Public housing flats – Singaporeans come first or foreigners?

The following article was written and published on 7 February 2010. It was later published in the Australian Housing Journal in May 2010. (See below.)

Andrew Loh

If you have always thought the homeless are lazy people or are unemployed on purpose, perhaps you have bought into the stereotype of these people too conveniently. Yet it is not uncommon to find such views of the homeless among Singaporeans.

However, in our visits with the homeless at various places around S’pore it was quite clear to us that these people are no lazy-bones or “beach bums”, as they’re sometimes accused of being.

Indeed, what we saw were people who have, for various reasons, fallen on hard times. But more importantly they are trying to help themselves out of the depths into which they have sunk.

Helping themselves

Take the case of Mohamad Nor, for example. He left his job in F&B to be with his wife and two children at Sembawang Park because he was worried for their safety, particularly for his wife who is pregnant. Their repeated pleas with the HDB for a rental flat were rejected each time. When their story was eventually brought to light through The Online Citizen, they were moved to a shelter and later to a rental flat. Mohamad was relieved and with this peace of mind, he could now go back to work. He started looking for a job – and recently found one. This, hopefully, is the first step of a new beginning for him and his family. All they needed was a little common sense and a little bit of compassion from the authorities to give them a little leg-up.

Khairuddin is 50 years old. He was sleeping at Sembawang Park for seven months before TOC chanced upon him one night. He is an ex-drug addict looking to make a new life for himself. Last year, he suffered a stroke while sleeping at the park. “I could not move the right side of my body,” he says. “I would rather die than be like that.” He was warded for three days in the hospital. He was lucky and has made an almost full recovery. He now works odd jobs such as in delivery but he knows that he cannot do this much longer, given his age and his physical weakness from the stroke. Also, such jobs are ad hoc and not regular. “I hope to work as a security guard,” he says. “But you must go take the course and be certified,” he explains. The problem is that the certification course is about S$1,000 – money which he simply does not have. And so he looks for work wherever he can, which includes visiting construction sites to ask for jobs. “But when they see my age, they say they cannot hire me,” Khairuddin says, his voice trailing off into a sigh.

His next stop will be the CDC. Hopefully, he will be given some assistance to realize his dream – that of having a regular job with a regular income as a security guard and to eventually have a rental flat of his own.

Rahmat does not speak much. He prefers to devote his time thinking of ways to enhance his catch. And so, at his little corner of Changi Beach Park, he lays out the wire mesh, cuts them into appropriate pieces and later joins them to make a cage, a trap for both fish, cockerels and crabs.

When night comes, he takes his canoe (a secondhand one which he purchased cheaply from the canoeing club nearby) and ventures out to sea to lay his traps.

In the morning, he collects his harvest. Sometimes it is substantial, and fetches as much as S$100 when he sells them to the restaurants at Changi Village. At other times, he’d be lucky if it got him S$10. It’s an unpredictable way to make a living but Rahmat does not have many choices. After having been released from prison, it was hard-going looking for a job. In the end, he bought some fishing gear and headed to the beach. He’s been making a living like this for almost a year now.

And then there is Mrs B and her husband, Rahim. Mrs B works as a security guard in the daytime, a job which pays her about $1,300 a month. At night, she returns to her home – a tent in a park which she shares with her husband and her 18-year old son. Rahim, though having contracted colon cancer, works whenever his condition allows. With an ostomy bag attached to his side, to drain his stools, it is not easy for him to find a job. Indeed, he told us that he lost his last job because his employer “did not like the bag”.

Mrs B would help him empty and clean the pouch each night. At times, Rahim’s clothes would be soiled by stools which leak from it. When we met him, he was wearing one of those scrub pants which was given to him when he was warded in the hospital after an operation. “My other pants are dirty. So now I wear this,” he says.

The family is at the park because they were evicted from their rental flats by the HDB for subletting it. “Damn regret now,” Rahim says as he shakes his head. They had rented out the flat so that they could afford another one nearer their children’s school and didn’t know that it was against HDB rules to sublet a rental flat. They are now barred for five years from applying for such flats from the HDB.

