Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Budget 2007 Debates: Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts and Ministry of National Development, 3 March 2007

This was a Saturday sitting. Yes, Saturday.

I treasure my weekends -- I have never worked a 5.5-day week (barring NS and occasionally being the Saturday duty lawyer in my first employer, a local big law firm), and I'm pretty sure that I never will. So when I got the notice announcing that a Saturday sitting was being fixed, I was a little dismayed. But I still went, although I noticed that attendance seemed a little sparser than usual.

I had two cuts fixed for that day. The first was on Internet content regulation. I've never favoured the Internet Class Licence (available at the MDA website) -- it had always seemed to me to be a set of regulations that are just on the books but not enforced.

If you actually read it together with the Internet Code of Practice (which you have to), you can see that everything is worded so broadly that it covers a very broad range of Internet content (and probably everything on Sammyboy!!). Yet, it very, very rarely been enforced.

In fact, to the best of my knowledge, except for Sintercom, it has only ever been used or explicitly threatened against sexual sites (specifically, gay sites and child porn). And when the racist bloggers were prosecuted, they were charged under the Sedition Act. If that is the case, then why keep the Class Licence regime?

The only reason I can think of is for it to operate as a threatened Sword of Damocles hanging over would-be transgressors, as it were. And that is nothing if not the "chilling effect" at work. I don't agree with that. And if "offline" laws like the Sedition Act and the soon-to-be-updated Penal Code cover online behaviour, then the argument for repealing the Class Licence becomes even stronger.

Unfortunately, I didn't time my speech properly, and in the end I got "guillotined" (i.e. cut off) by the Speaker before I could complete my speech. I think I managed to make the point in my clarification question, but I know I could've done better if I had paced myself better. I'm still a little disappointed with that.

I thought the Senior Minister of State's prepared response didn't really meet my speech head-on, unfortunately. He seemed to mischaracterise my speech as expressing concern about light-touch regulation -- no, it wasn't and I certainly do not advocate heavier regulation. Certainly, that is one of the dangers of relying on a prepared speech, and I think that was the point the Senior Minister made after the Budget debates.

But I thought his response to my clarification was very good, with a clear explanation of what a light-touch approach is all about. Having said that, I still disagree with him on the necessity of the Class Licence, and I still believe that its existence results in an unnecessary "chilling effect" as in the Sintercom case and that it should be repealed given the authorities' ability to avail themselves of other legislation.

The second question is about barrier-free access. Now, it is very well known that Opposition MPs do not get to use the Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) funds. They are entitled to apply, but their longstanding grouse is that they are not granted the funds. Instead, in Opposition wards, CIPC funds are normally granted to projects by Citizens' Consultative Committees, which are advised by the prospective PAP candidate for that Opposition ward (unlike in PAP wards, where the CCC adviser will be the elected MP).

I don't agree with that at all, just as I strongly disagree with the Government's policy of giving priority to PAP constituencies over Opposition wards when it comes to upgrading. So when the news reports came out that the Government had set aside funds for barrier-free access, but that they would be administered through the CIPC, I wanted to file a question about it.

A Straits Times article on 15 February 2007 ("Estates run by PAP to be barrier-free by 2011") stated that 95% of the cost would be covered by CIPC funds, with town councils having to bear the remaining 5%. Furthermore, as the Minister noted in his reply, the procedure is to make the application through the CCCs.

Now, the co-payment requirement and the application procedure clearly means that Opposition town councils and their CCCs (advised by a PAP member) will have to come to an agreement on the proposed project, before they can avail themselves of the CIPC funds. Who really thinks that this will happen?

The result is to deprive aged and disabled Singaporeans in Opposition wards of access to the CIPC funds. And that is simply wrong.

I don't think the Minister really answered the question or addressed the concerns about fairness and justice, and what the concept of "inclusiveness" should stand for. I think his answer speaks for itself. And that's all I'll say about it.

Towards the end of the debate on the Ministry of National Development, one of the other MPs Mr Seah Kian Peng asked about pet ownership and regulation of pet shops. I then decided to ask a clarification about the HDB's policy on cat ownership in HDB flats (it's banned).

