Khaw Boon Wan, Housing

Budget 2013: 'Time to relook housing policies for the future'

Even as changes are being rolled out to meet the housing needs of Singaporeans of today, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan is casting his eye on the desired future of public housing in the decades to come.

After announcing several policy shifts during the debate on his ministry's spending yesterday, a philosophical Mr Khaw turned to what he said were fundamental questions about housing policy in light of "significant demographic and economic changes".

Signalling a critical rethink of the role and nature of public housing, he said: "After 50 years of public housing, it is good to re-examine some old assumptions and revisit some key policies."

He raised four key questions:

Should Housing Board flats continue to be an appreciating asset or return to being treated simply as a social need?

Should the HDB build to meet sophisticated tastes or go back to basics?

How to keep flats affordable while continuing to encourage couples to be prudent?

How should public housing respond to the needs of an ageing population?

"They are not trivial questions, and forging consensus on what the answers should be may be challenging," said the minister.

On the notion of an HDB flat as an asset, Mr Khaw noted that this was not the intent of public housing when it was first started. "At that time, we were all first-time applicants of HDB flats. Having basic, no-frills, low-cost homes was top priority."

Yet, as the country changed, so did housing policy. From very strict rules, changes were gradually made to allow owners to sell their flats for a profit and later to rent them out. And the changes meant many were allowed to accumulate large nest eggs, he said.

"Looking ahead, as we may no longer get the same kind of returns from reselling an HDB flat as in the past, how will its role as an asset be affected?"

On the re-evaluation that is afoot, he intends to mull the key questions "jointly with Singaporeans". He urged them to join the Government in a serious conversation on these issues and agreed with a suggestion from Parliamentary Secretary Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim that sessions be dedicated to housing in the ongoing Our Singapore Conversation.

"Share with us your worries, your fears, your hopes and your dreams. We hope to hear many views and ideas so as to better inform our housing policies. Let us work on the challenges together and shape better housing policies for our future generations."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg