24 February 2009
1. TEASER: What is the point of Urban Renewal?
2. MOCKTAIL (non-alcoholic cocktail): Have we left our people behind?
3. APPETIZER: How to bring our people along in Singapore’s Re-Making?
4. NUGGET: Why en bloc law was (and still is) needed?
5. POSERS: What is today? What will be likely tomorrow?
6. DIGESTIVE: Why skew the law?
7. PURGATIVE: A sense of déjà vue!
8. NUTTY PEANUTS: Myths debunked!
9. CROWN JEWEL: 80% to en bloc The Istana?
Seized by the tumultuous collapses of this period – from East to West, spanning the spectrum from communist regime to celebratory capitalism …
– China is ramping up Social Welfare to assure her people of national safety nets in order to boost domestic consumption;
– the United States of America is re-inventing herself towards Activist Government to reverse the flow of “trickle down” to “trickle up” effects in order to make the rich contribute more to society and thus build-up the middle class.
From the footpaths in rural China ... to the supermarket alleys in Germany ... to Main Street in the US with much less buzz these days, there is a distinct dissonance with the past excesses leading to the present mess! Dismay when a surgeon refused to operate unless the fees are paid upfront. Disbelief when a cashier was sacked over a 1 euro refund coupon in stark contrast to CEOs who flew in on private jets to ask for hand-outs. Disgust when the board of directors approved executive bonus pay-out even as the company crumbled. Distrust when those who are supposed to govern, regulate and/or protect chose to break faith with the People and instead crossed over to join hands with the Corporates in the name of "Progressive Corporatism".
In the midst of this generational wave change, where does Singapore stand? “Social welfare” is unspeakable? “Activist Government” is unthinkable? “Trickle up” is untimely? Where do we re-balance ourselves (if at all)?
En blocs have a significant wealth effect on private residential owners who are (or were?) largely middle to upper-middle income Singaporeans (other than at the super-luxury condo category which is dominated by foreigners anyway). So???
At the 20 Sep 2007 parliamentary debate of the en bloc law, the then Minister for Law, Prof S Jayakumar put on record in his closing remarks that "the position I take is that this is an ongoing process ... my ministry, together with the other agencies, will monitor very closely the operation of these new provisions ... but if it is necessary to make further amendments, then we have no hesitation to do so".
"Change" is possible??? Will Singaporeans say "Yes We Can Too"???
Just so as to have a brand new, gleaming all-glass 36-storey apartment block on Holland Road (instead of a 15-storey block that grossly under-utilized the existing plot ratio)???
What is the point of having shiny new buildings if we don’t BRING OUR PEOPLE ALONG WITH US in our quest of Re-making Singapore???
A country is NOT made up of a collection of swanky buildings but of the citizens who live, breathe and dream in these buildings (even as we are labelled as “lesser mortals” at best and ungrateful domestic riff-raff at worst).
More elaboration is in my blog entry dated 9 Feb 2009 entitled “Purpose of ‘purposive’ – Gillman Heights verdict”. http://singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com/2009/02/purpose-of-purposive.html
2.1 Words from the horse’s mouth – When interviewed about en bloc sales, Minister for National Development, Mr Mah Bow Tan, was quoted in Sunday Times of 17 Jun 2007: “If you can’t buy an executive flat, buy a 5-room. If you can’t afford central area, go to the suburbs. If you can’t afford Tampines, go to Woodlands or Yishun.” (please refer to my blog entry dated 29 May 2007 entitled “In between … evolving a ‘Bagel Class’ of Singaporeans”). http://singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com/2007/05/in-between-evolving-bagel-class-of.html
In the same vein about land use/supply forces that drive en bloc law: Three years ago, Minister for Health, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, first mooted the idea of retirement villages in Johor, Batam and Bintan (Channel News Asia, 17 Apr 2006). Recently, The Straits Times and Today newspapers reported on 10 Feb 2009 that Minister Khaw visited a Johor Bahru site with an investor-developer who is planning to build a nursing home there for elderly Singaporeans. Reason: Land and labour are cheaper across the Causeway. Amidst the public hue and cry that followed, replete with comic spoof and many who froth and foam about the raison d'être of our Health Ministry, these were my wry observations:
– We sent our kids to Western universities and they will send us to JB nursing homes!
