WELLINGTON: New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the government will on Sunday (Mar 7) lift a lockdown in the country's largest city of Auckland which was prompted by just one new case of the coronavirus.
Ardern imposed a seven-day lockdown on the city of 2 million last Saturday, continuing its "go hard, go early" response throughout the coronavirus crisis.
Two more locally transmitted cases were subsequently reported, but no new cases have been reported in the last five days.
"We may not be in the devastating position that much of the rest of the world finds itself in, but an elimination strategy can feel like hard work and it is completely natural to feel fatigued," Ardern told a news conference on Friday.
"COVID-19 is hard work for everyone. Thank you for pushing through once again."
Ardern's approach has been credited with making New Zealand one of the most successful countries in the world at controlling the spread of the coronavirus, but the latest shutdown has been criticised by some on social media as several sporting and cultural events had to be called off.
Ardern said Auckland will move to alert level two after the lockdown ends at 6am local time on Sunday (1am, Singapore time), down from alert level three which requires people to remain in their household bubbles when not at work or school.
The rest of the country will move to alert level one, which is the lowest.
New Zealand has reported just more than 2,000 cases of the coronavirus and 26 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
WELLINGTON: Tens of thousands of coastal residents in New Zealand, New Caledonia and Vanuatu fled for higher ground on Friday (Mar 5) as a cluster of powerful earthquakes sparked a Pacific-wide tsunami alert.
Warning sirens sounded across Noumea as authorities ordered evacuations amid fears that waves of up to 3m were headed towards the French territory.
"People must leave beach areas and stop all water activities, and should not pick their children up at schools to avoid creating traffic jams," emergency services spokesman Alexandre Rosignol told public radio.
In New Zealand, communities along stretches of the North Island were warned to flee as tsunami alert sirens wailed after an 8.1-magnitude quake, which followed earlier tremors in the same region measuring 7.4 and 7.2.
"Do not stay at home," the National Emergency Management Agency said.
"People near the coast ... must move immediately to the nearest high ground, out of all tsunami evacuation zones, or as far inland as possible."
At 1.27pm (8.27am, Singapore time), the agency lifted evacuation orders and declared "the largest waves have now passed".
"All people who evacuated can now return," it said.
It cautioned that "strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges" would continue for several hours.
Earlier, an emergency alert was issued for all coastal areas around Auckland, a city of 1.7 million, where people were told to stay away from the water's edge. There were no reports of damage or casualties from the quakes.
"The first wave may not be the largest," said Bill Fry, a seismologist at geoscience body GNS, told a televised news conference in the capital, Wellington.
"Tsunami activity will continue for several hours, and the threat must be regarded as real until this warning is cancelled," he added.
The largest of the quakes struck around 1,000km off the New Zealand coast at 8.28am (3.28am, Singapore time), the US Geological Survey said.
It was preceded by two seismic jolts that were also enormously powerful, in an unusually strong cluster even for the Pacific ring of fire, where the Earth's tectonic plates collide.
New Zealand's National Emergency Management Agency said the remoteness of the quakes did not minimise their potential impact.
"The earthquake may not have been felt in some of these areas, but evacuation should be immediate as a damaging tsunami is possible," it said.
COASTAL RESIDENTS ON ALERT
The US Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said Vanuatu and New Caledonia were likely to experience the largest waves, measuring up to 3m.
"Based on all available data, hazardous tsunami waves are forecast for some coasts," it said.
It said initial smaller waves were already reported in Tonga, and small waves were also possible as far afield as Japan, Russia, Mexico and the South American coast.
Australia issued a marine tsunami threat for Norfolk Island, a tiny Australian territory with about 1,750 residents, but said there was no threat to the mainland.
Norfolk Island residents in areas threatened by land inundation or flooding were advised to go to higher ground or inland, the Bureau of Meteorology said. Residents were also told to get out of the water and move away from the water's edge at beaches, marinas, coastal estuaries and rock platforms.
Chile said it could experience a minor tsunami.
