HDB and COE: the right comparison?

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong might have been on to something when he compared HDB flats to cars, in that there is a clear distinction when it comes to ownership between the ownership of a chattel (the physical car) and the right to use it in certain ways.


Read the news coverage of Mr Wong’s comments here.

In car ownership, the ownership of the physical car is separate from the ownership of the right to use that car on the road (the COE). One can buy a physical car and not own a COE. You can use it on a private race track, park it on property you have rights to, or dangle it over your establishment entrance.


For however long it lasts. Photo: Tripadvisor

You can look at it, get in and out, even drive it around (private places, or abroad) if it can move, you can will or sell it to whomever you wish and they will then have the right to do all those things. You can scrap it, or keep it as a rusting hulk of metal. These are your rights as an owner of a car, in perpetuity. That is ownership of a chattel.

This aspect of car ownership value depreciates not because of the passage of time, but because of the condition of the item. The ending value, far, far into the future, is probably whatever a few hundred kilos of steel is worth.

Then you also own (hopefully) a COE. It lasts for 10 years when it is new. The COE gives you the right to use your Singapore-registered car on Singapore’s roads (as long as you also fulfil your other legal obligations for public driving). It is tagged permanently to a physical vehicle.

This aspect of ownership depreciates because of time, and nothing else. The ending value is zero. You could make money selling your COE/car combination if market forces change, but if I told you that this was an appreciating asset, you would slap me and say that I am stupiak.

A HDB flat is half-and-half. It is, in one payment, the right to take limited-time possession of a space hanging in the air that is made accessible and useable by a physical building. You own the physical item, but only as long as the intangible item (the lease) lasts. If you ever return it to the HDB, you only need to return it with bare walls. The value of your flat could appreciate over the short-medium term, given the right conditions, and you could sell it for a profit with the right purchase/sale timing. But the end value after 99 years is zero.

So when Mr Wong says that we own a HDB flat, he is correct in that we own the right to the dwelling. We do not, however, own any physical thing in perpetuity. This is unlike, say 38 Oxley Road, which is freehold. If LKY’s house crumbles to dust, the land itself is still valuable after 100 years. Its owners (whoever wins the battle of the siblings, perhaps?), will be able to use it or build on it or sell it. They own the physical land, and not just the right to exploit the land.

Leasehold for property is a great policy to make Singapore a place for social mobility, and to prevent a rentier class from forming (ergo the state becomes the rentier). I personally support it. But when Mr Wong says “There is a high likelihood that over a period of time, if the economy does well, if incomes rise, then property values will appreciate together with the fundamentals of the economy, and your stake in the nation – your home – can also appreciate in value.” He is only telling us half the story.

A HDB flat – actually ANY leasehold property – is a depreciating asset. It may not depreciate in a straight line, and it may not even depreciate every financial year, but it is ultimately a depreciating asset. The implication, and what Mr Wong never mentions explicitly, is that we need to plan to sell. We need to have an entry AND exit strategy for our HDB flats.

In Mr Wong’s words, in order for “our homes [to] be an important and valuable asset that we can use as a retirement nest egg”, we need to do the following:

1) buy a property that is larger/more valuable than what we will need in retirement so that we can downgrade (this is inevitable if we want to unlock the value of the “nest egg”)
2) sell it at the right price during the right market conditions (but no guarantee of profit)
3) take as cheap a loan as practicable and pay it off as quickly as possible (interest payments eat into any profits you may make); if you pay 3 per cent interest on 80 per cent of a property for 30 years and the property is sold 30 years later at DOUBLE the original price, YOU STILL LOST MONEY, and you haven’t even counted inflation yet (of course, you have to compare this to the cost of renting).

A HDB flat is an asset with a long lifespan. It gives you more time to cash out. You can argue if it is or isn’t ownership all day long (it is ownership, but not an ownership of land in the way you own a car), but please don’t tell me that a HDB flat is an appreciating asset. Or else you will look stupiak.



