Speech by SMS Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee during the Committee of Supply Debate 2011
09 MAR 2011
9 Mar 2011 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
- Sir, I will now deal with the remaining cuts, starting with Mr Michael Palmer’s.
Pro Bono Legal Services
- Last month, when Mr Palmer spoke at the debate on the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill, he suggested mandating a minimum number of pro bono hours as part of Continuing Professional Development or “CPD” for short. Mr Shanmugam said then that the Singapore Institute of Legal Education or SILE, under whose purview CPD lies, would take into account the different views of the legal community in considering this interesting suggestion.
- Sir, as Mr Palmer points out, while all in the legal fraternity agree that pro bono work is important, not all are of the view that it should be made mandatory. There are really different perspectives on the issue. The CPD scheme is intended to help lawyers keep abreast of legal, regulatory and practice-related developments, so that they are better equipped to handle their work. Some may argue therefore that pro bono work is quite different in objective and outcome, involving mainly the use of already-acquired knowledge whereas CPD is aimed at acquiring new knowledge and skills.
- Mr Palmer’s alternative suggestion, that of giving credit for pro bono work within the framework of the CPD by allowing lawyers who do pro bono work to do fewer hours of CPD, appears to be one that is carefully thought through. This could be a means of recognising the value of pro bono work, incentivising lawyers to do more. I understand from SILE that it is already considering this possibility.
- Pro bono work is crucial to the public and ought to be an integral part of every lawyer’s service to the community. Thus, the Law Society has been active in promoting it, publicising the many available avenues for contribution on its website and instituting a Pro Bono Ambassador Award. As Mr Palmer highlights, there are many ways in which lawyers can contribute, including the CLCs or Community Legal Clinics where to date, some 700 lawyers have volunteered their service. So I share Mr Palmer’s hope that in time, each member of the profession will be encouraged to do his part.
- Sir, I thank Mr Arthur Fong for complimenting SLA and IPOS for creatively rolling out schemes and platforms that are pro-business. These include SLA’s OneMap and IPOS’ IP Management for SMEs programme.
- Sir, OneMap is a platform for the public to access Government information held by separate agencies, in an easy-to-digest, map form. It reflects a customer-centric Government, with agencies working together in a connected manner to present information in a creative way. The service now offers more than 40 thematic layers of information and value-added services ranging from education, to culture, to community, to the environment.
- Sir, two examples of value-added services on OneMap are LandQuery and SchoolQuery. LandQuery makes it easier for the public to find out whether a plot of land is State land, Statutory Board land or private land. It also enables them to find out if the land is available for use. SchoolQuery, provided in collaboration with MOE, helps parents to search, for the purpose of Primary 1 registration, for schools that fall within 1 km, or between 1 km and 2 km of their homes, presenting the information graphically on a map.
- Sir, OneMap is not meant to be and should not be the sole provider of geospatial information in Singapore. I think Mr Fong makes that point. It is just one platform which public agencies, as well as the private and people sectors, can tap to create applications.
- Indeed, we see OneMap complementing private online maps. OneMap focuses on public information and services, whilst other online maps focus on commercial information and functionalities. Private online maps can also use OneMap’s information to enhance their offerings.
- Sir, OneMap has been well received, registering close to 2 million page views and uses every month. The public has given useful feedback on how to improve OneMap. One suggestion was to provide transport-related information. So we worked with TransitLink to add journey planning by public transport onto OneMap. This will help the user decide whether bus or MRT to take from point A to point B is a better option for him.
- SLA will continue to work with public agencies and private service providers to provide more useful information and services on OneMap.
- As for innovations fostering creativity among our businesses and individuals, IPOS has invested substantially in building intellectual property awareness and capabilities in both the private and public sectors. Since the launch of the “IP Management for SMEs” programme by IPOS and SPRING in 2007, we have engaged more than a thousand private companies, of which more than 200 have signed on for formal consultancies and benefited from the grants, creating in turn almost $500m in projected economic value-add. IPOS and IE Singapore also launched the “IP Management for Internationalisation” programme last year to help local businesses export their IP.
