Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Questions for Oral Answer: 1 March 2007

These are 2 questions I filed, that were answered on 1 March 2007. One is about stray cats, which is really a much more complex issue than you'd think, and the other is about who is getting all these new jobs in Singapore.

Firstly, stray cats. I've been pigeonholed as "championing" animal welfare -- I think thanks almost entirely to TODAY, who, in their news report on the appointment of the NMPs, singled out the low-income and animal welfare as the two issues I stood for, based on my essay.

But those of you who have read it will know that I wrote about much more than that. And it's been alternately galling and amusing, when people asked me about animal welfare. It's not that it's not important to me -- it is, thanks to my absolutely adorable pets (all adopted strays) -- but given limited time and opportunities, there are other issues that assume higher priority on my list.

Still, the marathon Budget sessions meant that eventually my question on stray cats was aired in Parliament, even though it was not reported in the media. I would thank the Minister of State for hearing me out and her balanced response, even though I disagree with the position taken and the Ministry's view on the effectiveness of sterilisation as opposed to culling. Also, she did not seem familiar with the Guernsey example (search the archives for stores on "stray cats" in 2004), and I was a little surprised that she did not address a research study by the Singapore Veterinary Association in Bukit Merah. I have asked for the figures on repeat complainants that she offered, but am still waiting for her response.

I must thank the Cat Welfare Society and the SPCA for helping me with background information on this issue, and I am sure that I will raise animal welfare issues again.

The second question was about the 170,000-odd new jobs created in Singapore. One of the interesting nuances in the media coverage on this was that the reports always talked about "locals" getting XXX number of the new jobs and "foreigners" getting YYY number.

And this was really because the data released by the Ministry was on those terms. There was no breakdown in how many of the "locals" who got these new jobs were Singapore citizens and how many were PRs (and I knew that citizens + PRs = locals).

So I decided to ask.

I think the Minister basically dodged the question, in particular the follow-up portions about extrapolating the numbers from income tax and CPF data. I believe that the MOM doesn't have those figures, and I suspect it is because they are not set up to collate the numbers that way.

It is easy to do a local-vs-foreigner split, simply because the foreigners need employment passes, S-passes and work permits. But from the MOM's perspective, there is no differentiation between citizens and PRs, and no way for them to collect data.

It's different for CPF and income tax though. It would be possible to correlate that (although for income tax, the figures would be 2 years old). But I think it would require a massive undertaking, and I am honestly not sure if the cost is justified. So I didn't push the Minister on it. Plus I see the merit in his response, even though I think it does fail to address the very important issue of the quality of jobs going to locals.

OPQ #1


Mr Siew Kum Hong asked the Minister for National Development (a) for each year from 2002 to 2006 (i) what was the stray cat population in Singapore; (ii) how many complaints concerning stray cats were received by Government agencies and town councils in total; and (b) whether there is any statistically-valid empirical evidence that culling has been an effective long-term solution in managing the stray cat population in Singapore.

The Minister of State for National Development (Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien) (for the Minister for National Development): Mr Speaker, sir, the AVA estimates that there are 60,000 stray cats in Singapore. The total number of complaints concerning stray cats received by AVA, HDB and the town councils averaged at 10,000 per year for the period from 2002 to 2006.

Cats can breed two to three times a year, producing litters of two to five kittens each time. Stray cats here breed prolifically due to the conducive living environment, such as plentiful supply of easily available food. The presence of a large uncontrolled population of stray cats can pose public health and environmental problems, and gives rise to public complaints of nuisances.

AVA is not aware of any empirical evidence that culling is an effective long-term solution in managing the stray cat population in Singapore. AVA adopts a pragmatic multi-pronged approach to address the problem of strays here. A balanced approach is needed to take into account the good intentions of cat lovers, as well as the genuine interest of people who are affected by the nuisance caused by stray cats.

Culling, sterilisation and public education are three necessary parts of a balanced control and management strategy on stray cats. Culling is an acceptable and necessary means of reducing the stray cat population, as sterilisation alone will not effectively control the number of stray cats.

Public education is also an important part of AVA’s strategy for controlling the number of strays because selfish and irresponsible people who abandon unwanted pets, allow them to breed freely and indiscriminately feeding strays also contribute to adding more strays to the environment.

Mr Siew Kum Hong (Nominated Member): Sir, three supplementary questions. First, I would like to ask the Minister of State whether the HDB, Town Councils and AVA keep records on whether the complainants make repeat complaints.

Second, is with reference to the Minister of State's statement that stray cats breed prolifically, and she has also mentioned culling in her answer. Is the Minister of State aware that there is empirical evidence that sterilisation in the form of the trap, neuter and release strategy is effective in controlling the stray cat population? The example being the island of Guernsey which has managed to control its stray cat population so effectively that it had to import stray cats from other areas so as to allow cat lovers to adopt them.

