02 July 2010

Part 1: Lady Gaga goes "Aha" with the possibly deaf, mute, dumb and not-so-dumb

By way of Government Gazette S360, S364 and S365, all dated 1 Jul 2010, and Acts Supplement No 14 dated 2 Jul 2010, the Land Titles (Strata) (Amendment) Act 2010 will come into operation on 15 Jul 2010 (corrections of LTSA Schedules come into effect on 16 Jul 2010).
I just luv this National Geographic TV advertisement "Live Curious" for the spirit that it embodies. Its web-page has the above tag line: "Everything Deserves A Why". Ain't that neat?

The TV ad goes like this:
If you are, you breathe. If you breathe, you talk.
If you talk, you ask. If you ask, you think.
If you think, you search. If you search, you experience.
If you experience, you learn. If you learn, you grow.
If you grow, you wish. If you wish, you find.
If you find, you doubt. If you doubt, you question.
If you question, you understand. If you understand, you know.
If you know, you want to know more.
If you want to know more, you are alive.
Live Curious.
Yeh, yeh, we all know what Curiosity can do to the local breed of Singapore River Cats (Kucinta), especially with Fat Cats, Cheshire Cats and Fishy Big Cat (above Merlion) padding and prowling around. Nonetheless, it is in this spirit of "Wishing", "Finding", "Doubting", "Questioning", "Understanding", "Knowing" and "Wanting to know more" that I am putting things into context so as to facilitate a more nuanced understanding on why or how Singapore’s laws and policies are crafted tightly in some instances or loosely in other cases. With Understanding, it will boost Knowledge. With Knowledge comes Empowerment - be it on en bloc sales or other matters of national importance, eh?

Let’s do this layer-by-layer … to see if Lady Gaga can find the possibly deaf, mute, dumb and not-so-dumb in our midst! In case you are kind of out-of-touch with the Western pop scene these days, Lady Gaga is a really hot pop singer hitting Top Charts, with a penchant for outrageous outfits and her fair share of controversies. Here's a YouTube video of her performance (NOT that I'm her avid fan): http://sg.video.yahoo.com/watch/3353358/9402359

Hence, the following materials from the Economic Strategies Committee and its Sub-Committee on Land Value Maximization, the upcoming Concept Plan 2011 with its two Focus Groups, the Central Provident Fund Board and the Parliament's Hansard, (especially the recent parliamentary debate on the amendment of Land Titles (Strata) Act ("LTSA") on 18 May 2010 that is in Part 2 of this long blog entry) have been correlated and contextualized to stitch together a Big Picture depicted by this patchwork quilt that blankets our tropical land. The extent of cross-talking in Parliament House is ... eye-opening, to put it mildly.

This may prod you into asking the Big Questions about public institutional checks-and-balances, accountability, transparency, about holism integral in good governance, etc, etc, etc, as the King of Siam likes to say in the classic movie, "The King and I", as every thinking citizen should be mindful of. Food 4 Thought for the Not-So-Gaga who may wish to exercise those grey cells between their ears: Do JOINT efforts in proposing Singapore's future national strategies by private and public sectors ("joint" - meaning that private sectors co-sign such recommendation papers) point to (i) private role of public sector or (ii) public role of private sector or (iii) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde??? Would it increase the risks of the Regulator and the Regulated becoming too "cozy", as President Barack Obama described such relationship in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill by British Petroleum? How would it contrast with the other approach taken by the Gahmen vis-a-vis plebian citizens - ie, "we-will-hear-ALL-but-we-don't-necessarily-listen-and-we-sometimes-talk-back-but-we-don't-need-your-signature-and-we-will-decide-on-our-own-and-do-what-we-want-or-what-we-think-is-best-regardless-of-what-you-say")?
FIRST, the Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) chaired by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam issued its definitive report on 1 February 2010 based on the contributions of 230 committee members and 1,100 other parties over 7 months.

