99-year leasehold flat an owned asset, not a rental: Lawrence Wong

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong (far left) and Reach chairman Sam Tan getting the audience at yesterday's forum about the National Day Rally to raise their hands if they are among the Merdeka Generation.
Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong (far left) and Reach chairman Sam Tan getting the audience at yesterday's forum about the National Day Rally to raise their hands if they are among the Merdeka Generation.PHOTO: LIN ZHAOWEI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The value of a Housing Board flat sold on a 99-year lease will appreciate as the country prospers - a fundamental tenet of Singapore's home-ownership policy, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

"There is a high likelihood that over a period of time, if the economy does well, if incomes rise, then property values will appreciate together with the fundamentals of the economy, and your stake in the nation - your home - can also appreciate in value," he said.

"And that is the fundamental tenet of our home-ownership policy - that we are giving every Singaporean a home and this is a tangible and concrete stake in the nation's success," he added.

Mr Wong was answering a question by a member of the public on the 99-year leasehold for HDB flats at a forum organised by government feedback unit Reach, on what people thought about Sunday's National Day Rally.

The forum was attended by around 120 audience members, who peppered Mr Wong and Reach chairman Sam Tan with questions on cost of living, housing and foreign affairs - topics central to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech.

The first question of the night, by a Toa Payoh resident who identified himself as Mr Lu, touched on the issue of whether residents own, lease or rent their HDB homes.

Mr Lu asked if the Government should clarify that a 99-year lease is actually a form of long-term rental, and if it was thus misguided for residents to seek capital gains from their properties. Mr Wong said a 99-year lease is ownership, not a tenancy.

"When you buy a car, how long can you use a car ? Is it a rental car, or your car? A 99-year lease is far longer than 10 years. It is yours. It is an asset. It is owned by the home owner," he said.

Explaining further, he set out why residential properties, public or private, have been sold on 99-year leases by the Government since 1967.

"We are land-scarce in Singapore, we have constraints. If we give out and sell freehold land today, everyone who buys it will be very happy, and your children and whoever you pass your land to will be very happy, but eventually there will be those without land," said Mr Wong.

Hence, the limited leasehold terms allow Singapore to recycle land for the future. The properties may be on finite leases, but they will cover the housing needs of at least two generations, he added.

Mr Sam Tan, who is also Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Social and Family Development, said good economic growth over decades has led to homes becoming assets.

"So long as we as a people and country work together to grow our economy and share in the wealth of growth, then our homes will be an important and valuable asset that we can use as a retirement nest egg," said Mr Tan.

To another question about the potentially divisive nature of the Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme (Vers) in which HDB residents will vote on whether to sell their flats en bloc, Mr Wong said the Government was aware of this, and was working on how to make the process less polarising.

He noted that HDB has had a lot of experience with polling residents and the process has generally been smooth.

"I think the concerns are real and I acknowledge that the stakes are higher, it is not just about upgrading of lifts or HIP (Home Improvement Programme), it is potentially more consequential. Stakes are higher," he said. "But we have time to work out the exact mechanism and how to go about doing it without causing too much divisions, creating acrimony within the block itself. We don't want that to happen."

An ideal mechanism for the voting process is one in which residents can have a collective say if Vers were to be offered. He said the Government would work out the details while bearing in mind these concerns.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2018, with the headline '99-year leasehold flat an owned asset, not a rental: Lawrence Wong'. Print Edition | Subscribe