Second IPS-Nathan lecture: Radical ideas to tackle housing affordability, income inequality

SINGAPORE - Soaring home prices and rising income inequality are among the key challenges facing Singapore's economy in the next 50 years, businessman Ho Kwon Ping said on Wednesday.

Giving his second lecture in the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS)-Nathan lecture series on Singapore's public policy, Mr Ho threw up some radical suggestions to address these two economic bugbears.

To ensure housing affordability, he proposed setting sale price caps for all homes in Singapore and doing away completely with the distinction between public and private housing.

These price caps would be decided by the Housing Board (HDB), which would give up its role as state land developer and take on the function of national housing price regulator instead, he said.

After setting the unit sale prices for a particular development, the HDB would auction the land parcel for the development to private developers, who would compete not just on cost but also on project design and quality.

This move would do away with the current system in which public housing prices are influenced by private home prices which, in turn, are determined to some extent by foreign demand.

As for the problem of income inequality, Mr Ho, the executive chairman of hospitality group Banyan Tree Holdings, said a more innovative immigration programme is needed to raise the quality of cheap foreign workers who depress salaries at the low end.

One idea he gave was to convert the "punitive" foreign worker levy into deferred savings, which would be put into an account to be withdrawn by the worker when he eventually leaves Singapore.

This Central Provident Fund-like scheme would raise foreign workers' take-home pay and attract higher-skilled labour here, Mr Ho said. It would also help to ensure good behaviour among these workers while they are in Singapore.

Mr Ho's lecture yesterday followed his first talk last month on politics and governance in Singapore over the next 50 years. He will give three more lectures - on demography and family, society and identity, and arts, culture and media - in his capacity as the first S R Nathan Fellow.

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