Minister Tharman said that the ESC Report led to the “central recommendation, which is to grow based on skills, innovation and productivity rather than by expanding our use of resources and especially by expanding employment in every business, every sector year after year. We should aim to get into this virtuous cycle It takes time. We look at the way the Germans have achieved this, year after year, decade after decade – SO IT REQUIRES A PERSPECTIVE THAT IS DIFFERENT FROM BEFORE – NOT GOING FOR IMMEDIATE GAINS, BUT BUILDING UP THE ABILITY TO CREATE VALUE AND SURPASS THE COMPETITION FIVE YEARS FROM NOW. Singaporeans are known for being clean, competent, thorough, efficient. We must go to the next level where we have MASTERY OF SKILLS AND DEPTH OF EXPERTISE, whatever the job we do. NOT JUST COMPETENCE, BUT MASTERY of what they are doing. What this amounts to is a major investment in our people, – an investment that would require a partnership in the broadest sense between the Government, people and businesses. The second theme has to do with the restructuring of the economy.” [Capitalization emphasis is by The Pariah.]

SECOND, the ESC Report is underpinned by various Sub-Committees’ Reports, one of which is from the “Sub-committee on Maximising Value from Land as a Scarce Resource” co-chaired by Senior Minister of State for National Development, Grace Fu and Group CEO of Boustead Singapore Ltd, Wong Fong Fui under the umbrella of Gahmen-Corporate joint consultative efforts.

This Sub-Committee Report deals with land productivity and land resource management that necessarily focus on land supply and land use. Amongst its recommendations are: "Manage cost volatility to create a better business environment - The level and most importantly, THE DEGREE OF FLUCTUATION IN HOUSING and office rents directly influence the decisions of businesses and talents to relocate to Singapore. However, given the small and open economy of Singapore, it is NOT POSSIBLE TO ELIMINATE VOLATILITY IN PROPERTY PRICES. NEITHER SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT INTERVENE EXCESSIVELY IN THE MARKET. IT SHOULD LET PRICES BE LARGELY DETERMINED BY SUPPY AND DEMAND CONDITIONS. ... Nevertheless, the ESC recommends that the GOVERNMENT MAINTAINS ITS POLICY OF STEADY RELEASE OF LAND TO PRE-EMPT RENTAL SPIKES. In this regard, the ESC recommends A REVIEW OF THE RESERVE LIST PROCEDURES TO MAKE IT LESS ONEROUS FOR DEVELOPERS TO TRIGGER SITES placed on the Reserve List so that supply can be more easily activated when needed. ..." [Capitalization emphasis is by The Pariah.]

Upon initial reading, Minister Tharman's spiel about the ESC Report and the blueprint for Singapore sounds very promising. But after reading the Sub-Committee's Report on Maximising Value from Land, it would seem that Minister Tharman's message was lost in translation. Why?
The emphasis continues to be on immediate gains best achieved under laissez-faire market forces to trigger release of reserve sites more easily. In turn, that would hasten the spread of Singapore's urban sprawl (instead of holding them as green lungs for as long as possible whilst preserving such lungs as part of our national landbanking for future generations). Whilst competence came through, there was no mastery and little depth because the entire report was eerily silent on the other source of land supply, viz, en bloc sales. Lady Gaga goes "Aha" with this error of omission that is an effective "mute"!

Yet urban rejuvenation and higher land-use intensity were precisely the two national objectives that underpinned the introduction of Land Titles (Strata) Act ("LTSA") in Oct 1999, wittingly calibrated to facilitate die-die-must-sell motivation even with two rounds of legislative amendments in Oct 2007 and Jun 2010, as explained in two previous blog postings:

Yet again, how was the en bloc window of opportunity optimized through higher productivity (the renewed official buzzword for the near future) in the Remaking of Singapore's private non-landed residential estates? Or was it willy-nilly frittered away? This window of opportunity was enforced and opened at significant cost to our social fabric, our community ties, our private property ownership rights, our environment, our sustainability, our nest-egg savings, our Central Provident Fund retirement financial planning and our familial wealth transfer.

