June 25, 2017

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by Sharanya Pillai

WHEN it comes to building their love nest, it seems like young Singaporean couples prefer the tried and tested – even if it is more expensive.

Last year, one in five first-time HDB buyers opted for resale flats over new Build-To-Order (BTO) flats, The Straits Times reported yesterday (May 3).  This is nearly twice the number of buyers who did so in 2012.

Thus far, HDB has reserved 95 per cent of BTO flats for first-time buyers. Heavily subsidised, these flats are often considered the most financially prudent option for first timers, especially since they come with a fresh 99-year lease, experts told The Middle Ground.

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But a desire for familiarity and a shorter waiting time are driving more young Singaporeans to the resale market, noted OrangeTee’s head of research and consultancy Wong Xian Yang.

This trend is set to continue, with stable prices in the resale market and more subsidies from the G, Mr Wong added. This year’s Budget, for instance, raised the CPF Housing Grant for resale flats for first timer couples, allowing them to enjoy up to $110,000 in total subsidies. Meanwhile, the supply of potential resale flats in 2016 was also 80 per cent more than the previous year.

“Since 2013, HDB resale prices have come down by about 10 per cent. People are more confident that the prices [have] stabilised and should not correct further. And so with more grants, many feel that resale prices are at affordable levels at the market rate,” he said.

Seems straightforward enough – why spend three years waiting for a BTO, when you might be able to move into a furnished flat with less hassle and more subsidies?

But there are more trade-offs to mull over. If you want to know what’s in this for you, here are the key factors to consider:

1. Do you want a ‘forever’ home or a stepping stone?

BTO flats come with 99-year leases, meaning that the flat can last a lifetime. But that hasn’t stopped young couples from paying more for resale flats with shorter leases, even at the risk of outliving their homes.

This trend prompted Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong to warn against assuming that all old flats will be covered by Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers) – which allows owners to move to a new home with a fresh 99-year lease, along with monetary benefits.

Those who purchase old resale flats may also face difficulties trying to sell it off in future, reckons ERA Senior Division Director Alex Lim. “The demand pool for these flats among the next group of potential buyers is smaller, because younger buyers are already eliminated. So that is something to bear in mind,” he said.

OrangeTee’s Mr Wong agreed that the move has its risks: “Some couples may speculate that the value of an old flat will keep going up. But of course, there are always uncertainties.”

Ultimately, it depends on buyers’ long-term plans for the flat – whether they see it as more of a place to settle in for a few generations, as an investment to earn good returns on, or just to live in it before moving into more high-end property.

2. Postcode envy: Are some locations better than others?

Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Units at the Pinnacle@Duxton became eligible for resale last year
Source: Photo by Shaun Danker

If location is a priority, the resale market offers more options than others. This is probably one of the biggest draws for young couples, who often want to live near good schools, and sometimes even upmarket locations, said PropNex Key Executive Officer Lim Yong Hock.

Units at the Pinnacle@Duxton, which just became eligible for resale last year, is especially popular among couples with higher income.

For the majority of young families that are “just starting out in life”, living close to their parents is a key consideration, Mr Lim added. Filial piety aside, first-timers are also drawn by a $20,000 Proximity Housing Grant (PHG) for buying a resale flat near their parents. The scheme, implemented in 2015, could be another “pull factor” towards the resale market, he said.

But the locations of new BTO projects may bring back some first-timers, Mr Wong noted. While earlier projects were in far-flung, newer estates like Punggol, the latest batch of BTO flats are in mature estates, like Kallang, Bedok and the Bidadari development in Toa Payoh. With more of these developments, demand trends could change again.

ERA’s Mr Lim sees more young clients attracted to BTO flats because of lifestyle factors: “The millennials go for BTOs because the flats are new and the community is new. Everyone is of the same age group. They’re looking for something brand new and affordable, and that’s the ultimate appeal of BTOs.”

3. Money over matter

Ultimately, for those starting out in life, finances are front and centre. While BTOs are generally the cheaper option, due to zero Cash Over Valuation, resale flats are becoming just as affordable thanks to the latest slew of G grants.

Effective from Feb 2017, the cap for CPF housing grants for resale flats was raised from $30,000 to $50,000 for first-time families buying four-room or smaller flats, and to $40,000 for those buying flats with five rooms or more. Other existing incentives include the Additional Housing Grant, which provides up to $40,000, and the $20,000 PHG. With these perks, the price gap between BTO and resale flats has narrowed.

But this is not necessarily the case in popular mature estates, like Bishan, Queenstown and Clementi. Resale prices there remain steep, such as those in Clementi, which have crossed the million-dollar mark. While it is easy to be swayed by news reports of price trends, Mr Wong advises young Singaporeans to do their homework and monitor the data for themselves closely.

A 2015 survey by the MND, for instance found that Singaporeans tend to overestimate the price of BTO flats. “The younger generation of buyers is very tech-savvy, so they can easily check out the HDB website to know the latest prices, and avoid these mistakes,” he said.

Meanwhile, PropNex’ Mr Lim thinks that families on a tight budget would generally be better off opting for a BTO instead. “My advice for any young couple would still be go back to the affordability. You may find a very good location, but at the end of the day, you have to slog your life away to pay the instalments.”

“Is it necessary? In life, there are also other important things, like making sure you can start your family.”

 

Featured image by Flickr user Erwin SooCC BY 2.0.