The US Pacific Tsunami Warning Center cancelled a tsunami watch on Thursday for Hawaii. The agency also previously cancelled a tsunami warning it had issued for American Samoa.
In American Samoa, officials rang village church bells and police in marked vehicles and fire trucks used loudspeakers to spread word of the threat because the territory's regular outdoor warning system has been out of commission since last year.
Repairs have been on hold because flights to American Samoa were suspended amid the pandemic and technicians have been unable to make the trip.
Residents weren't taking any chances after a tsunami in 2009 killed 34 people in American Samoa and caused major damage.
The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck off the east of New Zealand's North Island was felt by more than 60,000 people across the country with many describing the shaking as "severe". Aftershocks were still being recorded in the area.
No damage or injuries were reported from the earlier quakes, both of which generated tsunami warnings that were later lifted.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand was among those given an early morning wake-up.
"Hope everyone is ok out there - especially on the East Coast who would have felt the full force of that earthquake," she posted on Instagram after the initial shake at 2.27am (9.25pm, Singapore time).
New Zealand experiences frequent seismic and volcanic activity but Emergency Services Minister Kiri Allan said she had never before experienced such a strong sequence of earthquakes.
"This has been an extraordinary morning for many New Zealanders up and down the country," she said.
"From 2.30am this morning they have been up, worried about their homes and their families."
The South Pacific nation recently marked the 10th anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake, when a 6.3 tremor resulted in 185 deaths in the South Island city.
SINGAPORE: Visitors planning to drive to Mandai Columbarium on peak days during the Qing Ming festival period must now make e-appointments , said the National Envionment Agency on Friday (Mar 5).
Crowds at the three government-managed columbaria at Mandai, Yishun and Choa Chu Kang as well as Choa Chu Kang Cemetery are expected to peak during Good Friday on Apr 2 and the Qing Ming festival on Apr 4, said NEA.
The peak days identified by NEA are Mar 20, 21, 27 and 28, as well as Apr 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 17 and 18.
To improve traffic flow within Mandai Columbarium, drivers visiting on those dates will be required to show an email or SMS confirming their vehicle registration before they can enter and park.
Vehicles that arrive outside their appointment time may be refused entry.
Appointment slots will be released two weeks before the peak days, starting from Mar 6.
NEA also said that visitors intending to visit on peak days are encouraged to carpool.
Alternatively, they can also park their vehicles near Khatib MRT station, and use the shuttle bus service provided. Each trip will cost S$1.
Appointments are not required for visitors taking public transport, and for visits outside of the peak days.
Non-registered vehicles can drop their passengers off at the designated point near the pedestrian gate along Mandai Avenue.
KEEP TO TWO REPRESENTATIVES PER HOUSEHOLD
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NEA has also encouraged visitors during the Qing Ming period to send only two representatives per household, with not more than eight people in a group, said NEA. Elderly family members and young children should also avoid visiting.
From Mar 20 to Apr 18, the three columbaria will open 24 hours daily to cater to an anticipated increase in visitors, added the agency.
Safe distancing ambassadors will be deployed for crowd control. To reduce the time spent by visitors at the columbaria, NEA will set up joss paper collection booths on selected days.
Visitors should not give red packets to staff working at the booths and within the columbaria and cemetery, said NEA.
"In view of the continued COVID-19 situation and strict safe distancing measures, NEA has put in place stricter crowd control measures to limit crowds, and urges members of the public to exercise socially responsible behaviour to protect our well-being and that of our families and relatives," said the agency.
"Those feeling unwell or are sick should stay at home, see a doctor, and avoid visiting."
More roads to be converted for pedestrians and cyclists; 60 projects identified, including in Civic District
SINGAPORE: About 60 projects across Singapore have been identified for roads to be possibly converted into footpaths, cycling paths and bus lanes, as part of efforts to make these modes of transport more convenient.
Announcing this in Parliament on Friday (Mar 5), Senior Minister of State for Transport Amy Khor said engagement for five of these projects have already started, adding that the authorities will seek the views of residents, town councils and businesses to identify potential enhancements.
