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HDB flats for even rich kids' children? Yes, let them remove their heads from the bubble and breathe normal air

It's difficult for a heartland born-and-bred Singaporean like me to imagine, but there are apparently people in Singapore who have never lived in, or even stepped into, a Housing Board flat.

When I was discussing property purchases with a group of friends, one of my girlfriends confessed she would not buy a HDB flat because she wouldn't feel safe in one. She grew up in private property and her first purchase was a condominium.

I got to thinking about this issue, following reports that National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan wants to make it easier for all couples, including high-earning ones, to own and live in a HDB built-to-order (BTO) flat.

In a live radio talk show on Chinese-language station Capital 95.8FM, he is reported to have said: "If you ask for my personal opinion ... I generally prefer to give every Singaporean couple a chance of living in HDB.

"You may come from, say, an upper-income group. You do not need an HDB flat. But I feel that it's good for ... almost all Singaporeans to have a chance of living in HDB for five years, and interact with the community."

He added: "It's part and parcel of the Singaporean way of life. It's just like males go for National Service ... If we can give them this opportunity of staying in HDB towns, I think there are more positives than negatives."

His remarks were made in the context of raising the income ceiling for HDB flats, which he said could happen by Sept.

Now, a married couple with a joint monthly income of up to $10,000 can buy a subsidised, new HDB flat. It was raised from $8,000 in 2011.

This isn't the first time Mr Khaw made such a comment. In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times in April 2013, he had broached the idea of scrapping the income ceiling to allow even couples with very high incomes to own HDB flats, as living in HDB flats would give people more chances to interact with others of different races and incomes. But the lower-income households ones would still get bigger housing grants.

Mr Khaw said then: "If a rich man's kid wants to apply for a BTO flat, provided he stays the five-year minimum occupation period, there's nothing wrong with that to me".

My reaction both times was bemusement.

For most Singaporeans, HDB living is part and parcel of being Singaporean. Most live in HDb estates. Those of us who grew up in one, and moved on to private property, will probably always hanker after the bustle of HDB life. You see all the BMW-driving businessmen in long-sleeved shirts wiping away beads of sweat as they wolf down their bak chor mee or mee goreng at their favourite HDB coffeeshop and hawker centre, and you see the looks of blissful content on the well-dressed women as they buy their cheap laundry baskets or pick up kitchen utensils at the household sundry shop, and you know you can take the boy or girl out of the HDB estate, but you can't take the HDB out of the boy or girl.

So the idea that a special policy is needed to encourage people to live in and interact with HDB residents will appear slightly surreal to some. On my Facebook, a friend commented that she felt insulted, as though HDB residents were creatures in a zoo that the rich are being encouraged to visit to see.

I empathise with that comment. It's like having a special policy to encourage those who live with a permanent bubble around their heads to take their heads out of the bubble and breathe normal air like the rest of us.

Breathing normal air is the default, and should be so. But I can see that if segments of our population have become so used to living in that bubble of air, it would take concerted policy action to persuade them to try normal air for a change.

The truth is that Singapore society is stratifying. Whereas many of today's middle-aged professionals grew up in HDB flats, it's probably the case that more of today's 20-something year old professionals and managers grew up in private housing. So the idea of having them live in and experience HDB life, isn't a bad one. From the point of view of social cohesion, it makes sense.

In Singapore, public housing caters to the majority of the population - 80 per cent of Singapore resident households live in HDB flats. The idea is precisely that we would all grow up in mixed neighbourhoods that jumble up people of different races, different income groups, and different socioeconomic status.

So it makes sense to encourage the small minority who never had a chance to do that when they were growing up, and encourage them to do so in their young adulthood.

I often wonder how many of today's young Administrative Service civil servants, and the smart youngsters who enter the banks, the legal profession, and even the media, have lived in HDB flats, and if they have empathy for the average Singaporean who does. These people are future leaders and decision-makers.

If too many of them come from privileged families, they would never have experienced poverty, or suffered from want or anxiety over money problems. But if they had a friend in school or in their neighbourhood who did, and were close enough a confidant to share vicariously in the friend's struggles, their worldview will be more rounded than the wealthy child who lives with, plays with and goes to school with only other wealthy children.

If raising the income ceiling to allow more young couples to live in HDB flats can help reduce the social gap that can exist between the privileged and the masses, then there are reasons to do so.

I know some readers will argue that HDB flats should be reserved for the lower-income. Let the high-income earners who want to live in HDB estates buy flats on the resale market.

But the fact is that, with 80 per cent living in HDB estates, HDB flat owners already include the high-income. Increasingly, the subsidised HDB flat is being viewed as the birthright of every Singaporean couple. The HDB gravy train gives them a ticket to an affordable first home - and a firm step up the ladder of financial success, if they are lucky enough enough to make hundreds of thousands of dollars subsequently by selling it on the open market.

But opening up the floodgates this way will inevitably lead to demands from other groups to be given the same access to HDB subsidised flats. Mature couples who missed out on buying HDB flats earlier will also want to be allowed to buy subsidised flats. And singles will demand more leeway to benefit from housing subsidies too.

The arguments about the social benefits of having every Singaporean experience HDB living applies equally to them.

muihoong@sph.com.sg

Chua Mui Hoong blogs weekly on notable commentaries and issues.