COS 2022: Priority Schemes & Ethnic Integration Policy

MP Pritam Singh

Mr Pritam Singh: Thank you, Chair. I thank the Minister for responding to some of my cuts. Just a few clarifications. First on the priority schemes. I note that the current information provided by HDB does not detail whether the respective priority schemes have been fully allocated for a typical BTO exercise. And to that extent, for example, it is difficult to assess whether the current 30% threshold of priority for married couples with children is at the appropriate level, particularly given the recent demand in public housing. 

Can Minister share whether the HDB believes it can, for example, for marriage or priority scheme, whether that threshold can be raised? But more importantly, does it suggest from HDB’s data that for the more recent BTO exercises, this rise is actually warranted? We recently heard feedback from residents, as I am sure Minister would also have received from newly married couples and couples with children that they are repeatedly unsuccessful in their BTO applications. So, I think that clarity would be quite helpful.

The second clarification pertains to the EIP. I welcome the announcement of the buyback option for EIP constrained households, so as to make things fairer for the Singaporeans. But I note that this position that was announced today was actually the original last resort solution that was put out by then MND Minister, Mr S Dhanabalan, when he introduced the policy in the late 1980s. Can I confirm if HDB had applied this last resort earlier, and if not, why had it not applied earlier, because Minister in the late 80s already said that this was a last resort option to buy the property from the affected EIP household.

Actually, I had asked a written question in July about how many times HDB had purchased an EIP constrained flat and the reply actually was specific to voluntarily surrendered flats. That was the reply that the Ministry gave. So, I am not sure whether it was an answer to the same thing, whether the flat was actually purchased by the HDB in the first instance, as the HDB would have committed to do if there were EIP related constraints, or whether it had not purchased any EIP affected flat previously. So, has this actually been done before, because the policy was already announced earlier.

My third point relates to the EIP data. I acknowledged Minister’s point about the difficulty in coming up with a map which is consistent over time. I asked the question because of the previous EIP related question I filed. The Ministry actually provided the five-yearly interval data. So, naturally I asked whether that data could be further clarified in those five-yearly intervals, but I note the Minister’s point.

And finally, I believe my cut on singles and whether the HDB would consider reducing the eligibility age for singles to buy a 2-room BTO Flexi Flat or a resale flat could be reconsidered.

Mr Desmond Lee: I thank the Leader of the Opposition for sharing his immediate reaction to the change to the EIP where we will introduce the buyback to support EIP-constrained families on a case-by-case basis. But let me first talk about the priority schemes.

I said in the speech that we provide data for individual BTO launches. So, let us say we launched in a particular area, like Tengah. Each BTO launch, we put out a couple of locations and we say what kinds of housing typologies are available in each location and we specify the application rates for each project, at each launch on a daily basis. That will, in our view, give potential home buyers the most practical and meaningful data that they will then be able to use in determining whether to make an application for that flat in that location or not.

So, I think we provide that data, not only for the location, but for each housing typology. We think that the data we put out needs to be practical and meaningful for flat buyers. And the Leader of the Opposition mentioned that you anecdotally hear of cases of people who cannot get flats. We have said that virtually all who apply as first-timers for non-mature estate BTO flats, virtually, all on the third try, they should be able to get.

Of course, those who apply for balance flats or flats in mature estates, particularly where the attributes are very attractive, demand will naturally be high across all the possible priority schemes. So, for each launch, for each site, we have allocated quotas for each group, for example, for married children and their parents; for multi-generation families, and where relevant; for the Tenant Priority Scheme. For ASSIST, you should be a widowed or divorced second-timer with children.

The application rates will vary for a variety of reasons. One, of course, because of the current pandemic situation where people are concerned about housing delays and more people put in applications earlier or based on location and attributes. So, some are extremely attractive and lots of people will apply for them. So, in terms of the data we put out, we want to be practical and useful for home buyers.

And whether the Married Child Priority Scheme can be raised, in a way when you talk about “X” number of dwelling units or units in any particular launch in any particular location, it is almost like a zero-sum game because, you have, say, 1,000 units and you have certain percentage for married children, certain percentage for other groups, for seniors, based on typology, if you increase one group in terms of quota, then you must eat into other groups and, ultimately, the second-timers will be squeezed out.

So, we want to make sure that we provide a balance. HDB looks at all the data, not just for individual sites, but overall launches across years, and also looks at long-term demographic trends and data, to decide whether we need to make any adjustments to the quotas and priority schemes. Therefore, we keep a very close eye on this.

For the prime location public housing, if the Leader of the Opposition recalls, we had made some adjustments to the MCPS, by reducing the quota available to them, if I recall, five percentage points [Please refer to “Committee of Supply – Head T (Ministry of National Development)” for a clarification on the number, Official Report, 8 March 2022, Vol 95, Issue No 56, Budget section.], because we considered it and we said that, yes, we want to ensure that children who want to live near their parents in the area can get access to some of these flats. But we reduced it because we had a bigger objective, or equally important objective, of allowing inclusion in these estates and allowing people who used to live in other parts of Singapore to also have a fair opportunity to buy a flat in some of these very prime locations. So, that is first.

