Is the En Bloc Sale Daylight Robbery of our Home?: A Case Study into the Porosity of the Modern Singaporean Home by Poh Yang Rong Matthew

“When I got HDB to launch the home ownership scheme in 1964, there were many skeptics. We had little reserves then. Singapore was still in Malaysia. Our future looked bleak. The post-war baby boom and the high unemployment added to our pressures. Our construction industry was low in skills and lacking in building management. Few believed a home owning Singapore was possible. Against the odds, through grit and determination, we housed the nation progressively and systematically.” – Lee Kuan Yew, key handover ceremony for the Pinnacle@Duxton, 13 December 2009[1]

Fifty years have passed since the Housing and Development Board (HDB) started the home ownership scheme. Gone are the kampungs and squatters belonging to the sleepy fishing village of yesteryear. Today, Singapore is a nation of sprawling high rises. Based on the statistics alone, Emeritus Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has no doubt proven his skeptics wrong. In 1960, HDB only housed a low 9 percent of the population. By the 1980s, a mere 20 years after the scheme was introduced, “HDB has managed to accommodate more than 80 percent of the population” (Wong and Yap 366). At least until recently, the home ownership scheme is widely regarded as an undisputed success story. However, the introduction of the En Bloc Scheme forces us to reevaluate our understanding of the Singaporean home. Are Singaporeans no closer to owning personal homes today than when the home ownership scheme first started fifty years ago?

The En Bloc sale is “a form of collective action whereby all owners of separate units within a development sell their properties collectively and at the same time to a single party or a consortium/joint venture” (Christudason 109-110). Sections 84A to 84F of the Land Titles (Strata) Act (LTSA) codify the En Bloc process. Pursuant to s 84A of the LTSA, an En Bloc sale can be carried out if an approval by 80 percent majority of owners in the development is obtained.[2] Since the current En Bloc legislation came into force in 1999, its popularity has been on the rise.[3] As developments sold through en bloc sales usually fetch premium sums, the more pragmatic homeowners relish the opportunity to become overnight millionaires. To them, “the en bloc sale represents the epitome of the Singaporean dream” (Tang 89). Yet for those who have “strong emotional and sentimental attachments to their home”, the thought of losing their homes is simply a nightmare (ibid).

The 2006 En Bloc sale of Eng Lok Mansion illustrated the growing tension between proponents and critics of the collective sale process. Proponents of the En Bloc sale emphasized that each homeowner pocketed in excess of a million dollars in profits from the sale of their apartment (Mak). However strong dissenting voices were heard when an elderly widow, Madam Chow, opposed the sale of her home. Due to the mandatory nature of the en bloc sale, Madam Chow could only watch helplessly as her home of nearly forty years was taken away, rendering her homeless. Not even an appeal to the Strata Titles Board (STB) could spare her the heartbreak of having to part with her home. In Madam Chow’s appeal to the STB, her lawyer raised, inter alia, the following grounds of objection at [28]:

(b) the legality of en-bloc sale when properties, which are freehold in nature, should be properties that an owner can own “forever”;

(c) Madam Chow’s late husband’s spirit would not have a place to return to if Eng Lok Mansion was sold;

(d) Madam Chow has stayed at Eng Lok Mansion for nearly 40 years and she has great attachment to the place …

The STB, which dismissed Madam Chow’s appeal, held at [33] that “her emotional attachment to Eng Lok Mansion for whatever reason … is clearly not a factor that can be taken into account”. In light of the STB’s summary dismissal of Madam Chow’s appeal, this paper seeks to investigate whether the state, by introducing the En Bloc sale, has rendered the concept of home, as a personal space, illusory. As noted by Barros in his reference to the cliché ‘a house is not a home’, “home means far more than a physical structure” (255); it is typically regarded as a homeowner’s personal space where he/she has autonomous control over. Ultimately, Madam Chow’s appeal prompts us to question the objectives of the state’s homeownership scheme. Do homeowners exist in Singapore, or are Singaporeans merely flat buyers, who like Madam Chow, are “homeless” today? In this paper, I will argue that ‘homeownership’ is a state-constructed ideology. However it does not follow that the concept of home in Singapore is illusory. The En Bloc sale sheds light on the reality of the modern Singaporean home as a technologized living space jointly controlled by the state and individual Singaporeans, who are not homeowners, but homemakers.

