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“Tens of thousands of rental flats needed”

Andrew Loh/

"The problem that the HDB face is they are just short of rental flats. In the whole of Singapore today, we have about 45,000 rental flats. But that's not enough.

"It's quite clear in my mind, we need to ramp up the building of rental flats as quickly as we can. Not just by a few thousand, actually we need to build by tens of thousands. And the earlier the better.” – Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Minister for National Development (MND), 30 May, Today.

The revelation by Mr Khaw may be shocking to some, but perhaps not so to others. Mr Khaw’s predecessor at MND, Mr Mah Bow Tan, had previously pledged – in early 2011 - to build 7,500 more rental flats. Obviously this number is short of what is needed, given Mr Khaw’s revelation.

While more rental flats are welcome, especially by those in desperate need of them, and Mr Khaw should be applauded for tackling the problem head-on – something which his predecessor seemed to have been dragging his feet on – Mr Khaw should get right to the nub of the problem.

And what is it?

Mr Khaw should look into why so many are in need of such flats in the first place, and see if there are any ways to keep those who currently have flats to stay in them, instead of joining the rental queue. The numbers are not clear but one would suspect that at least a portion of these will include those who are defaulting or have defaulted on their HDB mortgage loans payment, and who may be forced by the HDB to put their flats up for sale. It would be good if Mr Khaw could reveal these numbers.

If HDB could work out a more compassionate payment plan for these, it could reduce the numbers for rental flats.

Also, the Town Councils Act was amended some years ago to empower town councils to repossess homes which have defaulted on service and conservancy charges. Again, these numbers are not disclosed, although it is suspected that there are not many whose flats have actually been put up for sale because of this.

Mr Khaw should also take a look at the qualifying criterias for such flats. Mr Mah’s adherence to strict rules was to prevent abuse of the system by those who do not really need these flats. However, by doing so, he had also allowed many to fall through the cracks. The presence of homeless communities spread out all over the major public parks in Singapore in 2009/2010 testified to this.

One of the things Mr Khaw and the HDB should seriously consider is to give families with children and the elderly priority in the queue. We have reported homeless families with children and the elderly (and even the sick) camped out in the parks. In a First World country like Singapore, it is unconscionable that such things should occur.

And since the government has promised to lower the number of foreigners into Singapore, perhaps Mr Khaw should also look into whether flats which were reserved for foreigners could be freed up for needy Singaporeans instead. Some flats which are acquired through the SERs or en bloc programme have been let out to foreigners, for example.

Lastly, the HDB and MND should be in constant communication with the Ministry for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) as well. Often, there seem to be a disconnect between the ministries. Cases referred to MCYS, which then approach the HDB, seem to be treated like any other appeal for rental flats. This should be relooked. Obviously, if MCYS finds it urgent or important enough to speak up for such cases, the HDB should adopt a more compassionate and flexible stand on these.

At the end of the day, while building more flats is welcome, ultimately it is the affordability of public housing flats which is at the heart of the matter. Thus, Mr Khaw should look at this and come up with a solution, especially for the low-income and the needy.

The HDB must return to its original aim of providing affordable flats to Singaporeans simply because it is the humane thing to do. Mr Khaw’s revelation that “tens of thousands of rental flats needed” shows that perhaps the HDB has deviated somewhat from this goal.

Why else would so many such cheap and low-end flats be needed, if flats were truly affordable?