P.S.: I was tiring of the word “nest egg”, which is used to describe money saved for the future. That was until I discovered the second meaning of “nest egg”, a real or artificial egg left in a nest to induce hens to lay eggs there, which sounds terribly apt for what is happening right now.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash



This is what defensiveness looks like

Dr Maliki Osman attempted a rebuttal of Associate Professor Teo You Yenn’s influential book This is what inequality looks like. The commentary published in The Straits Times took a swipe at the book from the get go, with the headline “This is what helping families looks like”.

The commentary follows Sudha Nair’s warning about giving help to the undeserving, and reads like an unmitigated defence of the status quo. It initially rebuts “some commentators”, and attributes AP Teo’s points to this broad group, but eventually names AP Teo and her book closer to the end. To be honest, it doesn’t really answer Teo’s points well; there are chapters in Teo’s book that directly critique Dr Maliki’s points. It seems that only those who have not read Teo’s book would give much weight to Dr Maliki’s article.

There is also a major internal weaknesses in Dr Maliki’s argument, which is how he says “we need to be careful about using some particular cases or groups to generalise about the poor, the system, and the outcomes”, but then spends more than half of the article using particular cases or groups to support his claim that the system is a-okay.

But I’m letting the little things distract me. Of more concern is piece of the big picture Dr Maliki’s article (and Ms Nair’s) helps to fill, and it is shaping up to be an ugly picture. The picture shows that the G, is not listening to even the most fair-minded and well-meaning criticism.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s promise that the new batch of political leaders will “listen with humility and respect” has been shown to be untrustworthy, and this as the G gears up to run another round of “conversations” with Singaporeans.

“The fourth generation leadership will listen with humility and respect. We will consider all views with an open mind, and adjust our course accordingly. We will communicate the thinking behind our decisions clearly. We will bring Singaporeans together and give everyone a role to turn good ideas into concrete action.’’

Tracing from events as recent as the Parliamentary hearing on fake news, where Dr Thum Ping Tjin was grilled for six hours about his doctoral work on Operation Spectrum. He presented an interpretation of historical documents that ran against the G’s long-held narrative, and became the target for ministerial excoriation.

Then, ST Editor-at-Large Han Fook Kwang’s suggestion that the G communicate more clearly, with less jargon and empty words, was met with a stern letter from the Ministry of Finance, which completely missed the point of his column and took him to task for some minor point.

Even Mr Seah Kian Peng’s stirring plea to balance economic values and moral values was met with Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung’s cold-sounding call to “self-discipline” via a “clean wage”. That was followed by MCCY Minister Grace Fu’s insistent defence of the cleanliness of MP parking fees. We then discover that they pay a mere dollar a day to park in any HDB car park in the nation.

All this considered, the picture is forming of a G that talks about listening to us, but really means that they are listening defensively – to rebut, to invalidate, or to keep tabs on our thoughts. Or perhaps the best we can hope for is that they pretend to listen so that we can vent our frustrations, in the hope that we may be amenable to waiting for change that will never come.


Note: Independent research has indicated that about 10 per cent of Singapore’s resident population earn below $500 per capita – a definition of financial hardship. Of these about 60% are working, 20% are unemployed, and 20% are retired. There are many G schemes to help, like Silver Support and Com Care, but their total payouts fall desperately short of any reasonable subsistence level.

Featured image from Pexels.


Stop telling me success is “possible”

The words mean nothing. Every time some ultra-high net worth individual or politician goes around touting that “hey folks, there’s a social ladder to climb, go climb it”, they are actually (often deliberately) distracting us from the real issue of probability. We need to talk about probability, not possibility.

Now I’m not saying that in my context (Singapore) we are in a dire situation and that we need major reform or that they are lying to us. Inequality exists here, and if you were the comparing sort, we’re probably in the top half of the world when it comes to ossification and negative social impact. The question is what level we want to aspire to – to be a world leader in social mobility, or do we think that social mobility is a bad thing beyond a certain point (for example, an argument that “no rest for the rich” is bad because it disincentivises aspiration)?

Either way, we need to learn to stop it with the platitude that “whatever your situation is, if you work hard, you can succeed” and see the platitude for what it is whenever such throwaway words leave someone’s lips (and get waved around by the media as a slogan).