After exacting such HIGH COST, how did Gahmen manage the post-en bloc consequences to ensure COMMENSURATE BENEFITS accrue to those same factors (eg, owners, environment, retirement planning, etc)?

Yes, land value was unlocked and land-use was intensified. But could the en bloc Owners afford to move back to the redevelopment even if they wanted to retain their community ties and rootedness in terms of their sense of time and being? Or did they face the Hobson's Choice of downgrading or downsizing at the expense of their nest-egg preservation, their familial wealth transfer? Or would South Korean's model of mandatory one-for-one (1-4-1) exchange (as customized within Singapore's context) mitigate the harsh consequences and help to bring our people along in the Re-making of Singapore, as opposed to leaving them behind? Although MinLaw laid the groundwork in 2007 by obtaining from their South Korean counterpart the details of South Korea’s model of urban renewal, nothing further seemed to have developed since then:

Yes, the new redevelopments look sleek and swanky with all-glass curtain wall all round. But is that sustainable in our equatorial climate and appropriate for our city high-density living culture where 90% of the units keep their curtains tightly drawn?

Yes, it is interesting to have communal gardens interspersed at varying levels and at the roof top or galley block connectors. But by according bonus Gross Floor Area (GFA) for such features without counter-balancing controls, did it result in larger building footprints that came at the expense of natural light, ventilation and spatiality as estate blocks get packed cheek-by-jowl despite the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) having a Greenmark Scheme of sorts in place?

Yes, we need to rejuvenate old estates but at what pace that would not create triple-whammy effects on unit supply, unit demand and resource demand that in turn would feed into pro-cyclical effects of short sharp boom-bust yo-yo and thus compromise our national competitiveness?

Lady Gaga just went "Aha" four times over with the above examples. There are many more examples but let's move on.

THIRD, interestingly, the same error of omission was replicated in the Discussion Topics and Preliminary Recommendations of the two Focus Groups hobbled together by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in Jan 2010.

The first Focus Group on "Quality of Life and Ageing" was co-chaired by Prof Tan Chorh Chuan, President, National University of Singapore and Edmund Cheng, Chairman, National Arts Council (Mr Cheng is part of the Wing Tai property development group and is in Forbes' World List of Billionaires - NOT deploying Mr Cheng in the second Focus Group despite the obvious hand-in-glove fit and the contributions he would be able to make in respect of "Sustainability and Identity" is clearly astute and probably not coincidental, eh?). The second Focus Group on "Sustainability and Identity" was co-chaired by Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Director, Institute of Policy Studies and Lee Tzu Yang, Chairman, Shell Companies in Singapore. In all the four issues identified for the Concept Plan 2011 review (viz, Quality of Life, Ageing issues, Sustainability and Identity), both Focus Groups' thrusts and recommendations breathed NOT the three little sacred words of "en bloc sales" despite their obvious impact on the four abovementioned issues. Lady Gaga goes "Aha" with these consistent errors of omission that are effectively "mute"! As both Focus Groups held their own Public Forum in May 2010 during which their errors of omission in respect of en bloc sales were surfaced, it now remains to be seen as to whether anything meaningful from such Public Forum will be mirrored in both Focus Groups’ Final Recommendations. If not, it merely goes to reinforce the public’s perception of feedback sinking into the proverbial Black Hole.

