We have already lowered our housing expectations, Mr Minister

The current housing situation is not a result of Singaporeans having unrealistic aspirations, but a shortage of flats due to poor planning in accommodating the surge in population in recent years. In fact, compared to previous generations of Singaporeans with similar education and income levels, many young couples have already drastically lowered their housing expectations.

I wrote a letter to TODAY newspaper in response to a commentary by National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan last Saturday. An edited version of the letter was published on Thursday (21 October 2010) on TODAY Online under the title, What do newlyweds want in a flat? Below is the original letter which I submitted. The sentences in bold were left out by the paper.

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I refer to the commentary by Mr Mah Bow Tan (“Buying a flat? Choose wisely”, TODAY, October 15).

His quip about how some Singaporean men propose to their future spouses with the offer of an HDB flat application aptly reflects the strong desire among couples to own a home of their own once they get married. It is therefore regrettable that in the past few years, public housing prices—and hence these dreams—have soared out of reach from so many young couples.

Mr Mah contended that with growing affluence and education levels, Singaporeans no longer want only basic housing. He defines basic housing as simple and functional one- to three-room flats, as opposed to larger four-room, five-room and Executive flats. Mr Mah also distinguished between standard flats and premium flats—the latter referring to flats with better designs, better finishes and in better locations, like the Pinnacle@Duxton and Waterway Terraces at Punggol.

Although Mr Mah stated that that premium flats form only a fraction of the new flats offered, I question why there is a need for HDB to build premium flats in the first place. Why is it so important for a public housing agency to “set new benchmarks for waterfront living for public housing”, or to built flats in prime downtown locations? How does this achieve the purpose of providing affordable housing for the masses?

While Mr Mah is right that Singaporeans’ expectations have changed, they have not changed so drastically that they are now expecting condo-style living for their HDB flats. This is evidenced by the fact that every launch of new developments by HDB in the past year has seen massive oversubscriptions, even for those offering only standard flats. In addition, resale flat buyers are paying huge cash-over-valuation (COV) premiums for even old, basic flats in mature estates like Queenstown.

The current situation is not a result of Singaporeans having unrealistic aspirations, but a shortage of flats due to poor planning in accommodating the surge in population in recent years. In fact, compared to previous generations of Singaporeans with similar education and income levels, many young couples have already drastically lowered their housing expectations.

HDB should focus on building more basic, functional flats and sell them at truly subsidised prices, in order to meet the urgent housing demands of many young couples. As a taxpayer-funded agency, HDB should not be trying to set design benchmarks—or worse, boost their profits like private developers do.

Gerald Giam