SPEECH BY ER DR LEE BEE WAH MP FOR NEE SOON GRC AT THE COMMITTEE OF SUPPLY DEBATE FOR THE MINISTRY OF NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
MND’s vision is “an endearing home, a distinctive global city”. That is its true aim. And this makes a concrete difference to Singaporeans every day. However, there are some times when its own rules get in the way of this mission. Let me raise a few examples.
HDB sales processes
One, I’m glad of the new housing grants for singles to buy resale flats to live with or near their parents. But there are those singles who can only afford a 2-room BTO. These singles still face a long waiting time. We must not forget for every average waiting time, there are those that apply many many times and are still unsuccessful. What more can we do to help them? Can we build more 2-room flexi flats?
So far, more than 12,000 singles have bought new 2-room flats. The application rates are still high, I recognise that, and we are doing our best to build more 2-room Flexi flats to clear the backlog. Singles can also consider resale flats. Over the last five years, 27,000 have bought resale flats, more than the ones that have bought new flats. And again, enhancements to the PHG will make this a more attractive option, because with the changes to the PHG as Members have recognised, we are giving a higher grant of $15,000 for singles who buy a resale flat to live with their parents. They are now also eligible for a $10,000 grant to buy a resale flat near their parents. I hope that this provides more options to singles in the resale market. Taken together with other housing grants, singles may now receive up to $60,000 in grants to buy a resale flat.
Two, Divorcees also face a long wait before they can get a flat. When a person is going through a breakup in marriage it is a very stressful period, emotionally and mentally. These applicants are in urgent need of a roof over their heads, and also for their children. Many of their kids are in school and unless they have as stable a home environment as is possible in the given circumstances, it would impact on their studies. I believe many of my parliamentary colleagues would have encountered such cases during their Meet-the-People session.
Mr Chairman, we recognise that divorce can be a stressful and emotional period, and a complex process with many decisions to be made. HDB provides advice to families on their post-divorce housing options, to make their housing transition smoother. We help them purchase a BTO flat through the Assistance Scheme for Second-Timers (ASSIST), where they get priority when applying for a 2- or 3-room BTO flat in the non-mature estates. In the interim, before their flat is ready, they can rent a subsidised flat from HDB under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme (PPHS). HDB also offers rental housing to those in need, including those who may need help to tide over a protracted or acrimonious divorce.
One issue that divorcees may face is the time bar for the purchase of subsidised flats – I think Mr Louis Ng mentioned this just now. This is a rule put in place since 1997, whereby during the time bar, a divorced couple can only own one subsidised flat between them. Both sides have to agree on who should be allowed to buy the subsidised flat. This is what we call the “mutual consent requirement”. The time bar was set at five years initially, and we have reduced it to three years. Since 2012, we have waived the mutual consent requirement for the parent with sole care and control of young children to buy a subsidised flat, in order to prioritise their housing needs. This has helped the majority of divorced couples with children.
But there are still others subject to the time bar. So we have reviewed the matter, and have decided to remove the time bar completely. We hope that this will help divorced persons provide a more conducive living environment for their children and go some way to help families through an already difficult period of transition.
Three, sometimes it’s not about the lack of flats, but rather HDB processes that prolong the process. One resident buying a balance flat told me that it took 8 months from the time of application and yet the sale is still not transacted. After 8 months, he is told to wait another 6 weeks for the grant process. Perhaps there should be a review of the whole HDB application process to see how it could be streamlined and speeded up? Is the delay due to a shortage of manpower? Or excessive paperwork, asking for information after information? The wait becomes longer when there is change of officers in charged.
We are also studying how we can further streamline processes to make buying an HDB flat much quicker and easier, as per the comments that Er Dr Lee Bee Wah has made. In fact, we have made several moves on this front. HDB has revamped the resale portal. All the eligibility checks are now done on one single platform. We have cut down the number of appointments from two to one. As a result, the application time has been reduced from 16 weeks to eight weeks.
We’ve also made changes to our sales process and we started with the Re-Offer of Balance Flats (ROF) last year. Under ROF, all the unselected balance flats are pooled together in a common pool. They are not sorted by flat types or by towns. Applicants are put on a single queue and based on their queue number, they can choose any ROF unit that is available. By doing so, we are able to shorten the flat selection process. A typical SBF exercise, as Er Dr. Lee Bee Wah has mentioned, takes about 8 months. It sounds very long, but please understand that in a typical SBF exercise, there are more than 100 flat type and estate combinations, with more than 100 queues to manage. With the ROF exercise, we have one single queue because all the balance flats are pooled together. Because of that, we are able to shorten the flat selection process from eight months to six months.