Sir, my third supplementary question is with respect to the balanced approach that the Minister of State has described. Does the AVA advocate such a balanced approach to the Town Councils which I understand to be primarily responsible for controlling the stray cat problem? Because my understanding is that some Town Councils adopt a purely culling-based approach.

Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: Sir, on the first question whether AVA, HDB and Town Councils track the number of repeat complaints, at this moment, I do not have the information. I believe that they do keep a record of the people who complain but, in compiling statistics, I do not think they eliminate repeat complaints. I will check on this and, if necessary, provide an answer to the Member.

As to the empirical evidence of sterilisation, some years back, in 1998, we embarked on a programme of sterilisation and release. I believe this is what the NMP is referring to. In 2003, ie, five years later, we did a review of that programme. Actually, the Town Councils found that the programme had not been effective in controlling the stray cat population. The complaints on food remains and cat waste continued and, surprisingly in some cases, they actually reported an increase in the number of complaints despite the programme to sterilise. It is for this reason that AVA thinks that it is not just an enforcement issue but also a public participation issue. Therefore, AVA is quite happy to work with the community to control the number of strays in their area.

As regards Town Councils' action, I believe that the Town Councils take a very pragmatic approach. They will act on complaints. We have actually been discussing with the Town Councils of taking a balanced approach. Of course, while they would act only on complaints and when there is a complaint, they would have to show that they act on it as well. Town Councils do have a responsibility towards its residents to ensure that the place is kept clean and the environment conducive.

Mr Siew Kum Hong: Sir, the Minister of State mentioned that the relevant agencies do not keep statistics on repeat complainants. My understanding is that, very often, it is the few people who just absolutely hate cats for some reason who keep complaining. I would tie this in with the Minister of State's reply to my third supplementary question about how AVA works with the Town Councils and how the Town Councils react in response to complaints. That being the case, I would like to ask the Minister of State what kind of programmes does the AVA have to ensure that Town Councils do not adopt only an immediate response and instead have a long-term holistic approach.

Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: Sir, I think I have answered earlier that between the three agencies - AVA, HDB and Town Councils - they receive an average of 10,000 complaints per year, which is actually 30 complaints per day. Granted, there could be people who feel passionate about this issue and probably complain more than once, I think 30 a day is probably more than what a few people could do, unless they do it on a full-time basis.

As regards to programmes, as I said, we have the interest of the animals at heart. AVA does quite a few programmes on public education. We will look into specific issues if the NMP feels that Town Councils have taken action that is perhaps too harsh for the cat lover.

OPQ #2


Mr Siew Kum Hong asked the Minister for Manpower (a) how many of the jobs created in 2006 were taken up by Singapore citizens, permanent residents and foreigners respectively; (b) what is the Government estimates of these statistics if it does not track them for Singapore citizens and permanent residents; and (c) whether it can derive such statistics using income tax and CPF contribution data and, if so, what are these statistics.

The Minister for Manpower (Dr Ng Eng Hen): Mr Speaker, Sir, our employment data is based on the resident or local population which captures Singapore citizens and permanent residents as a single group. In other words, our system enters it as one component. We do not separate them as at this moment.

If we wanted a sense amongst the local population - what proportion of Singapore citizens vis-a-vis PRs - as a snapshot, we do have the breakdown of proportions within the general population – we take the census or when we do our surveys - for example, in June 2005, out of a total population of 4.34 million, the Department of Statistics said that 72% were citizens, 10% were permanent residents and 18% were non-residents. So if it is 10% PRs out of a population of 4.34 million, we have 430,000 PRs, and we assume that some of them are children and housewives, and assume that a number are working and then try to minus the number of what you get from our labour data, you could come up with a guesstimate, but it is just a guess work. It would be difficult to extrapolate this to derive accurate employment data for the various groups, because we must also take into account the change in employment numbers. The employment numbers fluctuate and we are not sure which group is changing at that point of time - foreign workers and PRs moving in and out of Singapore as well as the fact that PRs change their status and become citizens across periods.

What we can say is that for locals, 2006 was a record year for employment creation. Another way of looking at it and addressing the NMP's point is whether there were adequate jobs created for Singaporeans. Out of a total of 173,300 jobs, which was a record year, we know that more than half were for locals - 88,200. But our average shows that each year, we only add about 33,000 locals for the past. In other words, for the last two years, especially for last year, we have exceeded that to about two or three times what the average number of jobs created for locals.

I think a better way of measuring this would be to move towards employment data. I will speak a little bit more about this during the Committee of Supply. That will give us a better sense of all available citizens within an age band how many are working. That number is quite determinate and that is where most countries are moving towards to give accurate employment data.


o said...

This might be a stupid question, but why would you ask about the Singapore citizen/PR split in new jobs created? Would you expect one group to be over-represented on a per capita basis? And if there were an over-representation, what would that tell us?

Siew Kum Hong said...

To o: I don't know. Honest. I just wanted to know, and I think many if not most Singaporeans would want to know as well.

