Speaking at the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of National Development (MND), Minister of State for National Development, Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim on Thursday (4 Mar) announced a series of measures to help support lower-income households in rental flats as the country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the measures is piloting a new housing model later this year to allow singles to apply for public rental flats without first finding a flatmate as an “alternative” model of the existing Joint Singles Scheme (JSS), which only permits public rental flats to be rented out to two singles paired up as flatmates.
Under the JSS, single tenants are encouraged to apply to the HDB with someone they already know, such as a relative or friend. Alternatively, they can request for the HDB to allocate them a flatmate.
Despite the new pilot, Assoc Prof Faishal was of the opinion that most single tenants are still prepared to share their flats with a flatmate under the JSS, as living together “enables companionship and mutual support”, especially important for older tenants.
While “the majority” of JSS tenants are able to live amicably with their respective flatmates, there have been incidences where this has unfortunately not been the case, he said.
Assoc Prof Faishal went on to say that the JSS also helped to ensure that there are enough public rental flats in an environment of limited resources.
Nee Soon Member of Parliament (MP) Louis Ng said that the Government can do more to help flatmates who do not get along under the JSS.
Mr Ng pointed out that many of the singles were elderly and unable to find flatmates they knew, and therefore end up being housed with strangers that they may not get along with.
While he acknowledged that the HDB may not have an ample supply of flats to cater to every single who wanted to “rent a flat alone”, Mr Ng stressed the MND did allow a single person to rent a flat alone on “a case by case basis” and asked if the MND could “review the JSS”, as well as publish a set of “specific criteria” setting out the circumstances where a single could rent a flat alone.
PAP MP Chong Kee Hiong also spoke up for single tenants, acknowledging the “difficulties” that could arise when “flatmates did not get along”.
He urged MND and HDB to “do more to address this issue”.
Mr Chong noted that while tenants were grateful to have “a roof over their heads” and the “affordability” that was in line with their incomes, they were nevertheless under a lot of stress from living with people who may not “share their habits and lifestyles”.
Subsequently, Mr Chong urged the House to “be mindful that these were two strangers who had to stay together”.
Mr Chong queried whether the HDB had done any research or surveys on what the common issues raised were and whether they were able to resolve them and if not, he asked whether the MND would consider doing so.
Further, he suggested for the HDB to consider allowing applicants to “specify some perimeters” to indicate their criteria for “an ideal housemate” so that the HDB can use this criterion to match tenants.
Such criteria may cover whether a person did shift work and whether a person was a smoker, said Mr Chong.
He also queried whether HDB would consider “assigning dedicated councillors to assist the flatmates to familiarise themselves with each other in the first month of sharing the flat and giving advice at the early stage to prevent future problems”.
Lastly, Mr Chong asked if the HDB could set up a special task force to address conflicts and complaints between flatmates who would be empowered to mediate and make recommendations such as early termination of the lease.
PAP MP Lim Biow Chuan also said that “two singles who may be strangers to each other” who are required to “share a small space together” might prove to be a “stress point” for both parties, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He even raised examples of renters moving to sleep in the void decks just to avoid flatmates. Mr Lim urged for the HDB to allow “singles to rent a one-room HDB flat in exceptional circumstances” and to “show compassion”.
In response to Mr Ng, Mr Chong and Mr Lim’s speech, Assoc Prof Faishal replied that while he understood the concerns and were looking at ways to improve the JSS such as building internal doors to separate the sleeping areas.
In reply to Mr Lim’s follow-up question in relation to renters’ concerns on the partitions, given that they would still have to share common facilities such as toilets and kitchens, Assoc Prof Faishal said that the feedback had been positive and that the “majority” of renters under the JSS were “able to live together”.
Back in March last year, then-Jalan Besar GRC MP Lily Neo highlighted the problem of conflicts between co-tenants under the JSS, saying that some co-tenants had fallen into depression as a result of not getting along with their flatmates.
She further stated, “It is difficult for complete strangers compelled to stay together,” adding that many co-tenants end up living “miserably with frequent quarrels”.
Dr Neo also said that community mediation did not work for them due to many reasons.
Commenting on CNA‘s Facebook page, netizens criticised the Government for not acknowledging that the JSS system had not worked.
One netizen opined that the HDB was still “forcing people” to live together “because low-income singles cannot have it too good” and that the Government wanted “to punish them”.
Others highlighted their problems with getting a flat under the JSS saying that he had been “trying to apply” for a flat under the scheme for over two years and lamented that he had to pay S$10 at every launch despite not being successful.
One netizen said three of their applications for the scheme had failed.
Some netizens questioned why the Government was “still forcing people to live with strangers” when Singapore is not “a third world country that was totally broke”.
Others urged Assoc Prof Faishal to “put yourself in the two persons’ shoes to live with a total stranger” and said that it could be “like living in hell” if they did not get along.