all the third rail insulators. SMRT has also combed through the NSEWL tunnels to ensure that there are no other leaks with water dripping onto trackside installations, and will be installing data loggers at all traction power substations within the next two months to better monitor the condition of the insulators. Lastly, we will be making the NSEWL less susceptible to such power trips by increasing the touch voltage threshold for the 64P safety mechanism to levels similar to international standards as well as the newer Circle and Downtown Lines.
On what kind of contingency plans does SMRT have in place to deal with train disruptions
Mr Lim Biow Chuan: To ask the Minister for Transport whether LTA has reviewed and approved the contingency plans by SMRT to provide alternative transport whenever there is a breakdown in the train services.
Response by Senior Minister of State for Transportation Josephine Teo:
The Land Transport Authority (LTA) requires the rail operators to have Rail Incident Management Plans (RIMPs) which set out their responses to train incidents and the measures they will take to mitigate the inconvenience caused to commuters. These measures include regular provision of information to affected commuters, free boarding of public buses and bus bridging services at affected stations. These plans are approved by LTA, and are regularly reviewed and enhanced.
For a disruption on the scale of the 7 July 2015 incident, which disrupted the entire North-South and East-West Lines during the evening peak, the operator's RIMPs were not adequate and it is understandable why many affected commuters were unhappy with the management of the incident. The capacity of alternative travel connections between the heartlands and the city needed considerable strengthening, and would have required significantly more resources beyond SMRT's to mitigate the impact.
Thus, following the incident, LTA had reviewed the measures and worked with both bus operators to focus on emergency ramp-up of capacity on bus connections. In the event of a similar rail incident, we will boost the capacity of regular trunk services calling at affected MRT stations connecting the city and the heartlands. Depending on the scale of the rail disruption, a number of buses will be diverted from other bus services with lower demand to enhance these identified services. The operating hours of Government-contracted City Direct Services can also be extended.
Now let me turn to bus bridging. For a large-scale disruption where bus bridging cannot be effectively implemented at all stations, a special bridging plan will be implemented to serve commuters living in major towns in the northern, western and eastern parts of Singapore. This will allow commuters in the city to travel via alternative MRT lines to key interchange stations such as Bishan, Paya Lebar and Buona Vista, and subsequently use special bridging buses for onward travel to towns such as Ang Mo Kio, Woodlands, Tampines and Choa Chu Kang. This special bridging plan works similarly in the reverse direction.
By doing so, commuters affected by a large-scale disruption will have two options to travel between the city and the heartlands through:
a) Trunk bus services running at increased frequencies and expanded capacity; or
b) A combination of alternative MRT lines and special bus bridging services.
LTA and the operators have worked out the arrangements and the improved contingency plan was put in place recently, about a month after the incident.
Will a Cross Island MRT line be built?
Filed by Mr Gan Thiam Poh: Will LTA will consider
1. an extension of either the Downtown Line or Circle Line to connect to Pasir Ris, Punggol and Sengkang West; and
2. the building of the Cross Island Line from Changi through Pasir Ris and Punggol first.
Response by Minister Lui Tuck Yew:
Residents of Pasir Ris, Punggol and Sengkang West are already directly connected to the rail network via the East-West Line (EWL) and the North-East Line (NEL). The eastern stretch of the Downtown Line (DTL3) is designed to serve the corridor between the EWL and NEL that does not have access to the MRT network today. The Circle Line (CCL) is an orbital line that improves connectivity between the major radial lines. Extending the DTL or CCL to Pasir Ris, Punggol and Sengkang West would affect these primary objectives and sub-optimise their operations. The Cross Island Line is still in the study stage and more details will be provided when the study is completed.
On managing hawker prices (note: there are tidbits in this exchange that was not reported by the MSM, which is why we felt this merited it's own piece)
Filed by NMP Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin:
To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources
(a) aside from rental controls, what are NEA's plans to help hawkers deal with the more significant cost drivers of ingredients and manpower;
(b) how the setting of distinctly different price caps for local and western hawker cuisine preserves local hawker heritage;
(c) whether NEA, with the Ministry of Social and Family Development, can issue more targeted concessions for low-income individuals to keep food affordable for the truly needful rather than use price caps that benefit those who can afford the full price; and
(d) how does NEA ensure that the social enterprises managing the hawker centres do not take advantage of their position to profiteer unfairly.
