August 21, 2017

“HDB flat buyers – owners or lessees?” Deputy Head of Real Estate Sandra Han shares her views on The Straits Times

RHTLaw Taylor Wessing’s Deputy Head of Real Estate Sandra Han shares her views in The Straits Times on the differences between the terms lessee, tenant, and owner and how it applies to HDB flat owners. The article was first published in The Straits Times on 21 August 2017. HDB flat buyers - owners or lessees? Debate goes beyond semantics Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Date: 21 August 2017 Author: Ng Jun Sen Lessee. Tenant. Owner. When it comes to Housing Board flats, these plain terms seem to befuddle many. What exactly should an HDB flat buyer be known as? Over the past two months, this discussion has been playing out in The Straits Times' Forum pages and online. Clearly, flat buyers are flat owners, with the right to sell, rent and renovate, within guidelines and for the tenure of their lease, said the HDB. But some people seized on the qualifiers - for the length of the lease. Does that not mean that a more accurate term for HDB flat owners is "lessees", they wonder. It also did not help that some HDB webpages and documents refer to flat buyers as "lessees" and the HDB as "lessor". This is not just a tussle over semantics. It goes to the heart of a longstanding debate over whether HDB flat owners can be called that when they have to return their homes to the state when their leases expire, and when rules over what they can or cannot do with their homes are generally more circumscribed than those for owners of private leasehold property. The question first arose on June 24 when a reader, Mr Larry Leong, wrote in to query the HDB on the terms it apparently used to refer to him. "While applying to rent out my HDB flat, I noticed that the Housing Board referred to me as a 'tenant', and my potential tenant as a 'sub-tenant'," said Mr Leong, adding that he had paid for his flat fully. "Can we have some clarity on whether HDB dwellers are tenants or real home owners for 99 years?" In its reply three weeks later, the HDB clarified that the term "tenants" refers only to those who rent public rental flats from it. Purchasers of HDB flats are owners of their property, its director of branch operations Lim Lea Lea stated categorically. She said: "Flat owners enjoy rights to exclusive possession of the flat during the tenure of the flat lease. They can sell, let out and renovate their flats, within the guidelines specified in the lease and Housing and Development Act." The board also said "the name of each HDB flat owner is reflected in the title deed, the original of which is kept with the Singapore Land Authority, as part of the central and comprehensive record for all properties in Singapore. This confirms his or her ownership of the property." But others remained unsure. Mr Andrew Seow Chwee Guan wrote in a letter dated July 20 that a duplicate lease of an HDB flat he holds "was executed by me and my spouse many years ago as a lessee in the presence of a lessor - an HDB representative". He added: "My understanding is that HDB purchasers are lessees and the HDB is the lessor. "There is a distinct difference between owners and lessees." In its latest reply published on Aug 14, the HDB said the leasehold system allows the land to be recycled and redeveloped, and is common around the world. It reiterated that leasehold property buyers are owners too, albeit for the length of the lease they hold. "During this period of ownership, they can decide to live in the flat, renovate it, rent it out or even sell it once they meet the eligibility conditions. They can decide on the selling price or rental rate of the flat, and they get to keep the proceeds from these transactions. "These are rights and benefits that only a flat owner can enjoy." However, experts have also pointed out that, unlike private property owners, HDB flat buyers cannot initiate collective sales of their homes, unless picked under the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme. On the flip side, HDB flat buyers are entitled to more benefits, including subsidised prices. Given the way the terms owner and lessee seem to be used interchangeably at times, should HDB then change its nomenclature for a buyer to "lessee" to avoid misunderstandings? Some argue that the term "owner" implies a person has possession of the property in perpetuity. They are in favour of the term "lessee", which they say states clearly that there is a lifespan to the possession of the property. "Lessee" is a more precise term, say property lawyers such as Ms Sandra Han of RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, though the word "owner" is still accurate. Acknowledging that the topic is "quite tricky", she added: "The term 'owner' is quite nebulous and is used very generally." Ms Tay Huey Ying, head of research and consultancy at property consultancy JLL Singapore, said ownership is typically implied for long-term leases of, say, more than 60 years. At any rate, the Government will likely not be keen to give up the use of the term, say real estate watchers like Mr Nicholas Mak, head of research and consultancy at ZACD Group. The word "owner" connotes rootedness and identity, unlike "lessee", and this is why the authorities would prefer to stick to the earlier term, he said. "In referring to buyers as owners, it is a case of HDB trying to have its cake and eat it too," he said. Ms Tay said it is more fruitful for the debate to focus on raising awareness of lease expiry. In fact, she said "ownership" has the advantage of allowing residents to feel that they have a stake in society and want to contribute actively to the country. "With some leases running down, what is more important is to educate purchasers on what leasehold means," she said.
August 10, 2017