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A new Central Greenway will provide a direct and seamless connection from Pasir Ris Town Centre to Pasir Ris Park Source: HDB

by Daniel Yap

THE plans for remaking the heartlands of Woodlands, Toa Payoh and Pasir Ris have just been announced. Based on the feedback of some 400 residents and stakeholders from the towns, the plans are an indication of the aspirations of the community, and pose a question to the rest of the nation: how do we engage with each other within our built environment?

In the end, it is not just features and infrastructure, but how people – residents – interact that defines the soul of a city. What do the latest changes say about the way we want to engage in community?

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We’re going local

A little more heartlands, a little less Orchard Road. Neighbourhood centres in Pasir Ris, for example, will be enhanced with the aim of having amenities closer to home. This means less time spent travelling and more time spent in the immediate neighbourhood, and providing opportunities for local interaction.

The enhancement of comprehensive amenities at each town centre is also expected to boost local engagement and make each town self-sufficient. There is thus no need to travel across the country unless you’re looking for something specific.

A new Town Plaza in Woodlands Central will serve as a vibrant public space for residents.
Source: HDB

The character and heritage of each revamped town have also been deliberately preserved or commemorated in each plan. Toa Payoh will stay wedded to it’s iconic Ring Road, and its pedestrian walkways lined with HDB shops will not be giving way to malls – Toa Payoh has always eschewed big malls in favour of more local retail flavour. Both Toa Payoh and Pasir Ris will have heritage sites beside the town centre that tell of the town’s history. Woodlands will get a “discovery playground” that also showcases its development.

It is an opportunity to take pride in each town and its unique institutions – icons, people or features that have been around for decades. It gives character and distinction to each town and shifts the focus away from thinking of Singapore as a single physical place.

We embrace diversity

A place you can call home needs to offer something for everyone. There is a deliberate attempt to inject diversity into each town. Multi-generational facilities, “silver zones”, and a range of amenities can appeal to different interests, but one big part of the plan is to introduce more new housing units to older towns, which are likely to be bought up by younger families.

When a whole new town springs up, like Punggol, it gets filled mostly by younger families applying for their first build-to-order flats. In 20 or 30 years, these families grow as a generation and in order to inject diversity, different demographics have to be added in.

Think of mature towns like Toa Payoh, or “young family” towns like Punggol. This will cut down on the pressures of extreme local undersupply of childcare places, or very high demand in one area for elder-care facilities. It makes amenities easier to plan for, and nobody will feel left out.

Walk, cycle, or scoot

You can be sure that exercise has become fashionable when people clamour for cycling paths more than they beg for additional bus stops. That, and the burgeoning flocks of spandex-clad cyclists we see on the roads these days. The emphasis of the latest town plans has been to enhance walking and cycling facilities as a means of intra-town travel, especially with each town becoming more self-sufficient. There is less of a focus on longer-distance travel, which will be centred around MRT stations and regional centres.

Town centres will be planned with more pedestrianisation in mind. Woodlands will get a “social corridor”, interspersed with community spaces, stretching across the town from east to west, which branches out into a comprehensive network of cycling paths.

Even Toa Payoh’s ring road will be upgraded for pedestrians and runners, and the old town will be retrofitted with biking infrastructure and “silver zones” that will help the elderly get around more safely.

The growth of bike sharing companies also sets the stage for increased use of cycling as a transport option, and the bike connectivity between individual blocks and MRT stations will be a major aim of any upgrade.

We want to be green

Greening the towns has been a major theme across latest developments. Take some time to appreciate nature, get active outdoors, and please stop polluting the environment.

A seamless central greenway (with cycling paths, of course) will connect the Pasir Ris town centre with Pasir Ris Park and 8.2 km of “Nature Ways” spotted with small parks will be added along major thoroughfares. Toa Payoh will have seven “pocket parks” added along its 4km ring road.

The pocket park in front of Block 157 Lorong 1 Toa Payoh will feature landscaped spaces with plants and furniture inspired by popular motifs in the town.
Source: HDB

Woodlands too will get a green upgrade: the 1.9-kilometre WoodsVista Gallery with dedicated cycling and pedestrian paths that link Woodlands MRT to the coast.

We want to spend time with people

Who says Singaporeans are a private lot who shy away from interactions with neighbours? If it were so, people would have asked HDB to install traffic lights in the floor, and free wi-fi throughout the entire length of Pasir Ris Drive 1 so that they can get around in full “phombie” mode, ignoring everyone and everything around them.

Instead, requests by residents for the development of local community spaces like parks and town plazas are calls for more opportunities for interacting with family, friends or neighbours. A new concept of community nodes has created earmarked spaces for art installations, community gardens, reading corners, or community cafés. Sound good?

But they are only going to be as good as how we use them. The heart of any town is its people, and if residents don’t want to engage with one another, then the “kampung spirit”, will not grow. Take ownership of your neighbourhood, or leave it as it is – the outcome is up to you.

 

Want to have a say in how your town develops? The Remaking Our Heartland proposals for Woodlands (beside Woodlands MRT until April 30), Toa Payoh (HDB Hub Atrium until May 7) and Pasir Ris (beside Pasir Ris MRT until May 14) will be on display for residents to give feedback on. You can also see the proposals and give feedback online at HDB InfoWEB (http://www.hdb.gov.sg/ROH). 

This article is done in partnership with the Housing & Development Board.

 

Featured image courtesy of HDB.

