Speech by SPS Sun Xueling at the Committee of Supply Debate 2020 - Safeguarding Animal Health and Welfare, and Supporting Vulnerable Citizens

Mar 4, 2020

Safeguarding Animal Health and Welfare

I would like to begin by thanking all members who have spoken up about animal health and welfare. Kindly allow me to share how we will continue to work closely with the community on these issues.

First, one of our key strategies is to reduce the stray animal population and rehome as many as possible, where they will have shelter, food, and adequate care. I am happy to say that we have made good progress with the Trap-Neuter-Release-Manage (TNRM) programme. Launched in partnership with 11 Animal Welfare Groups (AWGs), it involves catching and sterilising stray dogs, or Singapore Specials as we call them, to sustainably and humanely manage their population. We will then rehome as many of the sterilised dogs as possible, while the remaining dogs will be released at suitable locations to live out their lives naturally. Since the programme was launched, NParks and the AWGs have worked closely with the community as well as land owners on the ground to trap about 1,000 dogs. Thus far, we have managed to rehome or foster over half of the dogs trapped under TNRM, and we hope to rehome even more Singapore Specials in the coming years. Eight years ago, we worked with our AWG partners to launch Project ADORE to do this.  Given the good progress, NParks has recently reviewed the size limits for Project ADORE. I thank Mr Louis Ng for his proposal to further relook the height limit for Project ADORE. NPArks will work closely with our AWG partners to successfully implement the latest revision first before we review the project again. It bears mentioning that Project ADORE has been successful largely because of careful, sensitive and gradual implementation. NParks has to balance the objective of rehoming more dogs with the concerns that some residents have over larger dogs in HDB flats. In addition, I would like to share that public feedback on stray dogs has decreased by more than 50% since the launch of TNRM. This is the result of the hard work by our AWGs and NParks officers in terms of outreach on the ground.

The second thrust of our work is on increased education and outreach efforts. NParks, in collaboration with our AWGs and pet businesses, launched the Pets’ Day Out series in August 2019. It has provided NParks more opportunities to reach out to and educate pet owners or those interested to own pets. We will continue to identify other suitable platforms, such as community events, to reach out to diverse audience groups and garner stronger support from the community.

Third, NParks embarked on a review to raise standards in the pet sector. As part of the review, NParks has engaged key stakeholders and the wider public through focus group discussions as well as an online survey. There was general consensus that more needs to be done to raise the standards of pet breeders and boarders to safeguard the health and welfare of the animals involved.

Based on the feedback received, NParks intends to take a balanced, risk-based approach to regulating these businesses. Currently, only commercial breeders and boarders on farmland are licensed. For a start, NParks will focus on improving practices at existing commercial breeding facilities on farmland as the breeding sector deals with young and pregnant animals that require specialised care. This will be done by strengthening the licence conditions in areas such as housing and management, healthcare, and traceability of the animals. Concurrently, NParks will step up its enforcement efforts against those who operate a commercial breeding facility without a licence, outside of farmland. NParks also intends to license commercial pet boarding facilities based on the scale of their operations, which will depend on factors such as the number of animals handled and the frequency of transactions. Those who help board animals for family and friends, or do it infrequently, will not be subject to licensing. Regardless, all pet service providers, including pet boarders and breeders, have a duty of care towards the animals they handle and they should abide by the Code of Animal Welfare for the Pet Industry. Beyond the Code of Animal Welfare, NParks can take enforcement action against pet service providers under the Animals and Birds Act for failing in this duty of care, or for animal cruelty. NParks will work through the revised regulatory framework with stakeholders and share more details later this year.

Mr Yee Chia Hsing spoke about using the IUCN Red List to regulate the pet bird trade. Let me clarify that the IUCN list is already part of our considerations. This is because we regulate wildlife trade according to the requirements of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which uses IUCN conservation status as one of the criteria for categorising species. Furthermore, the penalties for illegal smuggling under the Animals and Birds Act apply per animal or per bird, and not per shipment. This means that a smuggler may be liable on conviction to a fine up to $10,000 or 12 months’ jail or both for each smuggled bird, which should be a sufficient deterrent. 