FOURTH, although it would appear that errors of omission in NOT mentioning en bloc sales as the other source of land supply were repeated in the ESC Sub-Committee's Report and the two URA Focus Groups' recommendations for Concept Plan 2011, it all made perfect sense. Why? Because a few months later, the same Grace Fu as Senior Minister of State for National Development, made the following parliamentary reply on 19 May 2010 on the issue of land lease for retirement housing development: “I would also like to point out that SINGAPORE IS UNIQUE IN THAT A LARGE SEGMENT OF OUR POPULATION OWNS THEIR HOMES. Therefore, WE HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO SUPPORT AGEING IN PLACE WITHIN THESE HOMES THAT THE SENIORS ALREADY OWN. In fact, URA’s recent Lifestyle Survey 2009 and the Concept Plan 2011 Online Survey showed that nearly 80% of the senior respondents prefer to live in regular housing, rather than more dedicated forms of senior housing like studio apartments and retirement villages. THEY PREFER TO REMAIN IN THE HOMES THAT THEY ALREADY OWN, AND AGE IN AN ENVIRONMENT THAT THEY ARE FAMILIAR WITH, ALONGSIDE OTHER GENERATIONS. We will also continue working with other agencies to further improve the hardware and software to support ageing-in-place.” [Capitalization emphasis is by The Pariah.]

Since the Gahmen supports "ageing in place within these homes that the seniors already own", then the ESC Sub-Committee and the two Concept Plan 2011 Focus Groups obviously CANNOT mention en bloc sales as the other source of land supply notwithstanding that such en bloc sales would facilitate, say, more creative and higher land-use intensity that were the subject of their deliberations! Lady Gaga goes "Aha" with this "not-so-dumb" but yet "dumb" error of omission that (i) subsequently dovetailed nicely with the above Hansard parliamentary record but (ii) massively contradicted with CPF statistics as set out in the next point!

FIFTH, let's trace back what was said in "CPF Trends" published by the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board in 2007 and 2009:

Sep 2007: "The steepest rate of sustained increase occurred between 1995 and 1999. In 1998, there was a 35% increase in total net amount withdrawn over 1997. The use of CPF savings to finance homes picked up after 2004. The net amount withdrawn under both schemes went on the rise from 2004 onward with Public Housing Scheme (PHS) up 20% from $4.1 billion in 2004 to $5.0 billion in 2006, while Residential Properties Scheme (RPS) leapt 42% from $2.4 billion in 2004 to $3.4 billion in 2006."

Feb 2009: "Withdrawals for housing between 1997 and 1999 saw the steepest upward trend. This was reflected in the steep rise in total net amount withdrawn for housing, from $5,786.8 million in 1997 to a high of $9,530.2 million in 1999. Net withdrawals for private properties increased by 76.2% while public housing withdrawals increased by 56.9% between 1997 and 1999. The liberalisation of housing policies, growing economy, more jobs, low unemployment rate and better wages led to the increase in total net housing withdrawals from $6,517.4 million in 2004 to $8,355.7 million in 2006. PRIVATE PROPERTY EN BLOC SALES ALSO SAW A RECORD RUN DURING THE YEAR. TOTAL NET HOUSING WITHDRAWALS IN 2007 SAW A SHARP DECLINE FROM $8,355.7 MILLION IN 2006 TO $5,869 MILLION IN 2007. THIS WAS MAINLY DUE TO THE HIGHER REFUND OF CPF SAVINGS UNDER RPS. THE HIGHER REFUNDS COULD HAVE RESULTED FROM THE FUELLED PRIVATE PROPERTY EN BLOC SALES.  Refunds in 2007 were about twice that in 2006. CONCLUSION: FROM THE TRENDS ABOVE, CPF MEMBERS’ USE OF THEIR SAVINGS FOR HOUSING WERE LARGELY AFFECTED BY MARKET FORCES AS WELL AS POLICY CHANGES. Nonetheless, Singaporeans have increasingly used their CPF savings to purchase homes under PHS and RPS. As their CPF savings are essentially for old age, they should be reminded to address how the use of CPF savings for housing affects their retirement nest egg." [Capitalization emphasis is by The Pariah.]

CPF summary points, as distilled from the above, are:

1997-1999: "Withdrawals for housing ... saw the steepest upward trend" (total net withdrawals for housing is $9.53bn in 1999, representing 64% increase from 1997 - private properties up 76%; public housing up 57%).