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by Bertha Henson

WHO would have thought civil servants would feature so much in the Budget debate? You have MPs who think the system (not civil servants) lack heart and more can be done to improve empathy levels. This, coming after several luminaries, including the Prime Minister, talking about the need for naysayers in the public service rather than people who respond with “three bags full”.

This time, they feature prominently in the debate on the Town Council Amendment Bill, with opposition MPs suggesting that G officials in the Ministry of National Development will be less than neutral over the operations of town councils.

I suppose the mental image that the Workers’ Party has is this: A bunch of civil servants barging into Aljunied-Hougang town council office, rifling through cabinets and accessing computer records because of some suspected wrong-doing on the town council’s part. Or entangling the town council in reams of red tape by asking endless questions because they have oversight powers. And leaving the wards of Ministers alone because, as civil servants, they wouldn’t want to get into the bad books of their political masters.

WP’s Pritam Singh said : “The MND risks becoming a tool of the ruling party of the day to fix the opposition.”

With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

His fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim said: “It is not possible to argue that the ministry is a politically neutral body as recent history unfortunately belies that claim.”

She gave the example of the General Election campaign in 2015, when the Ministry was “an active campaigner against the Workers’ Party, issuing statements practically daily on the alleged misconduct of AHPETC”.

She also said, without elaborating: “To take another example: we have also seen past records of how the Ministry advised a PAP TC how to make good a breach of the Town Councils Financial Rules, quietly behind closed doors, without any media release on the same.”

That is so intriguing.

Of course, the People’s Action Party side came out hammer and tongs accusing the WP of impugning the integrity of the civil service. Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee had a wonderful quote about how Ms Lim seemed to think that civil servants are “timorous souls” who would “kowtow” to their boss’ bidding.

AHPETC signboard
Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council

No one would dispute that the Act needed updating. The still on-going saga over the finances of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East town council showed up the loopholes on conflict of interest and corporate governance. The G suddenly realised that it couldn’t move on certain things, like order a TC to yield up records and submit information. There was also no “stick” it could wield.

Mr Lee made an interesting point about how AHPETC broke the “unspoken compact” which began when town councils were formed in 1989: That town councillors and elected MPs would proactively fix problems that arise or report suspected misdeeds to the police or Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

In other words, that TCs would “ownself check ownself” just like Ang Mo Kio town council did when it reported its general manager to the police. So if the WP’s finances had been in fine shape, there would be no need for more oversight measures? Hmm.

At the heart of the debate is whether town councils are political bodies. Taken to the bitter political end, MND shouldn’t intervene in a TC’s affairs at all and let residents live with the consequences of their choice. But the G realises that people think it is an administrative issue and expect the G to deal with problems everywhere, including opposition areas.

It’s a tricky balancing act. With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

In fact, it might add fuel to the view that the management of housing estates should go back to the way it was.

According to the feedback given to REACH which had a public consultation process on the Bill, some people had suggested that HDB or MND take over the functions. Or if there must be a regulator, the role could be given to the HDB “so that regulatory decision are one-step removed from political office holders”.

There was also an interesting suggestion that TCs be merged with HDB branch office with chairmen appointed by MND. The elected MPs could form separate committees to guide the work of the new set up to implement infrastructure projects. “This would ensure that the towns are managed fairly, regardless of the party in power.”

Such suggestions, however, would mean unpicking the whole town council structure. It’s like making the elected presidency an appointed office.

I wish that there was a direct response to Ms Lim’s proposal that Auditor-General’s Office could be tasked with auditing town councils on a rotational basis as a substitute for MND’s oversight. There is also her suggestion that an independent Housing Tribunal, chaired by a judge and experts in housing matters, be authorised to mediate and adjudicate disputes relating to the management of public housing.

These are political approaches, of course, to safeguard the independence and autonomy of town councils. They might well be cumbersome and there’s no guarantee that “bias” charge will be overcome.

Do voters really care though?

It’s clear that the WP was tardy and less than transparent about its finances. This might have led to its loss of Punggol East and its shaved margins for Aljunied and Hougang in the 2015 general election. But it can be also argued that if its offences were so egregious as the G makes them out to be, then voters would be moved to eject it altogether. They didn’t.

The amendment Bill actually gives voters less reason to care about who runs their town council. That’s because the law gives the G more powers to supervise, provide oversight and pick up the pieces. Even lift upgrading and replacement are penciled in

HDB residents can really have their cake – and eat it.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Uplifting news?

IF YOU’RE living in a Housing Development Board (HDB) block, go take a look at whether your lift is a Sigma lift. The company has been banned from future lift projects because its lifts, including those in new estates, have been breaking down too often. There are some 3,500 Sigma-installed lifts out of the 24,000 HDB lifts here. According to The Straits Times (ST) which broke the news, half the major reported cases of lift incidents in 2015 and last year involved Sigma as manufacturer or maintenance contractor.

Last year, a Sigma lift in Petir Road shot up and down between floors, injuring a 59-year-old resident. Sigma is a subsidiary of Otis Elevator Company, an American company which also makes lifts for HDB under its own brand. Nothing’s been said about Otis lifts. Presumably, the parent company has higher standards.

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Ban lifted

You can bet that fresh food, especially fish, is going up in price even as you read this, given that Chinese New Year is around the corner. Chinese silver pomfret sold for $45 per kg last week at the wet market at 4A Eunos Crescent, reported Lianhe Wanbao. Last month, it cost more than $30 per kg and could go up to between $60 and $80 per kg in the next two weeks, the newspaper said.