NParks’ public consultations on the pet sector review also surfaced the need to enhance the traceability of animals. A robust animal traceability system is critical in protecting public and animal health. In the event a pet is diagnosed with an infectious disease, especially one which can be transmitted to humans such as rabies, it is important to be able to trace its whereabouts and health status. Pet licensing is one of the measures that enables NParks to do so quickly. To make it more convenient for pet owners, NParks will introduce a one-time licensing for sterilised dogs by the end of the year. With one-time licensing, owners of sterilised dogs only need to apply to NParks for a licence once, instead of having to repeatedly renew their licence upon expiry. The licence, with a one-time fee of $35, will be valid throughout the life of the dog. This means that if you sterilise your dog and opt for a one-time licence instead of an annual licence, you could save over $800 in licence fees over 10 years. We hope that this will encourage more owners to sterilise and license their pet dogs. For existing owners with 3-year licences for sterilised dogs, you will be happy to hear that your licences will automatically be changed to a one-time licence. As part of its pet sector review, NParks is also looking into measures to enhance cat traceability to protect public health.

We are also looking into raising the standards of the veterinary industry. Our veterinarians play an important role in providing animals with high standards of care and ensuring animal health. They also play a critical role in safeguarding public health as they can help detect the outbreak of diseases that may be transmitted to humans. NParks will begin engaging key stakeholders on this issue in April this year.

These are just some of the areas that we have been working on in a relatively short span of time. And there are many other areas that the community has raised, which we are continuing to study and finding ways to balance theneeds of the community. For instance, the issue of cat ownership in HDB flats, which Mr Daniel Goh and Mr Louis Ng have raised. We recognise that there are residents who are cat lovers and who would like to keep cats in their flats. We are continuing to have conversations around how to best strike a balance between residents who are pet lovers, those who are not and those who are concerned about disamenities. HDB will work with NParks to take a holistic and balanced approach in reviewing and updating its pet ownership policies.

Supporting Vulnerable Citizens

Let me now speak about our efforts to help low-income and rental households. Last year, I shared about our plans to improve the natural lighting and ventilation in older rental blocks, by removing some flats on each floor to create more openings along the corridors. This year, HDB will commence the improvement works at Chai Chee and Telok Blangah. At these four blocks, all tenants who are living in the units identified for removal can relocate within the same block, if they prefer. HDB and local social organisations, are closely supporting their transition. HDB will study where else they can implement similar improvements in future, considering feedback from residents. 

Mr Lim Biow Chuan and Dr Lily Neo asked about reviewing the Joint Singles Scheme (JSS). Most JSS tenants are prepared to share a flat. More than 90% of flat-sharing tenants surveyed did not experience conflicts or difficulties living with their flatmate. Nevertheless, HDB will facilitate requests from tenants who wish to transfer to another flat with a different flatmate. For those with extenuating circumstances or medical grounds, HDB is also prepared to consider their requests to rent alone.

Further, HDB has also been installing partitions in 1-room rental flats for JSS tenants, to provide more privacy for each individual. Some of these are also installed such that there are internal doors to each sleeping area. HDB currently has about 1,100 rental flats with partitions. About half of these are vacant and available to JSS households. While most of the flats were fitted with partitions while vacant, about 50 flats had partitions installed in-situ, at the request of tenants who were already living there. This in-situ installation was a new offer we rolled out last year. Interested tenants can contact their local HDB Branch to request for partitions.

Apart from physical enhancements, we have also enhanced support for tenants to become homeowners.

Last year, I announced that HDB will waive any subsequent rent increase for tenants who have made a downpayment for a new flat. Since the implementation of this waiver on 1 June 2019, close to 200 rental households have benefited. The median amount of rent saved by these families is about $150 per month, which they can put towards their upcoming new homes, or other needs. On Mr Gan Thiam Poh’s suggestion to treat the rent paid as instalments for a future flat purchase, we have not done so as it is similar to giving the tenant a housing grant, which we already do so through various schemes. Grants are also more equitable as the amount of subsidy would not vary with the tenants’ length of stay in rental housing.

Our rental rates are tiered progressively based on income, to ensure that subsidies are allocated fairly, and targeted at those who need them most. To mitigate the cliff effect at each tier, on a case-by-case basis, HDB waives the rent increase at tenancy renewal if it is a significant part of the household’s increase in income. In the last 3 years, about 5,500 households have benefited from these waivers, which are intended to encourage households to continue increasing their income.

Beyond providing financial help, we have also intensified our efforts in other ways. We formed the Home ownership Support Team (HST) last year, to work closely with families towards home ownership. The team is advising nearly 280 families and will guide them through when they are ready for home ownership.

In the last 3 years, about 3,200 rental households have moved into their own homes. Another 2,000 have booked a flat and are awaiting the completion of their new homes.

While these numbers may not seem large, the progress has been steady over the last few years. As the Malay saying goes, “Sedikit-sedikit, lama-lama jadi bukit.” This means “bit by bit, and over time, a little becomes a lot”. Every family is important to us, and we will continue to support our tenants towards home ownership.