With the revelation (I hope the G can publish the source for other schools, because Mr Ang Wei Neng got it from the former RI principal) that not even half of Raffles Institution’s students come from non-elite primary schools, the odds are clearly stacked against the have-nots, even in the heart of our “meritocratic” education system (which is a subset of our “meritocratic” national system.

Ms Teo You Yenn’ s latest book “This is what inequality looks like” (BUY THIS BOOK), also shows the ways that inequality in Singapore has become sticky as we create systems that try to incentivise effort and hard work. This is a problem that many MPs have highlighted over the last week.

So the President and the Ministers say “they want to listen”. I’m then confounded by the tone-deafness (I hope it is unintentional) that is so apparent when someone stands up to say “anyone can succeed if they work hard”. This is either universally true or untrue. Even if you were a slave, you could “succeed” against the odds by leading a rebellion, or by winning in the fighting pits to regain your freedom – rebellions and skilful slaughter are hard work! Or if you were a European peasant, you could still rise to the ranks of nobility by joining the crusades to slaughter innocents, or perhaps star in some fairytale, or scheme and seduce your way into the pants of some countess-to-be (please see Game of Thrones for tips).

Has the world been an equal-opportunity place all this time? Garbage. Inequality exists, and it exists in Singapore. The playing field is NOT level. We don’t want to hear about the universal truth (or the universal lie) of hard work and success because it blinds us to the real issue in society.

What’s important are for the G to tell us what the odds are, across different risk factors. What are they doing to equalise these odds across education, social spending, employment, social networks, etc? Is the playing field getting more level, or less level, as time goes by? Which systems have to change to make it better?

Political leaders tell us about probabilities and the policies that will shape them. Politicians tell us about “possibility” and pipe-dreams, and turn our eyes away from important questions.


Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Hri Kumar Nair is right – there’s a hole in our Constitution

Former PAP MP, now Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair was right to say, at the court hearing on whether Madam Halimah Yacob’s vacated MP seat should trigger a by-election, that there is no part in the Constitution that says that the rest of the MPs in the affected GRC should resign as well.

In fact according to him there is no part of the Constitution that says that they shouldn’t resign. And according to his interpretation of the Constitution, there is also no clear indication that there ought to be a by-election, even should ALL the MPs in a GRC resign or vacate their seats. There are, in Mr Nair’s reading of the law, no provisions at all.

Sure, Mr Goh Chok Tong triggered a by-election in his Marine Parade GRC in 1992 to get a vote of confidence for his fresh Prime Ministerial post. All his MPs resigned then, but apparently, the Constitution is unclear on whether that by-election was mandatory. It was a moot point, of course, since the President and the PAP, still in power, had the right to call for a by-election, whether it was mandatory or not.

Since then, GRC seats have been vacated by the resignation of Choo Wee Khiang for cheating (Jalan Besar GRC, 1999), the deaths of Dr Ong Chit Chung (Jurong GRC, 2008) and Mr Lee Kuan Yew (Tanjong Pagar GRC, 2015), and of course the resignation of Halimah Yacob to run for the presidency (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, 2017). In most of these cases questions were asked about whether a by-election should be held, and the G was correct (to the same extent that Mr Nair is correct)  to point out that the Constitution did not demand that other MPs in the GRC resign.

This claim, assuming Mr Nair is right, falls short – the constitution does not even require a by-election if all the members of a GRC vacate their seats.

Mr Nair said the Government’s interpretation of Article 49 (1) is that a by-election is only required when all GRC MPs have vacated their seats (although the article does not actually say this), but then went on to say that Article 49 (1) does not apply to GRCs, because it was enacted during a time when there were only Single Member Constituencies (SMCs).

This is quite a double standard for Mr Nair to say that 49 (1) has an interpretation for GRCs while at the same time being unapplicable to GRCs. It sounds as if he is completely confused.

If we, however, would be so charitable to concede Mr Nair’s point about Article 49 (1), then there has been a massive loophole in our Constitution since 1988, and of course the silent accusation that the PAP government of the time did a damn shoddy job of the Constitution Amendment Act. And that subsequent governments also neglected to shore up this weakness.