Now take into account the ban on fish sales from 12 fish farms in the wake of an oil spill that occurred off Pasir Gudang Port in Johor on Jan 3. Less supply, heightened demand equals to even higher price. The good news is that two fish farms have had their suspensions lifted after they cleaned up the oil spill. Prices will still be high… but maybe not that high?

 

Lifting Trump’s veil?

US-President elect Donald Trump’s nominees have been surprising people who thought they would turn out to be belligerent as their boss. But the men who are now going through a Senate grilling for top positions in the State and Defence departments, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency seem to be breaking ranks with Mr Trump with their own views on Russia, wall-building and water-boarding, which Mr Trump wants resurrected. So while Mr Trump can carry on tweeting whatever he likes, his Cabinet doesn’t seem so half-cocked and scary. Is this a Trump “good cop, bad cop” strategy?

Chinese media, however, are unhappy with Mr Rex Tillerson, who was nominated for Secretary of State which would make him the country’s chief diplomat. They are up in arms over his comments that China’s actions in the disputed South China Sea can be compared to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Said Global Times: “Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent China access to the islands will be foolish. Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories.”

 

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Wan Ting Koh

DON’T be surprised if you are charged 20 cents more when you park your vehicle around Bendemeer Market and Food Centre during the busy lunch period.

Charges during designated hours for some three out of four carparks in the Bendemeer area have increased since a week ago and motorists are mostly unaware, if not resigned, to the extra charges.

Since last Wednesday (Dec 1), the Housing & Development Board (HDB) introduced differential pricing for carparks that face high demand from morning to mid-afternoon. For the three carparks, it means charging 80 cents, instead of the usual 60 cents, per half hour, between 7am and 2pm from Mondays to Saturdays. The 60 cent per half hour rate applies from 2pm to 7am the next day.

Carpark sign showing rates

A carpark sign beside the gantry showing peak hour charges. Photo by Wan Ting Koh.

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The affected carparks include two along Serangoon Road – below Block 22 and Block 34 – and one along Bendemeer Road, between Block 30 and 31.

It’s unclear how many other carparks have also introduced these extra charges but they coincide with the fee hike for short-term and season parking. From Dec 1, parking charges were raised by 10 cents, from 50 cents to 60 cents per half hour for public carparks outside of the restricted zone or outside designated areas close to the restricted zone.

In a response to TMG’s queries, HDB, which manages the three carparks, said: “From 1 December 2016, HDB extended differential pricing to carparks where there was high demand for short-term parking during peak hours.” It added that peak hour timings differ across carparks and that season parking holders were not affected by these charges.

This isn’t the first time HDB has resorted to using different rates to control demand. HDB said that differential parking charges were first implemented in 2009 at two HDB carparks: The Pinnacle@Duxton and Tekka Market. The board did not reply to our question of which other carparks currently apply peak hour charges outside of Bendemeer.

Motorists entering carparks with peak hour charges will see a yellow sign with the words “Higher parking charges during peak hours” hung at the gantry barrier.

Beside the gantry, a carpark signboard lists the parking rates for every half hour, including the new peak hour charges. When asked if motorists were notified about the peak hour charges, HDB referred to these signs.

However, it seems that motorists remain unaware of the peak hour charges, which was announced in June this year.

Madam Poon Lee Kheng, 60, said that even though she visits Bendemeer Market three times a week to buy groceries and lunch, she hadn’t noticed the peak hour charges until we asked her about it.

“I will still come here because I am used to this place. I have alternatives but if I go to a new place, I will have to look for things again. I am familiar with the stalls here,” said the housewife, who had parked her car at about 12:30pm.

A lunch-time visit to the carpark between Block 30 and 31, which is next to Bendemeer Market, showed a steady stream of cars entering the already-full carpark. Most cars, however, could find lots within 15 minutes.

To Ms Roshah Puasa, 45, a delivery worker, said more could have been done to inform motorists about the peak hour charges. She was at the carpark beneath Block 22 for breakfast around 9am.

“For us doing delivery, carpark charge matters. Depending on my delivery, I usually come for about one to two hours so my charge would increase by about 80 cents,” she said, adding that she would park her van at another carpark, and walk over in the future.

However, Mr Ganthimani Rajamani, who visited the food centre for lunch in a white pickup, disagreed. The full-time driver said that 80 cents was okay, compared to carparks in the Central Business District. The 34-year-old said he was aware of the peak hour charges since he visited the area only last week.

“It’s only a 20 cent increase, no problem,” he said.

When asked whether it applies peak hour charges, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which manages carparks mostly in the city centre, said that its practice was to set carpark charges according to parking demand in the city.

“This includes charging more if necessary during peak hours. The charges are reflected on the signage at carpark entrance,” said a URA spokesman.

 

Featured image Upper deck of a multi-storey car park at Holland Village, Singapore by Wikimedia Commons user Takamaxa. (CC0 1.0)

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8:30am alarm
8:30 am clock face

THE HEADLINES this morning come from the Singaporean neighbourhoods:

SkillsFuture in the neighbourhoods: Through two initiatives – SkillsFuture Engage and the SkillsFuture Network – the G wants to reach out to Singaporeans in all neighbourhoods, especially those who need advice on how to plan their learning or to find jobs near their homes. Under the new SkillsFuture Engage, for instance, a team of advisors will be sent around Singapore to guide people to pick relevant courses and training, so as to prepare for future careers. Adding that everyone needs to “keep refreshing and improving our skills,” Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam appealed to more Singaporeans to adopt lifelong learning too.

