Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, the setting up of the Employment Claims Tribunal is long overdue. This Bill is a welcome relief for workers. I am sure there will be many refinements down the road to ensure that workers get paid their rightful salaries. For now, I have a few issues that I would like to put to the Minister to address.
First, the most important feature of the Employment Claims Tribunal is that it covers workers not covered under the Employment Act, especially Professionals, Managers and Executives who earn more than $4,500 a month. The setting up of the Tribunal finally recognises that compelling PMEs to file their claims with the civil courts can be lengthy and costly, thus discouraging PMEs from pursuing their just compensation and creating the unintended consequences of protecting unscrupulous employers.
However, the obstacles faced by PMEs might return in another form with the Tribunal. This is the limit on claims amount. It was stated in the Ministry of Manpower’s public consultation exercise that claims amount would be capped at $20,000 per claim, or $30,000, if claimants go through the Tripartite Mediation Framework or MOM conciliation. I would like to clarify with the Minister if this, indeed, would be the case.
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, I join my Workers’ Party colleagues to oppose this Bill. As an ordinary person who relies on the law to protect my family, I find this proposed law casts too large and fearful a shadow on the whole of Singapore and diminishes my sense of security for my family.
First the timing for this bill is most unfortunate. The suicide of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim in January this year is still fresh in the minds of many members of the public. It was only five months ago on 1 March this year that Minister Shanmugam laid out the facts of the case in response to online statements and reported comments about the events leading to the suicide. The Minister was careful to point out that he consulted the Attorney-General’s Chambers to make sure he would not be in sub judice contempt. He also said that the Ministry of Home Affairs would study how the police and other institutions could respond in future to such allegations. Is this Bill the response that he had promised?
If it is, how can this Bill claim to merely codify common law rules when it is coming so quick on the heels of what the Minister had said in Parliament just five months ago? If it is, is the response not too fast, too furious, too hasty, given that the Benjamin Lim case is still pending? If it is, should such a Bill with all its terrifying consequences not be given an airing for public debate? Surely, given the potentially far-reaching impact of the Bill, all Singaporeans should be considered stakeholders to be widely consulted, and not just selected legal and judicial fraternities?
Reading this Bill as an ordinary person sends a chill down my spine. I sincerely hope this is not the intended effect of the Bill. The chilling part is sub judice contempt. The meaning of “publish” here is so broad that it covers personal electronic communication and social messaging between friends. It is also not clear what is meant by quote “a real risk of prejudice to or interference with, the course of any court proceeding that is pending”.
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, the birth rate in Singapore seems to be recovering from record lows. In 2010, we hit our lowest number of citizen births at just over 30,000 babies born. In 2012, in the Chinese zodiac Year of the Dragon, citizen births increased to over 33,000 babies. The good news is that citizen births in the last two years have matched the auspicious Year of the Dragon. And in fact, last year citizen births almost hit 34,000 babies, the highest in a decade. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is hovering around 1.25, off the low of 1.16 in 2010.
There is some hope that we have turned the corner with regards to falling birth rates. However, it is still too early to tell whether the increased birth rate is a trend or a temporary rise due to positive sentiments brought out by the SG50 jubilee celebrations. I think we can be cautiously optimistic. I will touch on the optimistic part first.
NEA AUXILIARIES WITH ENFORCEMENT POWERS WILL UNDERMINE COMMUNITY OWNERSHIP
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, this Bill seeks to appoint individuals, including community volunteers as auxiliary officers of the National Environmental Agency to police and enforce the law on public health offences.
The Workers' Party cannot support the Bill in this form. Without expressed limits to the powers and without a specific regime, this Bill allows the Chief Executive of NEA to turn Community Volunteers into functionaries of the State.
I find this objectionable as it goes against the very spirit of involving community volunteers in public health and in environmental protection. Its effectiveness in resolving public health and environmental issues is highly doubtful. On the contrary, I would argue, it would undermine community ownership for these important issues in the long run.
TOWARDS THE FAMILY CHARTER
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, this Bill takes steps to adjust the 55-year old legislation to the changing social environment affecting family life. When enacted in 1961, the Women’s Charter was a momentous and courageous legislation that swam against the tide of opinions and the traditional values of society. I would like to remind the House that the traditional values of Asian society just 60 years ago was the patriarchal treatment of women and the widespread acceptance of polygamy. The preservation of the so-called traditional family was not the original intent of the Charter. On the contrary, the Women’s Charter instituted the modern moral view of the family as a cooperative partnership between husband and wife who have equal rights as independent individuals and have equal responsibilities in caring and providing for the children.
It is a waste that the present and recent amendments are cautious reactions to rising divorce rates. These were opportunities to replicate the visionary spirit of the framers of the original Charter in using the law to shape society for the empowerment of its members. The main changes proposed by the present Bill attempt to deal with two sets of problems besetting the modern family following the principles of the original Charter. The first set concerns the better protection of the well-being and interests of children and follows the principle of parental responsibility. The Bill gives the Courts powers to order divorcing parents to attend the Mandatory Parenting Programme (MPP) and restates who can apply for a protection order in situations of family violence. The second set follows the principle of gender equality and makes incapacitated ex-husbands eligible for receiving maintenance from their ex-wives. The proposed changes, each on their own and on the whole, do not go far enough to plug the widening cracks and empower the modern family in increasingly trying times.