“These views will shape key project details, such as the length of the stretch being repurposed, or when permanent infrastructure enhancement works will commence or even if the project should proceed at all,” said Dr Khor.
These efforts will begin with projects to enhance walkability in areas such as the Civic District.
“Over the years, we have worked with arts and civic groups and premises owners to realise their aspirations for greater walkability within the Civic District,” she said.
“We have pedestrianised one side of Anderson Bridge and part of St Andrew’s Road, and restricted vehicle access to stretches of Parliament Place, Old Parliament Lane and Connaught Drive. With this, pedestrians can walk seamlessly from the Old Parliament House to Esplanade Park."
Many have called for a more extensive pedestrianisation of the Civic District, Dr Khor noted.
“Mr Mok Wei Wei, the architect for the upgrading of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, suggested fully pedestrianising Anderson Bridge as a gateway to the district,” she said, adding that this would offer “unblocked and panoramic views" of the district’s architecture.
This suggestion - as well as others from visitors, arts and civic groups and property owners - is being considered as part of efforts to make the district more pedestrian-friendly, she said.
“Looking beyond the Civic District, we will also work with the community to gradually reshape the streetscape in areas such as Sembawang, Bishan-Toa Payoh, Tanjong Pagar and Jalan Besar,” said Dr Khor.
These efforts will begin with a stretch of Havelock Road, where residents and grassroots volunteers have asked that the area be made more walkable, she noted.
“We are studying widening the footpath by paving over some roadside parking lots, thereby creating a more pleasant walking experience for pedestrians,” she said.
This will be done with the temporary use of water-filled barriers for several months - with community feedback gathered for further refinements - before the footpath is permanently widened, said Dr Khor.
In a media release, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said that the affected area lies between 715 and 745 Havelock Road, where the existing walkway along the shophouses is narrow and unable to accommodate pedestrian traffic.
“Under Phase 1, which will commence from March 2021, LTA will modify the road layout, such as by removing the roadside parking lots, to create more space for walking in front of the shophouses,” it said.
Motorists will be able to use nearby car parks at Blocks 51, 44A and 28A, while delivery drivers can park at the alternative loading and unloading bays at Beo Crescent Market as well as at Blocks 50 and 53.
“LTA will engage the community to gather more feedback and suggestions during Phase 1 to ensure that these enhancements will best suit their needs. Permanent infrastructural changes will be made in Phase 2 if the community is supportive,” said the agency.
“Aside from walkability, we will also start to convert stretches of roads into cycling paths, beginning in locations such as Ang Mo Kio Street 22, to expand our network of cycling paths,” said Dr Khor.
She noted that Singapore is pressing ahead with plans to expand cycling paths from 460km to 1,300km by 2030.
“By the end of this year, we will have added 28km of cycling paths, in Bukit Panjang, Sembawang, Taman Jurong and Yishun, as well mature estates such as Ang Mo Kio, Bishan, Tampines, Taman Jurong and Toa Payoh,” she said, adding that construction will be prioritised for towns without cycling paths.
Dr Khor noted that since the ban on the use of personal mobility devices (PMDs) on footpaths, safety has “improved considerably”, with accidents involving motorised PMDs on such paths falling to 30 cases between 2019 and 2020, a 79 per cent drop.
“To further enhance safety, we will be rolling out a new import controls regime for personal mobility devices and power-assisted bicycles in the first half of 2021,” she said.
“This is an important measure to prevent the import of non-compliant devices. Meanwhile, we will continue with regular inspections of AM (active mobility) devices to deter illegal modifications,” she added.
"We will step up our efforts to transform our land transport system to become more inclusive and sustainable. We will also partner the community to build a landscape of roads and paths that meets Singaporeans’ aspirations for a more liveable and sustainable home."
SINGAPORE: Finding himself in financial need and wanting to "support his pregnant wife", a taxi driver stole 30 grocery vouchers that were placed in open letterboxes.
