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The curious case of Block 29

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Andrew Loh / Joshua Chiang

“The Government’s first responsibility is to Singaporeans.” – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, New Year Message, 2010.

On 18 January, officers from the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) moved the homeless campers of Sembawang Park to a block of flats at Havelock Road – Block 29. The Online Citizen visited them on two separate days, one in the afternoon and one in the night.

The first thing you notice about the block was the uncharacteristic silence and emptiness of the corridors. There were no slippers or shoes outside many of the flats, unlike what you would see at any HDB block in Singapore. Windows were either shut tight or half-open. Peering into some of these flats, they were empty. No furniture. No television sets. No sign of occupation. However, the smell of the brand new coat of paint on the walls is unmistakable. Indeed, the block looks like it had just been painted and upgraded. It was clean as a whistle, you could say. Spick and span. Brand new, it seems.

29 250330Block 29 is managed by EM Services, a subsidiary of the HDB. It has an office on the ground floor of the block. Apparently, the company was formed in 1988 by the HDB and Keppel Land, with the HDB having a 75 per cent stake in it. (Source) According to the HDB, EM Services was set up “to offer estate management, engineering services, contacts administration and project management services to town councils.” Its Chief Executive Officer is Mr Ang Mong Seng, People’s Action Party Member of Parliament for Hong Kah GRC.

Piqued by the strange emptiness of the block and the presence of the EM Services office on the ground floor, we decided to find out more about the residents who were living in Block 29. At one of the flats, a lady with a heavy Chinese accent. At another, a Malaysian lady with a small kid. As we passed a third flat, there was what appeared to be a Caucasian pair working at a table. On another floor, there was an Indian family. As we left the block, we met several Caucasian-looking people, apparently students, entering the elevator.

The HDB’s website reveals that the block, along with neighbouring blocks 31 and 33, was chosen for the Selective En Block Redevelopment Scheme – or SERS – in February 2003. That was 7 years ago. According to Kee Lay Cheng, HDB’s Deputy Director at its Properties and Land Department, in replying to a question about the two blocks of flats in Toa Payoh reserved for foreign workers, she said:

“After they are vacated, SERS blocks are demolished according to the redevelopment plans. Pending demolition, the flats are put to interim short-term use.” (Reach)

All well and good. The question is why is Block 29 apparently half-empty and still standing seven years after it was supposed to have been “demolished” under the SERS programme, as Ms Kee said?  And in those years pending demolition, what was Block 29’s “interim short term use”? An unanswered question.

On further investigation, the penny finally dropped. Block 29 seems to have been, at least partly, converted to a hostel for students, such as those from the Singapore Management University (SMU). Indeed, on the SMU website, the university says it has “leased 2 floors consisting [of] 220 beds at [Block 29] Havelock Road from EM Services Pte Ltd (a private hostel operator) and it is open to Senior Undergraduate Students (full-time SMU students 2nd year and above), Exchange Students and Full Time Post Graduate Students who plan to study full time at SMU for the forthcoming semester.” (Source: SMU website)

Each student is charged S$400 to S$450 per month for a twin-sharing flat. (SMU) “Successful applicants are able to move in from 1st January 2010,” the website says.

There are 398 units of 3-room flats and 23 units of 4-room flats in the 15-floor block.

The question is obvious: With the waiting period for needy Singaporeans who are waiting for rented flats as long as two years, why are these flats not reserved for them instead?

sersContrary to what the HDB says, obviously SERS flats such as those at Block 29 are not “less suitable for HDB’s Public Rental Scheme [PRS].” After all, they are being rented out as hostel for students. Why would that be any different from renting them out to those in desperate need of a flat, such as the homeless? The HDB’s reason that if these were included under the PRS, “the tenants would then have to move in a few years’ time” is illogical. How long is “a few years”? Apparently, it is as long as 7 years, as the case of Block 29 shows. Surely, such flats could be given to those most in need and not be refurbished and rented out to students, including foreign ones.

Isn’t HDB supposed to be in the business of providing public housing to Singaporeans? Why is it now in the business of turning profits from it by creating hostels out of public housing flats which the homeless and poor desperately need? Have not MPs been complaining about the long waiting periods for those on the PRS queue?

So, while two blocks of flats in Toa Payoh are conveniently and readily reserved for foreign workers from the two Integrated Resorts, and another block of flats in Havelock Road is converted into a profit-churning hostel for both local and foreign students, the truly needy and homeless are deprived. In fact, they are told that they have to wait anywhere from 5.5 months to 30 months before they qualify for a rental flat. This is clearly a mockery as flats are indeed readily available.

The Online Citizen emailed Ms Kee to ask about Block 29 at Havelock Road on 24 January. We received an automated reply which promised to forward our email “to the respective department to attend to it and reply direct to you.”

We have yet to hear from Ms Kee.

29B 250330What about blocks 31 and 33 which were also supposed to have been selected for the SERS programme in 2003? Well, the two blocks are still standing there at Taman Ho Swee/Havelock Road. The residents too are still there, apparently. When we approached one of them and asked him about it, he said he didn’t know of any SERS programme - except for the one which is going to take place in two years’ time. He came to know about this from a visit to the HDB office in Toa Payoh, he told us.

It is thus puzzling to us that the three blocks, which have been classified as “SERS completed” on the HDB website, apparently were never demolished, as Ms Kee claimed all SERS block would be; and that the residents of blocks 31 and 33 are apparently still living there even though “a completed SERS site is one where all SERS residents have vacated their sold flats”, according to the definition given on the HDB website.

In the Ministry of Finance website, the Expenditure Estimates for the Ministry of National Development for Budget 2007 was laid out – and it included a “total project cost” of almost S$70 million for blocks 29, 31, and 33 for Phase 2 of the SERS programme, according to the MOF’s 2007 estimates. (Source: MOF website )

So, what exactly is block 29 being planned for? Only the HDB knows and it looks like it is not telling. Are there other flats which are being rented out, by the HDB, to non-citizens? How many in total? If there are, how long has this been going on?

In the meantime, the homeless from Sembawang Park who are presently living in several of those flats at Block 29 have about another two months before they are again moved out.