The idea of home being a technologized living space has its origins in Kaika’s theoretical conception of the modern home in her article “Interrogating the Geographies of the Familiar: Domesticating Nature and Constructing the Autonomy of the Modern Home”. According to Kaika, the modern home can be compared to a porous membrane, which separates two spaces, namely, the inside of the modern home and the outside society (275). However, the two spaces are not mutually exclusive; the membrane’s porosity “allows significant but controlled interactions between them” (ibid). As a result, the modern home, based on Kaika’s theory, is technologized – it requires controllers to regulate the influx of societal elements into the home.[4] For the purpose of this paper, controllers of the porous membrane shall be termed as technologies of home. If we treat Kaika’s theory as true, we can likewise discern in Madam Chow’s appeal, the influence of society on the modern Singaporean home.

How and to what extent society influences the home is ultimately dependent on the agents in the technology of home. This paper will first identify two radically different conceptions of the Singaporean home present in Madam Chow’s appeal to the STB, namely the sentimental and legal conception of the home. In essence, the sentimental conception identifies the individual Singaporean as the sole technology of home. In contrast, the legal conception identifies the state as the technology of home. This paper will then show that both conceptions fall short in providing an accurate depiction of the modern Singaporean home. In response, this paper offers an alternative construction of the modern Singaporean home by taking a middle ground. Although it is acknowledged that the state has a stake in the modern Singaporean home, this paper will argue that the state is more concerned with establishing a partnership of joint control with individuals over their homes than to take full control. Within this partnership, the role of the individual and the state are inter-dependent – the state as the provider of housing and the individual as the homemaker. Finally, this paper will discuss how the homeownership scheme, which seeks to promote the state constructed ideology of homeownership, embodies the partnership between state and individual. The sense of autonomy Singaporeans have over their homes is a testimony of how well the state has managed to uphold the ideology of homeownership while addressing important policy concerns in a society undergoing rapid modernization.

To determine the reality of the modern Singaporean home, we shall first examine Madam Chow’s grounds of objection in her appeal. With the aid of Kaika’s theory, we see how Madam Chow’s appeal alludes to the porosity of home. Her objections, especially in relation to her late husband’s spirit, is evidence of how aspects of society such as superstition, culture and religion can influence the portrayal of the porous home in Singapore’s multicultural society. More importantly, Kaika’s theory shows how Madam Chow’s objections allude to the sentimental conception of home. According to the sentimental conception, the defining characteristic of a home is the homeowner’s emotional attachment to it. At the core of this conception lies the underlying assumption that the individual is the sole technology of home. If we accept this assumption, we would then recognize Madam Chow as having autonomous control over her home. Hence, not only should she have the right to select aspects of society to admit into her home, she should also have the power to exclude social process, such as the En Bloc sale, which endanger her home. In addition, her emotional attachment towards her home, as a personal space, should be respected.[5]

Like Madam Chow, many of us subscribe to the sentimental conception of home. Historically, the sentimental conception of home has its roots in “one of the most pervasive clichés in the common law … [,] that a man’s home is his castle” (Barros 259). Notably, the cliché is derived from the belief that a man’s home should be free from the intervention of the state and its rule of law. In the Parliamentary Debate regarding the enactment of the En Bloc sale provisions in the LTSA, Mr Simon Tay drew on the sentimental conception of the home to express his reservations over the En Bloc scheme at col 1339:

“If I see a widow in her 60s or 70s living now alone in a flat, it is a familiar neighbourhood, near her family, the sale may proceed but it gives her only a small profit, can the existing safeguards save this widow from the inconvenience of having to move at an old age? … As far as I see it, it cannot.”

Interestingly, the scenario painted by Mr Tay resembles the plight of Madam Chow. By alluding to the sentimental conception of home, which was also implicitly raised in Parliament, Madam Chow’s objections do have their merits. The widespread sympathy towards Madam Chow when her appeal was publicized is further evidence that the sentimental conception of home is widely held in the Singaporean society. However, the more important question to ask is whether the sentimental conception of home, notwithstanding that it is widely held, can be regarded as an accurate depiction of the modern Singaporean home.

At this juncture, it is instructive for us to return to Kaika’s article. Kaika states that the selective porosity of the modern home is “enabled by a set of invisible social … connections” (275). Kaika then refers to situations when such social connections surface as the ‘domestic uncanny’. Examples of the ‘domestic uncanny’ include “a disrupted domestic routine like a tap drying up, or even a dripping tap” (277). A domestic uncanny produces a “feeling of discomfort and anxiety, whereby one no longer feels at home in his most familiar environment”. Such feelings also arise because the domestic uncanny “forces the dweller to reflect on the existence of social and economic relations to which the home is connected” (ibid).