R Mohan, 54, was jailed for five days on Thursday (Mar 4) after pleading guilty to one count of theft. A second charge was considered in sentencing.
The court heard that Mohan noticed in October last year that several letterboxes at the void deck of Block 1 Holland Close were left unlocked.
He decided to "try his luck" to see if there was anything valuable in them that he could take. He found two sets of 15 grocery vouchers worth S$10 each in two letterboxes and stole them.
The 30 grocery vouchers, worth S$300 in all, were distributed by the Government as part of Budget 2020. They were meant to go to needy Singaporeans to help them with household expenses during the pandemic.
Mohan used 23 of the vouchers on groceries and household items from supermarkets. On Oct 7, 2020, one of the victims checked his letterbox for the vouchers but could not find them.
He contacted Fei Yue Senior Activity Centre, and an employee told him subsequently that eight of his vouchers had already been redeemed. He lodged a police report about the missing vouchers.
When Mohan was identified as the culprit, he admitted to the offences and said he had stolen the vouchers as he was in financial need.
He said he had already redeemed his own set of 15 vouchers, "but resorted to stealing others' vouchers as he had to support his pregnant wife".
He also claimed he could not work long hours due to underlying medical conditions. He later made full restitution of S$230 to the victims, while the remaining seven vouchers were recovered from his home.
Mohan is the latest in a string of people who were jailed over a spate of grocery voucher thefts.
A man was jailed seven days last month for stealing the vouchers from unsecured letterboxes. Another man was given four weeks' jail in January for stealing the vouchers, using some of them on groceries and burning the rest as offerings to his late wife.
For theft, he could have been jailed for up to three years, fined, or both.
SINGAPORE - A total of 31 people were nabbed for their involvement in four cases of illegal street racing from 2018 to 2020, Minister of State for Home Affairs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said on Thursday (March 4).
The cases are all either under investigation or before the courts, he said.
From 2015 to 2017, there were five cases of illegal racing and 10 people were convicted.
Sharing these figures in Parliament, Associate Professor Faishal said the Traffic Police conducts regular enforcement operations at known racing hot spots and will mount additional enforcement operations, where necessary, based on public feedback.
He was responding to Ms Ng Ling Ling (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who had asked whether the Traffic Police would consider taking more enforcement action on roads that are conducive for street racing, especially late at night.
This is in the wake of the fatal high-speed car crash in Tanjong Pagar last month that killed five men.
The accident on the second day of Chinese New Year saw the highest number of people killed in a single traffic accident in the past decade, according to police.
Ms Ng, who is in charge of the Jalan Kayu ward, said she had received more feedback from residents about such roads in her constituency, and also asked if more preventive measures could be put in place besides enforcement.
Prof Faishal said the Traffic Police have received feedback relating to illegal racing issues in her ward, and enforcement operations are currently being conducted there.
Such operations are conducted regularly in areas known to have illegal racing, and the Traffic Police gathers intelligence on such activities from the community, its partners and stakeholders, he said.
"We have a strategy to look at not only illegal speed trials, (but) essentially the overall road safety," Prof Faishal said, without elaborating further.
The penalties for illegal racing include a fine, mandatory imprisonment and forfeiture of the vehicle involved. First-time offenders can be jailed for up to six months and fined between $1,000 and $2,000. Repeat offenders can be jailed for up to a year and fined between $2,000 and $3,000.
SINGAPORE: Using forged bank statements, fake companies and by bribing bank workers, a woman conspired with a man to cheat three banks into disbursing S$1.77 million in loans.
Tan You Jia, 50, was given four-and-a-half years' jail on Wednesday (Mar 3), after pleading guilty to six charges of bribery and cheating involving S$718,000. Another 13 charges were taken into consideration, with S$2.5 million involved across all the charges.
The court heard that Tan met her co-accused, 51-year-old Raymond Lee Beng Yong, at an investment seminar in 2012. About a year later, Lee told Tan that he wanted to apply for a loan of S$100,000 from DBS.