On EIP, when EIP was introduced in 1989, the resale market was really nascent. The number of resale transactions back then pales in comparison to the resale market that we see today. And, in fact, all the way to the year 2000, if my memory serves me right, people could surrender their flats to HDB for any reason and not just because of EIP. And it took a period of time for the resale market to become mature in Singapore. When the resale market became mature, HDB stopped the buyback option as a last resort. And then, we put in the various measures that we put in place that I have articulated before – waiving EIP on exceptional basis; giving home buyers more time to sell if they feel the constraint and so on.

So, that is my response to the Leader of the Opposition’s question, if I got him right, in terms of when the buyback option was last used.

Then, the Leader of the Opposition had asked the question about the Written Parliamentary Question for data and I explained that we received a request for significant data-sets by the Leader of the Opposition. We had endeavoured to give data that we were able to provide. And for the second Parliamentary Question that there were constraints with regard to neighbourhoods, neighbourhood names, boundaries and so on, it is all in the reply. And if the Leader of the Opposition looks at the Hansard and he is not satisfied about the response in any way and needs more clarification, we welcome him to put forward a further request and we will clarify.

On singles, the Senior Minister of State Sim Ann had explained that we want to be responsive to the evolving aspirations of all Singaporeans. A number of years ago, singles could not buy HDB BTO flats. But keeping an eye on how society is evolving and that more Singaporeans are either choosing to remain single as a matter of choice or becoming single because of circumstance – they have caregiving obligations and so on – that group is growing and we wanted to provide for them. Hence, we made the decision to provide BTO eligibility for singles quite a number of years ago, but certainly less than 10 years ago.

And along the way, we have adjusted the grants and made more flexibilities to accommodate singles and to provide for them. But every group that has eligibility for HDB BTOs, there will always be constraints. So, even for married families, there are income ceilings, there are different criteria – citizenship, household type.

And then, for singles, when they apply, they have caregiving obligations and they put their parents as essential occupiers, they can get housing – BTO, not just resale. Or if they are much older and their parents are no longer around and they want to have mutual care and support for single siblings living with each other, we also provide eligibility for them.

The Leader of the Opposition earlier said that he wanted the priorities to be real priorities, not a gamble – you have high priority but, actually, it is really just a ballot and a gamble and more chances.

As I have said before, each group has a specific quota so that we make space for every group that has needs for housing. But if we provide absolute priority for certain groups, like the Leader of the Opposition mentioned households, then, even if you make adjustments for singles, as you propose, it will not come to fruition because all their spaces will be taken up. So, the reality that the Leader of the Opposition now recognises also is that we will have to make adjustments along the way, but also balance the needs of different groups for it.

The Chairman: Leader of the Opposition.

Mr Pritam Singh: I would like to thank the Minister for sharing that.

With respect to my last point about eligibility for singles, I take the Minister’s point that there are zero-sum realities to think about here. But I also wish to come back to the point that Minister made earlier about the number of flats that HDB is prepared to construct from 2021 to 2025. I think the number was up to 100,000.

In view of what I shared in my cut about the latest population census and the number of singles that has gone up from the age groups 25 to 29 and 30 to 34, has that information prompted a change in the HDB’s thinking about its options for singles – which I acknowledged there were not any previously, and these have now been introduced – but in view of new information that it is coming online, through the census as I explained, is there some scope to include the building of more flats for singles, for example, within that timeline the Minister has shared?

Mr Desmond Lee: I thank the Leader of the Opposition for that. The census makes clear the social demographic trends in Singapore, including that of singles or even of delayed marriage and parenthood. But this is not something that is news to us. We have been looking at social demographic trends all the while and, therefore, the moves on singles through the years, both in allowing them to apply for BTO flats but also adjusting the grants eligibility along the way.

So, we will continue to look at our HDB eligibility criteria and make adjustments where we can. As both the Senior Minister of State Sim Ann and myself have said, our priorities are to make sure that we deliver the flats that people are waiting for and also address the significant demand from newly-formed households as well as nuclearising households. In fact, in a paper that the Workers’ Party itself put out in 2019, they cited data from, I believe it is the Department of Statistics, showing the family size or the median family size per household, coming down very sharply. And that, of course, comes throughs in the form of greater demands, both for married households, households with seniors, singles and so on.

But as Senior Minister of State Sim Ann said — no, I think both sides of the House, we all want to provide for Singaporeans and meet as many needs as we as we can and to help as many people achieve their homeownership aspirations as possible. We both want to do that. But we live in a situation where both land and resources pose real constraints. And, in fact, if neither land nor resources were constrained, we want to meet everyone’s needs all the time. But we will have to make priorities for different groups based on income, based on nationality, based on number of chances they got that owning a home based on their family obligations. And then, make some adjustments, helping those who may need more help and giving them more support.

So, that is where we are and we continue to look at the needs of Singaporeans and the housing options that they have.

Ministry of National Development
8 March 2022

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