Response by Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan:
Hawker centres are a unique Singapore feature and they are in my opinion, essential social infrastructure. They are places where Singaporeans from all walks of life can gather, interact, and enjoy fresh food at affordable prices. Over 85% of our hawkers today pay less than $1,500 per month in rent, and in fact, 41% (2,400) of them are paying subsidised rental ranging from $160 to $384. Three years ago, we took further policy changes to remove the speculative elements from hawker stalls. For instance, now we insist that all hawker stalls have to be personally operated. The stalls are not a way for landlords to make money. The National Environment Agency (NEA) has disallowed the practice of assignments and subletting. Furthermore NEA also abolished the concept of “reserve rent” for hawker stalls during the bidding process, and NEA offers available vacant stalls at monthly tender exercises, and NEA accepts all valid competitive bids. This has resulted in a current situation where about half of the successful bids are now below 85% of the assessed market rent. The tendered rentals have been falling and in fact fell by about 3.4% in 2014, and the lowest successful tendered rental is now $1 a month. Not a typo error!
To provide Singaporeans with even more affordable food options, we announced that the Government is building 20 new hawker centres, particularly in estates that have fewer cooked food stalls. Another trial that we are embarking on is the appointment of social enterprises, to act as managing agencies. For instance, NEA has appointed NTUC Foodfare Co-operative Ltd and Fei Siong Food Management Pte Ltd as managing agents to run two new hawker centres at Bukit Panjang and Hougang respectively on a not-for-profit basis. These social enterprises, we hope, would bring new ideas based on their experience in food and beverage operations. We hope they will diversify food options, enhance the dining experience for patrons, and raise the productivity for hawker centres, while keeping food prices affordable. For example - and this is a useful measure - both NTUC Foodfare and Fei Siong will offer discounted bulk purchasing of ingredients to help hawkers to reduce the cost of raw material. In fact it is the cost of ingredients and raw materials that is the biggest cost driver for hawkers stalls, not rentals. Fei Siong has also launched a programme to nurture a new generation of hawkers by providing training and opportunities to enter this field, and we believed these initiatives are important, and we hoped it will help ensure the sustainability of hawkers in the future.
NEA also welcomes other initiatives that the social enterprises may decide to roll out. For instance, they have insisted that the hawkers in these two centres offer at least a few budget meals on their menu. Over and above that, for low-income families who need help with their basic needs, the Government provides additional cash assistance and vouchers through the ComCare Short-to-Medium Term Assistance Scheme. These schemes are all design to ensure that there is always a low cost option for food on the table.
But there is one cost that had gone up, and that is manpower costs, particularly because we have increased the wages for cleaners through progressive wages. Members of this house will recall that in fact the Ministry of Environment and Water Resourcs (MEWR) was the first to move on progressive wages by effective legislative changes, and this have resulted in what I believed a well-justified and well-deserved increase in wages for cleaners. There has also been some increase for hawker assistants. Again, I would expect that members of the house would support these wage increases. Our hawkers will have to prepare for the future where wage cost will be higher, and like many other small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Singapore, will have to try to figure how to do more with less manpower and basically, it is about enhancing productivity.
Hawkers are free to set their own food prices taking into consideration their own operating costs, market competition, and what patrons are willing to pay. They do not need to submit their prices to NEA for prior approval.
The social enterprises who are managing our hawker centres on a pilot basis are required to submit audited accounts and detailed management reports to NEA. NEA will therefore ensure that the interests of hawkers, cleaners, hawker assistants and patrons are well taken care of, and we believed that these will enable us to ensure that hawker centres continue to fulfill their very important social function in Singapore.
Thank you Mdm speaker.
Supplementary questions by Ms Kuik Shiao-Yun:
Thank you minister for your response. I have two supplementary questions: the first is with regards to the sharing of responsibility for keeping food affordable for the working class. I think a lot of hawkers are quite sympathetic to the need of keeping food affordable, but they find the idea of price caps quite offensive, because it feels like the responsibility of keeping food prices affordable is being passed on to them by the social enterprise in-charge, and by extension, the agencies that endorses them. So the perception, and it may be wrong, is how can the hawkers be the one held responsible for keeping the food affordable. Can the Ministry clarify how it works with all stakeholders to help them understand how they all share the responsibility of keeping food prices fair?
The second question is about price versus value. There is a lot of unhappy sentiment on the ground that the discussion about hawker food is overly centered on price rather than value and the idea that what if we are keeping food prices down because of cost cutting and low quality, low nutritious ingredient. How does the Ministry work with the stakeholders to not just look at keeping prices fair, but keeping the value high, in particular cultural heritage value, and nutritional value of hawker food?
Reply by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan:
The issue of affordable food is very important, and it goes beyond simple economics. This is an important social issue, and dare I say, even politically charged issue in Singapore. My approach is very simple. I believe there must always be a low-cost option on the table, and this low-cost option should be available on the table in a place where people from all walks of life have access to. This democratisation of the dining experience in Singapore is something valuable; it is part of the social glue that binds us together; it is part of what defines us as Singaporeans. Once we accept that there is value in ensuring that there is always a low-cost option on the table, the next question you have correctly identified is that there are multiple stakeholders.
