TOC Editorial: The holistic approach to eradicating homelessness

The hard edges of Singapore’s rules and attitudes need to be softened in the face of the spectacle of people living along beaches.

The root of the problem of homelessness is fundamentally one of mindsets. While our society has placed a premium on self-reliance, we cannot simply say, to use a Cantonese brushoff: “You die your problem”.

On the programmatic front, while Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) Dr Vivian Balakrishnan took centre stage in Parliament to defend the government’s lack of action on homelessness, eradicating homelessness requires the attention of all ministries and Singaporeans.

In the first place, to assign responsibility purely to MCYS would be to overlook the problem that is created by some of the policies of the HDB, which is under the Ministry of National Development (MND).

To understand MND’s role in the creating of Singapore’s homeless, affordability is key.

HDB’s insistence on using the Market Subsidy Pricing policy as opposed to the Cost Plus model of pricing used by practically every country in the world for public housing may be the root cause of increasing unaffordability.

Several articles on the internet have highlighted how the latter pricing approach actually leads to higher housing prices and profits for HDB, while misleading the public into thinking that the Government is actually providing a subsidy for public housing, as opposed to selling flats at a percentage less than market value.

For a public institution whose mission is to provide low cost public housing, market value should not be the starting point of public housing pricing.

This is even more true when you consider that this pricing model might be what ultimately leads to the loss of homes and CPF for many Singaporeans.

Just consider: Singapore has arguably one of the highest housing loan delinquency rates in the world, with about 7 per cent of HDB concessionary housing loans being in delinquency of over 3 months.

The Market Subsidy Pricing policy impacts not just new HDB flat prices which means larger housing loans, but affects resale flat prices and open market rents to which HDB rental flats are also linked for tenants whose monthly household incomes are above $800.

Despite this, the Government has consistently refused to provide the break-down of the costs of building HDB flats, despite questions in Parliament and newspaper forums almost every year.

Further, the 30-month time bar to apply for a HDB rental flat for those who have sold a flat coupled with the debarment of those who have sold two flats, often means that it may take as long as 60 months (30 months time bar plus up to another 30 months on the waiting list) to get a rental flat.

Declining real wages for low-wage workers also needs to come under the spotlight. Singapore also has one of the highest public housing prices in terms of the ratio of prices to median wages.

MOM’s challenge is to introduce greater transparency into it’s foreign labour policies to assuage Singaporean’s concerns, while taking steps to ensure working conditions and incomes for those in low-wage occupations improve.

Shift the paradigm

An attitude of putting people first and recognizing the inherent dignity of every human being is the first step to ensuring fairer outcomes all around.

No one would deny that those who find themselves homeless might have made some bad decisions. However, turning them into refugees of society for their mistakes is not the natural or conscionable conclusion of a culture of self reliance.

Singapore has yet to have a meaningful debate on the role the State should play in public service provision: the dogmatically minimalist attitude has been unilaterally decided by the ruling party, and then sloganeered into the national consciousness by a compliant press.

The Online Citizen has consistently taken the position for provision. We as a country have to take a stand against the blight of poverty in a city of plenty. We need to ask if our “national value” of self-reliance is so weak as to be undermined by providing for those who have made mistakes. We believe that the answer is no.