– In JB: Nurseries for our babies; nursing homes for our oldies! Because looking after babies and oldies are equally time- and labour-intensive. Kids need lots of space to run around. Exponentially growing number of chronic oldies take up precious space in land-scarce Singapore.
Have we forgotten our people, the human touch, the essence of public service? It would cleanse our hearts and minds to heed the words of Mr Barack Hussein Obama who addressed his White House staff and Cabinet on the next day after his 20 Jan 2009 inauguration as the 44th President of the United States of America: “We are here as public servants, and public service is a privilege. It’s not about advancing yourself or your corporate clients.” Hear, hear!
2.2 Numbers from the stables – The stables of “URA/Jones Lang LaSalle Research” provided the statistics that were reported in Business Times on 27 Mar 2008, nine months after the words from the horse’s mouth. Sadly, these statistics confirmed my projection of a Bagel Class of Singaporeans (please refer to my blog entries dated 29 May 2007 entitled “In between … evolving a Bagel Class of Singaporeans” and reiterated on 7 Aug 2008 entitled “So what’s the alternative in the END”).
Yeeha … I blogged about this Bagel Class projection in May 2007, a fortnight before hearing the words from the horse’s mouth in Jun 2007! I betted on the wrong horse, eh? The numbers are STARTLING - just over a 7-year time span!!!
One URA chart in the Business Times showed the percentage of foreigners’ non-landed private residential purchases went up from 16% in 2000 to 29.1% in 2007 – more than 80% increase in 7 years!
Another URA chart in the Business Times showed that – within the same 2000-2007 time span – Singaporeans’ share of non-landed private residential purchases consistently DECLINED IN ALL GEOGRAPHIC REGIONS. In contrast, foreigners’ share DOUBLED OR TREBLED in the range of 114%-200%. If PRs are aggregated with foreigners, the NON-Singaporean share also increased substantially from 61% to 95%.
Whoa ... these 2008 statistics NULLIFIED what was said nearly a decade ago in 1999 by the then Minister of State for Law, Ass Prof Ho Peng Kee, when he moved the Second Reading of the en bloc law in Parliament about creating “MANY MORE HOUSING UNITS IN PRIME 999-YEAR LEASEHOLD OR FREEHOLD AREAS FOR SINGAPOREANS”. [Capitalization emphasis is by The Pariah.] Looks like the additional housing units, especially in prime areas, went to the FOREIGNERS! Did the horse bolt from the barn and then got lost in the prime areas?
Hence, as early as 1 Mar 2007 (two days before the then Minister for Law, Prof S Jayakumar’s parliamentary speech was reported in the press about upcoming legislative review of the Land Titles (Strata) Act), I submitted a paper to the then Law Reform and Revision Division of the Attorney General’s Chambers on this principle of equity in offering “exchange” option to owners ensnared in en bloc sales. My first “exchange” blog entry was on 26 Mar 2007, as further refined with the passage of time and repeated in numerous subsequent blog entries in Apr, Nov, Dec 2007 and culminating in my last National Day blog entry of 7 Aug 2008. http://singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com/2008/08/so-whats-alternative-in-end.html
In fact, my proposed solution is more than 1-4-1 exchange. It encompasses about a HOLISTIC APPROACH to "manage" the en bloc beast instead of letting the crazed bull run helter-skelter in an en bloc frenzy. How?
One suggestion: By developing an en bloc quota system by (a) geographic regions, (b) estate type and (c) estate age - in much the same way that Singapore "manages" (i) land allocation for our transportation network on one level (roads, rail tracks, cycle paths, walkways) and (ii) time/distance demand by different vehicles on our road network on another level (Certificate of Entitlements, Electronic Road Pricing).
From a macro-economic perspective, an en bloc quota system would also be healthy to minimize asset bubbles and regulate redevelopment land reserves. Lessons that should have been learned from the 2006-07 en bloc frenzy that created the TRIPLE WHAMMY EFFECT: (1) supply contraction with demolition of estates sold en bloc, (2) immediately matching demand spike for replacement units (both purchase/rental) and (3) increased competition for construction resources/labour, thus fuelling price spirals on ALL fronts. Various government agencies were caught on their back foot, scrambling for sand, granite chips, foreign workers and housing for these workers that in turn spun-off into another barrage of complaints about increased sleaze in residential areas and new dumps in countryside areas.