Tan said she could help, as she "knew many bankers", and helped Lee to submit an application for a business instalment loan. Banks offer such loans to small and medium enterprises for their business operations, after receiving supporting documents including application forms signed by the company's directors, bank statements and documents on the firm's financial status.
Tan's application on Lee's behalf was rejected, and she told him that he could earn money by working for her in a business called Roll & Roll. She claimed the business involved applying for business instalment loans for companies doing import and export work.
Lee began "working" for Tan, who also hired other people to help apply for such loans. However, the businesses were fictitious. The two co-accused "hired" people to act as directors of companies that purportedly needed these loans, offering them a cut of the disbursed funds.
They would then buy shell companies - which had no business activities - and rent office spaces to form the impression that the companies were legitimate. Tan and Lee also bribed two relationship managers from Standard Chartered Bank and Maybank, giving them S$10,500 to process loan applications for them.
As a result, three banks disbursed about S$1.8 million into the borrowers' loan accounts. Lee, acting on Tan's instructions, then took the "directors" to the banks to withdraw most of the amounts in cash.
The police caught wind of the crimes when DBS Bank and StanChart made police reports in early 2015, to say they had received forged bank statements from companies related to business instalment loans.
The banks suffered losses of about S$1.5 million, and investigators could not trace the movement of the funds after they had been withdrawn. No restitution has been made.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Haniza Abnass asked for at least 60 months' jail, saying Tan was one of the primary movers of the cheating offences. Large amounts of money were disbursed by three banks, and Tan was "clearly motivated by financial profit", said Ms Haniza.
She added that Tan had been convicted in 2005 of criminal breach of trust - where she misappropriated a passport entrusted to her by selling it away.
Tan, who has been remanded since July 2019, said she had originally engaged a lawyer under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme who she said, "didn't write for me anything".
IF I DO IT AGAIN, YOU CAN GIVE ME A VERY HARSH SENTENCE: TAN
Giving her own mitigation, Tan claimed at first that all the money was taken by her co-accused, whom she said was her boss.
"He asked me to do submissions for him for all the bank applications. Me and him, we are good friends and based on trust I work for him, I never expect this turn out like that and I become one of the mastermind for this scam," she said.
She said she worked very hard for her family as a delivery driver for SingPost, HonestBee and Redmart, and promised she would "never reoffend" again.
She said this was her first criminal breach of trust offence, to which the judge pointed out that she had a prior conviction. She acknowledged it.
"Your honour, if next time I do it again, you can give me a very harsh sentence. This will be my last offence," she said. "This (past) 20 months I'm in prison, I really have a hard time."
Pleading with the judge with her hands folded in a prayer pose, Tan said she is bankrupt, divorced and has a sick mother and son who is beginning National Service.
She later withdrew her comments that qualified her plea of guilt.
For each charge of cheating, she could have been jailed for up to 10 years and fined. For bribing the bank employees, she could have been jailed for up to five years, fined up to S$100,000, or both.
The cases for Lee and the fake company directors are pending.
Singapore launches first bank in Asia for eye surgery patients to freeze piece of corneal tissue for future use
SINGAPORE - Patients who go under the blade to correct their myopia will now be able to freeze tissue from their own corneas, preserving it to potentially treat long-sightedness and other eye conditions they develop in the future.
Called OptiQ, the service is the first of its kind in Asia. It was launched on Wednesday (March 3) by local company Cordlife Group, which owns a series of international cord blood banks.
OptiQ is meant for patients who undergo refractive eye surgery using a method called lenticule extraction. The lenticule is a tiny disc-shaped piece of corneal tissue.
Small Incision Lenticule Extraction (Smile), a non-essential procedure which reduces the dependency on glasses, is a form of refractive eye surgery.
Professor Donald Tan, an adjunct professor with the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) and medical adviser to OptiQ, said: "A laser cuts a lens-shape piece of tissue within your cornea, which matches your myopia, and then we remove it through a little keyhole incision at the side.
"And that piece which we remove, which is essentially your myopia, is the corneal lenticule."