If we treat Kaika’s claims as true, we can likewise regard the En Bloc process in Madam Chow’s appeal as an example of the domestic uncanny. The En Bloc process, as a ‘domestic uncanny’, questions the air of familiarity Singaporeans have within their homes “based on the supposed autonomy of the private space” (Kaika 277). Driven by the sentimental conception of home, Singaporeans’ belief that they have autonomous control over their homes is evident in their usage of the term ‘homeowner’ to refer to a purchaser of a residential property. However, the En Bloc process introduced by the state makes it possible for home to be taken away from an individual against his/her wishes, rendering the sentimental conception of home illusory, in the Singaporean context. Ultimately, the stake that the government possesses in the modern Singaporean home means that a Singaporean cannot truly be a homeowner. In line with Kaika’s finding, it is therefore inevitable that the En Bloc process, as a ‘domestic uncanny’, will generate strong feelings of discomfort, anxiety and unhappiness among Singaporeans.

Having shown that the sentimental conception of home is inadequate as a depiction of the modern Singaporean home, we now turn to the STB’s response to Madam Chow’s objections. From the STB’s response, we are able to discern the legal conception of home, which stands as a polar opposite to the sentimental conception relied on by Madam Chow. While the sentimental conception entrusts the individual with full control of the porous membrane, the legal conception recognizes the state as the technology of home, taking away control from the hands of the individual. Based on this legal conception, there is no place for an individual’s emotional attachment to home.[6] The state exercises control over the home via the rule of law. However, as most people are unfamiliar with the technicalities of the law, the rule of law operating on the Singaporean home becomes, in Kaika’s words, “invisible social connections”. It is only in the event of an actual En Bloc sale that we realize that the Singaporean home is founded upon the state’s legal framework.

Looking through statutes and case law in Singapore, we can see further evidence of the state extending control over the Singaporean home. In this regard, the law in Singapore appears to stand in contrast to jurisdictions where there are safeguards to protect an individual’s autonomy over his/her home. As noted by Tang, “Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights stipulates that ‘[e]veryone has the right to respect for his private and family and private life, his home and his correspondence’” (emphasis in original) (85). However, the case of Lo Pui Sang v Mamata Kapildev Dave established that there is no constitutional protection of property in Singapore. In response to the counsel’s argument that the En Bloc sale is an infringement of the constitution, Choo Han Teck J held at [6]: “it appears to me that if any fundamental right is violated here, it is … one’s right to property (which is not a fundamental right entrenched in our Constitution)”. Choo J’s holding in that case explains why the STB in Madam Chow’s appeal stated at [30] that Madam Chow’s “contention that properties which are freehold should be owned forever, cannot be upheld”.[7]

Further, the En Bloc sale provisions in the LTSA are not the only statutory provisions which enable the compulsory taking of land from an individual. The lesser-known Land Acquisition Act “empowers the state to compulsorily acquire land in a wide variety of circumstances” (Tang 91). Pursuant to Section 5 of the Land Acquisition Act, any particular land may be taken by the state where the land is needed: “(a) for any public purpose; (b) by any person, corporation or statutory board, for any work or an undertaking which, in the opinion of the Minister, is of public benefit or of public utility or in the public interest; or (c) for any residential, commercial or industrial purposes”. Therefore, if we conceptualize home from a purely legal perspective, it appears that ownership of the home is vested in the state.

As much as most people would prefer to hold on to the sentimental conception of home, I contend that a degree of state control in the modern Singaporean home is necessary. To start with, Kaika claims that the “creation of … domestic spaces depends upon the appropriation (and, in effect, destruction) of public (social) space” (273). In city-states like Singapore, the responsibility of creating ‘domestic spaces’ lies with the state. Urban planning plays an important role in the development of residential estates. Homes, therefore, only come into existence after the physical housing infrastructure is laid down by the state.