In the meantime, they have nowhere else to go except the park.

It is quite clear to us that many of these families are no “free-loaders” looking for an easy way out of their predicament.

HDB’s rigidity

Perhaps one of the main problems faced by the homeless, as is obvious from some of these stories we’ve covered, is the inflexible and rigid rules of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and its policies and practices. While the HDB would, no doubt, assure the public that each case would be compassionately dealt with, more often than not, it would seem the opposite is true.

How, for example, do you explain HDB’s rejection of Rahim’s application for a rental flat? The man is suffering from cancer. Or its rejection of Mohd Nor’s application – his wife is seven months pregnant and they have another two young children.

While the Minister for National Development has promised that the government will build 7,500 more public rental flats in the next three years, one wonders if this will be enough – given that 300 new applicants join the queue every month. That would be 3,600 more applicants this year, on top of the current 4,550 in the queue. With just 2,500 new rental flats to be built each year, clearly the supply will not meet the demand. In any case, where should the homeless stay while these flats are being built?

HDB’s dual roles

The truth is that there is no shortage of rental flats available. TOC has shown that the HDB has converted and reserved two blocks of flats in Toa Payoh, at least one block in Havelock Road, five blocks in Bedok and five more blocks in Tiong Bahru as rental flats for foreigners.

If all these were given, as a priority, to homeless Singaporeans instead, the long queue and waiting time for public rental flats would be very much alleviated.

The problem is that the HDB is not only the sole provider of public housing flats in Singapore, it is also a player in the rental market. As we have shown, the HDB acquires old flats through the SERS programme, and through its subsidiary, EM Services (the HDB owns 75 per cent of the company), refurbishes or upgrades the flats, and lets them out for rent. Perhaps this is one way the HDB circumvents its own rules which say foreigners are ineligible for rental flats offered by the HDB.

Now, the question of conflict of interest arises – would the HDB rent out these flats to those such as the homeless at rents of  between S$26 and S$120 and play its role as public housing provider, or operate as a private company (via EM Services) and rents out the flats to foreigners for profit, fetching anywhere from S$450 per tenant (as in the Havelock Road hostel) to S$5,000 (as in the Global Residence case)?

So, perhaps the question we all should be asking is this: What is the HDB’s priority when it comes to public rental flats? Who should be in front of the queue – Singaporeans who have nowhere else to go but who are working hard to turn their lives around, or foreigners who’re just here for a period of time? Is it the HDB’s role to make flats specially available for foreigners by reserving these public housing flats for them? Or should foreigners, like everyone else, look to the open market for their housing needs?

And should the HDB itself be in the rental market as a player?

The homeless who camp out in public areas have been barked at, have had their rental flat applications repeatedly rejected, fined as much as S$500 for infringing certain park rules, have had their belongings confiscated and told to pay S$300 if they wanted them returned, and generally have been sneered at, ridiculed and treated as outcasts of sorts by the very authorities which could help them.

And the final slap on their faces? Readily available flats are given to foreigners.

Singaporeans come first?

With more than 30,000 homeowners in arrears of three months or more of their mortgage loans, the problem of homelessness is a serious one. How many more will have nowhere else to go and end up in our parks and beaches when their flats are compulsorily acquired by the HDB or the banks?

What is the government’s solution to this potentially widespread problem?

To many of the homeless, a roof over their heads is the start they need to get their lives back together, to have some peace of mind. Yet, many a time, it is the HDB’s strict adherence to its rules – or as in some cases, apparently contravening its own rules –  which is contributing to the predicament of the homeless.

If entire blocks of flats can be reserved for foreigners, it is hard to understand or accept why the same cannot be done for homeless Singaporeans who are desperately pleading for help.

In November 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about tilting the “playing field in favour of the lower income group.” “Our aim is to help the lower income groups and the elderly, not to increase their burdens,” he said.

The Prime Minister also, in his New Year Message this year, said that the government’s first responsibility is to Singaporeans.

So, with regards to public housing flats being reserved for foreigners while S’poreans have to wait for up to two years to have one, what gives?

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All the names in this article have been changed and are not the real names of the people mentioned.

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