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COMMENTARY – Life can go on, with or without a home of your own

MARKETING manager Eva Chia accepted her boyfriend’s proposal in the middle of this year, but their joy was short- lived when the hunt for a marital home turned up nothing for months on end.

Their combined income busted the ceiling for subsidised housing but they baulked at the prices of resale Housing Board (HDB) flats and private apartments.

Up until Tuesday, when they finally found a flat, they were prepared to postpone their marriage.

‘What’s the point in getting married when you have to stay in separate homes?’ said Eva, 27, in an e-mail.

The housing crunch has hit operations officer Mohammed Samsudin, 29, and his wife in a different way, but their distress has a similar ring.

They qualify for subsidised housing but fear they will miss out on a new HDB flat because of the immense demand. The couple, who live in a rented room in an HDB flat, are adamant about not having a child until they get a home of their own.

‘Definitely not in a rented room. Only in my own house,’ said Mr Mohammed.

In the minds of these and many other couples, married life – or family life – cannot start without a home of their own.

As the booming market puts some properties out of reach, couples who fail to get new flats in the HDB’s regular ballots argue that the Government is not doing enough to curb speculation.

Some nurse conspiracy theories about rogue housing agents trying to boost the sale of resale flats – and their income – by bumping up demand for new HDB flats with fake applications. Others point the fingers at foreign money, which they say is fuelling runaway home prices.

But others, like Ms Jenny Yap, who wrote to The Straits Times Forum recently charging that these couples are simply being choosy, think otherwise. They want the best home, in the best location, at the best price and gripe when they have to compromise, she said.

Harsher critics label such couples as being spoilt, pointing out that not too long ago, 10-member, three generation families lived in three-room flats, and were none the worse for it.

While it may be true that some couples are too finicky for their own good, many cannot fathom married life without owning a home simply because they have been conditioned along these lines.

Singapore’s housing policy is overwhelmingly weighted towards home ownership, which in turn is heavily hinged on marriage. Married couples are entitled to subsidised home loans, a new HDB flat or a slew of housing grants, as well as the chance to buy condominium-style housing that could be 30 per cent cheaper than private homes.

Married couples are also encouraged to own, instead of rent, through generous aid schemes that help low income tenants buy their first flat.

Only about 48,000 – or 5 per cent – of the 880,000 HDB flats islandwide are rental units for low-income families. As at September, about 16,000 HDB flats were rented out on the open market.

An even more striking fact is that nine in 10 Singaporeans own their homes, compared with less than 10 per cent 40 years ago.

Home ownership is so deeply rooted in the national psyche that some propose marriage by way of asking the other party to apply for an HDB flat together.

Along with this comes a deep sense of entitlement that a new HDB flat – and the chance of trading up for a bigger one a few years down the road – should come along with marriage.

It is an entitlement the Government takes seriously, judging by the reassurances given yesterday by National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, who announced plans for 7,000 new flats to be launched for sale by ballot in the next seven months.

National Institute of Education professor Ooi Giok Ling says that while Asians tend to place relatively more value on home ownership, the link between marriage and home ownership seems even more prevalent in Singapore.

The contrast is more apparent when attitudes here are compared with those in Europe, Australia or North America, where young people commonly leave home when they go to university or start working.

Many get used to the idea of renting early in life while some with higher incomes buy a modest home on their own.

Prof Ooi said: ‘When they decide to get married, homes and home ownership might not be such a major factor to consider.’

But Singaporeans’ love affair with property is so entrenched that many couples feel their life together cannot start without a mortgage.

To be fair, having your own home does have its upside: You do not have to worry about your landlord raising your rent or throwing you out, and it does provide a more stable environment in which to bring up children. It could also work out to be cheaper too, on a monthly basis.

But danger arises when we start hinging major life decisions on the vagaries of the property market. What does it say about us as a society? What does it say about what we value?

Perhaps it is time to take a step back and get a sense of perspective about what really matters to us. Life can go on, with or without a home of our own.


Source: The Straits Times 29 Nov 07


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