- Sir, we recognise that good ideas and inventions do not always come from science laboratories or result from R&D work by research institutions and corporations. In fact, a lot of inventions are the outcome of ordinary people trying to solve problems in their daily lives. I have officiated at innovation competitions and have seen such creativity in abundance amongst our students.
- The problem is, people with good ideas may not have the time or expertise to further develop them, or may be too shy or may not know who to approach for help. Creativity and ideas alone may not lead to innovations. Having someone experienced to advise on the feasibility of the idea and how to take it further, as well as funding, are equally important.
- To help individual inventors translate their ideas into tangible products and services, IPOS will, later this year, pilot an online idea repository, known as the IP Innovation Platform, which will involve the participation of inventors and investors. We hope to create a safe environment where individual inventors can share their ideas with potential investors. The investors will assess the ideas and give feedback to the inventors. If they find the ideas attractive, they may enter into an agreement with the inventors to fund and guide the further development of the ideas. There will be legal safeguards to ensure that ideas are not misappropriated, whilst bona fide investors, with the means and experience to help refine the ideas and turn them into commercial reality, will also be on hand.
- Let me now take Dr Ong Seh Hong’s cut on moneylenders.
- As I had explained in this House before, we had carefully considered whether the interest rate caps should be lifted before we amended the Moneylenders Act in November 2008. Interest rate caps do not protect all borrowers, since the moneylender may refuse to lend if he judges the credit risk of the borrower to be too high and not worth the capped interest rate he is able to charge. So a possible outcome is that such people with high credit risk and to whom moneylenders may be reluctant to lend, may turn to loansharks.
- Nevertheless, for low income borrowers earning less than $20,000 annually and who take small loans of no more than $3,000, caps remain in place to protect them.
- The Act provides many safeguards for borrowers, one of which is to require moneylenders to disclose all the terms and conditions of the loan upfront to the borrower in a language that he understands. These terms and conditions that must be explained include the interest rate and fees charged. Borrowers should make full use of this information to assess for themselves and to make an informed decision on whether to accept the loan. They should also compare the interest rates and terms and conditions offered by the 240 odd moneylenders, who are listed on the Registry of Moneylenders’ website. Borrowers therefore are not limited in their choice of moneylender. The Registry of Moneylenders, early last year, also provided a detailed guide on its website setting out key information that potential borrowers should know.
- Ultimately, borrowers should exercise prudence in borrowing, both in terms of the reason for borrowing and the amount that they borrow. If they know they cannot afford to repay the loan, they should be responsible and not take up the loan.
- Dr Ong’s point about enhancing the reach of information to potential borrowers is a good one. I have asked the Registrar of Moneylenders to consider translating the detailed guide on its website into Mandarin to reach a wider audience.
- If a borrower finds the interest rate or fees charged to be harsh or excessive, and the loan transaction substantially unfair or unconscionable, he can file a claim in the Small Claims Tribunal or the Court under the Consumer Protection Act or section 23 of the Moneylenders Act. He can also lodge a complaint with the Registry of Moneylenders, who will investigate the matter.
State Land in Housing Estates
- Sir, Mr Chiam suggested to have signs put all over the estate to inform residents as to who to call should they find a piece of land in need of some maintenance. Sir, it is true that different parts of the estate may be maintained by different agencies. But this is for a good reason, because they possess the expertise and because of the scope of what they do. But the key agencies really are only a few, for example Land Transport Authority (LTA), National Parks Board (NParks) and for pieces of land that are on a Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL) to the Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC), they would have the responsibility to look after the piece of land.
