The iconic but now defunct “rainbow buildings” in Rochor estate, which has been scheduled for demolition to make way for a new expressway
Some time ago I followed a website called Teleport, which is a community of people interested in travel and living abroad. It has a forum for people to ask each other questions about their respective countries. I received several notifications regarding a similar question: “What is it like to live in Singapore?”
I did not respond to any of them, because it is a difficult question to answer. What it’s like to live in Singapore depends on whose perspective you take – a Singaporean citizen, an expat, or a blue collar foreign worker, among many others.
We’ve all heard about how infamously expensive Singapore is. And considering that it is a city and country at the same time, there is not much choice for citizens in terms of lifestyle and preferences, unless, blatantly speaking, you are wealthy or of the upper class.
The class system may not be as apparent as in class-obsessed Great Britain, but it is an insidious one. And as in any society, people living on the lower frontiers of society are the ones that are struggling the hardest.
So whose position am I taking? I am a Singaporean citizen, but due to some unfortunate personal circumstances, I do not belong in the normal ranks of Singaporeans who register their marriage, apply for a Build To Order (BTO) flat, and plan their wedding for three years.
By the way, you have to be legally married to be entitled to purchase a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat in Singapore, or else wait till you are 35 years old if you’re single. Also because Singapore does not legalise same-sex marriage, people from the LGBT community are not eligible to buy a house. They will usually wait till 35 years old to apply for a flat as “Single”.
Of course, what I’m talking about is public housing, of which more than 80% of Singaporeans live in. If one is lucky enough to belong to the elite minority (which also applies to foreigners coming to work in Singapore as white collar expats, because their companies would usually sponsor accommodation), then private housing options such as condominiums and landed property are widely available on the market.
To summarise, buying a HDB flat in Singapore is expensive (a minimum average of S$200,000 for a decent sized flat for two in a super off the beaten track location at the far ends of the MRT aka metro lines), you have to register your marriage, and the general waiting time for construction to be completed is 5 years as of now.
Screenshot of Build-To-Order flat prices in 2016, from the HDB website
I am 24 this year and I have seen many friends of this age rushing to get married and commit to a flat because of the long waiting time, before which they have to live with their parents. Majority of Singaporeans live with their parents until they get married, some as late as their thirties.
This is because the cost of living in Singapore is really high, and renting, which I have personally tried and tested, is really unaffordable. The rental market prices are crazy because most if not almost all people who rent are foreigners. Most rental transactions between owner/landlord and tenants have to go through property agents, who charge exorbitant agent fees on top of deposit and 1st month rental payments.
Thus, renting for a Singaporean citizen is highly disadvantageous.
One would do better following the system and do things in the preset manner as mentioned above. It is not uncommon to find young people troubling over housing costs on top of repaying their student loans and supporting their parents upon graduating from university.
However, some are lucky enough to have relatively well-to-do or at least middle income families who have sponsored their education. I certainly wasn’t one of them, and paid my way through 10 years of secondary and tertiary education with scholarships and a study loan.
After all, you should know that Singapore is a meritocratic society, which values hard work and encourages individual achievement. This of course has also made our society very competitive, such as the shocking phenomenon of parents going for tuition classes so as to help their children excel in their studies. However, that is a story for another time.
This is a society that values structure, order and social norms. I have a long term stable partner whom I intend to marry, but not for housing purposes. We applied for a flat in November last year, and received the news in February that we were unsuccessful in getting a queue number.
Despite the government’s efforts to increase the supply of flats, land in Singapore is scarce. When we apply for a flat, our chances are not guaranteed as we have to first secure a queue number through a ballot system. We have heard many friends around us who have been unsuccessful in getting a queue number or at least one that is favourable enough to select a decent unit, despite repeated attempts.
My partner and I did not like the way getting access to housing is literally equivalent to a gamble. The uncertainty about the future was suffocating. His parents are ageing and approaching retirement, and we are staying with them at the moment. I have moved out of my own family apartment due to personal circumstances.
In Singapore, housing is inexplicably tied to family. This is unlike in other countries like the UK and the US, where young people move out of their house very early, especially so if they have to change states to attend college or university, which is fairly common.
This is undeniably due to the fact that Singapore is a small country, and there is not much opportunity for mobility or even cultural awareness about mobility as a personal choice. Most people don’t think about it, and people who apply for HDB flats do so with the intention of settling down in Singapore, working and raising their children here.
There are situations where people lose their housing and become homeless due to social reasons such as family disputes. Sometimes it is not their choice, or at least we are not in the position to comment for we do not know what happened exactly. I have seen homeless people sleeping on cardboard pieces near the toilets at the food centre in harbour front, just a stone’s throw away from the renowned tourist attraction Resorts World Sentosa.
Yet there are still many people who think that homelessness doesn’t exist in Singapore.
Wealth and poverty coexist in Singapore, but poverty is often overlooked in a first world country where survival is assumed to be guaranteed, and government responsibility in ensuring the basic standard of living is expected and assumed to be well taken care of. However, if you fall out of the norms that are expected of you by the system, you are left alone.
Some of those people sleeping on cardboard outside the public toilets were using iPhones. Some Singaporeans might immediately condemn them – “they aren’t really poor, are they?” But who would want to be in this situation, especially so if they can afford an iPhone? Why then are they here? These are the questions that are not asked.
But sometimes I feel the society doesn’t have time for compassion. It is human nature to assume that the “accepted norm” applies to everyone. There are, unfortunately, many people who fall through the gaps, and there is no safety net to catch them.
I have been through such falls. But this time round, I am making a choice, an unusual one at that, one that would be questioned and doubted if shared with Singaporeans who are in the “get married, buy a flat, organise a grand hotel wedding” league.
My partner and I have a dream of working and living overseas in a few specific places after he finishes his work bond in Singapore in 2019. Even when I travel, I do not enjoy tourism. I like to experience local life in different places, and imagine all the lives I could not have lived if I stayed in one place all my life.
When we applied for a flat last November, we did it out of desperation because we wanted a place to call our own. It was lucky in a way that we did not get it, because we would never have the courage or ability to pursue our dreams, if we were weighed down by a huge financial commitment that would last us the next 25 years (repaying housing loans).
Every choice has its consequences, and sometimes even choosing to do nothing is a choice.
We chose to do something different from the cookie cutter life that the system put in place.
We are unable to use the mandatory savings scheme, Central Provident Fund (into which 20% of monthly income is deducted and channeled), to pay for our housing for the next three years.
We have to rent and pay out of our pockets (on top of CPF contributions that we cannot touch until we retire or give up our citizenship), and have a proportion of our monthly disposable income deducted.
In exchange, we get mobility, freedom and the chance to go out there and pursue our goals and dreams together. The uncertainty, of course, is killing us at times. But you can’t have everything in life.
If people are like boats, then they are either anchored in the harbour, or sailing out at sea.
Is it worth it? In the short term, it may seem costly. It would take at least 10 years to know if our endeavours would pay off. But what I know is, I would regret it in future if I didn’t take the chance.
To understand more about homelessness in Singapore, check out this article by The Straits Times.