Greater diversity in urban landscape and architectural legacy would result from en bloc quotas because redevelopment land would be made available at different points in time to capitalize on evolving building technologies/efficiencies and new design trends. As it is, the whole stretch of condos along Paterson Road will have the sameness of all-glass facades with disproportionate emphasis on bay windows, planter boxes and balconies brazenly exploited under the building regulations prevailing at that time.
Another suggestion: By calibrating incentives for plot amalgamation to create the spatial vista for better light and improved ventilation and also minimise the wastage of set-back boundaries in-between many small land plots where the apartment blocks jostle neck-by-jowl with each other (eg, with sub-tiered Development Charges for different ranges of land plot sizes).
Just as the legislative review was being prepped for parliamentary debate in Sep 2007, I specifically pointed the Ministry of Law official in late Aug 2007 to South Korea’s urban renewal model of “Hapdong Re-development” that mandates 1-4-1 exchange.
[Interesting trivia: The etymology of “Hapdong” in the Korean Hangul language traces back to its roots of the Chinese word for “Cooperation”.] To me, the South Korean urban renewal model is more neo-communitarian in approach. Isn't time to curb the Excesses, the Unsustainability, the Imbalance? Isn't it time to "manage" en bloc urban renewal?
Now, let’s go back in time ... back to a decade ago.
At the Second Reading of the Land Titles (Strata) (Amendment) Bill in 1999, the then Minister of State for Law, Ass Prof Ho Peng Kee, said: “The current position is that a single owner, for whatever reason, can oppose and thwart the [collective] sale. ... As a result, these buildings cannot take advantage of enhanced plot ratios to realise their full development potential, which would have CREATED MANY MORE HOUSING UNITS IN PRIME 999-YEAR LEASEHOLD OR FREEHOLD AREAS FOR SINGAPOREANS. A secondary benefit is that these developments, especially THE OLDER ONES COULD HAVE BEEN REJUVENATED through the en-bloc process.” [Capitalization emphasis is by The Pariah.] NOTE: This 1999 parliamentary promise of “for Singaporeans” has been embarrassingly nullified by ministerial comment in 2007 and housing statistics in 2008, as substantiated in the above blog entry entitled "MOCKTAIL: Have we left our people behind?"!
At the Third Reading of the Bill, the then Minister for Law, Prof S Jayakumar, in discussing the change to include (instead of exclude) small strata title developments (ie, 10 units or less) into the fold of en bloc law reeled off these cogent statistics: “Many of these developments which have 10 or fewer units are old or have large areas which are underutilised, thus rendering them suitable for redevelopment. In fact, as at September 1998, developments with 10 or fewer units account for NEARLY HALF OF ALL STRATA DEVELOPMENTS in Singapore. Of the 2,272 strata developments which are freehold or close to 999 years, 47% are developments with 10 or fewer units. These developments ACCOUNT FOR 7% OF THE TOTAL NUMBER OF UNITS and ABOUT 80 HECTARES (10%) OF THE LAND AREA. Requiring unanimous decision will frustrate en-bloc redevelopment of these developments.” [Capitalization emphasis is by The Pariah.]
Sobering statistics, indeed! If we were to cast the net wider in 1998 to ALL strata title developments (ie, those larger than 10 units and/or those of 99-year leasehold) that have NOT fully utilized the plot ratio, we can understand and accept (even though some will still disagree with) the need for en bloc law in teeny Singapore from a national perspective.
On top of that, in the interest of transparency and accountability, more statistics are needed and more questions need to be asked. With the law’s unyielding purposiveness and the two rounds of market frenzies in 1999 (39 sites of $2.5bn en bloc value) and 2006-07 (188 sites of $21.5bn en bloc value), have we achieved our national agenda of HIGHER LAND-USE INTENSITY now that the STATISTICS ALSO CONFIRMED THAT WE HAVE INDEED WILLY-NILLY LEFT OUR OWN PEOPLE BEHIND??? Example: Based on the 2006-07 en bloc frenzy with lag effects of completion into 2009, from 1 Jan 2006 up to a cut-off date (say, 1 Jul 2009):
(a) What is the number of estates that were (i) issued with Strata Titles Boards’ collective sale orders and/or (ii) registered with Singapore Land Authority for collective sale?