Historically, the homeownership scheme was the state’s first response towards the need for urban planning in relation to housing. Back in the 1960s, a ‘housing emergency’ was declared in light of “landmark events, such as the 1961 fire in the ‘squatter village’ of Bukit Ho Swee, which left hundreds homeless” (Cairns and Jacobs 11-12). Further, existing housing (be that kampungs, shop houses or squatter settlements) during that period fell short of standards of sanitation, were overcrowded and harboured “subversive or illegal activities” (Cairns and Jacobs 12). Hence, “rehousing was foundationally conceived of by the state” in the form of the homeownership scheme (ibid).

Fast-forward fifty years and the En Bloc process can be construed as an extension to the homeownership scheme. Today, urban planning continues to pose a challenge to planning authorities in Singapore due to the city-state’s severe land constraint (Ter 50). As noted by Ter, “a land area of less than 700 sq km … has to be shared among housing, recreation, industry, infrastructure, water catchment and military needs” (ibid). State control over the modern Singaporean home through the En Bloc sale allows for rejuvenation and land optimization (Christudason 116). In particular, Christudason states that the En Bloc scheme “provided the catalyst for better use of Singapore’s limited land to generate more quality housing units. Thus for example, the 390-unit, Goldenhill Park Condominium, is now located on the site formerly occupied by the 95-unit Goldenhill Condominium, and the 100-unit The Ansley used to be occupied by the 44-unit Mandalay Court” (ibid).[8] In light of the nation’s projected population increase and society’s unrelenting pace of modernization, the need for urban planning, and in turn state control over the Singaporean home, will only grow (Ter 50).

However, the legal conception of home is not without its inadequacies in depicting the modern Singaporean home. Most significantly, if we are to fully disregard the individual’s involvement in creating the home, we run the danger of reducing home to simply a physical dwelling space, i.e. the house. Based on a statutory interpretation, home is simply a commodity, devoid of emotions and easily replaceable by monetary compensation. Accordingly, Singaporeans are merely flat buyers. However, such an interpretation certainly does not account for the emotional anguish Madam Chow felt when she lost her home. Furthermore, it is difficult to reconcile the legal conception of home, which recognizes the state as the technology of home, with the state’s homeownership scheme, which supposedly aims to allow individual Singaporeans to ‘own’ homes. As evident from its introduction of the homeownership scheme, it is clear that the state has no intention to adopt a legal conception of home.

Having established the limitations of both the sentimental and legal conceptions of home apparent in Madam Chow’s appeal, is the concept of home in the modern Singaporean context illusory? If that is the case, are all Singaporeans ‘homeless’ in this day and age, despite having a roof over their heads? I contend that while the concept of home in Singapore may be elusive, it is definitely not illusory. By taking a middle ground, we develop a compelling sense of what the reality of the modern Singaporean home. The modern Singaporean home is a porous membrane jointly controlled by the individual and the state, as technologies of home. In this conception of home, the state and the individual play integral and mutually dependent roles as housing provider and homemaker respectively.

The cornerstone of this middle ground conception of home is the homeownership scheme. However, if we attempt to derive the objectives of the scheme based on the literal meaning of the word ‘homeownership’, the scheme becomes essentially meaningless. As shown earlier, the concept of individual homeownership in Singapore is illusory. Rather, the true objective of the homeownership scheme is in the promotion of a state-constructed ideology of homeownership. The fact that most Singaporeans, who purchase a residential property, regard themselves as homeowners is further evidence that Singaporeans have bought into the state-constructed ideology.

The homeownership scheme promotes the state-constructed ideology of homeownership by encouraging Singaporeans to be homemakers. The homemaking role of the individual is most evident in the interior designing process of the Singaporean home. Since the early years of the homeownership scheme, the HDB had recognized the designing of the home’s interior according to one’s personal taste, as an important aspect of homemaking. “From 1972 through to the late 1989, the HDB published Our Home as [a] bimonthly magazine” (Cairns and Jacobs 19) aimed, in part, at encouraging individual expression in the interior designing of the Singaporean home. Contained in the magazines are “articles with titles like ‘Making it a home sweet home’ (Our Home 1985, 40) … [and] ‘More than just a roof’ (Our Home 1976a, 9)” (Cairns and Jacobs 20). Over time, the interior of the modern Singaporean home evolved to encapsulate not just the personal aspirations of the homemaker, but also aspects of society such as culture and tradition, which the homemaker intentionally admits through the porous membrane of home.[9] For example, Cairns and Jacobs mentions “cultural ‘adjustments’ made by ethnically-identified occupants” to their apartments such as “the ways in which Chinese residents adjusted room layouts to accommodate altars, Hindi transformed storerooms into prayer rooms and Malays petitioned space to ensure protocols of religious of hygiene” (16). In recent years, as noted by Cairns and Jacobs, homemakers have even incorporated interpretations of European interiors into the interior designing of their homes (32). By encouraging Singaporeans to ‘make’ their own homes, the state is, in effect, recognizing, even cultivating, the individual’s emotional attachment to the home. The individual’s emotional attachment, in turn, translates into a sense of ownership, crucial in the maintenance of the state-constructed ideology.

