2014 in Review: Hits and misses at home

Students at ITE College Central in Ang Mo Kio. Key recommendations by the Aspire committee include providing pathways for technical institute students to work while enhancing their qualifications.
Students at ITE College Central in Ang Mo Kio. Key recommendations by the Aspire committee include providing pathways for technical institute students to work while enhancing their qualifications.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

For Singapore, 2014 was a year of change. The Government made several major policy changes that affected areas such as retirement funding and its universal health-care policy. Change was also in the air for Singaporeans – they saw drought-like weather at the start of the year, which was followed by a serious bout of haze, before intense rains swept in as the year drew to a close. The Straits Times takes a look back at some of the top headline-makers of 2014.

HITS

1 New focus on skills and job performance

Study hard, earn a degree and land a well-paid job. That was the traditional formula for success for many Singaporeans.

This year, another path was mapped out as a national effort got under way to stress skills over paper qualifications.

The Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire) committee urged students, workers and employers to focus on skills and job performance, instead of seeing a degree as the only road to success.

The committee was led by Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah.

Key recommendations included providing pathways for students from technical institutes to work and enhance their qualifications at the same time.

Institute of Technical Education and polytechnic graduates would get more career guidance as well.

The committee also proposed a route by which workers could progress in their careers while building on their skills.


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2 Benefits galore for pioneers

If a colour could describe Singapore this year, it would undoubtedly be silver.

The Government has embraced the silver tsunami by launching a massive campaign this year to honour the pioneer generation.

It began with the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package, announced during the Budget in March. Some 450,000 people aged 65 and older this year, and who became citizens before 1987, became eligible for a suite of health-care benefits.

These include Medisave top-ups and lower premiums for the upcoming MediShield Life.

To make sure the perks will be understood by all, the Government rolled out an aggressive ad campaign - printing fliers and roping in local entertainers for explanatory videos.

On Sept 1 - when most of the subsidies kicked in - The Straits Times reported that seniors flocked to polyclinics to use their new cards. Some had even delayed treatment to take advantage of the subsidies.

Since then, a multitude of initiatives to honour these seniors have sprung up, including discounts for groceries and dining, and promotional banking rates.


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3 Massive Mandai makeover

The massive Mandai makeover, announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in September, could change the face of tourism here.

Visitors can not only expect a "bigger, better zoo", but they can also look forward to more nature-themed attractions in the area by as early as 2020.

The Jurong Bird Park, for instance, could be moved to Mandai, home to the Singapore Zoo, the River Safari and the Night Safari. Experts had said such a cluster would be more marketable to tourists.

Wildlife Reserves Singapore chairman Claire Chiang had hinted that zoo visitors could have closer encounters with the animals. The authorities have said that the developments will be sustainable and sensitive to the surrounding area.


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4 Public transport improvements on track with new rail lines, more buses

The road ahead for Singapore's public transport sector looks promising, with several key milestones this year.

To raise service standards in the public bus sector, the Government announced in May that it will restructure the industry by moving it to a contracting model, where operators bid for routes through competitive tenders.

The first package of 26 bus services was put up for tender in October, and is expected to be implemented in 2016.

Meanwhile, the billion-dollar Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP), which started in 2012 and will add 1,000 government-funded buses to the roads, has reached its halfway mark.

With the BSEP, commuters' waiting time has been reduced by three to seven minutes on the more popular services. The number of bus services that were persistently crowded during peak hours has also been reduced by 60 per cent, said Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew.

In the rail sector, a new 43km Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL) was announced, a joint line between the previously planned Thomson Line and Eastern Region Line. The 13km eastern segment of the TEL will connect commuters who are currently not served by any MRT line, in areas such as Siglap, Marine Parade, Upper East Coast and Bedok South.

To be opened in stages from 2019, the TEL will be fully operational in 2024.


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5 Making CPF more flexible

A pillar of Singapore's social safety net for decades, it has been praised internationally.

But the Central Provident Fund (CPF) came under scrutiny this year, and a whole host of changes is set to make it more flexible. For one thing, from Jan 1 next year, workers will get a boost, with employer CPF contribution rates up by at least a percentage point.

Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced this move - and five years of annual CPF Medisave top-ups for older Singaporeans outside the pioneer generation- in the Budget.

