Andrew Loh /
The Prime Minister has been on national television twice in the past one week to field questions from members of the public. The Finance Minister too was featured in a televised debate with opposition members.
As a result, Singaporeans perhaps have a clearer picture of what the political parties’ views are on various issues, and the public has had an opportunity to hear different views.
One of the hot topics for the upcoming General Election is the affordability of public housing, or Housing and Development (HDB) flats. The minister in charge is the Minister for National Development, Mr Mah Bow Tan. Since the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) released its 63-page election manifesto on 9 April, Mr Mah has shot down its recommendations to peg flats’ prices to the median income of households, instead of pegging them to resale market prices. Mr Mah calls the WP’s recommendations “irresponsible”. He said this “would mean larger subsidies for housing at the expense of other needs, such as healthcare, education or defence.”
The WP responded by accusing Mr Mah of “misleading” the public and called on the Government to reveal the land cost of building the flats. Mr Low Thia Khiang, secretary-general of the WP, asked if the Government is prepared to collect less money from land sales. “It is a question of taking your money from the left pocket and putting in the right pocket. So, let us know what is the land cost,” Mr Low said.
With almost one million HDB flats currently, housing some 85 per cent of Singaporeans, the runaway prices of these flats has become a deep concern for many Singaporeans. From the first quarter of 2007 to the third quarter (flash estimate) of 2010, the HDB resale price index has risen by 60 percent.
Thus the worries of Singaporeans, especially the younger ones who need a home to start families, and the older ones who are saddled with uncertainty over job security and depressed wages, are real and valid.
Just last month, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew vowed, in the midst of concerns over home prices, that the values of homes “will never come down.” (Straits Times)
With Mr Mah rejecting alternative suggestions to stabilize prices, and insisting that HDB flats are “affordable”, what are Singaporeans to make of all this?
In the past week, senior members of the PAP have urged Singaporeans to scrutinise the opposition parties’ candidates and proposals, in particular the WP’s manifesto recommendations. Indeed, the PAP’s senior members have also called on Singaporeans to do the same for the PAP’s new candidates as well.
In the same spirit, shouldn’t Singaporeans be given a chance to scrutinise the Minister for National Development too, given that his policies are causing wide-spread concerns and affect millions of homeowners?
When challenged to a debate on his policies by National Solidarity Party secretary general, Mr Goh Meng Seng, Mr Mah said there was “nothing to debate” and rejected the challenge. It is puzzling, to say the least, why Mr Mah would say that there is “nothing to debate”.
The WP too has said it welcomes scrutiny of its manifesto.
Mr Mah should be mindful that he is not emperor of his own fiefdom and that he is a public servant, paid by public money and is accountable to the public. Dismissing concerns and insisting that he and his policies are right is not what Singaporeans expect of a highly-paid minister.
If his policies fail – and indeed some have said they have – it will affect millions of homeowners for the years ahead.
It is thus a serious matter.
Mr Mah should therefore be put on national television in a “live” programme in the same way the Prime Minister was, and account and explain his policies to Singaporeans. The public and members of the opposition parties should be invited to question him on his plans for public housing, going forward.
Clearly, questions need to be asked and answers given by the minister.
Questions such as:
- Is Mr Mah accepting that prices of HDB flats may in the future, on the current projected trend, reach astronomical heights?
- If HDB flats are “affordable”, as he claims, why does the HDB need to build more smaller 2 and 3-room flats?
- Why is there an increase in the number in the queue for cheap rental flats?
- MM Lee, in 1990, predicted that the values of HDB homes would “double” in “15 to 20 years”, and it has been so. Is this the same projection that Mr Mah has for the next 15 to 20 years? Will we see, for example, a 4-room HDB flat going for S$800,000 as the “normal” price?
- Will Mr Mah reveal the land cost for building these flats?
- With a working model of a 6.5 million population, how will this affect the number of flats and its prices?
- And of course, what is the breakdown of the cost of building these flats?
These are important questions which Singaporeans must have answers to in order to plan their future. It is not a curiosity borne out of boredom but of serious consideration of real potential consequences.
In March, Mr Mah released a book on his thoughts about “housing a nation.” Made up of nine articles which he had penned for the Today newspaper, the book touches on various aspects of Singapore’s public housing programme.
According to a news report:
“Eight thousand copies of the book, in both English and Chinese, have been printed. The majority of the books will be distributed for free over the next few weeks to HDB Branch Offices, town councils, public libraries, resource centres, relevant government agencies and educational institutions.”
Clearly, Mr Mah is able to defend his policies.
As MND Minister since 1999, Mr Mah should not shirk his responsibility and be accountable to Singaporeans.
As such, he should take the opportunity to be on “live” tv and address the concerns of homeowners and potential homeowners.
After all, isn’t that what a responsible minister – one who is asking Singaporeans to cast their votes for him in the forthcoming elections - would and should do?