Voting for preferred colour schemes of HDB blocks: Voter turnout rates to decide the colour scheme for blocks of flats have increased over the years. These rates hover between 30 and 40 per cent today – an increase from about 20 per cent from a decade or two ago – and town councils have also noted that residents want to have a bigger say not only in colour schemes, but also in the types of amenities, estate development, and the construction of covered walkways.

Community gardens in private estates: There are nearly 1,000 community gardens in Singapore, and the largest of its kind in a private estate – the Eng Kong and Cheng Soon Community Garden, in Bukit Batok – was officially opened yesterday. Applicants ballot for the 90 $50-a-year-plots available, all of which have been taken up. At the opening, Senior Minister of State Sim Ann said: “The intention is to make use of a temporarily unused piece of land on which the residents can practise their love for community farming and enjoy a little bit of recreational activity.”

Vulnerability to burglaries: If you are a flat-dweller who shares a common corridor from which homes can be easily accessed through windows, or a new BTO-flat owner who leaves your doors unlocked for contractors, or a landlord who sublets your home, then you are most vulnerable to burglaries. Cases of housebreaking might have fallen, but the Singapore Police Force has launched an islandwide initiative to raise awareness on the need to secure homes against burglary and theft.

In other news, in his first Leaders’ Retreat, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will meet with Indonesian President Joko Widodo to review the progress in bilateral relations, and to further economic and tourism cooperation. The inauguration of the Kendal Industrial Park – a joint venture between Singaporean company Sembcorp Development and Indonesian developer Jababeka – is a highlight of the retreat, in addition to the signing of four memorandums of understanding.

Affairs around the world are less cordial. Anti-Donald Trump protests have continued to spread across the United States, as thousands of demonstrators – who, in particular – take umbrage with the inflammatory rhetoric of the new President-elect – took to the streets in different cities. In South Korea, close to a million demonstrators marched in Seoul to protest against allegations that President Park Geun-hye had allowed a personal friend with no government position to interfere with state affairs. This was the third weekend protest rally since the president acknowledgement and apologised for seeking advice from her friend, yet even after dismissing her most senior and closest advisors, Ms Park’s approval rating has fallen to just five per cent.

 

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Bertha Henson

NO, THE G is not calling in the white-collar cops to investigate Aljunied-Hougang town council (AHTC). You’d almost expect it to, given the way auditors KPMG concluded its report. KPMG said it has “been advised” (presumably by lawyers) that its findings of improper payments “may give rise to personal claims against the Town Councillors or disclose the commission of criminality”.

So, while KPMG said there were “improper payments”, which AHTC has denied, it could well boil down to incompetence. Or, it’s about whether the town councillors, individually or as a group, deliberately turned a blind eye or were involved in some way in helping their pals, the managing agents, profit from the town council. If so, the Penal Code could be used against it. So, who’s going to look into this? Nothing’s been said.

KPMG also said:  “To the extent that such matters involve overpayments or erroneous payments to vendors and contractors, the Town Council may, as one avenue of recovery, seek recovery of losses from the recipients of the improper payments. At the same time, the Town Council may potentially look to the Town Councillors as a further avenue of recovery, for recovery of losses or cost-savings arising from any breaches of fiduciary duties.”

Now, perhaps KPMG was being coy, leaving it to the town council itself to find ways to recover the money, which could be as low as $600,000 or as high as $23 million. KPMG said it could claw it back from its ex-managing agent FM Services and Solutions (FMSS) and assorted vendors, contractors and consultants it has used since 2011. Or, the town council as an entity, could get individual councillors to pay up.

As if.

The Workers’ Party (WP) which runs the town council doesn’t agree that payments were improper and the only money they will consider recovering is $1,500 from a certain un-named town councillor who had been wrongly paid.

Enter the G.

The Housing Board cited the KPMG practically word-for-word in its letter yesterday to the town council on the recovery of money, adding that it was “imperative” for AHTC to do, including taking legal steps. Because town councillors themselves might be involved, it wants a third party to conduct the proceedings. It gave AHTC a seven-day deadline to respond and, presumably, comply.

The National Development Ministry weighed in as well adding this rather ominous statement: “The Government is also considering what other steps are necessary in view of the concerns highlighted by KPMG, in relation to the way some of the Town Councillors have behaved, in dealing with public funds.”

Neither agency gave a figure. KPMG cited $625,000 that AHTC should get back from FMSS, the sum it is probably most certain was wrongful payment, although it had a higher $1.5 million figure. That’s about what it thinks the AHTC over-paid FMSS. But what about vendors, contractors etc? KPMG gave a ballpark figure of $23 million worth of transactions that went through the hands of “conflicted” persons.

AHTC hasn’t said anything yet in response to the HDB ultimatum. In fact, the HDB and MND didn’t cite any authority which empowers either agency with such powers to compel action. Are we going to see yet another drawn-out court saga on this issue, especially since the AHTC denies that there were any improper payments and is taking legal advice?

WP’s Low Thia Kiang tried to query the word “improper” and has repeatedly pointed out that auditors found no evidence of wrong doing.

According to KPMG, any payment process that doesn’t follow the Town Council Act or Town Council Financial Rules or AHTC’s own internal process is considered “improper”. It added: “Our approach has also been to consider payments to be improper when the payment exceeds the sum that the Town Council is required to pay under a given contract (i.e. an overpayment), or when payment is made for work or services that have not been performed satisfactorily or not sufficiently delivered,” it said.