CPF members will also have the option of withdrawing part of their savings in a lump sum after they retire, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the National Day Rally.

However, those who turn 55 from July 1 next year will need to fork out more to meet the Minimum Sum, which will be raised to $161,000, up from $155,000 for this year's cohort. But Mr Lee assured Singaporeans he saw no need for any further major hikes.

Expect more discussion about the scheme next year as the CPF Advisory Panel, named in September, should have its first set of recommendations ready next month.


MISSES

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1 Brazen robberies and grisly murder

High profile crimes gripped the nation over the past year, from the discovery of a legless body to brazen robberies.

Last month, the lunchtime crowd in Raffles Place witnessed a shocking robbery. Indonesian businessman Kang Tie Tie, 37, was carrying a bag with nearly $800,000 in cash and cash cheques when he was robbed and stabbed. Passers-by detained the suspect, Arun, a 38-year-old Indonesian, who has been charged. Mr Kang was discharged from hospital after four days.

That same month, money changer Ali Yousouf Saiboo, 35, was robbed of more than $600,000 in an Aljunied carpark. Three Malaysian men were charged, but five unidentified suspects remain at large.

In June, some members of the public made a grisly discovery in Syed Alwi Road. Inside a bloodied suitcase was the legless body of 59-year-old Pakistani Muhammad Noor. Two other Pakistani nationals, aged 25 and 43, have been charged.


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2 Tussle over widow's $40 million assets

It was a saga that involved a widow and her $40 million assets, a tour guide she met in China and her niece.

After meeting Yang Yin in 2008, Madam Chung Khin Chun allowed him to move into her house and even handed over control of her assets to him.

But after her niece, Madam Hedy Mok, intervened and took up a series of legal actions against him, the tide turned against the former tour guide.

In the three months since the story broke, he has been slapped with more than 300 charges for a host of offences. Madam Chung has also managed to get her will changed, to replace the one that handed her assets to Yang. The story is in its final act.


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3 Foreign workers' poor living, working conditions

Thousands of foreign workers work behind the scenes as they build Singapore's roads and keep households running.

But a series of incidents highlighted the less-than-ideal conditions they work under here.

The poor living conditions of male foreign workers also came under the spotlight, with many continuing to live in unhygienic and overcrowded foreign worker housing.

Acknowledging the problem, the Government has taken steps to improve housing conditions for foreign workers.

Nine purpose-built dorms, which come with cafeterias and basketball courts, will be built over the next two years. They will add around 100,000 beds to the existing 200,000 in about 40 big dorms.


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4 Ripping off tourists

Vietnamnese tourist Pham Van Thoai pleaded, cried and even dropped to his knees - still the shop refused to return the money scammed from him.

The owner, Mr Jover Chew, became the face of all that was wrong with a small segment of the retail sector here - the cheating and scamming that had become rife at shopping spots such as Sim Lim Square and Lucky Plaza.

Mr Chew, whose mobile-phone shop is now defunct, overcharged the tourist for two iPhones and tried to give a woman from China more than $1,000 in coins when she asked for a refund.

After the news broke, he vanished from sight. A week or so later, he shut down his business.

Meanwhile, with the reputation of Sim Lim Square going downhill, its management appealed to the authorities to intervene and clamp down on the handful of errant mobile shops there.

The authorities have since stepped up their efforts against errant retailers, and several police raids have taken place at the mall over the past two months.

To tackle the issue, the Government is looking into ways to protect consumers, including possibly a review of existing laws.


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5 Dry spells and flash floods

Singapore's weather has been flummoxing people all year, with an unprecedented dry spell earlier this year but a rising number of days with flash floods as well.

February entered the records as the country's driest month in nearly 150 years. Just 0.2mm of rain was recorded that month, well below the previous record of 6.3mm in February 2010 and the mean February rainfall of 161mm.

The Republic also experienced two prolonged, 27-day dry spells, from Jan 13 to Feb 8 and again from Feb 17 to March 16, turning large swathes of verdant green across the country brown.

The number of days with flash floods has risen as well, from 23 in 2011 to 36 last year.

There were 14 flash-flood days this year as of mid-November, but the last two months of the year are traditionally the country's wettest, so the final tally is expected to be higher.