Schools which once echoed with the voices of children playing may one day be hubs of community living for the elderly in Singapore.
A suggestion in Parliament this week by Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai to turn vacant school sites into retirement villages is being studied by the authorities.
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said of such projects in a written reply: "Their location within established housing estates will enable residents to age in residential surroundings.
"Their relatively large site area can accommodate a significant number of housing units and common spaces, allowing residents to interact with one another and develop a sense of community.
"However, there are also costs involved to rejuvenate the ageing vacant school properties and reconfigure them for housing purposes."
Mr Murali told The Straits Times that cost savings are the main reason behind the idea, saying that when developers build retirement homes, the higher capital expenditure is passed on to seniors.
PROS AND CONS
Their location within established housing estates will enable residents to age in residential surroundings... However, there are also costs involved to rejuvenate the ageing vacant school properties and reconfigure them for housing purposes.
NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT MINISTER LAWRENCE WONG, on the possibility of converting former school compounds into retirement villages.
"This option of ageing graciously in-situ with fellow seniors would be an attractive option," he added.
MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling said the idea allows facilities and services to be located together, bringing convenience to the elderly and using resources effectively.
But she added: "The design also has to consider: How do we ensure the elderly are not living in an isolated sub-community and are integrated into the wider community?"
Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for National Development, said the proposal could help to maximise space, but added that there are other needs of residents and the dynamics of the area for constituencies to be considered too.
Veteran real estate consultant and academic Steven Choo agreed that savings would be passed on to buyers if the means of sale or lease are arranged by the Government.
"I am excited about this idea," said Dr Choo, who studied retirement housing solutions in Hong Kong and Japan as a developer. "Retrofitting of a school compound for residential use is very doable."
He said he has not seen such a project in Singapore, and it would be great to have a successful demonstration project. Dr Choo's office in Kim Yam Road is located in commercial building The Herencia, which used to be Nan Chiau High School. He enjoys its high ceilings.
Some residents were also receptive to having such retirement villages in their backyards.
Retired accountant Agnes Mak, 67, who lives next to the empty Bishan Park Secondary School vacated earlier this year, said: "I wouldn't object to it because the elderly can mingle with residents in the neighbourhood, which is good."
Financial planner Tan Wen Man, 28, who lives next to the empty Bedok North Secondary, also vacated earlier this year, said: "I won't mind because the elderly are not noisy and quite friendly. If it is a primary school, it will be noisier."
According to a Straits Times report in February last year, due to falling enrolment and mergers, there were 11 schools vacated in 2016 and last year, with four more to be vacated this year.
At least nine other former school sites managed by the Singapore Land Authority are vacant state properties.
The Academy of Singapore Teachers, the Singapore Red Cross and the Enabling Village are located in former school compounds.
The Government is looking for ways to house the elderly as the population ages. The first Housing Board "retirement kampung", Kampung Admiralty, which has healthcare and wellness facilities for seniors, was opened officially in May.