This is a complicated issue. People know it's not allowed -- so those who do want to keep cats, will do so surreptitiously and allow cats to roam freely. Perhaps as a result of this loose sense of "ownership" over their cats, they frequently also do not sterilise or vaccinate their cats properly.

(Just as a point of comparison, my cats are not allowed outside at all, even though one of them regularly makes a dash for the door if he is nearby and it is open. The main reason is a fear that if they go off, they might not find their way back, or worse, they may be picked up by AVA and culled. I am told by the Cat Welfare Society that registering your cat does not prevent that, because AVA -- or their contractors -- will not check against registrations before culling.)

This results in ill-behaved cats making a lot of noise -- if you have ever heard a cat in heat, you will understand. The yowling is absolutely awful. There is a school of thought that legalising cat ownership in HDB flats will (a) reduce this problem, if owners are required to register and sterilise their cats, i.e. be responsible pet owners, and (b) be fair, since some breeds of dogs are allowed. But so far, the HDB has been very firm about retaining the policy, even though it is not consistently or strictly enforced.

Well, I don't think the Parliamentary Secretary's response really said all that much. But he makes a fair point, about the difficulty in reconciling conflicting interests. Having said that, this study by the Singapore Veterinary Association indirectly suggests that anti-cat sentiment may not be as strong as it might seem.

Control and Regulation of New and Old Media

Mr Siew Kum Hong (Nominated Member): Mr Chairman, the Government has repeatedly stated that it regulates the Internet with a light touch. That is commendable and I think also a pragmatic recognition of the difficulties in regulating the on-line world. But what is a light touch? Can regulation truly be light touch if behind it is the threat of a criminal offence, punishable by a fine not exceeding $200,000, or jail of up to three years or both, with additional fines of $100,000 per day for committing offences?

Sir, that is exactly what our light touch regulation is. The Media Development Authority regulates the Internet through the Class Licence and a breach of the Class Licence will potentially attract the penalties that I have described.

Sir, the MDA's website describes the Class Licence as setting minimum standards for the responsible use of the Internet. I think it goes much further than that. Read in conjunction with the Internet Code of Practice, the Class Licence prohibits, and I quote, "material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws."

Sir, I would submit that this language is unnecessarily broad and that the Class Licence, in its present form, is no longer relevant or appropriate. When the Government wanted to take action against certain racist bloggers, it chose to charge them under the Sedition Act. That decision surprised many, including lawyers. I myself wondered why the racist bloggers were not charged for breaching the Class Licence. After all, they had posted objectionable online content that would have breached the Class Licence which was specifically created to regulate online content.

Sir, the Government can and will use traditional statutes like the Sedition Act to regulate the Internet and the Penal Code is being updated for the digital age. So I think that the time is right to review the Class Licence 10 years after it was issued, so as to limit the prohibitions to match its existing practice of enforcing the Class Licence against sexual contents. This will avoid ---

The Chairman: Your time is up, Mr Siew.

The Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts (Dr Balaji Sadasivan): Mr Chairman, Sir, you are TIME magazine’s person of the year for 2006. So are Miss Penny Low, Mr Siew Kum Hong and anyone who sits in front of a computer and interacts with it. TIME magazine’s selection of you as person of the year was meant to highlight the millions of individuals who, through their interaction in cyberspace, have created new channels and types of communication. Two hon. Members of Parliament have pointed out the problems related to the new media and I shall answer their cuts together. These are wild and exciting times in cyberspace.

Blogs, YouTube, MySpace, Secondlife and Wikipedia are impacting the lives of millions. Many among the younger generation socialise in cyberspace. Some have termed this revolution in cyberspace as Web2.0, likening it to an updated version of software. While this revolution has brought the wisdom of millions together to create Wikipedia, there is stuff in cyberspace that can make you fear for the future of the next generation. There is a large supply of obscenity and stupidity, dishonesty and danger. So how does my Ministry deal with this brave new world?

We have a three-pronged approach in managing the new media: (1) a light-touch regulatory framework; (2) industry self-regulation; and, (3) public education.

