Are “threats” of withholding HDB upgrading still relevant after Minister Wong’s clarification?

At a NUS public forum in 2011 just before the GE that year, a student asked Prime Minisgter Lee Hsien Loong about HDB upgrading in opposition wards. He asked why residents living in Hougang SMC are penalised for picking “a ‘Teochew nang’ (Teochew person) who doesn’t wear a white uniform.” He was referring to then Workers’ Party Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang.

“When it comes to upgrading, what is being told to us is that we don’t have the funds to actually go ahead with lift upgrading, as well as shelters to the bus stops. When I look across the road to Aljunied GRC (then under PAP), they have everything,” the student added.

PM Lee replied, “The answer is that there has to be a distinction. Because the PAP wards supported the Government and the policies which delivered these good things.”

“Between the people who voted and supported the programme and the government, and the people who didn’t, I think if we went and put yours before the PAP constituencies, it would be an injustice,” PM Lee told the more than 1000 students at the forum.

In response, the student countered if he could pay less tax and maybe “take one or two years off my NS?”, which drew laughter and applause from the audience. PM Lee replied in his usual rhetoric that it was not possible because the SAF, defence, taxes and all the facilities which have been provided, are enjoyed by every Singaporean.

Then PM Lee added, “But you can do something about it, you know. You don’t have to keep voting for people not in white-on-white.” Nevertheless, Hougang residents resisted and continued to vote for WP in the subsequent 2011 and 2015 GEs.

New PAP MP also likes to threaten voters

Threats not to upgrade current or potential opposition wards were also seen in the Bukit Batok by-election two years ago. The by-election was called after PAP MP David Ong was forced to resign due to some “indiscretion” on his part with yet another grassroots woman.

During campaigning, then PAP candidate Murali Pillai treatened to withold the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme for Bt Batok if opposition was voted in. He said, “This plan that we are presenting is part of the PAP Jurong Town Council… If we don’t have the mandate then we don’t have the ability to carry on, because we wouldn’t form the town council.”

“That’s the rules,” he added.

He then dangled carrots in front of the Bt Batok residents, targeting at the elderly, “The three-generational park (will) allow our grandparents to bring their grandchildren to play while they can exercise,” he said. “We are also improving the number of sheltered linkways to protect the elders from rain and shine.”

Murali finally won garnering 61.2% in the by-election beating the SDP Chief Chee Soon Juan.

Opposition condemns PAP’s tactics

Speaking for SDP at the time, Dr Tambyah condemned the PAP for being “unethical” for using infrastructure upgrading to influence votes, “To say that major improvements will come only if the PAP candidate is elected is unethical and could even be a contravention of the Parliamentary Elections Act (Section 59) which prohibits parties or persons from bringing undue influence on voters.”

Dr Tambyah noted that there were already improvement plans for Bukit Batok in the 2013 draft master plan by the URA. He added, “The funds (for improvements) could be put to better use such as looking after the healthcare, senior care and educational needs of Bukit Batok residents.”

WP NCMP Leon Perera also joined in to criticise the PAP. He wrote on his Facebook page at the time, “To me, that recalls the painful memory of the votes for HDB upgrading message in the 1997 General Elections. It’s good that we build necessary infrastructure to upgrade our towns. But is a campaign message like this any way to build a nation?”

Is upgrading still relevant in view of HDB flat value depreciates as its lease expires?

In any case, HDB residents hoping to see their flat appreciate in value after a HDB upgrading or neighborhood renewal may be in for a rude shock.

In the 90s PM Goh introduced the “Asset Enhancement” policy, which was supposed to help enhance the value of HDB flats for Singaporeans. Even PM Lee continues to talk about HDB flats appreciating in value.

PM Lee said at an international conference in 2010, “The HDB flat is not just a shelter but also a key investment asset… Provided Singapore continues to do well, our flats will maintain their value, and Singaporeans can enjoy an appreciating asset.”

In fact, just before 2011 General Election, then National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan also said, “We’re proud of the asset enhancement policy. (It) has given almost all Singaporeans a home of their own… that grows in value over time.”

But last year, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong came out to clarify. He said that only 4% of HDB flats were redeveloped through SERS since 1995. The vast majority of flats, he noted, will be returned to HDB when their 99-year lease run out without any compensation.

“As the leases run down, especially towards the tail-end, the flat prices will come down correspondingly,” he said. So, it seems that the value of HDB flats would no longer grow over time anymore as the HDB leases run down, according to Minister Wong.

An ST reader Ronnie Lim wrote to ST Forum earlier this month complaining that many seniors who wanted to downgrade to studio apartments were “in a fix as they are unable to sell their old flats”. He added that most were hoping to downgrade and live on the profits from selling their flats, but have now become disillusioned.

“The notion that owning a Housing Board flat is an investment for old age is no longer valid today,” said Mr Lim.

And even before their leases reach zero, the flats’ value would have started to nosedive with 35 years of lease left due to the financing constraints placed on older flats.

Hence, it begs the question – What is the use of having all these HDB upgrading when your flat value will hit zero after its lease expires?

In this regard, Hougang residents appear to be more enlightened and have been disregarding any of the “Asset Enhancement” rhetoric thrown at them by the PAP government all these years. They continue to reject PAP in their ward.