Mr Nair was also derided for saying that the “GRC scheme was designed to ensure minority representation at the point of elections” because some took it to mean that minorities merely had to ‘cross the line’ before their race became irrelevant.

It was no defence either to hark back to Goh Chok Tong’s 1988 speech (at the second reading of the Constitution Amendment Act to introduce GRCs) where he said that “GRCs are meant to ensure a multi-racial Parliament, not a multi-racial team in the constituency”, since there was no provision either to determine at what point Parliament would be considered to have enough minorities. If that (to ensure a multi-racial Parliament) was the purpose of the constitutional amendment, then I would say that the legislation is a shoddy piece of work that does not serve this purpose effectively, since it doesn’t even tell us what would constitute adequate minority representation in Parliament, since minority candidates can resign and not be replaced. If in theory every single minority MP can vacate his seat and still trigger no by-election, then the Constitution, and the GRC system in it, does not effectively safeguard a multi-racial Parliament.

So, if Mr Nair is right, then our Constitution is a bloody shambles, and needs fixing immediately, and some people really need to answer for the mess they made in 1988, and the tardiness in cleaning it up.

And if Mr Nair is wrong, then it is time for a by-election.


Featured image via TMG.

We will pay the price for unrealistic views of Lee

Seven days are over, and now I have the time and proper space to make sense of all that has been said about Lee Kuan Yew over the last week. Lee casts a long shadow over all of Singapore, and how we handle his narrative in the years and decades to come will have great bearing on how we change as a society.

Lee Kuan Yew (image credit: biography.com)

Lee Kuan Yew (image credit: biography.com)

In death, the man still has the power to unite us. From his grave, he still could be the one to tear us apart. But the choice rests with us rather than with him – our handling of the legacy that we, willingly or unwillingly, have in our hands.

There are two ways forward now. In one future we polarise ourselves, we retreat into two camps: one that idolises and one that vilifies (both unjustifiably). In another future we manage to gather our senses, sit down together and have earnest conversations about the man and about our future.

Lee Kuan Yew was unashamed of his choices – why are we ashamed on his behalf? Why the need to fabricate some narrative of unmerited perfection? Sure, he has received some unfair criticism, but even while it is wise for critics to steer away from criticisms during the man’s wake, it is similarly disrespectful to caricature his achievements and the hard choices he made.

MOE all but mandated a whitewashed history lesson in the days after his passing, and most teachers fed it to their students unedited. Die-hards like Calvin Cheng and Indranee Rajah had to reach for mockery and distortion to try and rebut what they saw as attacks on Lee Kuan Yew’s character. Talk about there being no trade-offs is pure nonsense. Talk about us having sacrificed only bad things in exchange for good things is likewise naive. Talk about how everything is totally humane fails to give Lee credit where he is due – that he made and stood by his choices in a fallen world where not everything can be win-win for everyone all the time.

And this is also the very same mistake that many of his critics make – seeing his actions in isolation and refusing to acknowledge the effective but imperfect outcome.

If Lee had not made those choices, and sacrificed dreams, even people, we would not have what we have today. And by any sensible critic’s reckoning this outcome for Singapore, out of all possible outcomes, is far, far better than what we could ever have hoped for.

Lee also sacrificed a part of his humanity. One cannot make hard choices like he did without hardening within; and to live with no regrets as he did meant that a hard pragmatism had to overrule.

Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is admirable BECAUSE he made those sacrifices. He is a leader par excellence BECAUSE he had to bear the consequences of the people he sacrificed. He is a visionary without peer BECAUSE of all the futures and freedoms he steered us away from. As much as I may want an apology for all the things he did, I honestly am glad that he never apologised. The legacy handed to us is crystal clear.

Let us remember the man he truly was, not some cartoon hero or villain of our own imagination.

GE 2015 – first blood to Chee

The boundaries haven’t even been announced, but it seems that the first shots have already been fired in GE 2015 (or is it 2016?). Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing’s rebuttal to two articles penned by SDP’s infamous Sec-Gen Chee Soon Juan was all over the local dailies, signalling what is probably the starting gun for a drawn-out pre-election campaign.

