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Singapore as Home?

Whenever a discussion on developing nature areas comes up, words like ‘trade-offs’ and ‘balance’ come to mind. Headlines like “Are you prepared to give up a home to save a forest?” encapsulate the way in which the housing versus nature debate is consistently being framed.

What if we replaced the word ‘home’ in the title with ‘property investment’?

HDB resale prices have risen by 25% in the past two years, leading to questions about affordability. However, only asking how to make housing more affordable elides the question of whether housing should be a form of investment, or a commodity which is subject to speculation in Singapore in the first place. The housing market is increasingly stratified, and there is a housing ladder to be climbed. The public housing market, set up with the aim of providing housing to everyone, is increasingly a way for people to expand their assets.

Secondly, at first glance the headline seems to simply echo the idea that well, everybody needs homes. While that is indisputable, the issue here is that our housing market is increasingly neither equitable nor inclusive. Not everyone has access to housing even as we continue to develop natural areas to build more of them. At the same time, lavish homes, some of them unoccupied, can be found in neighbourhoods like Sentosa Cove.

The homeless, rental-flat residents and queer and single people who cannot benefit from the full range of public housing subsidies and allocation afforded to married couples — they are all invisibilised when public housing is assumed to benefit everyone in Singapore.

Taking the two together, the extent to which public housing makes for a more equitable Singapore should be questioned. Anyway, such a headline also presents the idea of trade-offs at the individual level, as if we can individually choose not to have a house in order to save an equivalent patch of nature.

Also, while it may be easy to blame the individual for treating homes as investments, the lack of social safety nets and culture of aspiring towards affluence makes for a vicious cycle where people are driven by a sense of scarcity towards excess.

Ultimately, our desires and aspirations are being shaped by societal norms, policies and the market. There may be a top-down idea of what they should be, but that does not always mean they correspond with what people desire. What do we really want? What choices do we have? Do we want to own houses or do we want to live somewhere with our loved ones, and have a sense of security and safety?

Also, if the problem is speculation, why is the solution increased development? While the government has put in efforts to limit speculation, perhaps more can be done to rethink the overall housing model in Singapore. Could the private residential sector be curbed more with higher property taxes, as some tax specialists have observed? Should home ownership be prioritised, particularly in terms of acting as retirement assets? And how does the problem of lease decay conflict with the asset appreciation narrative? These questions are intertwined with other fundamental aspects of our growth-oriented economy with weak social welfare.

And perhaps we can zoom out a little when we consider what constitutes home to us. After all, our homes are not just the individual units we live in. They also consist of the markets we visit, the parks we exercise in and other places we create memories in. If we go beyond the nuclear family or familial ties, there are many possibilities when it comes to the way we relate to each other, and the spaces in which these relationships are nurtured.

With the hegemony of the Singaporean dream of owning a home as part of being a straight couple, people have come up with alternative housing arrangements, exercising their agency amidst constraints. In discussing how the queer community have to cope with being left out of the public housing model, Paul Jerusalem cites examples of queer communes. There are also broader trends of young people in Singapore opting to rent for various reasons, including a belief in renting over home-ownership so as to be more mobile. Of course, there is also the option of leaving Singapore for some.

What trade-offs like “environment versus economic growth” and “housing versus forest” obscure is that there are much more fundamental questions we need to ask about what constitutes a good life, and the extent to which we are even allowed to have a say in that.

This is also why public participation in overall land-use planning and policy-making is important. The recent censoring of deeper questions on pricing and Minister’s response that providing more data is “not meaningful” prevents us from having a wider discussion on whether bigger changes to the housing model we currently have are necessary. Similarly, consultations about development of green spaces should not be limited to site-specific mitigation measures, but broader issues like whether existing laws and policies are sufficient to protect nature spaces at the national level. We do not only have influence on the built and natural environment through our purchase of homes or patronizing certain spaces.

In the context of housing, seeing Singapore as home requires us to rethink whether we should continue prioritising individual effort and resources to build nuclear families in increasingly commodified housing in a state where anything outside of this means precarity, even if we ‘can’ by means of our heteronormative or economic privilege. Perhaps that is one trade-off we can think about instead — the extent to which such energy can be channeled towards building alternative systems which are more equitable and inclusive, and with much more expansive notions of the kind of living space we find desirable and can materialise.

Written by S, illustrated by YF


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