2004-2006: "Use of CPF savings to finance homes picked up" (total net withdrawal for housing is $8.4bn in 2006, representing 29% increase from 2004 - private properties up 42%; public housing 20%).

2007: "Total net housing withdrawals ... saw a sharp decline" (total net withdrawal for housing is $5.9bn in 2007, representing 30% DROP from 2006 - whaddayou know???).

Well, at least CPF Board was honest in attributing this 30% drop "mainly due to the higher refund of CPF savings under RPS. The higher refunds could have resulted from the fuelled private property en bloc sales". But what was left unsaid by CPF Board? Now are you better able to appreciate the meaning of "deafening silence" (as will be elaborated upon in the next point)?

SIXTH, it starts to ring hollow when we correlate the above CPF statistics with how LTSA continues to be deliberately calibrated to be PRO-SALE (ie, by locking in Majority Consenters for a long gestational period of up to 12+12=24 months against the background of an upward moving property market that would typically spark en bloc interest, forcing Minority Dissenters to sell via court order and creating wriggle room at critical milestones during the entire en bloc process to skewer Owners on the one hand but flexing Developer-buyers on the other hand). Consequently, such pro-sale stance naturally resulted in UNLOCKING OF LAND VALUE FOR CORPORATE DEVELOPERS at the expense of extant Owners (ie, both Majority Consenters and Minority Dissenters).

As the bulk of CPF withdrawals are used for the purchase of owner-occupation units (ie, family home, NOT second or third investment units), the SHARP 30% DROP in 2007 would seem to buttress the anecdotal evidence of the frightful consequences of "Twice the price; Half the size" post-en bloc. Hence, when Owners received the bulk of en bloc sale proceeds upon handing over their condo keys to Developer-buyer (ie, upon vacant possession), the monies were refunded to their CPF account and NOT used to buy a replacement family home, thus accounting for such sharp 30% decline in CPF housing withdrawals.

Bear in mind that Property is all about Timing and Location. Upon pay-out of en bloc proceeds (Time), replacement condo units in the same neighbourhood (Location) of about the same size to fit their family needs would likely cost 100%+ more. If the hype of "en bloc windfall" were true and if land values were genuinely unlocked for extant owners, there would NOT be such a sharp CPF drop in 2007 because the property market spike was still cresting in 2007 (please see chart below) and these owner-occupier CPF members would need a replacement family home upon handing over vacant possession!!! Such 30% CPF drop would effectively mean that en bloc owners likely morphed into Refugees, Squatters, Downgraders or Downsizers in the aftermath of en bloc. Lady Gaga goes "Aha" with this "dumb" law.
Also, MinLaw remains steadfastly dismissive towards mandating any other settlement option in LTSA of, say, a ONE-FOR-ONE (1-4-1) EXCHANGE to increase the likely incidence of "ageing in place" and "in an environment that they are familiar with" despite the gracious claims made in Parliament by the graceful Grace Fu and the key thrusts of both Concept Plan 2011 Focus Groups. Lady Gaga again goes "Aha" with this "dumb" law calibrated by "deaf" MinLaw. This is classic Cross-Talking - What was said by MND/URA was NOT what was effected by MinLaw, eh? Or maybe what was effected by MinLaw was NOT what was said by MND/URA, eh?

SEVENTH, hallo, hallo ... who's listening out there in the wilderness of our concrete jungle???

The above cross-talking all makes perfect sense when the Gahmen's agenda is PRO-SALE. Hallo, hallo again ... PRO-SALE is NOT the same as PRO-OWNERS!

In fact, PRO-SALE = ANTI-OWNERS (be it Majority or Minority). Get it????

The following interesting anecdote of the little deaf frog in the "kingdom of frogs" was recounted in Parliament by Minister without Portfolio Lim Swee Say on 3 Mar 2010 in reply to Workers' Party opposition MP Low Thia Kiang's query of Singapore's economic growth model during the debate on Annual Budget Statement. It probably extends to many plebian laments and criticisms because Singaporeans are reputedly "Ungrateful Complaint Kings".

