Several GE manifestos focus on housing issues, but other proposals by activists have not been “seriously considered”, says Asst Prof Ng Kok Hoe

Housing has emerged as an issue in the recent General Election (GE) as several manifestos focused on the HDB lease decay issue, yet other proposals suggested by activists have not been “seriously considered”, said Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Dr Ng was among the panelists in the Ethos Books’ gathering of civil society that has brought together activists from different areas. The gathering, which titled The Ground Speaks: Civil Society After GE2020, was live-streamed on Facebook on 26 July.

“Housing in the recent GE has surfaced as an issue in several manifestos, which has been a focus on the lease decay issue. And there have been a couple of interesting proposals connecting the decay of leases to rental flat supply,” the researcher noted.

He indicated the overall “progress has been slow but visible”, adding that the remaining points suggested by activists have not been “seriously considered”.

“Other proposals that activists have suggested, such as fairer eligibility rules in rental housing, the setting of space standards, the ending of the requirement for single tenants to share a one-room flat with a stranger and larger rental flats to solve overcrowding, these have not yet been seriously considered,” said Dr Ng.

He opined that advocacy based on a research study should go through various stages with different tasks at each stage.

“To make a policy demand with sufficient force, we need to answer three questions. The first is, what is happening? The second is, is it a problem? And the third is, should and can we do anything about it?” said Dr Ng.

Firstly, it should focus on identifying the issues that have surfaced among society as he noted that “it is uncommon to hear things like homelessness does not exist in Singapore, poverty has been eradicated or there is no inequality among schools”.

“So, advocacy begins with foundational empirical research at the National Street Count, like surveys and ethnographic work in public rental neighborhoods and so on, to find out what is going on,” Dr Ng elaborated.

Secondly, he emphasised the need to review the situations and difficulties faced by those who are affected by the issues as some people might perceive these issues as unproblematic.

Some of the examples Dr Ng highlighted were the claims about the homeless individuals living in the streets are not “really homeless” and they do have their own home. Another example was about single elderly tenants who were forced to share their rental flats with a stranger,  in which these elderly tenants had given positive feedback in the housing surveys despite their living condition.

“Research can go deeper to review people’s situations and difficulties, such as homeless people’s low-wage and insecure work, family conflict, inability to afford and access public housing, problems for elderly tenants and families with children living in small rental flats and so on,” he stated.

Dr Ng continued, “And then we arrive at the third question, should and can we do anything about it? Those who defend the status quo may say as a nation, we cannot afford to give low-income rental tenants better housing conditions.”

While others might argue that the Government should not provide better housing conditions to low-income tenants because homeowners had to work hard to buy the flats, he added. As such, low-income tenants “who made bad decisions in life” should get the housing they deserve.

“Activists have been arguing that housing conditions affect tenants’ well-being and children’s outcomes, and that secure housing with adequate space and privacy is a basic right.

“So, where are we now and what needs to be done? From my observation, I would say we are somewhere between stages two and three, recognizing that there is a problem and we can do things to fix it,” Dr Ng asserted.

He went on to emphasise the need to help people to understand that homelessness, public rental housing issues, lease decay issues, and retirement security, are all linked together and came from the nation’s public housing model which he claimed is “premised on asset ownership rather than housing needs”.

“This model is fraying; we can no longer take for granted that ownership will ensure retirement income security. At the same time, this insistence on ownership is supported by a rental housing sector that is under resource and out of step with the times. They seem to prioritize converting tenants into flat owners over meeting their basic housing needs.”

Dr Ng stressed people should understand that there is “nothing natural” or “self-evident” about the notion that people deserve the housing they can afford.

“We only have to compare this with education where we hold the line very staunchly that money cannot buy anyone advantage in the public school system. We will never accept it if someone suggested that children deserve the quality of education that their parents can afford, yet we accept this as normal when it comes to housing,” he added.

At the end of his talk, Dr Ng remarked, “The works for the next few years must focus on these, recognizing that there are problems that we can do things about it, and there are alternatives and possibilities.”

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