The party is also banking on this phrase which appeared in its report when it toted up breaches of financial rules and internal controls. KPMG said it has “identified numerous miscellaneous breaches… which, while meeting the definition of improper payments.., do not appear to have a practical effect on the legitimacy of the underlying payments”.

In its statement after the release of the report, the WP noted this point: “KPMG acknowledged that while some payments were deemed to be made improperly, they do not appear to have an effect on the legitimacy of the underlying payments, hence, may not necessarily be recoverable.”

Looks like more work for bean counters. And lawyers.

 

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by Bertha Henson

NOW that the chuckling, blaming and finger pointing is over, I’m going to weigh in on the issue of having sex in small spaces.

So we’ve chosen to enlarge and interpret, translate and illustrate Mrs Josephine Teo’s straightforward response on why couples don’t have to wait for a HDB flat before having a child. It’s being looked at from so many angles that we’ve overcrowded the small space.

Then academic Donald Low weighs in, saying he agrees with Mrs Teo but takes issue with her comparison of couples in Singapore and those in the West who don’t seem to have any hang-ups about when or where to have sex.

Said Mrs Teo: “In France, in the UK, in the Nordic countries, man meets woman, tonight they can make a baby already. They love each other. Both of them partly have their own family, so it is a matter of living in yours or living in mine, and they also don’t have to worry about marriage — that comes later.”

Mr Low’s response: “But you cannot bemoan the fact that Singaporean couples aren’t more like the French or Nordics AND at the same time not provide the comprehensive, state-financed welfare services to children and parents. To do so is to engage in cherry-picking: you wish for Singaporeans to behave a bit more like the Europeans, but you refuse to contemplate a Nordic or French welfare state.”

Interesting. But what I found more interesting is how Singapore as a country is trying to overturn or upend some ingrained mindsets in recent years.

This is the chain of life in Singapore: go to school, get a degree, get a job, find a mate, book a flat, marry and move into flat. Then work harder, have a kid, sell the flat after five years, get another flat, maybe have another kid and add a maid and add a car.

Then work harder or change jobs and retire as early as possible, never mind the retirement age.

We’ve succeeded in changing some of the above. For example, we’ve succeeded in making a polytechnic education sexy and desirable.

In fact, we bend over backwards to say it’s better to be skilful than exam smart. Even universities have gotten in on the act of giving degrees in something that is “applied” rather than purely academic. The latest is UniSIM, which will be a full-fledged autonomous university by next year.

We have succeeded somewhat in breaking another link in the chain: get a job. While it was de rigueur that graduates head for well-paying jobs in big companies, now becoming your own boss is quite in vogue. Entrepreneurs are lauded. The trouble is, we seem to be starting cafes, bakeries and ice cream parlours, rather than creating something new and useful.

Now we’re in the throes of breaking another link: that you can work harder and harder and get somewhere. We’re now told this isn’t possible if we don’t keep learning and re-learning. Hence the SkillsFuture programme which subsidised every adult citizen who wants to try his hand at learning something different.

It’s a big push by the G. I doubt there would be many people taking up the programmes if they didn’t have the SkillsFuture credit to use.

What are the other links that need breaking? The “get a car” mindset. So much money is being poured into public transport infrastructure that car owners should think about whether they should take advantage of their own tax dollars and ride the train or bus.

But now with a sharing economy in vogue, rather than going car-lite, people are finding ways to earn money while driving. Don’t you think with Uber and Grab, there are many more cars on the roads these days?

Another link is Mrs Teo’s big bugbear: the “have a flat, then have a child” mentality. It’s actually tied in with another ingrained mindset: to own a place, not rent. Home ownership is such a big deal in Singapore that few consider other options.

Baby boomers would be au fait with having to rent a bedroom or an apartment on getting married. The HDB flat can come later. But increasingly, the lack of a flat has been blamed for our birthing woes, something that even the G acknowledges when it came up with the housing scheme to reduce the waiting time for young couples buying flats for the first time.

The trouble is, the G, like any good government, is used to responding to complaints from citizens. In any case, providing subsidised homes for married couples is in line with its objective of achieving full or near-full ownership. Life is therefore laid up.

The next stage of adulthood is becoming a parent and owning a home – at the same time. It’s like a big bang, not incremental improvements.

Mrs Teo said some nice things about the millennials being adaptable. I hope that like jobs, which come and go quite quickly these days and which can be full-time, part-time, contract or working from home or being your own boss, millennials will realise that bringing up a family doesn’t always have to be along a straight line.

There’s another link in the chain that looks likely to be broken by G fiat: buying subsidised flats and making a windfall on selling them five years later.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong described it as winning a lottery. It’s after all, quite by chance that you land a flat in a much-desired location. And being the gambling nation that we are, we congratulate the winner rather than moan about inequitable outcomes.

The flat becomes an investment, not a home. Attempts to keep the community in place with subsidised upgrading exercises don’t quite work, except to make the place even easier to sell at even higher price. Good luck to the G if it thinks it can break the link without causing a huge outcry. It has become an entitlement, not a privilege.

Looking at the above, it isn’t the economy alone which is being disrupted, but the way we think we should live as a society. Maybe given that we live in such a small space, we can change positions faster.

 

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by Bertha Henson

I THINK the G is probably really fed-up with me badgering it over the promised review of the Town Council Act (TCA). Now, after dithering for three years, it has come up with a consultation paper and asked for public feedback.

