HDB neighbours from hell? This minister knows all about it

HDB neighbours from hell? This minister knows all about it


But there are sweet moments too, as National Development Minister and former HDB lad Mah Bow Tan recounts of his own HDB Experience. He tells LI XUEYING how the Housing Board, which received the United Nations Public Service Award for its home-ownership programme on Monday, remains relevant five decades after its birth


MR MAH Bow Tan knows a thing or two about ‘neighbours from hell’.


‘Those who, you know, just hang up their clothing, drip, drip, drip and all that,’ he says with a grimace followed by a laugh.


The National Development Minister has long upgraded to private property. But he remembers, with much fondness, the years he lived with his aunt’s family in an HDB flat in Toa Payoh Lorong 6 four decades ago.


It was after he finished his OLevels until he left for Australia in 1966 on a President’s Scholarship to study engineering.


After he graduated, he spent another five years there before marrying and getting his own nest, a landed property.


‘So I know HDB, not just on a professional basis but as a person who has lived in it. And I know that it can be a real pain,’ says MrMah.


‘But it also has its pluses.’


He reels them off: ‘Food and carpark downstairs, MRT, bus stops and schools nearby, and the hustle and bustle. Something’s happening all the time,’ he says.


It is The HDB Experience, a term Mr Mah coined some years ago to encapsulate everything – from urine in the lifts to inter-racial friendships.


‘It’s a collective, it’s where people of different backgrounds, different races, different personalities, different ages, they all live together,’ he says with the polished flair of a ringmaster introducing his award-winning circus.


Never mind that it has been 48years since the HDB came into being. The HDB Experience is one that Mr Mah believes is as relevant today – if not more so.


From slums to world-class housing


THE Housing and Development Board was formed in 1960, a time when squatters and slums nestled alongside traditional kampungs.


HDB’s task was urgent: to create homes – cheap, fast and in huge quantities.


And it did. In less than three years, it built 21,000 flats. Today, it has built 880,000 flats.


About 80 per cent of the population live in public housing, with almost all owning their homes.


There was a secondary – though no less important – purpose for the HDB: its nation-building role. It was to encourage home ownership, so that Singaporeans feel they have a stake in the country.


The underlying philosophy, as posited in the book Housing a Nation, is that if one owns an asset in the country, one would defend it. This would contribute to political, economic and social stability.


Today, however, Singaporeans are increasingly mobile, settling in as easily in Shanghai, New York and Tokyo as in Sengkang, Nee Soon and Toa Payoh.


How relevant then remains The HDB Experience, and would the Government have to find new ways of rooting Singaporeans in this land beyond the ownership of the roof over one’s head?


In fact, Mr Mah argues, it is because of globalisation that The HDB Experience is even more important today.


It ranks as ‘one of the most important’ in building a shared identity for Singaporeans.


Yes, they may move freely across borders today. ‘But at the end of the day, when we all decide where we want to be based permanently, we have to make a decision. I believe that finally there’s something that will define a Singaporean and help to make them feel they want to come back – whether it’s family or friends.


‘I think being in a closed community which is well-integrated, which is safe, where people feel that they belong: The HDB Experience – it can make or break that.’


One of the more experienced ministers in the Cabinet – he marks his 60th birthday, 20 years in politics and nine years as National Development Minister this year – Mr Mah is economical with his words and speaks calmly.


But, like any parent protective of his offspring, he bristles at any suggestion that the HDB is less important now compared to its early years. He rebuts vigorously the layman’s observation that its work today seems to be mainly estate renewal and maintenance.


‘That’s all it does?’ he repeats with incredulity. ‘No! What it is dealing with today is the transition to catering to a society with different aspirations, and building different types of flats yet trying to cater to the bulk of the people.


‘I don’t think it’s right to dismiss the HDB as doing only this.’


In fact, its job has become more complicated. He elaborates: ‘For every flat you renew, you’re building two flats or 1-1/2 flats. You’ve to build, move people out and face issues such as compensation, how to maintain the bonding, the sense of community and yet give them a better flat and, at the same time, make sure they are financially better off.’


Looking ahead, Mr Mah had spoken of finding creative ways to keep flats affordable for low-income families but attractive for the better-off.


But should the HDB go back to basics, outsourcing the latter task to the private sector, and returning to its objective prior to 1973: to focus on low-cost housing for the lower-income?


Not a good idea, says Mr Mah. It will mean that half of all Singaporeans will be deprived of The HDB Experience.


‘Your multiracial estates, your ability to forge this common experience, that would be drastically changed…The social bonding part will be different. The safety net will change. The ability to use the flat for retirement income will also change.’


Affordability will also become an issue, he adds.


But ultimately, the proportion of Singaporeans who live in public housing will dip, he says, down to 70 per cent over the next 30 to 40 years as more Singaporeans aspire to private property.


More land is being set aside for private housing. The HDB will also divest some responsibilities such as when projects like executive condominiums are privatised.