Let me start with light-touch regulatory framework. Internet content providers are regulated under the Media Development Authority’s Class Licence Scheme. There is an Internet Code of Practice, which stipulates the type of content prohibited in cyberspace. The Class Licence requires Internet content providers and service providers to take down or deny access to such harmful content. This light-touch regulatory approach has served us well in regulating online content, helping to facilitate the growth of the industry while allowing us to act if we find harmful content that threatens our social values, and racial and religious harmony.

Mr Siew asked whether we should review our light-touch regulatory framework. Last year, the National Internet Advisory Committee (NIAC), a people-private sector body set up to advise the MDA, reviewed the Class Licence Scheme. It found the light-touch scheme still relevant and appropriate in dealing with emerging media trends.

The Member was also concerned about the use of the Sedition Act recently. The Sedition Act reinforces MDA’s light-touch regulation on new media. The proposed expansion of the Penal Code to cover electronic transmissions now will provide an alternative to the Sedition Act for charging offenders purveying inflammatory content that stirs up public mischief.

Besides legislative action, another important limb in managing the new media is industry self-regulation. The MDA and NIAC work closely with the industry to promote industry self-regulation. For example, last year, the mobile service operators - MobileOne, SingTel and StarHub - developed and adopted a voluntary industry content code for mobile services which aims to protect users, especially the young, from undesirable and objectionable mobile content.

The third prong, public education, is vital. Public education is vital and I totally agree with Miss Penny Low on the importance of public education. ...


Mr Siew Kum Hong: Sir, the Senior Minister of State has pointed out that the NIAC had endorsed the light-touch approach under the Class Licence. He has also mentioned that the Sedition Act supplements the regulations, and the Penal Code provides an alternative mechanism for enforcement. What this means is that a single action can technically contravene three different laws with very serious consequences for each contravention. There is overlapping liability under multiple statutes for one single action. That creates uncertainty and a potential chilling effect on Internet speech. I would like to ask the Senior Minister of State whether this is healthy and leaves too much discretion to the authorities when taking enforcement action.

Dr Balaji Sadasivan: Sir, let me begin with the real world before I go into the cyber world. Even in the real world, there is much overlap between laws, and a particular wrongdoing can come under several sections of the Penal Code, and it is for the Attorney-General to study the various laws and decide which one is applicable in a particular case.

In cyberspace, the same is true. A law applies in cyberspace and so the same law and the same overlap that is found in the real world will be found in cyber space. The difference is that in cyberspace, it is a particular medium that is being used when compared to print, but the laws apply equally whether in cyberspace or in the real world. In cyberspace, what we do not do is that we do not go after every action that breaks the law, because it is impractical and impossible to police cyberspace. So, by and large, cyberspace is left alone and that is what we mean by regulating with a light touch. But where wrongdoing or bad action in cyberspace can have an impact on the real world, like the racist blogs, then we act.

Barrier-free Access

Mr Siew Kum Hong: Madam, the Government recently announced that it will make available $32 million over five years to implement barrier-free access in housing estates. These funds will be disbursed through the Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC). Based on media reports, Town Councils will be required to co-pay 5% of the cost of projects using these funds.

The use of the CIPC, coupled with the requirement for co-payment by Town Councils, effectively excludes the Opposition wards of Hougang and Potong Pasir from access to these funds. CIPC funds are channelled through the Citizens' Consultative Committees, but the advisers to the CCCs in those two wards are from the PAP and are not the elected MPs, which is the case in the PAP Government wards.

So I think that is very unlikely that the CCCs and Town Councils in Hougang and Potong Pasir will be able to come to an agreement on how to use such funds. This penalises the disabled and elderly folks in those estates. If we are serious about making society more friendly to the disabled and the elderly, then this method of disbursing the funds is unhelpful and unfair. In fact, it directly contradicts the vision of an inclusive society for Singapore, knowing that the use of the CIPC will almost inevitably exclude Hougang and Potong Pasir from access to these funds.