We are given one month. Then presumably, amendments will be introduced in Parliament in one sitting and approved in another. That is, unless the G counteracts its allergy to having a Parliamentary Select Committee scrutinise the words in the proposed legislation.

That wouldn’t do, I suppose, because the House would be compelled to have opposition MPs on the panel – and who knows what trouble they would kick up since the proposed amendments are supposed to bring them to heel.

Never mind that.

I was excited enough to look at what’s in the consultation paper for the public to chew on.

I was more than disappointed. I was appalled. At the lack of information and details that would allow a citizen to make constructive comments. It’s on the Reach portal. You can read it here.

I was more than disappointed. I was appalled.

Since the former National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan proposed the review three years ago, nothing much seemed to have moved beyond a suggestion to use the Charities Act as a kind of proxy for town council governance.

This is a change from Mr Khaw’s earlier suggestion that the review take into account best practices of commercial companies. It looks like a big suggestion but all we have in terms of explanation is this:

Given the similarities between TCs and charities (both entities are run autonomously, manage public funds and consist of volunteers who help out on a part-time basis), MND has taken reference from provisions in the Charities Act, where appropriate, and adapted them for the purposes of the TCA.”

Somebody has forgotten that TCs are also political entities run by people interested in political longevity and who wouldn’t hesitate to tarnish a rival so that residents will be wooed over come the next election.

Political entities would balk at doing something unpopular even if it’s the right thing to do, like ensuring timely collection of service and conservancy charges and not imposing by-laws too strictly. Charities have no such qualms. They only compete for funds and volunteers – not clients.

We’re given the background and the scope of the review which is to:

(a) Clarify the roles and functions of TCs;

(b) Improve TC governance;

(c) Strengthen financial management in TC; and

(d) Enhance MND’s regulatory oversight.

So what has it come up with? You might want to note that the consultation paper has just seven pages and is in the form of a table which states what the G wants to amend and why.

Note that the consultation paper on changes to the Copyright Act, still going on, has 54 pages and is replete with examples of how the changes may affect writers and artistes. It contains websites that you can turn to and interesting signposts throwing up questions for interested parties to think about.

The TC consultation paper is so skimpy and generally-worded that you can only take issue with the amendments if you think the Housing Board should be running the show – or if you want to argue for the sake of arguing. There is so little fodder for you to chew on or mull over.

At 7 pages, the consultation paper is so skimpy… There is so little fodder to chew on.

So one amendment is about facilitating G agencies in carrying out statutory duties in housing estates “to better serve residents’ needs and interest”. You can’t possibly disagree with allowing the HDB to carry out upgrading and letting the police install CCTV cameras.

Is this really a problem? Have TCs been un-cooperative? And what does cooperation entail? Giving agencies carte blanche?

Likewise, the injunction that town councils “may be directed to make preparations for public emergencies” like a disease outbreak. Why? Because TCs “manage HDB common property (e.g. lifts, electrical installations, common water pipes etc.) and would play an important role in the national framework for managing public emergencies”. Hands up anyone who says no.

Then there is something on lifts, which is the big thing with housing estates given the spate of lift accidents, which seemed to have been shoe-horned into the consultation paper and which the G wants made law.

TCs will be required to set up a dedicated Lift Replacement Fund for cyclical replacement of lifts and critical lift parts. Currently, TCs are required to set up an Operating Fund for daily operations and a Sinking Fund for cyclical works (including lift replacement).

Given the lumpy and back-loaded nature of cyclical replacement expenses, MND will be seeking inputs from TCs on higher contribution rates to their Sinking Funds and Lift Replacement Funds (e.g minimum contributions from their S&CC collections and government grants). MND will be seeking inputs separately from TCs on higher contribution rates to their Sinking Funds and Lift Replacement Funds.

Read the second part carefully. It’s repeated. That’s why I said “shoe-horned”.

 

Conflicts of interest

One interesting amendment is barring TCs from engaging in “substantial trading or financial activities which are incompatible with or would detract TCs from their core functions in managing and maintaining common property in HDB estates”.

TCs can let out common spaces for a fee but it shouldn’t be operating commercial fairs or promotional events.

Now, which TC has been doing this? It would seem that the Workers’ Party and its past run-ins with various agencies over trade fairs – like who should give the green light – might have something to do with it.

You can’t argue over how TCs shouldn’t be running for-profit businesses on the side, but will this include events that raise money that will eventually return to the TC’s coffers?

Are TCs not free to look at other ways to raise money beyond raising service and conservancy charges and being dependent on G grants? Would spending time looking at how TC funds are invested qualify as “financial activities” that detract them from their core functions?

Or should the operative word be “substantial”, so a little bit of activity can lah…?

What is the G worried about? That a TC would be a money-spinner for some unscrupulous politician or used to enrich a political party? Or that it can be used as some form of patronage for cronies? If so, then safeguards should apply the other way – that TCs shouldn’t be allowed to engage companies owned by political parties or their cronies. Think AIM.

The next set of proposals seemed to have been the direct result of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) saga. They involve notification of changes in key appointments, timely submission of accounts and specifying what is conflict of interest. (Recall the fuss over the husband and wife team who ran FM Solutions and Services, which managed AHPETC. They are WP partisans and have been accused of over-charging or misusing their authority. Some sort of collusion was even alleged even though nothing illegal was found.)