Our inaugural ROF exercise in August last year was a success, with more than 90% of the flats on offer being taken up. Just six months after the launch, about 400 families have already collected the keys to their new homes. We will continue to learn from this experience to see how we can improve.
Another area that we’re looking at is the balloting process for BTO flats. This used to be much simpler and faster in the past. Applicants would attend a balloting ceremony. There were two bowls in front, and the MP would draw out two pieces of paper – one with the applicant’s sales registration number, and the other with a house number. They were matched up and that was it. After they have got a house, they sometimes swapped behind the scenes if they did not like it. This was a simple process that used to happen in the past. This is Mr Phua Bah Lee doing it. This was how we used to do it – simple, and it was possible because the number of flats and applicants were much smaller.
Today, HDB serves more than 50,000 flat applicants annually. It has to manage across different priority schemes and has ethnic quotas to administer. As a result, it takes about six weeks to work through the entire balloting process – HDB has to check applicants’ eligibility, sort out the requirements of the various schemes and quotas, and ultimately ensure that the ballot is fair.
Still, I think the time taken can be reduced. I’ve challenged the HDB team to see if we can halve the balloting time from six weeks to three weeks. HDB has taken on this challenge and it is working through processes, and I hope it will be able to announce some good news before too long.
HIP for flats built after 1986
Another rule which I feel needs review, is not granting HIP to flats built after 1986. The HIP scheme started in 2007. Then, the flats built in 1986 were 21 years old. Today, the flats built in 1987 are 31 years old- a full decade older. But they still don’t qualify for HIP. About half of Nee Soon South was built in 1987. So I can see that these flats need urgent repair. An extended HIP will allow residents to do this at low cost and continue ageing in place.
May I also suggest we learn from previous batches of HIP and fine tune the detailings? One such example is clothes hanging racks. Many residents also asked why we did not replace rotting timber at the opening for the air-conditioners. It is very expensive for residents to do it individually. There is economy of scales when done during HIP.
Several Members have asked about expanding the scope of HIP, and extending it to flats built after the existing cohort. I have shared in this House previously that any upgrading programme is a major commitment that spans many years and would cost billions of dollars. We just had a major debate on the Budget about fiscal sustainability and how government spending is rising sharply, and how we need to raise revenues to meet these future needs. Any future upgrading programme has to be studied very carefully in this context.
Access to work on landed properties
Next, I would like to reiterate the difficulties faced in some repairing or construction in landed properties. Not everyone is amenable to a neighbour’s request to allow the workmen to carry out repair work such as plastering on the neighbour’s side. Will the Ministry consider a law where residents are required to allow access to carry out certain types of repair or construction work?
Er Dr Lee spoke about difficulties faced by some landed property owners in accessing their neighbours’ property to undertake repair. If homeowners face such difficulties, they can seek help from their Neighbourhood Committees or other dispute resolution channels, such as the Community Mediation Centres, to try to resolve the issues amicably. Nevertheless, we will study to see if legislative changes are needed.
Lastly, I would like to move on to feeding of animals in housing estates. There is a growing trend for people to feed strays, especially stray cats in housing estates. But one has to exercise some responsibility when feeding these strays, and clear up the food left behind. Otherwise this will result in breeding of pigeons, rats and pests.
What I understood from NEA, the authorities do not consider it littering unless the food is left there for more than 2 hours. Why does NEA bother to spend valuable time and limited resources to monitor for 2 hours? By then, the feeders are nowhere to be found. Will the Ministry consider introducing stricter laws on animal feeding in public areas?
Certainly, irresponsible feeding creates problems for everyone. In this regard, AVA has been working with animal welfare groups and other agencies to educate the public about responsible feeding practices.
That said, we recognise that there are a small number of irresponsible feeders despite this increased engagement. So for hotspots with persistent cases, we will ask our agencies to step up enforcement. We welcome Members’ feedback on specific areas to focus on. We believe that this combination of measures, both education and enforcement, will help to reduce irresponsible feeding over time.