Madam, these funds are for barrier-free access. In an ageing society, that is increasingly a must-have and not a good-to-have, like upgrading. They should not be subject to political considerations such as whether the ward in question is an Opposition ward. I would suggest that a better way to distribute these funds is to make direct grants to the Town Councils for their use. After all, the Town Councils would know the best ways in which to apply these funds and what are the most pressing areas of need for barrier-free access. This would truly further our vision of an inclusive society.

Mr Mah Bow Tan: ... Let me now talk about barrier-free accessibility which Mr Siew Kum Hong mentioned. It is an important part of our programme to help the elderly to age in place to make sure that the environment is barrier free and more elderly friendly. My MOS has already updated Members about the progress of the LUP which is also part of the barrier-free accessibility programme, and we are also supporting the Town Councils. We will extend the barrier-free accessibility to all HDB precincts by 2011.

How do we fund it? We have a CIPC fund. The CIPC fund is meant to help or improve projects within the community. So we decided that we will expand the CIPC fund to also fund the construction of the barrier-free accessibility (BFA) items such as ramps, railings and so on. All Town Councils will be invited to draw up their BFA masterplans for their estates and apply for access to the CIPC fund. I just want to make it very clear at this point that we are not excluding any Town Council from applying for these funds. Everybody is welcome to apply for the funds and, in fact, we have written to every Town Council, including to Mr Low Thia Khiang, to apply for the CIPC funds in order to implement BFA. So I do not think there should be any problem in so doing. This is not subject to political consideration, it is just commonsense. Here you have a CIPC fund and you are using it to improve the neighbourhood and the precincts and there we have a need to improve barrier-free accessibility. Why do we not put the two together? So that is the reason why we have expanded CIPC to allow for BFA and the simple procedure is to apply for it through the CCC. Why the CCC? Because they are the ones who are most familiar with the neighbourhood. If all Town Councils do this, follow the procedure, draft their BFA masterplans and apply for access to the CIPC funds, I am sure that by our target date of 2011, all Town Councils will be redeveloped and all the BFA facilities will be put in place.


Mr Siew Kum Hong : Madam, the Parliamentary Secretary has shared with us some of the policies on pet ownership. I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether the Ministry would review the existing ban on cats in HDB flats. I understand that, very often, HDB dwellers who do keep cats will let them roam around so that they can deny owning the cats when confronted. They also do not bother to sterilise the cats. This need for possible deniability leads them to be irresponsible pet owners. If cat ownership is permitted ---

The Chairman: A clarification, Mr Siew, not a speech.

Mr Siew Kum Hong: Yes, Madam. I would like to clarify with the Parliamentary Secretary whether he agrees that if pet ownership is permitted, subject to sterilisation and the need to keep the cats within the flats, then many problems attributed to stray cats will be resolved.

Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman: Madam, this issue of pet ownership, cats especially, in housing estates has been discussed several times. There are two groups effectively - one, the pet lovers who feel that it is okay for pets to be in housing estates. As long as they are sterilised, they will be able to manage and live among HDB dwellers. However, there is also the other group off HDB dwellers who are very particular about the nuisance created by pets of this kind.

The policy of HDB has been that we do not allow cats to be kept in HDB flats because cats are nomadic in nature and are difficult to be confined within the flat. They have also given rise to problems such as defecation, noise and shedding of fur, which will affect the living environment of our housing estates. Having said that, I think we continue to try to engage the pet lovers group to try to bring both parties together. I think what is important is a sense of appreciation of each other's side and to see if, at some point in time later, they will come to an agreed position.

As of now, I think we receive a significant number of complaints from HDB dwellers with regard to nuisance created by cats. Therefore, at this point in time, the position of the HDB remains the same - cats will not be allowed in HDB flats.


lisiepeasie said...

The reason that MP Osman (and HDB) gives about cats being problems because of defaction, shedding, noise *really* holds no water.

I don't even own cats, but anyone can see that the logic behind the ban is faulty.

I wonder if this cat-ban just part of a larger problem of the government's death-like grip on an outdated status quo - even when it makes no sense at all.

How many other laws need to be looked at and revised, but aren't? (The political films act, imo!)

VeganCatsg said...