(b) Based on (a), what are the estate numbers by en bloc age-bands after taking away the youngest 10% and the oldest 10% of such estates?
(c) What is the aggregate number of units that (i) have been or (ii) will be demolished after sale?
(d) What is the aggregate strata title area that (i) have been or (ii) will be demolished after sale?
(e) Out of (c)(i) - Regardless of application/construction/completion stage, what is the aggregate number of units that (i) have been or (ii) will likely be made available upon redevelopment? [Also, what are the aggregate number of sites and aggregate number of old units where demolition has been completed but there are no plans to redevelop (ie, vacant land will be held in developer-buyer’s land bank)?]
(f) Out of (d)(i) - Regardless of application/construction/completion stage, what is the aggregate strata title area that (i) have been or (ii) will likely be made available upon redevelopment?
(g) Out of (d)(i) - Regardless of application/construction/completion stage, what is the aggregate net saleable area that (i) have been or (ii) will likely be made available upon redevelopment?
(h) Could land-use intensity be even higher and at the same time improving spatial, light and ventilation factors if more thought and calibration went into “managing” this once-in-a-long-while Singapore Make-over opportunity? How? Perhaps, by incentivising plot amalgamations and thus avoid an explosion of cheek-by-jowl redevelopments with wastage of peripheral set-back boundaries?
(i) Could asset bubbles in property market be minimized if more imagination and creativity were injected into “managing” the triple-whammy impact of en blocs (viz, sudden contraction of housing supply with immediately matching spike in housing demand, exacerbated by keener competition for construction resources with consequent price spiral on all fronts)? How? Maybe, by taking a leaf from “management of road usage through COE (Certificate of Entitlement) quotas and bids” and introducing equivalent en bloc quota/bidding by geographic region and housing type? Minimizing asset bubbles would entail some back-tracking from pro-cyclical government policies to date in the push towards a World Class Global City!
Sorry if I'm giving some government agency a Bad Hair Day!!!
Most of us were (and some are still) barking up the wrong tree … cursing our neighbours, condemning the Sale Committee members, shouting at marketing agents, sneering at lawyers, smearing corporate developer-buyers, some even resorting to criminal acts! Sure, these people are not totally blameless. Naturally, behavioural science and econophysics came into play! But the source (and therefore underlying primary cause) of en bloc disputes is the Almighty Law itself! The disputes are merely the symptons and side effects. That was why I sliced-and-diced-and-spliced the en bloc legalese in my last National Day’s blog entry of 6 Aug 2008 entitled “Greek mythodology: The SOURCE and Themis”. http://singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com/2008/08/so-whats-alternative-in-end.html
I don’t know about the Law gazing “on the horse as it does the horseman”, as Justice Choo Han Teck said in his first Horizon Towers en bloc judgement when he threw the case back to Strata Titles Boards for yet another round. But there is something Trojan about this horse because reality stares us in the face (not just gazing!) – the number of en bloc battle wins by desperate yet determined Minority Dissenters could be counted on less than five fingers of one hand! This is despite the phenomenon of everybody suing every one – Minority sues Majority, and vice versa. Developer-buyer sues some Majority or threatens to sue all Majority. Majority sues Developer-buyer. Majority even challenged the Strata Titles Boards!
When Singaporeans who, by-and-large are not particularly litigious as a people, start suing each other – left, right and centre – it is yet one more litmus indicator that something is fundamentally out-of-sync at its core! Since the source can be traced back to the Almighty Law itself, then it follows to a logical point that the law is at the core of this hullabaloo.
Hey, when you are promised Utopia during en bloc and end up in Ethiopia after en bloc – what do you expect??? When you realize that en bloc "windfall” is "shortfall” hype – what then? When it is at “double the price; half the size; quarter the value” post-en bloc, how does it all add-up? This topic was delved into in my last National Day blog entry dated 6 Aug 2008 entitled “IN-BETWEEN: Why en blocs are NOT right for Majority Consenters nor Minority Dissenters?” http://singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com/2008/08/en-bloc-why-it-is-not-right-for.html
Let’s draw just one parallel here, using the example of en bloc legal fees.