It is worth noting that Chan wrote the letter in his capacity as Minister, an odd choice given that none of the subjects broached had anything to do with his ministry. What was that for?

Unfortunately for Chan, it seems that Chee has gained the better of him in this encounter, and the initiative shifts to the SDP, who last Saturday announced their interest in contesting Chan’s Tanjong Pagar GRC.

1) Chee’s agenda gets an airing

These HuffPo articles would have otherwise been missed/ignored by the Singapore public at large. HuffPo, in spite of it’s large US-based online profile, has little traction with the man on the street here. It is pretty left-wing, which makes for a great fit with Chee, but it’s not so much “attention and space” compared to what Chan just gave him.

Right now, any non-MSM socio-political publisher or blogger worth his salt will be talking about Chee. We’ve got no choice! It’s the flavour of the week.

As of now, just past midnight on the 17th, the first article “Without Freedom there is No Free Trade” clocked 109 FB shares and 663 Likes. “Free the Singapore Media and Let the People Go” (in spite of its cringeworthy headline) has 59 shares and 494 likes. My bet is that these numbers will spike over the next 48 hours. Too bad I can’t see the article’s viewership stats – that would have been best.

By referring to the articles published on HuffPo, Chan is pulling a buttload of eyeballs to what seem to be two run-of-the-mill Chee Soon Juan pieces that merely re-hash staid SDP election issues. It’s all over the local grapevine now, and this helps spread the SDP message, as old and moldy a one as it is (I’m envisioning spores here).

2) An ad hominem that is going to backfire (or maybe already has)

There are already scores of commentators on social media commiserating with Chee, labeling themselves to be, like Chee, what Chan defines as a “failure”. Mothership went as far as to write a snarky fictitious response from Chee, accusing Chan of likewise never having been elected to represent the people (Chan’s GRC Tanjong Pagar went uncontested in the last GE). That’s a burn.

Don’t ad hominem until the crowd is already riled up (not completely rational) and on your side. Or better yet, don’t ad hominem. Keep it clean. I hope for his sake he was trying to play only to the home crowd.

Chee’s response is mature (mature-sounding at least), if a little overdrawn.

Post by Chee Soon Juan.

3) Missed opportunities for real debate

Chan’s letter to the HuffPo nearly completely neglected to debate Chee’s real points of contention – accusing the USSFTA of contributing (or even causing) Singaporeans’ labour woes and the lack of a free media. SDP’s campaign, launched last Saturday, seemed to address neither of these issues substantially. It would be at least relevant to accuse Chee of being full of hot air when it comes to pushing for real change, since Chee apparently said that he had no plans to push the liberal agenda as he had in previous elections (neither worker’s/human rights nor a free press/speech).

Chan missed an opportunity to talk about the progress made so far on worker’s rights: slow progress, but welcome change nonetheless. His ST forum letter today made more sense – real rebuttals (and in the context of MSF) with a personal snipe at the end, and one that played off Chiam See Tong’s popularity.

Too bad this exchange will be remembered for the snipe rather than the issues.

Chan Chun Sing needs to work on better strategies if he wants to win his first election – something that Chee Soon Juan would be more than happy to do in his stead.

Nparks is under who? HHH and ST both clueless

Han Hui Hui wrote to Vivian Balakrishnan to ask for the Hong Lim Park ban to be removed, but I don’t think it will work out for her.

REASON? Dr Balakrishnan is the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), and Nparks is under the Ministry of National Development (MND).

ST doesn't know either!

ST doesn’t know either!

Sadly, ST doesn’t know this fact either, and has happily published that Nparks is under MEWR as well. Unless there was a reshuffle today, Nparks is actually a child agency of MND, and Khaw Boon Wan is in charge.

from gov.sg

from gov.sg

Tragically, our political activists are barking up the wrong tree, and even worse, our newspapers don’t even know.

Handy tip: Warren Fernandez is a board member of Nparks. Yes. The Editor of ST.

Khaw Boon Wan is just sitting there smiling now. 😀