With expected disappointment, I read the reply of Dr Osman.
Please read
Government (ir)rationale for banning cats from 85% of homes

The caregivers in my estate are frustrated by the absence of rules to enforce responsible cat ownership after we exhaust all the soft approaches ranging from offering to get the home cats sterilised at our expense and also to mesh up their window and door grills, again at our expense. We dread referring these irresponsible cat-owners to the town council officer who may just refer the problem to his or her HDB counterpart. The result will be abandonment of "illegal" feline occupants, resulting in big dent in the success of TnrM with a stable sterilised population of "downstairs" cats!
These irresponsible cat owners will then pick up more cats later on. What will be painful for these irresponsible owners will be a fine! $$ always hurt.
We need HDB to help us by removing the ban and replace it with regulations! Or else the taxpayers will just have to continue to spend more than half a million every year killing cats!

KXBC said...

With all due respect to the answer by Dr Mohhamad Maliki Bin Osman regarding cat ownership in flats, I think HDB's argument against cats in flats are flawed and very misinformed.

I shall like to list out their flawed argument point by point.

Cats are nomadic in nature - Not true. Cats are very territorial animals. They will patrol their territory and fight off any new cats straying into their territory. Even if they are territorial, if cats are kept wholly indoors, their movement within the home will not affect anyone other than the owners.

Cats are difficult to be confined within the flat - Not true too. There are many references in pet/cat books mentioning that cats are very suited for apartment life. The challenge is to keep them entertained, and mentally and physically challenged in the apartment. That is the owner's responsibility. And for information, my cats are kept wholly indoors. There is nothing difficult in meshing up doors and windows to prevent them from escaping. Nowadays, even if I open my doors, my cats will not even bother to step out of the house.

Cats also give rise to problems such as defecation, noise and shedding of fur:
1. Defecation - If cats are kept wholly indoors, why would there be problems of cats defecating outside? Anyway, cat litter know-how has come a long way and modern litter and litter boxes give cats a proper and hygienic place to defecate at home. I see a lot of inconsiderate dog owners not picking up after their dogs when they, meaning the dogs, defecate/urinate outside. I cannot reconcile between this and cats defecating/urinating outside. Both actions are wrong. But why is one action tolerated and not the other?

2. Shedding of fur - This is such a weak argument from the HDB. I do not wish to bring it up at all as I also like dogs but why are dogs allowed to be kept in flats? Don't dogs shed too? Even if the cats shed, it is the owner's responsibility to clean up after them. Do cats shed only exclusively in HDB flats? I am sure they shed too when they live in a condonminium.

And with regards to the loud noises made by cats in heat, a simple neutering/spaying operation will do the trick. This will not only resolve the problem, it also reduces the stray cat population. All my cats are neutered/spayed and they have never once caterwauled. The loudest noise from them would probably be the soft meows I receive when I reach home daily.

Basically, it is all about the pet owners' mentality, never about the pet, be it a cat, dog, fish, bird or hamster. If Singaporeans are inconsiderate, they will make all kinds of trouble for their neighbours.

If cat ownership in flats are legalised, does it not make policing easier? Cat owners will then have no excuse to let their cats wander around outside (which is also dangerous for them), not neuter/spay them, not microchip them etc.

The CWS proposal to legalise keeping cats in flats (but with conditions like microchipping, neutering etc) which was submitted a few years ago was thoughfully put together. It is a shame that HDB had used the same old excuses everytime this issue was brought up.

I thank you for bringing up this issue in Parliament again. I am just disappointed that the relevant authorities are just not bothered to research further, discuss with the SPCA, CWS etc on further action plans. I am just disappointed that a meaningless complaint by a HDB resident can bring certain death to a cat which can be loved by many residents. Does this not ring a bell about the report of this beloved resident dog which a new MP had adopted just because one person made a complaint against it?

I hope the government can be enlighted earlier and not later when our HDB flats become a sterile living environment whereby our children have no further interaction with animals, and because of that, have no compassion for them.

Thank you for raising the matter. I hope you will do so again soon. But as inaccurate as I am about next week's Toto winning combination, I am sure the HDB will have the same template answer to your query.

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