Co-Head of Employment Practice Vernon Voon shares with The Straits Times the possibility of the Government imposing a custodial sentence or unlimited fines in relation to the recent spate of worksite accidents

RHTLaw Taylor Wessing Co-Head of Employment Practice Vernon Voon shares with The Straits Times regarding the possibility of the Government imposing a custodial sentence or unlimited fines in relation to the recent spate of worksite accidents. The article was first published in The Straits Times on 10 August 2017.  Workplace safety: The next frontier Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd Date: 10 August 2017 Author: Toh Yong Chuan The record on work safety is mixed. After rapid progress from 2004 to 2014, the numbers slipped in 2015 and 2016, although they improved in the first half of this year. What's needed for Singapore to scale the next level of the workersafety bar? The year 2004 was a pivotal one for workers' safety in Singapore. That was the year the Nicoll Highway collapsed on April 20, killing four workers and injuring three others. Just nine days later, the collapse of a steel structure at the Fusionopolis worksite on April 29 killed two workers and injured 29 others. A month later, a fire on board the ship Almudaina on May 29 at the Keppel Shipyard killed seven workers and injured three. These three accidents triggered a round of soul-searching. It also led to sweeping changes in workplace safety. Workplace safety numbers improved dramatically after that, from 2004 to 2014. But they started dipping in 2015 and last year, although the first six months of this year have seen lower rates of accidents and deaths than last year. One recent accident has put the spotlight on worker safety issues again, raising the question of whether it is time to push for even higher workplace safety standards. On July 14, a section of a Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) viaduct under construction in Upper Changi Road East collapsed. One worker was killed and 10 others injured. What more can be done to make workplaces safer in Singapore? A GOOD DECADE A look back to measures taken after the 2004 accidents is instructive. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) reviewed the workplace safety framework. Its staff visited Britain, Germany, Sweden and France to study their laws and practices. It announced a new occupational safety and health blueprint in Parliament on March 10, 2005, to cut workplace deaths by one-third in five years and by half in a decade, or 2015. On Oct 17, 2005, the ministry proposed new legislation in Parliament - the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Act - to replace the Factories Act to regulate occupational safety and health. When the proposed law was debated in January 2006, then Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen said the three high-profile accidents had "added new impetus and urgency" to MOM reforming the Factories Act - which it had started studying how to do so five years earlier. The new legislation was passed and enacted that year. In November 2005, the MOM also set up a Workplace Safety and Health Advisory Committee to help industry efforts to raise occupational safety and health standards. The committee became the WSH Council in 2008 and it continues to champion workplace safety and health today. These multiple efforts bore fruit. By 2010, workplace fatalities fell to 2.2 per 100,000 workers, achieving the target to reduce such deaths by half - five years ahead of schedule. A new target to further reduce the deaths to 1.8 per 100,000 workers was set on 2009, and achieved on 2014. Workplace fatality rates have fallen from 4.9 per 100,000 workers in 2004 to a record low of 1.8 in 2014. However, the improvements were not sustained and workplace fatalities crept up in 2015 and last year. In both years, the fatalities crept up to 1.9 per 100,000 workers. The number of workplace injuries also fell gradually from 460 per 100,000 workers in 2007 to 364 in 2015, before creeping up to 382 last year. Singapore's record is mixed compared with other countries'. It fares better than the United States, which had 3.38 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2015. But it lags way behind Britain, which had 0.43 deaths per 100,000 workers from April 2016 to March this year. If Singapore were a member of the European Union, it will roughly be at the lower middle half of the 28 member states in terms of workplace fatalities, coming in behind countries like Britain, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, which had fewer than one death per 100,000 workers. Official statistics released last week showed that 19 workers died on the job between January and June this year, down sharply from 42 in the same period last year. Similarly, the number of injured workers declined from 6,245 to 6,151 in the same period. COMMON CAUSES OF WORKPLACE FATALITIES