This trend comes in tandem with the challenge of housing a growing number of people following Singapore’s revision of its planning parameters to accommodate a population of 6.5 million.


Addressing fears that Singaporeans will be living in rabbit hutches, Mr Mah pledges that ‘we can accommodate this number without adopting Hong Kong planning norms’.


A typical flat in Hong Kong, he estimates, is about 300 sq ft or 30sq m.


‘We are not going that way,’ he promises. ‘Our smallest flat, a two-room flat, is still about 50sqm or 60 sq m, three-room flats 70 sqm or 80 sq m, our four or five-room flats about 100 sq m and above. That’s the kind of norm that we are using.’


It will be accomplished through building upwards – HDB started with six-storey blocks and now has 50-storey blocks, with pockets of greenery amid the concrete.


Still affordable


TODAY, a new three-room flat in Bedok goes for about $200,000; a five-room flat in Clementi $480,000. And near the ends of the spectrum are an $80,000 two-room flat in Sengkang and a $700,000 condo-like flat in Boon Keng.


Does the latter mean that HDB is losing sight of its objective, to provide affordable housing for the masses? It is a question Mr Mah has faced many times.


He reiterates that the HDB prices its flats according to the market rather than to building costs.


‘If we go on cost price, then we have to go cost price all the way,’ he asserts.


This means that unlike today, homeowners will not be able to make a profit by selling their flats on the market. Instead, they will have to sell back to the Government at the price they bought at. Flats ‘will thus not create that store of wealth’ for Singaporeans.


Prices will also fluctuate with construction costs.


The minister stresses that HDB flats remain affordable – relative to what they earn.


Last year, about 70 per cent of flat buyers serviced their mortgage loan through their CPF savings.


This means they used below 23 per cent of their income for loan repayments.


‘If you go to a bank or any country, they will tell you 30 per cent to 40 per cent is the norm.’


With some frustration, Mr Mah says: ‘Of course people will say, why can’t it be cheaper?’


Yet, when it comes time for them to sell their flats, ‘they don’t tell the next person, ‘Eh, I’m going to sell it to you at the price I paid for it’.’


What then, about calls for the HDB to be transparent about the different components in the costing, such as land and materials?


‘What purpose does that serve?’ he counters.


People want to be convinced the Government is not making money off them, you reply.


‘The best way of convincing them is to look at our accounts, how much money we are collecting versus how much money we are paying in terms of construction, ‘ he retorts.


‘Overall, every year, HDB runs a deficit. $700million, $800million, $900million, close to a billion dollars some years.


‘That’s real money.’


Political carrot?


A LESS savoury side of The HDB Experience, critics have noted, is how the People’s Action Party (PAP) has used upgrading as a partisan tool during the past three general elections.


During the last one in 2006, voters in Hougang and Potong Pasir were promised $180million of upgrading projects if they voted in the PAP. They did not.


Subsequently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said it had to review its strategy in the opposition wards.


What was the conclusion?


Mr Mah, treasurer in the PAP’s central executive committee, says: ‘We have looked at this and we still think that it’s relevant.’


On whether the review had found the efficacy of the strategy limited, he says: ‘I am not sure there is any correlation between the upgrading policies and the election results.


‘Notwithstanding that, if we have to face this decision – and have a certain amount of money – of choosing between a PAP and an opposition ward, I think we would still have to go for the PAP ward first.’


What about using age as the sole criterion in deciding which estate is earlier in the queue?


‘If we did age alone, then we would just be concentrating our upgrading in pockets of areas,’ he says. ‘We want to spread it out.’


This, he concedes, has led to cynicism among Singaporeans about the political process.


‘Yes, there’s bound to be cynicism. People will say yes, you are using this as a carrot.’


But he prefers to look on the bright side, saying: ‘I hope we will continue to put this message across that, first of all, this is the practical reality on the ground, that we have to decide, and secondly, the political message also is your vote has an impact on what is happening around you, beyond electing an MP into parliament.’


Housing still on his mind


HE HAS had stints at the trade and industry, communications and environment ministries. But it is in national development that Mr Mah has made his mark.


What would he like to try his hand at next?


Parlaying the question with a laugh, he says: ‘I’m too busy to be thinking of that at the moment. Many exciting things are going on…reshaping the physical landscape, not just downtown but in other parts of Singapore.


‘Meeting public housing challenges, not just physically but also in terms of policy, in terms of helping to provide for security for our senior citizens. Making sure housing prices are affordable.


‘So I am very busy. I’ve not thought about other things beyond that.’


There is another item on the minister’s plate – encouraging his four children to live in HDB flats, the way he did 40 years ago.


They had enjoyed the experience in their childhood when the family stayed temporarily in one when their house was being renovated.


Says Mr Mah: ‘Now I can afford private housing, I live in private housing. I’ve upgraded.


‘But for them, I’d encourage them, yes, even if you can afford private housing, if you are eligible for HDB, why not?’


Source: Straits Times

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