The former medical director of SNEC and the Singapore Eye Research Institute (Seri) added that the corneal lenticule is usually thrown away after such procedures.
But this is a waste of resources, said Prof Tan.
He explained that the tissue has potential uses given that the lenticule is shaped like a lens with a specific power.
The lenticule removed from a patient with 300 degrees of myopia will be like a lens with a corrective power of 300 degrees.
Prof Tan added that many patients who are treated for myopia in their 20s or 30s will later develop presbyopia in their 40s.
Unlike myopia, where people have trouble focusing on distant objects, those with presbyopia lose the ability to focus on objects at close range. They then require reading glasses or plastic implants to correct their vision.
But some patients do not want to wear glasses, and plastic implants carry a risk of inflammation or risk being rejected by the body.
Prof Tan said if the patient's own lenticule were to be reimplanted, it could theoretically correct the patient's condition with minimal risk of inflammation or scarring.
But the facilities to store corneal lenticules for the long term did not exist previously in Singapore. Similar technology, however, did exist in the blood bank and stem cell storage business, which Cordlife is involved in.
So Prof Tan and the head of Seri's Tissue Engineering and Stem Cell Group, Professor Jod Mehta, worked with Cordlife to develop OptiQ, which was licensed by the Ministry of Health in January this year.
Cordlife's facility is capable of storing the lenticules at below minus 198 deg C.
"At this temperature, all biological activity is suspended and no degradation occurs," said Cordlife's laboratory director, Dr Tang Kin Fai, adding that this theoretically allows the lenticules to be stored "indefinitely".
The cost of OptiQ before GST is either $4,500 upfront for 20 years' storage, or an annual plan of $1,800 for first year and $180 per year for the next 19 years of storage.
If one or both lenticules are utilised, the remaining cost of storage will be waived.
"Almost every one of us will have presbyopia after the age of 40. We believe this advancement in ophthalmology can help a lot of people and even bring healthcare in Singapore to the next level," said Prof Mehta.
Prof Tan added that corneal lenticules may be able to treat not just presbyopia, but other conditions such as hyperopia, aphakia and corneal perforation as well.
While he acknowledged that the use of these lenticules in treatment is still being trialled, he added: "The key is that we're not wasting the tissue - we're storing it for you in case you need it."
Dr Tang added that in recent years, many trials have been conducted both locally and internationally to correct vision disorders using the lenticules.
"With this, we're very, very confident that in the future, the cryopreserved lenticules will be able to be used for the greater good.
"And once these (trials) advance to standard therapies, anyone who has stored their corneal lenticules can be a part of this medical revolution and have more treatment options in the future."
SINGAPORE: About 215,000 Housing & Development Board (HDB) flats across 230 projects have been upgraded under the Home Improvement Programme (HIP) that was designed to help spruce up ageing flats.
That is close to 70 per cent of the 320,000 flats built up to 1986 that are eligible for HIP, said HDB on Tuesday (Mar 2).
As of Dec 31, 2020, upgrading works are still under way for about 96,800 flats across 101 projects, while works for the remaining 8,200 will be “implemented progressively”, it added.
The Government has spent about S$3.2 billion on the programme as of Mar 31, 2020, said HDB.
When it was first introduced in 2007, the scheme was offered to flats built up to 1986 that had not undergone the previous Main Upgrading Programme.
It focuses on improvements within the flat, and helps owners “address common maintenance problems related to ageing flats in a systematic and comprehensive manner”, said HDB.
But the HIP can only proceed when at least 75 per cent of a block’s eligible Singapore citizen households have voted in favour of it.
Under the scheme, there are three main components of work.
Essential improvements - fully paid for by the Government - include the repair of spalling concrete, replacement of waste or soil discharge stacks and upgrading of electrical loads.
Beyond that, optional works, which residents must partially pay for, include toilet upgrading packages, new decorative doors and metal grille gates.
MORE THAN 234,000 HOUSEHOLDS APPLIED FOR SENIOR-FRIENDLY FITTINGS
The third component, the Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) programme, was introduced in 2012 to offer elderly-friendly fittings such as grab bars, ramps and slip-resistant floor treatments.