AND INJURIES If Singapore is to keep up the trend of reducing workplace accidents and deaths, it needs to have a clearer picture of the top causes of such injuries and deaths. In Singapore, the top causes were slips, trips and falls, and being struck by moving vehicles. Most fatalities were from the construction sector. A study of overseas trends found similar patterns. Last month, the Health and Safety Executive, the British government body responsible for workplace safety and health, released data which showed that the construction sector was the most deadly in the United Kingdom, from April last year to March this year. The two top causes of death for workers were falls from height and being struck by moving vehicles. The US also has a similar pattern. In 2015, the construction sector had the most number of fatal work injuries, and the two top causes of deaths were transportation incidents, and falls, slips and trips. What is also telling is that no country has been able to cut workplace fatalities to zero on a sustained basis. LOOKING AHEAD To bring worker safety to the next level, Singapore needs to go beyond reducing work falls and accidents. We need to review the regulatory environment too. In the case of the recent PIE viaduct accident, the main contractor for the work was Or Kim Peow Contractors (OKP). It was awarded the contract in November 2015 despite another fatal accident having taken place just two months earlier, at the company's worksite at another flyover. Senior Minister of State for Transport Lam Pin Min said in Parliament last week that the contractor was given "a low safety performance score" when the Land Transport Authority (LTA) evaluated the bids, but its "lowest tender price and good track record in completing many similar infrastructure projects over the past 10 years" outweighed its low safety score. In other words, low price won over safety concerns. The LTA should rethink the balance between price and safety. If it tilts the balance further in favour of contractors without safety lapses, it gives contractors a financial incentive to keep their workers safe. This is not the only area that the authorities ought to review. Another area is the WSH Act itself. UPDATING THE LAW The last major update of the WSH Act was in 2011 when main contractors were made responsible for worksite safety and MOM officers were given more powers to investigate worksite hazards. The MOM started reviewing the law earlier this year. It is looking at enhancing deterrence against worksite accidents, improving the industry's learning from such accidents through the release of accident reports, and raising the maximum administrative fine for offences that result in serious injuries or deaths from $20,000 to $50,000. Labour MP Melvin Yong said the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) supports tougher punishment. "It acts as a deterrence and sends a strong message that any WSH breaches are not to be taken lightly," said the NTUC director for workplace safety and health. The Government can consider imposing a custodial sentence or unlimited fines as deterrence, said Mr Vernon Voon, employment and labour relations partner at law firm RHTLaw Taylor Wessing. He pointed out that in the UK, "corporate manslaughter" is an offence that can lead to jail time for the company's executives if they are found to be criminally responsible for the deaths, and the courts can impose unlimited fines at 5 to 10 per cent of a company's turnover. "In cases where an industrial death occurs from the gross negligence of the company's officers, the Government could perhaps look into legislating a minimum custodial sentence on the company," he said. Besides updating the law, another approach is to rope in more parties to lower workplace injuries. So far, the WSH Council has focused primarily on the three-way partnership of the Government, unions and employers. Insurers are another player that can help in reducing workplace injuries and fatalities. Insurers monitor workplace accidents and, in particular, companies with poor track records to understand what is going wrong, said Mr Karl Hamann, chief executive of QBE Insurance Singapore. "We also have a role in holding companies to account, making it clear that having insurance should not make safety an afterthought," he added. If the authorities can learn from insurers how they gather information and assess workplace risks, then it can have a more complete picture of risk assessments and, logically, improve risk prevention. Thirteen years ago, the horrifying Nicoll Highway collapse and series of high-profile industrial accidents triggered sweeping action that made the workplace safer for workers. The PIE viaduct collapse last month is an early warning bell. We should not wait until more deaths pile up before we are spurred to do more to prevent more workers from getting injured or dying on the job.
August 2, 2017