- What is important is that the key organizations in a constituency, for example the Constituency Secretariat, or the Town Council, or the CCC should know who to call should maintenance be required. My experience on the ground these past 20 years is that residents will call these organizations should they find that a place needs maintenance. Indeed, some of our newsletters, the Grassroots newsletters, the Town Council newsletters, also carry the phone numbers of these organizations. So Mr Chiam’s Town Council’s newsletter, if he has one, may want to consider this.
- For example, I think in Mr Chiam’s constituency, there is a Blk 142 and the field is in front of it. The field itself is on a TOL to the CCC, and the CCC is maintaining that, while the road-side table, between the pedestrian walkway and the road is managed by LTA. So if there is any problem, Town Council should call LTA. Indeed, if you are not sure as to who to call, the Town Council can also call HDB. The HDB will then ask the right agency to come and do the maintenance. Sir, I thank Mr Chiam for his suggestion but there is really no need for all these signs to be put up all over the estate to indicate the maintenance responsibilities.
- Sir, my last cut, the last response would be to Mr Ong Ah Heng. This is on Community Mediation. Sir, the CMC or the Community Mediation Centre has been in operation since 1998. Over these 13 years, its caseload has grown steadily, with more than 5,200 cases mediated, and a settlement rate of more than 70%. Last year, the Centre handled more than 500 cases.
- Sir, the CMC has done much to publicise its services but I agree with Mr Ong that more can be done. Because this is key, residents should know that the CMC exists. Residents should know that when they come to the CMCs, they have an opportunity to talk through their disputes, and they will not be forced or cajoled into a settlement that they do not want. So talking is important. So this year, other than the traditional outreach such as through the newspapers and radio, we intend to tap online media as well. We will also try to weave the mediation message into heartland roadshows, which will reach the ground effectively and possibly, a television drama series. Now, Mr Ong is spot-on when he points out that when our youths embrace a mediation mindset, other positive consequences will likely follow. We will therefore intensify our outreach to youths through an interactive Youth Mediation Day, in place of the annual half-day Youth Mediation Forum. This morning we heard about issues like anger amongst youth, fighting amongst youth. I think a mediation mindset would help to take care of these things. Last year, we reached out to more than 26,000 students through school assembly talks. This year, the CMU, the Unit that looks after community mediation, intends to do more youth outreach this year.
- Now, the key issue, I think, in Mr Ong’s cut: should community mediation be made compulsory? Sir, this issue has been raised before in this House and is one which we have been considering. Quite a few MPs have expressed their concern that the benefits of mediation can be thwarted when one party to the dispute flatly refuses to attend mediation. I think some of us have had experiences like that. There are arguments for and against making mediation compulsory. Our current framework is based on the ideal that compulsion should be a last resort. But of course, this is not cast in stone. We will monitor the situation as we go along.
- So currently, community mediation remains voluntary at least at the outset of the process. But should the case escalate to Court, under the CMC Act, the Court can mandate mediation. W e have strengthened the framework for voluntary mediation by building in strong incentives, short of compulsion, to nudge parties towards mediation before turning to the Courts. In particular, the Criminal Procedure Code which was amended last year, operational this year in January, provides that the Police may refer appropriate cases to the CMC, and for a party’s refusal to attend mediation upon such referral, to be taken into account by the Court should the case escalate to the Court. W ith this amendment, we hope that more disputing parties will seriously consider mediation as a first option. We will monitor the effect of these recent changes, taking into account the concerns expressed by MPs, and make further adjustments, if necessary.
- In addition, the CMC has enhanced its working arrangements with frontline agencies and community-based organizations such as the HDB, Police, grassroots organizations, to ensure that disputes on the ground are detected early, and if appropriate, referred in a timely manner to the CMC for mediation. I think that is a useful process because these are the agencies that will have early cognizance of these disputes. The CMC works very hard, going out to these agencies to talk to the staff, the ground officers and let them know how they can contact the CMU. So I think we will continue to do that. Also, it is important that these parties come to the CMCs to talk it over before their attitudes harden. Thank you, Sir.
Last updated on 25 Nov 2012