There used to be this thinking, which fortunately has now been debunked, that the main cost-driver was rentals. With the policy changes over the last several years, during the term of this government, as well as the data that has emerged, it is very clear now that rentals are not the major cost-drivers. Nevertheless, as the Minster-in-charge of NEA, I have done my best to push rentals down, and I have done that by increasing the supply, removing the speculative element, and ensuring that everyone knows this is about food, and not about property at play. I have also done that by removing reserve rents, and I have also instructed NEA to accept all valid competitive bids, and hence, as I have told you, the lowest successful tendered bid today is $1. All that has been achieved. The data is also out there to prove that 85% of our hawkers pay less than $1,500 in rental. Rent is coming down; it is not the main component of cost. If anyone has lost out on the rentals, it is the main landlord, which in this case is the government. I am prepared to take that because I believe this is social infrastructure.
The next important issue is about manpower, and yes I stand guilty as charged for raising the cost of cleaning in Singapore. But I think I stand with the support of all of you that we were right to impose progressive wages and to increase wages and employment conditions for cleaners. So we lowered rentals, but yes manpower cost has gone up.
Now we have further evidence that the key cost-driver is actually not manpower, but ingredients, and that is really the reason why I was so keen to get social enterprises involved, in particular NTUC FoodFare. Members would recall nearly four decades or more ago, when we were worried about the cost of raw food, the advent of NTUC FairPrice, the social enterprise supplying raw food, at very competitive prices - not subsidised prices, but very competitive prices. It had a salutary effect on the rest of the market. I am trying and I am hoping that this same approach would work for cooked food as well. Hence, I am happy that NTUC FoodFare took up the challenge. They are not landlords, they are managing agents, and I told them very clearly that my main objective is to help keep costs affordable as well as bring down cost of raw ingredients for hawkers. Everything else is an extra.
Yes I know there has been some disquiet about this insistence on budget meals, but actually this is not a new idea. All of us would remember school canteens and even today, workplace canteens, where in exchange for low or subsidized rentals, the hawkers sell their food at low prices, or even at prices approved by the landlord. This is a system, in which by having some price restraint, you are prepared to accept lower rentals, and prepared to bring down overall cost of doing business. So, I hope you can appreciate that it is a balancing act between hawkers, employees, people of Singapore, and the need to make it affordable to everyone. This is the journey that we have embarked on. This is a pilot because we have only a few centres that are run by social enterprises so far. Let us take a data-driven approach, watch the prices, quality of food and nutrition, and calibrate the policy along the way.
My final point is that we will inject more transparency into the system. Since I am also overseeing Smart Nation initiatives, we are looking at having apps which will display prices of food in every single store in Singapore; maybe in real time, maybe even to allow crowd-sourcing function so that you can tell us whether you think it is value for money, and maybe even the experts can assess the nutritional value and the rest of it. So let us give the system a chance, and I want to assure all the stakeholders in this important institution that we are doing our best to make sure that hawkers and patrons gain. If anyone loses it will be NEA and the government, but we can and should be prepared to tolerate that.
Thank you Ms Kuik. Thank you Madam Speaker.
Supplementary Question by Mr Yeo Guat Kwang:
Many were concerned that with the rising manpower cost and manpower shortage, whether the standard of cleanliness and the hygiene level of the hawker centres would also be affected. I would like to know whether the Ministry has plans to actually incentivize and encourage all the stakeholders to do more to ride on the new technologies in the way they handle and redesign the work process for the cleaners, including food waste management and dish-washing.
Reply by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan:
Madam Speaker, the answer is yes.
Supplementary Question by Mr Lim Biow Chuan:
As I represent the Consumer Association, may I ask the Minister that when we do survey for hawker food, many of the stalls do not put up the prices of the food that they sell. Since this is a new approach, can I ask NEA to also require the food sellers to prominently display every item of the food that they sell?
Reply by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: I think that is an idea worth studying. Although I do not really want the whole facade filled with prices and menus. Let be a bit practical. We all go to hawker centres; we all have our favourite stalls; and we all know what our favourite options are. I think by and large, the system works. Although hawkers are free to charge what they think the market will bear, I think Singaporeans vote with their feet and their stomachs. That is usually how it works in practice.
Supplementary Question by Mr Lim Biow Chuan:
Just to clarify, the complaints from consumers were that when they buy food from the hawker stalls, they do not know (the price). If I pick one fish, one dish, one meat, I got absolutely no clue – sometimes it might be $4 and sometimes it might be $10. It is a matter of being transparent for the consumers. I thought I should clarify that point with the Minister.
Reply by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: Madam Speaker, I agree with him.