Co-Head of Employment Practice Vernon Voon shares with Channel NewsAsia his views on the new Tripartite Standard on Employment of Term Contract Employees

RHTLaw Taylor Wessing Co-Head of Employment Practice Vernon Voon was interviewed by Channel NewsAsia on the new Tripartite Standard on Employment of Term Contract Employees. The interview was aired on Channel NewsAsia’s Singapore Tonight segment on 31 July 2017. This interview makes relation to the new tripartite standard launched by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation. The new standard aims to let term contract employees obtain better benefits such as leave benefits, training and notice period. Vernon’s view was that the new standard is only a guideline and thus, if breached, does not constitute an offence. However, he also noted that “the Ministry of Manpower takes breaches of guidelines seriously” and “reserve the right to take this into account whenever they need to exercise discretion regarding the companies’ requests on the employment front”.
July 28, 2017

Intellectual Property & Technology Partner Jack Ow quoted in TODAY on how the “standard of harm” could be interpreted differently with reference to the recent changes to the Personal Data Protection Act

RHTLaw Taylor Wessing's Intellectual Property & Technology Partner Jack Ow was quoted in TODAY on how the “standard of harm” could be interpreted differently with reference to the recent changes to the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA).   This article was first published in TODAY on 28 July 2017. Informing customers of breaches among proposed PDPA changes Source: TODAY © Mediacorp Press Ltd. Date: 28 July 2017 Author: Tan Weizhen SINGAPORE — Under a slew of proposed changes to the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), companies would have to notify customers as soon as possible if their data — such as NRIC numbers, credit card information or passwords — had been compromised. Businesses would have to inform the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) within 72 hours if they were hit by significant data breaches — when personal data of 500 or more consumers has been compromised. In the first major review of the Act, which came into effect in 2014, they could also be allowed to use consumers’ personal data without getting their consent in certain cases. This and other proposals were put up for public consultation on Thursday (July 27). The PDPA currently requires an individual’s consent if an organisation wants to collect their personal data. Announcing the review at the Personal Data Protection Seminar on Thursday, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said the PDPA was crafted in an era when “the majority of data was provided by users who fill in their personal particulars via physical and online forms”.  “Today, data can be generated and mined through online activities and transactions,” he told the seminar at Sands Expo and Convention Centre. Under the proposals, if companies wish to use customer data for legal or business purposes in situations where it is not appropriate to get their consent, they can do so provided it will be of “larger benefit to the public”. For example, bicycle-sharing services may want to share, among themselves, data of customers with a track record of misusing or damaging bikes. In cases when it is impractical to get consent, firms could use customer data provided it caused no “harm” to them, such as leading to calls or spam.  For example, a developer of web-connected devices, like a smartwatch, may want to analyse users’ data to improve its services, but might not be able to get consent through the smartwatch interface. Under the proposals, it would be allowed to do so as long as it did not harm the consumers. The proposed rules would just require the businesses to notify customers in any manner of their choosing, such as via their websites. Mr Bryan Tan, of law firm Pinsent Masons, said the proposals offer “a more graduated approach”, adding: “It is a more refined way of giving businesses more options.” On whether the criteria that businesses would have to meet before doing away with customers’ consent are sufficiently watertight, Mr Tan said the onus would lie on businesses to make that judgment — for example, whether customers would suffer harm as a result. However, Mr Jack Ow, intellectual property & technology partner at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, believes that “harm” may be interpreted differently by different organisations: “It remains open as to how the standard of harm should be assessed, and if objectively assessed, on whose or what standards, principles and/or morality.” The proposals are up for public consultation until Sept 21. The PDPC hopes to implement them by 2019.