Where Singapore has rejected ambulance-chasing lawyers who are paid a certain percentage of the judgement award to accident victims, we have conveniently closed one eye to the en bloc industry standard of “no sale, no fee” for lawyers (and marketing agents).
On the one hand, if an ordinary person appoints a law firm to issue a Letter of Demand for some minor dispute, it is standard practice to require an upfront retainer of a few hundred bucks.
On the other hand, if a motley bunch of ordinary persons in a Sale Committee appoint a law firm in an en bloc sale running into hundreds of millions of dollars (if not a billion), not a single cent is paid upfront.
Worse still, after doing all the work throughout the 12+12 = 24-month window period for en bloc sale, if the deal falls through, the lawyer (and the marketing agent) gets nothing!
Having introduced legislation to deliberately let loose market forces from so many angles to facilitate en bloc sales in the name of urban renewal, a lot of us are in connivance by NOT counter-balancing the relentless ferocity of those same market forces.
In reviewing the legislation, the Ministry for Law did not see it fit to provide for a legal retainer fee of even 0.1% of the expected apportionment amount based on the stated Reserve Price to be paid upfront by each Sale Committee member and each signatory of the Collective Sale Agreement. Failure by regulator?
The legal fraternity did not step up to preempt the market’s exploitation of their own kind. Lawyers are consensual in such exploitation. Their self-preservation and survival instincts naturally kick-in and they resort to embedding and burying all kinds of latent cluster bomblets in the Collective Sale Agreement to trip up even Majority Consenters or conveniently omitting key verbal representations made in their presence to induce signature of such Collective Sale Agreement. Lawyers do collective sale tie-ups with marketing agents to offer a package deal and there is precious little transparency and open competition to enable owners to make an informed decision and exercise freedom of choice between different law firms. Even for a modest $15mn loan syndication, agent banks typically get three competitive legal fee quotations. Yet for a $500mn en bloc sale, no competitive quotes are obtained with any seriousness (although there are occasional cases with some semblance of multiple quotes helpfully "sourced" by the marketing agents who themselves float-or-drown together with the lawyers in the same "no sale, no fee" yacht). Failure by industry players?
Property owners bargain for the cheapest possible legal package, get “clever” (so they thought) by making the Developer-buyer pay the marketing agent’s commission, delay or default in paying whatever nominal fees are stated in the Collective Sale Agreement. Whatever these property owners can get away with, they will. “They want it cheap; they want it fresh/beautiful!” – depending on the dialectic Chinese version you choose! Often times, property owners forget the cardinal rule that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. Failure by end-customers?
The ugly spectre of “serial condo raiders” or “en bloc flippers” is slyly covert in some estates and brazenly overt in other estates! Yet our Ministry of Law has a hands-off approach to this destructive and disruptive element. I do not know enough of the intricacies of the American housing market and how President Barack Obama’s efforts will pan-out in unravelling the present mess by means of the upcoming Housing Mortgage Program.
But I'd like to draw a parallel between our Gahmen’s hands-off attitude towards en bloc flippers and that of President Obama’s guiding principles as encapsulated in his 18 Feb 2009 speech:
"But I also want to be very clear about what this plan will not do: It will not rescue the UNSCRUPULOUS or IRRESPONSIBLE by throwing good taxpayer money after bad loans. It will not help SPECULATORS who took risky bets on a rising market and bought homes not to live in but to sell. It will not help dishonest lenders who acted irresponsibility, distorting the facts and dismissing the fine print at the expense of buyers who didn't know better. And it will not reward folks who bought homes they knew from the beginning they would never be able to afford. In short, this plan will not save every home.” In concluding his above speech, President Obama said: "It will not be easy. But IF WE MOVE FORWARD WITH PURPOSE AND RESOLVE – with a deepened appreciation for how fundamental the American Dream is and HOW FRAGILE IT CAN BE WHEN WE FAIL IN OUR COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITIES – then I am confident we will overcome this crisis and once again secure that dream for ourselves and for generations to come.” [Capitalization emphasis is by The Pariah. And don't you just luv Straits Times Graphics' clever caricature of Obama???]
