Senior Minister of State, Ms Josephine Teo’s understanding (or lack of) of sex has been the butt of many jokes. Jest aside; her misguided candour has unfortunately lost the nation an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion on the subjects of our falling birth rates and decreased supply of HDB flats.
The majority of Singaporeans live in HDB flats. This scheme has by and large been successful although rising labour costs, land scarcity and an ever increasing population has led to a greater demand than the government can supply. The lack of affordable housing is a problem that is faced by many increasingly urban international cities and Singapore is not unique in that dilemma. From that standpoint, I do understand why the government may need to come up with a certain framework of prioritisation in relation to who gets bigger flats when.
On top of a dwindling supply coupled with increased demand, Singapore has an additional issue to contend with – that of an aging population. No doubt, the suggestion of prioritising first time married couples expecting a child or with a child under the age of 16 is Ms Teo’s answer to killing two birds with one stone.
While it is undeniable that adequate housing is an important factor to building a family, is it the only overriding concern? Will this type of prioritisation really solve the problems? Or is it just another band-aid that will simply push the problem away for a little while?
When Singapore’s population was much smaller and peoples’ expectations comparatively lower, it was easier for the government to make good on its promises. Our needs were simpler back then and people saw modern flats as progress. Now, we have a much more globalised citizenry who expect more. There are also infinitely much more of us. Realistically, the government’s ability to be seen as the hand that provides all will also diminish. Why then is the government still campaigning on those grounds?
Perhaps, it is in the long term good of both the government and Singaporeans for the government to admit that it cannot provide housing in the way it has in the past? That way, instead of wasting time on cover up, we can constructively alleviate the issues together.
Given our land scarcity, it is really no surprise that the government has to prioritise who it can provide its sought after BTO flats too. But is this framework of prioritisation the fairest and most effective way to tackle the twin problems of declining birthrates and demand for housing?
Ms Teo has insisted that first time married couples be expecting a child before the coveted flat comes to fruition. But is this throwing money at the problem instead of trying to understand the root of the problem?
With all due respect, the dual problems of housing and dwindling birthrates cannot be simplified and solved in a “two in one” package way. While these matters may be related, they are not entirely symbiotic.
Singapore is probably the only first world country where the majority of the population lives in government housing. This is a situation that cannot go on indefinitely. Not if the government also wants to increase the population while permitting the free market to flourish. The rising costs of HDB flats is testament to the fact that the scheme needs to change. The government will need to admit this so that Singaporeans can also correspondingly drop their expectations.
The issue of flats should not be used as a bargaining chip in the elections because no modern government can provide housing the way the PAP government used to in the 70s, 80s and 90s. The world has changed. The government needs to own up to its limitations and Singaporeans need to have a reality check. But having lived in an environment where the government has always campaigned on the ability to provide all, it is difficult for Singaporeans to make that shift in expectations unless the government stops pretending that times have not changed.
The more the government promises, the more the people resent it because invariably, the promises will not be adequately met. In other fully functioning democracies, voters have learnt to take politicians with a grain of salt. In Singapore, the silent majority is still very trusting and this is the group that will be the most disappointed at the end of the day. Not openly admitting that the government cannot provide housing the way it used to will bite the PAP in the ass at some point.
As for dwindling births, is space really the only issue? If that were so, why are there so many professional couples that live in condos unwilling to procreate?
Secondly, what of second time married couples? Are they not encouraged to also have children? What of divorced parents or single parents? Do their families not have space constraint issues too?
This method of prioritisation is not ideal because it appears to be formulated on the misguided belief that only the picture perfect family unit of a young first time married couple is deserving of help. Symptomatic of the PAP’s refusal to recognise the less than perfect realities of life and its own limitations.
I understand the need to prioritise but in order for us to work out the best method of prioritisation to meet our nation’s needs, we first need to collectively own up and accept that there isn’t an unlimited supply of flats and the government will not be able to provide this.
I rather wished Ms Teo had done this rather than enter the territory of pillow talk with the country.