Residents who do not want to wait for HIP, or who live in blocks that do not qualify for it, can also directly apply for EASE.
Over the years, EASE has been expanded, with a lower qualifying age for direct applicants and more elements on offer – such as ramp solutions, which were introduced in 2018.
As of Dec 31, 2020, more than 234,000 households have applied for it.
Of these, more than 147,700 households opted for EASE together with HIP, while the remaining 86,300 households applied for it directly, said HDB.
In particular, following the inclusion of ramp solutions for flats with multi-step entrances, more than 1,770 homes have had them installed.
HDB added that as of Mar 31, 2020, the Government has spent about S$90 million on EASE.
NEW BATCH OF HIP FLATS
In August 2018, it was announced that the programme would be extended to another 230,000 flats built between 1987 and 1997.
HDB said about 56,000 units have been selected in the first batch of precincts under this extended programme.
The package of improvement items for the extended HIP includes a wider range of items that come in “more contemporary designs and are of better quality”, such as the main entrance door and gate, and fittings for the toilet, HDB said.
Budget debate: 853 applications for protection orders made since introduction of anti-harassment law in November 2014
SINGAPORE - A total of 853 applications for protection orders have been made as at Dec 31 last year, said Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong on Tuesday (March 2), adding that a new Protection from Harassment Court will start operations this year.
Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the budget of the Ministry of Law, Mr Tong said the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha), which came into force on Nov 15, 2014, has been strengthened over the years to include new offences, such as doxxing, which is the act of making public someone's private personal information.
The 853 applications include applications by victims of sexual and workplace harassment, online harassment and harassment by neighbours, said Mr Tong, who is also Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.
"Data based on types of harassment are currently not available, but the State Courts are looking into enhancing the case management system to capture and track such data," he said.
Of them, 348 protection orders were granted, 135 cases were sent for mediation, while 366 Expedited Protection Orders were granted, providing interim relief to the applicants.
This means the courts granted almost immediate relief in more than two out of every five cases, noted Mr Tong. The few remaining applications were either withdrawn, dismissed or still pending resolution.
Mr Tong said that the Poha was amended in 2019 to include new offences, such as doxxing. As at Dec 31 last year, there were 29 cases of doxxing filed in the State Courts, he said.
He also announced that a dedicated Protection from Harassment Court will start operating this year, staffed by judges specifically trained to deal with harassment matters. Volunteers will also be present to help victims through the court process.
"We will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the 2019 Poha amendments, and will be able to provide a more holistic assessment after the Poha Court has operated for some time," he said.
There has been a rise in feedback on neighbourly nuisance in the past year, possibly due to more people staying at home during the circuit breaker, noted Mr Tong.
"The management of disputes between neighbours is a delicate and challenging area. While we endeavor to resolve disputes amicably between the disputing parties, neighbours sometimes refuse to communicate with each other, or to compromise, and this leads to a breakdown in the relationship," he said.
He urged people to use community mediation, which is an affordable option to resolve their disputes, adding that over 80 per cent of cases mediated at the Community Mediation Centre reached an amicable settlement.
However, there are cases that still go to the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal (CDRT), said Mr Tong, adding that it "should continue to be the avenue of last resort".
Since the tribunal started operating on Oct 1, 2015, 591 claims have been filed as at Dec 31 last year, he said.
The majority of the cases were resolved within six months, while a handful of cases took longer than a year, said Mr Tong.
Mr Tong said an inter-agency committee, including the Ministries of Law, Culture, Community and Youth, National Development and Home Affairs, has commenced a comprehensive review of the Community Dispute Management Framework.
It will look at how neighbour disputes can be better managed and resolved upfront, measures to increase the take-up of community mediation, and ways to improve the CDRT process.
Mr Tong also said MinLaw will consider some MPs' suggestions on making mediation and counselling compulsory for disputing parties, and continuing to track cases after they have been dealt with in the CDRT.