President Barack Obama repeated the SAME THRUST in his first address on 24 Feb 2009 to the joint session of the House of Congress since taking office: “It is time to put in place TOUGH, NEW COMMON-SENSE RULES of the road so that our financial market rewards drive and innovation, and PUNISHES SHORT-CUTS AND ABUSE.” [Capitalization emphasis is by The Pariah.]
Wow! How Obama's Neo-Communitarianism and Progressive Government (NOT Progressive Corporatism) resonates in our soul! It is about “Doing Right”, man!
Carrot or lemon? You figure it out ...
Gillman Heights timeline:
18 Feb 2006 – First signatory of Collective Sale Agreement based on the Reserve Price set [property market was on the upturn].
23 Jun 2006 – Last signatory of Collective Sale Agreement (having crossed the tipping point of 80% majority consent).
5 Feb 2007 – Sold en bloc at $548mn (even slightly ABOVE Reserve Price) to Developer-buyer under Sale and Purchase Agreement [property market was nearing peak – using one Minority Dissenter’s pay-out figures, she would be getting $498 psf from en bloc pay-out].
3 May 2007 – Designated representatives applied to Strata Titles Board for collective sale order [property market at peak – the same Minority Dissenter checked the asking price of a 5-room HDB flat in Mei Ling Street - $746 psf (exceeding en bloc pay-out by $248 psf after DOWNGRADING from privatized condo to public housing)].
21 Dec 2007 – A few days before Christmas, Strata Titles Board ruled against Minority Dissenters [property market started softening].
25 Jun 2008 – High Court ruled against Minority Dissenters [property market slump].
9 Feb 2009 – On Yuan Xiao Jie, Appellate Court ruled against Minority Dissenters [property market depressed – the same Minority Dissenter checked the asking price of a 5-room HDB flat in Bukit Merah - $600 psf (exceeding en bloc pay-out by $102 psf after DOWNGRADING from privatized condo to public housing)]. http://singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com/2009/02/purpose-of-purposive.html
* May/Jun 2009 – Likely legal completion and pay-out of the bulk of en bloc sale proceeds.
Nov/Dec 2009 – Likely vacant possession date and pay-out of the remainder of en bloc sale proceeds.
* If all goes according to plan in Gillman Heights case, it would take about 3¼ years from the point of decision to sell en bloc to the point of collection of $$$ to buy another place by DOWNGRADING or DOWNSIZING! At Gillman Heights’ $498 psf en bloc pay-out, equivalent replacement of private condo in the neighbourhood vicinity is IMPOSSIBLE even after the property market crash! Business Times of 11 Feb 2009 quoted property analysts’ opinions that even in the current market slump for “condos in OUTLYING areas near MRT stations, the price resistance for a new launch in today's market would probably be in the $600-650 psf range on average. Another analyst puts a price resistance in a higher band of $750-$850 psf for condos in MATURE HDB ESTATES such as Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio”.
As shown above, even a 5-room HDB public housing flat ($746 in Mei Ling Street at market peak and $600 in Bukit Merah in market doldrums) is priced HIGHER than Gillman Heights’ privatized condo en bloc pay-out of $498 on a normalized psf basis. Whatever hype is made out of “en bloc windfall” and “asset monetization premium”, the effects of morphing into a Squatter, Refugee, Downgrader or Downsizer under the present en bloc framework are painfully real – even with the present-day bursting of the real estate bubble. Should you be dragged into this “Game of Timing the Market” because 80% of your neighbours decided to sell your home for you???
It is a free country (relatively speaking)! If you want to time the property market, kindly do it on your own account with your own home – NOT on a collective basis with other people's homes! And if you can reap a huge windfall by trading on your own account, that’s great. I’d be most happy for you because I am not a “lesser mortal” and won’t begrudge your wealth deservingly blown on a Cordon Bleu cooking class in Paris (particularly since it is NOT some ill-gotten en bloc gain at other people's expense)! Gahmen would also thank you for the stamp duty on each flip that you do – the more, the merrier, man! But it becomes nutty for our laws to facilitate collective flipping! Are we a nation of flippin’ flippers playing this "Game of Timing the Market" without an investment time horizon of 30 years (exemplary example: GIC/Temasek benchmark)???