25 March 2007

30-year en bloc time-bar

UPDATE on 26 Apr 2007:
Following Indonesia's sand ban and granite chip control, the Gahmen's new buzzword is "Sustainable Construction".

I'd like to propose the flip-side of this coin: "Sustainable DE-Construction"!

Home ownership in Singapore: 90.9% in 2006 (Dept of Statistics).
Singaporeans in HDB flats: 86% in 2006 (Ministry of National Development).
After discounting PRs in HDB flats and those in landed properties, it may be a fair estimate that strata-title private residential estates probably account for 8% of Singapore's residential housing.

With the last decade's en bloc frenzy and this millennium's frenetic en bloc pace, I would suspect that a fair portion of this 8% aggregate have been or will be redeveloped after successful collective sales. Therefore, it is high time that the Ministry of National Development must work hand-in-hand with the Ministry of Law on "Sustainable DE-Construction" and seriously consider imposing a time bar of 30 years from TOP (Temporary Occupation Permit) against collective / en bloc sales for private strata-title residential properties.

If this 30-year time-bar is adopted in this 2007 legislative review, it would effectively mean that residential estates that obtained TOP on or after 1977 would NOT be available for collective sales in 2007 but in 2008, those apartments that got TOP in 1977 would become available for collective sales.

MACRO SOCIO-ECONOMIC BENEFITS of this proposal - In addition to all the other equally cogent justifications set out in paragraphs 1-6 below, this 30-year en bloc time-bar mechanism will:

(i) calibrate the supply of developed land relative to the land released by the Gahmen in Government Land Sales, thus improving the accuracy of the Gahmen's target land supply;

(ii) temper the supply of apartments available for rental to the foreign talent/migrant influx, thus minimizing demand/supply distortions and keeping rental rates and Cost of Living Index on a more even keel;

(iii) reduce the immediate demand for sand and granite chips as there will be a curtailed supply of private strata-title land for redevelopment under collective sales; and

(iv) buy time for more incisive studies on "Sustainable LIVING" in glass-and-steel structures in our Tropics which will only get hotter with global warming (surely the Gahmen is not just interested in solving the Developers' one-time problem of higher construction cost without caring about the Citizens' ongoing problem of higher utilities bill if we need more air-conditioning to cool down the heat trapped in our new glasshouses with windows shut tight when we are at work/school, thus negating any cross-ventilation designs and further accelerating global warming).

1. Existing law: 10-year time-frame - The present law says "less than 10 years" and "10 years or more" . Ten years! This would be hilariously funny if it wasn't so tragic. Technically, collective sale is possible on Day 1 of issuance of TOP (Temporary Occupation Permit)! Bizarre, eh?

2. Context - How long did your fridge last? Mine is still frightfully cold after 13 years! Man, we are talking about bricks and mortar here. And we are talking about an asset ranging from at least half a million bucks to nearly $3mn - depending on size and location!

3. Proposed 30-year en bloc time bar - Given our finite-resource Planet Earth, shouldn't the Gahmen legislate a minimum time bar against collective sales for the first 30 years from TOP? To put things in context, even a JTC factory lease is commonly 30 years + 30 years. That's for a factory - What more of our "apartment homes" with presumably legal freehold/99-year leasehold "air space"?

The first Collective Sale Agreement (CSA) attempt on my estate was four years from TOP - even the central air-conditioning system provided by the developer to me was still under warranty! There were two apartment buildings in District 9 that met their demise at a tender age (viz, a 10-storey apartment block called Devon-something near the junction of Killiney Road/Devonshire Road was demolished some 6-7 years after TOP and it is now part of the construction site for the upcoming One Devonshire condo; another block of about that height called Saint Thomas View at Saint Thomas Walk is about 11 years old and is now under demolition).

4. Other countries - One lawyer commented at a talk given at my town club said that Singapore is the only country in the world with this kind of en bloc / collective sale legislation based on a specified percentage of majority consensus for PRIVATE properties. Not surprising to me as Singapore usually aspires to be the First in something or other, eh? Recently, I gathered from another source that Hongkong is also contemplating urban renewal legislation but the earliest date for a building to be considered for such enforced collective sale is 40 years from TOP equivalent.

5. Other perspectives - Let's look at this issue from various perspectives:

(a) Mega Picture: The Gahmen has announced a target population of 6.5mn people within the next 40-50 years (up by a whopping 45% from the 4.483mn as of 2006). The Singapore Tourism Board's target tourist arrivals for 2007 (just one year) is 10.2mn visitors.

