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Ho Ching’s natural appeal pitch for B&W houses contrasts with Ministers’ extensive greenery clearance

Ho Ching, the wife of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former CEO of Temasek Holdings, has taken to Facebook to explain the intricate details surrounding the rental of black-and-white (B&W) colonial houses on Ridout Road by Ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan.

Prime Minister Lee previously commissioned an extensive review of the situation, carried out by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). The findings of the two reports effectively cleared the ministers of any allegations of corruption, abuse of power, or conflict of interest.

Interestingly, SM Teo was the senior Cabinet member whom Mr Shanmugam notified of his rental of the black-and-white (B&W) bungalows in 2018.

In her Facebook post, Mdm Ho defended the rental amounts and provided an in-depth breakdown of the costs associated with maintaining and living in such historic properties, referring to what Mr Shanmugam is expected to spend for his residence at 26 Ridout Road.

Mdm Ho further delved into the unique appeal of these B&W houses, recognized for their close proximity to nature despite their seemingly simple amenities. She indicated that these properties tend to attract those who appreciate a natural setting and the presence of wildlife, such as mosquitoes, snakes, and even mischievous macaques.

Mdm Ho added that these colonial houses, typically featuring 3-4 bedrooms and an annex, can be an excellent option for extended families or young couples seeking to create lasting memories and that B&W houses offer a unique appeal that extends beyond the typical city living experience.

However, Mdm Ho’s explanation also highlights an intriguing contradiction. Mr Shanmugam, one of the renters of these B&W houses, requested the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to clear substantial greenery from his property due to concerns about snakes and mosquitoes.

The SLA subsequently spent $172,000 on-site clearance, replanting of greenery, and fencing.

The same goes for Dr Balakrishnan’s estate at 31 Ridout Road, with extensive clearing of greenery. However, no details of how much was spent on clearing the site were shared in the report.

The satellite imagery from Google Earth shows the extent of green cover clearance before and after the Ministers decided to reside in the properties.

Mdm Ho wrote, “Over $400,000, plus $61,400, amortised over the 3+3+3 years, would be over $52,000 a year, or over $4,200 a month. Add $25,000 a year to maintain neglected and overgrown adjacent areas would add another $2,000+ a month. So effective rental would be $26,500 + $4,200 + $2,000 = $32,700, rounding up to $33,000 per month.”

This is in reference to Mr Shanmugam’s spending of $61,400 to construct a car porch and over $400,000 for additional improvement works to the State property, such as a roundabout and a 25-metre swimming pool with adjoining structures. The SLA also spent $515,400 on restoration works on the property after he decided to reside there.

The SLA expanded his land parcel size from 9,350 sqm to 23,164 sqm at no additional rent, with Mr Shanmugam agreeing to handle the maintenance costs for the extra land.

All in all, nearly a million dollars were spent on the property, which does not exactly present the image of a property with simple amenities, as Mdm Ho seems to suggest.

But frankly, why should we care about how much the Minister spent on improving the living conditions of his rental property, such as adding a swimming pool, when we are merely concerned if the SLA is undercharging him for the rental of the estate? Such as the question of why SLA did not increase the rent despite doubling the land size of Mr Shanmugam’s rented property.

Just because Mr Shanmugam is taking over the maintenance of the land does not mean SLA should not be charging him for it.

To add intrigue to the whole situation, the CPIB noted that Mr Shanmugam had won the tender with a bid exactly equal to the guide rent set by the SLA for the property.

Mdm Ho concluded her post by saying, “For many of us, these numbers are beyond our reach, and not really our area of interest. It is good that most of us have homes that we can go home to, to unwind at the end of a working day, and to enjoy a meal with family. As mother would say in Cantonese, even a doggie patch can be comfortable when it is home.”

It is somewhat ridiculous that Mdm Ho refers to “these numbers being beyond our reach” when she served as CEO of Temasek Holdings for many years and was likely among the industry’s highest earners. Moreover, her husband is the highest-paid civil servant in the world.

The case, with all its nuanced details, will be further scrutinized in the upcoming parliamentary session on Monday.

Four ministers, including Ministers Shanmugam and Balakrishnan, will deliver ministerial statements on the matter, providing a more in-depth understanding of this multifaceted controversy surrounding the rental of the Ridout Road state properties.

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