There was an interesting feature in The Sunday Times today about COE prices by ex-ST editor Han Fook Kwang. In essence, he recounted how various changes to Singapore’s car ownership story has caused the explosion in COE prices. The earth should have moved within the G ranks, he said, when COE prices shot up. It didn’t.
Here is his list of how this happened:
In 2003: car loan restrictions which had been in force from 1995 lifted.
In 2002: ARF reduced from 140 per cent of the open market value of a car to 130 per cent, part of a planned reduction in the tax which was brought further down to 100 per cent in 2008.
In 2009: COE numbers reduced to slow down the growth rate of the car population from 3 per cent a year to 1.5 per cent, and to 0.5 per cent this year.
“Should anyone be surprised then that COE prices exploded, hitting the $90,000 mark?
“In its defence, each of these changes could be justified on its own grounds, as indeed they were. But taken together, it was a recipe to break COE price records. It shows how important it is for policymakers to be clear about what they want to achieve and to be wary of unintended consequences.’’
What he wrote sounded a bit like what National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said about housing policy during the budget debate. So many tweaks over the years that we’ve lost sight of what is the G’s role in providing public housing – hence high HDB prices.
In 1971: HDB flats can be resold for a profit.
In 1989: HDB flat owners can keep their flat, even when they buy a private property.
In 1993: Buyers can take loans based on the prevailing market value of the flat,instead of HDB’s historical selling prices.
In 2003: HDB flat owners can sublet their flats.
In between, the housing policy is used as a social tool for everything from making sure families stay together, encouraging the formation of families, raising the value of housing assets by subsidising upgrading, catering to the accommodation of foreigners and PRs, ensuring the spread of races…You name it, the housing tool can be used to fix everything so much so that the myriad renovations might well damage the supporting beam structure.
So Mr Khaw as well as other MPs are asking for a back to basics look at housing policy.
The trouble is, the genie is out of the bottle. Going back to basics and first principles mean that some groups which had benefited from the changes which made housing policy so complicated will be affected.
Mr Khaw raised the example of the income ceiling for HDB flats.
Should it be lowered, raised or lifted. Should executive condos continue to be offered? (Now we have to remember that ECs were in response to the housing needs of a sandwiched class who were priced out of both public and private property.)
Another example he gave was whether the HDB should return to pre-2003 days of strict owner-occupation. Then what would happen to the many retirees who rely on income from subletting or the younger homeowners who use it to help support their lifestyle?
A third example: Return to pre-1989 days when HDB flat owners have to sell off their flats when they buy a private residential property. What to say then to Singaporeans who aspire to live in a private condo and use their HDB flat for additional rental income?
Mr Khaw has been fighting fires (his words). He’s delinked BTO flat prices from the resale market to make them more affordable although he very cleverly said that those who want to figure out the discount should do the sums themselves (which property analyst will do this please?)
So housing will now be part of an in-depth conversation within the National Conversation. Mr Khaw’s back to basics re-look should apply to other policies as well. For example, have we lost sight of the G’s role in public transport (why should it subsidise transport operators?) and education (with calls now to nationalise pre-school education)?
In fact, one important facet of this discussion is what we, the citizens, want from the G in these areas. Our record is not good – we want the G to do everything. Every segment of the population wants something different that is in its interest, and policies are tweaked to cater to demand. The result is a many-headed monster of a policy. It is a Hydra that will eat the next generation, not mine or my parents’ – since we probably would have got most of what we wanted over the years.
Maybe, we should just do this: Come to an agreement on the G’s role in each area and state its mission and vision in the provision of housing, transport, education and healthcare, plus the underlying principles that will underpin its operations to fulfil its vision. Then we should look at the monster with a view of cutting off some of its heads and making sure they don’t grow back. It’s easier said than done of course.
But it would be an interesting political and intellectual exercise.