(b) Helicopter View: Pre-1960s, Singapore’s area was 581.5 sq km. After nearly 50 years, we are 699.4 sq km as of 2005 (geez wheez, we are 20% bigger!). Unless Mother Nature and/or God (sorry lah, even the PAP in their angelic white is not in this league) cause tsunamis to shift our neighbours' coastline further away, or seismic movements to shrink their land mass or meltdown from global warming to submerge the nearby lands, this 699.4 sq km plus another 3-7% is about it. Anything more will probably trigger "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind"!

(c) Roof-top View or more accurately, your kitchen window view): Bearing in mind the above Mega Pic and Chopper View - if you peer out from your kitchen window, you may see salivating developers/ housing agents/ neighbours hovering around and hoping to force you into a collective sale with various bits of legislation and policies and regulatory gaps whereever convenient in order to facilitate this forcing as the Unseen Hand. Hey, come to think of it ... since Singapore can have an ANTI-SPAM LEGISLATION, shouldn't there be similar protection of home owners from incessant cold calls and other forms of harrassment from marketing agents/developers? We can't even live in peace in our own homes every time the property market goes into a spasmodic en bloc frenzy!

6. Other implications - I am also advocating a minimum 30-year time bar from the date of issuance of TOP because:

(a) Land use efficiency: Given the pressures of urban renewal, shouldn't the Gahmen first review the area set aside for Good Class Bungalows? These will continue to be the most inefficient use of land even as they tear down bungalows to squeeze in a few semi-Ds. No doubt, it would represent a loss of part of our architectural heritage but at least it is on willing-buyer-willing-seller basis and affects only one property owner. Likewise for golf courses - get real, man! Our 699.4 sq km is already pushing the boundaries to the limit before we hit (nah - more likely - get hit with) "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind" with our neighbours. On this teeny red dot, access to a golf course in Singapore is an ultimate luxury - and rightly so! If I have to lose my home, you can stop playing golf in Singapore unless you are of ultra-high-net-worth or you just trundle your golf cart up north or down south. It's almost obscene when you put things in context. Where GCBs and golf courses are concerned, we have optimal correlation of Minimum Impact-Maximum Benefit.

(b) Environmental impact: Now that Indonesia has banned sand exports and controlled granite supply, it may be timely for the Gahmen to consider the environmental impact of such a feverish pace of CSAs.

This Land Titles (Strata) Act has unwittingly created a senseless contradiction. We harp on Asian values, of which frugality is one. Yet this piece of legislation fosters wanton wastage as gleaming marble floors of less than 10 years (or even of 35 years if well-maintained) go under the wrecker's ball. Expensive double-glazed full-height glass panes get smashed to smithereens. Window frames in perfect condition are left mangled in the demolition rubble. Did you know that to make just one metric tonne of aluminium for our window frames, it takes an obscene amount of energy and causes greenhouse gas emissions of 991 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents?

Whilst we can source for alternative building materials and go hi-tech with intelligent building designs and surround our whole apartment with planter boxes, our tropical climate (which will only get hotter and drier with progressive global warming) unfortunately doesn't lend itself to all-glass-and-metal buildings as these will be more energy-intensive with more powerful air-conditioning needs and lots of planter box watering. Before the advent of air-conditioners, the maharajahs of India built really thick concrete/stone walls to keep cool in their searing summer heat. Even the rural poor in China continue to live in caves to protect themselves from weather extremes. Unlike those in Dubai, we have no oil! Unlike those in Malaysia, the Philippines or Vietnam, we also have no fields to grow oil palms, sugar cane or maize for our bio-fuels!

(c) Architectural legacy: We have already razed a huge part of our architectural heritage from colonial and pre-war days. We are now razing even our modern Singapore architectural legacy. Ever noticed the design differences in apartments built in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s? Even the window grille designs are different from each decade. Our architectural legacy speaks to us - in terms of cultural influences, climatic environment, social values, political events (eg, why apartments built a year or so after the 2007 Indonesian sand-ban have so little concrete structures)!

On the one hand, our Gahmen spends a lot on museums, parks and the arts. On the other hand, it unwittingly destroys our Living Heritage (be it buildings which are our homes, the flora and fauna in little pockets of natural forest, the homegrown artistic talents).

Do we want to see a model of our National Library monument in some exhibition? [Up to now, I still can't believe that we tore down a piece of Singapore history for a short dinky tunnel that saves possibly up to 12 minutes' travelling time in a worst-possible traffic jam ... unless it provides some strategic underground alternative to the nearby Istana that we can only guess at.]

Do we only want to see photos of apartments built in the 60s or 80s? Do we want to just walk in a manicured park? Do we want to visit the Raffles Museum to be sure that we will see what a stuffed-up Buffy Fish Owl looks like instead of keeping alive the habitat where you are likely to chance upon this rare bird as one of Life's unexpected and unplanned pleasures?

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