This question really does go to the heart of the ongoing debate (or perhaps gnashing of teeth might be more accurate) about foreign talent and an immigrant-driven population of 6.5 million: how much really do Singapore citizens benefit from all this?

I'm not being xenophobic, and I welcome foreigners and I happen to believe that they are essential for continued growth. But at the same time, I do feel that there are very legitimate concerns about Singaporeans being able to benefit from all this "progress".

To me, there is no point in having high percentage GDP growth rates if most or all of the benefits of that growth are concentrated in the rich/uber-rich or transient foreigners who are here to make a living and not sink roots.

So that is where I was coming from. But I really did not have much expectation either way on what the representation would have been.

o said...

My point is that the characteristics of the citizen and PR populations (age distribution, percentage with university degrees, etc) may be so different that a comparison of how new jobs were distributed between the two groups would be meaningless.

I agree with you that foreigners are essential for the continued growth of Singapore (full disclosure: I am a foreigner). Any vibrant, growing city must be sustained by a labour pool outside of the city. It just happens that outside of Singapore the city is also outside the country.

So yes, Singapore needs to attract foreigners. But only for jobs for which there is no Singaporean. In EU countries, for any non-resident or non-EU citizen that is hired, the employer must make a formal declaration that the job cannot be performed by any non-EU citizen. I don't believe that Singapore has this requirement, but perhaps something like this can go a ways to protecting Singaporean citizens' jobs without isolating Singapore from the global job market.

o said...

Whoops, that should read "job cannot be performed by any EU citizen", rather than "job cannot be performed by any non-EU citizen".

adriane said...

I agree that foreigners are essential for our survival. However observations is that are our foreign pool diverse enough? or are we "importing" an certain groups in large numbers? If one looks around, one sees the large number of PRC Chinese and Indians from Indian who do not intergrate into our society. Some of which even create an social nuisance of themselves by being ladies of the night, opening up sleazy massage palours in the heartlands. My question is why is it so? Was our talent pool not supposed to be skilled? Why is it then we are seeing large numbers of PRCs who can't even speak English to save themselves?

As for jobs, the rational PR equates to Singaporeans doesnt equate as we on the ground know that a large number of PR have no loyalty to Singapore and whatever they have earned is being transferred abroad. Without a time limit in which they have to adopt citizenship, they will simply freeload and enjoy the priveleges close to that of a citizen and not be obligated to the country. In a time of crisis, they will simply move on back home or to the next country that values their talents.

The Ministers might brush this aside as mere coffee shop talk, however this will only distance the people from the goverment. We are starting to see class divisions, the rich and the not rich, the elite and the non elite and more disturbing in discussion boards, we see repeated use of the term "peasant" Yes Singaporeans are regarding themselves as peasants and the government as elites who rule over them. The Wee Shu Min incident and NKF incident only served to enforced the notion that the Government now only cares to protect the interest of the Elite which can mean anyone from high ranking members of the civil service to notable personalities such as CEOs, Top Bankers. The rest of the population's purpose is to work hard to ensure the comfort of the top echelon of Singaporean society and the rewards to them are a safe place to live. I belive that the government we have was formed with the notion of fairness and equality, it strived to shake us off the yoke of colonialism. Hence it would be insulting to our founding fathers if the population now think that we are back to colonialism just that we are serving different masters.

Readymade said...

adriane: would help if you didn't lump every foreigner together. The breakdown of the people involved is far more complex.

Many of the PRC Chinese who work in massage parlours etc are here on social visit passes, so they wouldn't be captured in the stats that Kum Hong was asking about. And I don't think the govt wants them.

The large numbers of Bangladeshi and Indian workers are here to work in construction. They're essentially keeping the inefficient construction sector here afloat.

You don't have to speak English to be "talented", btw.

Also, not all PRs are disloyal or freeloaders. Some of them are genuinely interested in becoming Singaporeans, but are deterred for certain reasons e.g. NS, lack of dual citizenship -- issues which Singaporean Citizens themselves bring up.

Yes, there is a rich-poor divide. But I haven't seen any stats that point to an unusual number of PRs being super rich compared to S'pore citizens. If anyone can enlighten with stats, pls do so.

In any case, the problem is the rich-poor divide. Not how many of the super elite rich are PRs.

Siew Kum Hong said...

To readymade: My own thoughts on foreigners in Singapore are complex and still developing. Having said that, my concerns primarily revolve around the possible displacement of Singaporeans by foreigners (I would include long-term PRs under "Singaporeans", but short-term PRs using Singapore as a stepping stone under "foreigners" -- and yes, I acknowledge the near-impossibility of identifying the latter). Are cheap foreign labourers displacing unskilled low-income Singaporeans? Are mid-level foreigners displacing mid-level Singaporeans? And are top-level foreigners (dubbed "foreign talent") depriving Singaporeans of the opportunity to prove themselves?

We might not know the answers to all these things. And maybe they are inherently unknowable. But to my mind, the least that can be done is to show greater sensitivity to these issues.

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