This was what Minister Lim said in Parliament: "There is a story about this little frog. In the kingdom of frogs, every year, there is a carnival/competition. They will build the tallest tower in the world and they challenge the frogs to climb up to the top of the tower. It is very difficult, challenging and very dangerous. Every year, hundreds of frogs, would try their skills to be the champion. One year, it happened again. These frogs kept climbing, but the other frogs down there kept shouting, 'It is too dangerous. Come down. Stop climbing. Come down! Come down!' And one by one, the frogs went up half way, looked up, still a long way to go; looked down, 'Wow! I am quite far from the ground.' So one by one, they started to retreat, except for one little frog. It just went on and on and no amount of discouragement could get him to turn his way. He went to the top and the whole town cheered, 'Wow! Well done! Little frog!' When he came down, a reporter interviewed the frog. Before the interview, the frog signalled to the interviewer to face him while interviewing him. The interviewer asked, 'Everybody asked you to stop and come down. Why did you go all the way up?' The frog looked at the reporter and said, 'LOOK, I AM DEAF. I CANNOT HEAR THEM.'" [Capitalization emphasis is by The Pariah.]

The take-home point of Minister Lim's anecdote as he went on to say in his parliamentary reply: "We are like the little frog, we are deaf to all these criticisms."

Who are you but a "lesser mortal" to these deaf frogs climbing higher and higher to be way up there, eh??? Although these deaf frogs can apparently read lips, it would appear that this army of frogs are all looking only skywards to see how high Singapore's GDP will soar because that affects 27% of their froggy earnings. The higher they go, the better - who is mumbling something archaic out there about "Pride goeth before a fall"? What fall? What goes up stays up! But of course.

Get real! Read my lips? How? Kermit is not looking at you, kid! No way Kermit can be kissed and turned into Prince Charming who will come charging on a white horse to rescue you plebians from the clutches of en bloc predators ... except that these froggies have forgotten a small detail - some plebians love to eat stir-fried frog legs with spring onions and spicy chillies - that would give this dish a sharp and hot edge, eh? Anybody wants to guess if stir-fried frog legs would be on the menu for the annual Yu-Sheng dinner when Gahmen and corporate Developer-buyers get to play with their food?

Lady Gaga says "Aha" as these froggies lay claim to be "deaf". With all that cacophony of croaking in Parliament, they are definitely NOT deaf-mutes. So are they then deaf-and-dumb? Nah, they are definitely too smart-ass to be plain dumb! So their claim is likely accurate - just PLAIN DEAF. That's why, darling! Does that now fit snugly with Nat Geo's tag-line: "Everything Deserves A Why"?

To contextualize all of the above Big Picture points vis-a-vis the LTSA 2010 amendments that were debated in Parliament on 18 May 2010 ... please proceed to Part 2 of this blog posting: Lady Gaga is too stumped to even go "Aha": http://singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com/2010/07/part-2-lady-gaga-is-too-stumped-to-go.html


Anonymous said...

Your blog is very long.

But it's worth the while to read and see how you bring tog thje various Govt initiatives and then - Bingo - they don't add up anymore.

It's time we call their bluff.

The Pariah said...

Dear Anonymous:

Thank you for taking the time to read my lengthy blog postings.

I know that shortening the blog entries will make it more digestible.

However, en bloc issues are multi-faceted and the law raises complex and intertwined concerns. Hence, it doesn't do justice to the nuances and implications by over-simplifying the issues. As it is, there are enough myths and hype to cloud the issues (whether deliberately, conveniently or unwittingly created by the authorities, industry players and/or en bloc flippers).

When a reader of this blog is directly impacted by a potential en bloc sale attempt, it is in fact necessary to "invest" the time to really understand the issues.

Just like going into a battle, one must be appropriately AND fully armed to even have a chance of "surviving" (not to mention, "winning").