Monday, 25 September 2023

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Humble Ministers’ Abode or Palatial Retreat? A Closer Look at the Ministers’ Black-and-White Houses

The recent controversy over the black-and-white houses occupied by Singapore’s Cabinet Ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan warrants a closer look at the living conditions within these properties.

In the wake of the public outcry over the news, supporters of the ministers have attempted to diffuse the situation with several narratives.

They argue that the ministers can easily afford the rental of the houses on their ministerial salaries, suggesting that they’re doing the government a favour by occupying these estates that have been vacant for years.

They assert that proper procedures were adhered to, despite the potential conflict of interest of the Minister of Law bidding on properties managed by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), which falls under his jurisdiction.

Recently, they propose that these black-and-white houses the ministers are living in are in poor condition, attempting to shift the narrative away from any suggestion of luxury or privilege.

In one such post by Kuik Yishen, it is said that Black and White houses managed by the SLA often remain vacant for long periods because the pool of potential renters is niche.

These houses, built between 1920 and 1940, lack modern amenities such as air conditioning, hot water, cabinets, and appliances. The land on which the houses are situated cannot be altered or expanded, making traditional valuation methods irrelevant.

The lack of facilities, limited security, and public access also contribute to these houses typically renting for lower prices compared to comparable condos or houses, notes Kuik.

But far from being a humble abode, 26 Ridout Road, previously occupied by Biscuit Baron, Rajan Pillai, was once characterized in a 1995 New Paper report as a veritable palace.

The report painted a vivid picture of the house’s splendid interior, highlighting plush Persian carpets and woven Indian rugs warming the preserved tiled floors of the reception hall and dining room.

The polished hardwood floors in the living areas added a touch of grandeur, complemented by a four-tiered chandelier hanging from the domed ceiling in the second-story reception lobby and at least two other chandeliers sparkling in the reception hall and the dining room.

Although it is uncertain if the luxurious carpets and rugs were confiscated by the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) – which Mr Shanmugam oversees – for investigations against Mr Pillai, it is probable that the intrinsic grandeur of the house, epitomized by elements like the chandeliers, remains intact.

Despite Kuik’s claim that tenants of black-and-white houses are responsible for their maintenance and restoration, reports from The Online Citizen Asia (TOC) indicate that the upkeep of 26 Ridout Road seems to have been managed by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

Adding to the intrigue are the luxurious additions to the property, including a grand swimming pool, a security booth manned by the minister’s security detail, a roundabout, and a car park shelter – most of which do not have written approval from the Urban Development Authority.

The SLA’s involvement in these enhancements further complicates the situation. Are public resources being appropriated to provide private comforts for the ministers? Why is the SLA acting as a developer for a private tenant?

This apparent departure from the norm contradicts Kuik’s portrayal of these houses as modest residences.

Furthermore, the significant vegetation clearance in the Tree Conservation Area within the two estates following the Ministers’ move-in prompts serious environmental and procedural concerns.

The removal of mature trees – if any, absent any immediate threat to property or life, typically requires stringent permission protocols. Who authorized this clearance? Was due process observed?

The grandeur of the estate, the SLA’s role in its maintenance and upgrades, and the extensive tree clearance all contrast starkly with the humble image Kuik attempts to project for these black-and-white houses.

Moreover, while Kuik proposes that Mr Shanmugam’s unit would have likely been rented in the range of S$20,000 to S$35,000, one should ponder about the “cheap” monthly rental of S$30,000 for an estate encompassing a 300,000 sq ft land area. It’s noteworthy that a mere few minutes’ walk away, owners are asking for S$80,000 for just 15,000 sq ft of land.

Remember how the PAP Ministers had repeatedly asserted in parliament during the debate on public housing policies that paying anything less than the market price for state land is tantamount to a raid on the reserve.

Additionally, it should be asked whether the two Ministers own private properties of their own and if they are renting them out, potentially benefiting from the difference between the rents while utilizing state resources for their personal comfort and luxury.

It is crucial that a thorough, independent investigation be conducted to clarify these issues and to ensure that public trust in Singapore’s governance remains strong and untarnished.

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