According to the paper, “a TC member or staff has a conflict of interest if he/she or his/her associate has a personal or financial interest in the decision of the TC, and to outline procedures for declaring and keeping records of such conflicts”.

You wonder what the term “associate” and “personal interest” means. A politician and all members of a TC definitely have a personal and financial interest in any decision simply because their jobs and political future depend on it. Any resident will have both a personal or financial interest as well because nobody wants S&C fees raised. And does the G really mean any decision? Or decisions related to transactions?

There are a few other things it wants to do to make sure it wouldn’t have to go through the see-saw and ding dong that it did with the WP, with the judiciary as referee.

Basically, it wants powers to compel TCs to take action if it’s in financial trouble and to initiate compliance proceedings. No need therefore to quarrel about whether the G can send in independent auditors to look at accounts and so forth.

Amendments will make it clear. No, there is nothing about whether the G can withhold grants or can move in to take over a troubled TC.

 

‘Light touch’ no more

The Charities Act is heavily “referenced”. The TC penalty regime – there are practically none now – will be similar to those for charities. Likewise the amendments will take a leaf or several from the charities’ Code of Governance, which means TCs will be required to comply or explain why not.

The powers of the G or in this case, MND, is akin to that of the Charities Commissioner who can institute inquiries. The Charities Act took a very long time to pull together with extensive consultations and papers put up. Now, the G seems to think that it’s enough to piggyback on it.

Mr Khaw had said that the “light touch” on the regulation of town councils should no longer apply. Town councils have been given too much autonomy, or how can anyone explain why the WP was so far behind in collection of S&C fees or its messy accounting?

Frankly, the review should also govern the changeover of town councils from one political party to the next. The PAP’s Punggol East data hasn’t been handed over entirely a year after the election. A tighter administration of handover of funds and data would stop all the politicking that can arise.

And while the review is focused on the G’s regulatory powers; it is top-down. Is there any avenue for redress if off powers are abused? After all, town councils are not part of the civil service.

That’s why you have experts like Associate Professor Mak Yuen Teen, from NUS Business School, who thinks that de-politicising town councils and returning the management of towns to the HDB is “the ideal safeguard for residents’ interests”, reported TODAY.

“Having statutory boards like the Housing and Development Board (HDB) take over town management and allowing MPs to focus on national issues is better in my view… At the moment, we are hybrid and confusing.”

Given that the MND is “not independent of the Government”, it’s “critical” that the ministry uses the proposed enhanced powers in an even-handed manner on town councils run by the PAP and the WP, he said.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Doesn’t it sound like the debate on whether the elected president should return to its old ceremonial role and leave the safe-keeping functions to someone else or some other body? And how it’s difficult for candidates to stay above politics since the electoral process is a political exercise?

 

Back to the drawing board

The G can do better to give people more information on the issues that confront town councils. It’s very obvious that the original drafters did not take into account issues such as changeover of TCs and what would happen if TCs won’t comply with regulations.

The words of the Act are so vague that even the courts have trouble deciding on the appropriate agency to start court proceedings.

The Act needs updating, just like the laws governing the elected presidency which had a constitutional commission recommending changes. Three years later, all we have from the G on an institution that affects more than 80 per cent of residents is a skimpy consultation paper.

So I will be sending this post to the Reach people with this message: Get the MND to re-do the consultation paper please. I don’t think anyone minds waiting a bit longer.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Green clock showing 8.30.

LOCAL singer Nathan Hartono is back home, landing at 10:40pm last night (Oct 9) after bagging second place at the Sing! China, but he’s not the only brand to represent the nation internationally this week. Bak kwa maker Bee Cheng Hiang has finally opened its store in Japan, one of the hardest markets to crack.

It is a store that Bee Chang Hiang says is 20 years in the making after having to satisfy strict regulations and inspections and going down the route of foll ownership rather than franchising. The company opened in China in 2002, where it now has over 200 stores, and in South Korea in 2010, where it has 17 stores. Will the Japanese bite?

What Singaporeans might want to get a bit of is some BTO flats that will have shorter waiting times: Two or three years instead of the usual three or four. How will HDB achieve this? Start building first before putting them up for sale. It’s nothing phenomenal, but it just means that the developer will lose some flexibility and lead-time when trying to react to changing market conditions.

Oh dear, Nathan Hartono only got about 20 supporters to welcome him at the airport. Not as many as our other national hero Joseph Schooling. Was it because there was no Milo truck? And ST ran a photo of Changi Airport’s under construction Terminal 4 on the front page while Hartono’s photo got buried. Did T4 win a singing competition?

No, it’s just under construction. Sure, it’s going to feature more automated services than other terminals, but what? A half-ready terminal (it will be ready by end of this year) steals Hartono’s limelight?

Business with China is not as smooth as Hartono’s voice. Even though theorists are tittering about how the singer was a victim of nationalism amidst a row between Singapore and China’s Global Times (the votes don’t add up!) Today reported that some local businesses are getting prodded by their Chinese counterparts over the Global Times reports (we say bullying) as voices get shrill over the South China Sea (Sing! China judges would not approve of shrillness).

Best in show (which is what we think Nathan Hartono is): The judges at August’s World Robot Games in Indonesia were impressed by the Paya Lebar Methodist Girls’ School team and gave them 15 awards across 34 categories, making them the top team at the meet. The team was laughed at for being the only girls in a field of some 300 boys from across Asia. Tsk tsk. Guess who got the last laugh?

 

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