Now that we have understood how the homeownership scheme allows the individual to exert a degree of control over his/her home, let us review the superiority of the middle ground conception, as a representation of the modern Singaporean home. The strength of the middle ground conception over the other conceptions mentioned in this paper lies in its ability to incorporate the merits of having the state and the individual as technologies of home. A partnership of joint control is made possible due to the compatibility of the individual’s role as homemaker with the state’s role as the provider of housing. In short, the state provides the house, which the individual transforms into the modern Singaporean home. Unlike the sentimental conception of the home, which regards individuals as homeowners, the middle ground conception acknowledges that the rule of law can and will still enter the porous membrane of home if the state finds it practicable and necessary. However, by assigning the homemaking role to the individual, the middle ground conception allows the individual to have an emotional stake in the home. As a result, it distinguishes itself from the cold portrayal of home by the rule of law.

In conclusion, the En Bloc sale challenges Singaporeans to interrogate the sense of ownership they have towards their homes. In attempting to ascertain the reality of the Singaporean home, we started with the widely held sentimental conception of home, relied on by Madam Chow. However, the En Bloc sale as a ‘domestic uncanny’ highlights the inadequacies of the sentimental conception due to the necessity of state control over the Singaporean home. Hence, a more accurate representation of the modern Singaporean home is one that describes the state and the individual as joint controllers of the porous membrane. The role of the state as a joint controller of the Singaporean home is evident when our late Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew, in his speech, reflects on how the state has “housed the nation progressively and systematically”. However, the state alone cannot build homes. The homeownership scheme therefore aims to cultivate in Singaporeans a sense of ownership through homemaking.

50 years on since the introduction of the homeownership scheme, the strong opposition against the En Bloc sale, as seen in Madam Chow’s appeal, is testimony of how successful the scheme has been. The home owning Singapore we see today is attributable to the admirable efforts of the state in laying down the ideological roots of homeownership, while addressing the needs of a society undergoing rapid growth and modernization. On these grounds, Singaporeans should perhaps think again before labeling the En Bloc sale as a ‘daylight robbery’ of their homes.

Works Cited

Journal Articles

Barros, D. Benjamin. “Home as a Legal Concept.” Santa Clara Law Review 46.2 (2006): 254-306. Web. <http://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/lawreview/vol46/iss2/2&gt;.

Jacobs, Jane M. and Stephen Cairns. “The modern touch: interior design and modernisation in post-independence Singapore,” Environment and Planning A (2008): 572-95. LINC on-line.

Christudason, Alice. “Legal Framework for Collective Sale of Real Estate in Singapore: Pot of Gold for Investors?” Journal of Property Investment & Finance 28.2 (2010): 109-22. Retrieved 5 Nov. 2014 from http://www.emeraldinsight.com.

Kaika, Maria. “Interrogating the Geographies of the Familiar: Domesticating Nature and Constructing the Autonomy of the Modern Home,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28 (June 2004): 265-86.

Tang, Hang Wu. “The Legal Representation of the Singaporean Home and the Influence of the Common Law.” Hong Kong Law Journal 37 (2007): 81-101. HeinOnline.

Ter, Kah Leng. “A Man’s Home Is [not] His Castle – En Bloc Collective Sales in Singapore.” Singapore Academy of Law Journal 20 (2008): 49-98. Lawnet.

Wong, Tai-Chee, and Adriel Yap. “From Universal Public Housing to Meeting the Increasing Aspiration for Private Housing in Singapore.” Habitat International 27 (2003): 361-80.

Newspaper Articles

Mak, Mun San. “En Bloc and Loaded.” Straits Times (Singapore) 12 Mar. 2006, Lifestyle sec. Lexis-Nexis.

Statutes

Land Acquisition Act (Cap 152, 1985 Rev Ed Sing)

Land Titles (Strata) Act (Cap 158, 2009 Rev Ed Sing)

Parliamentary Debate

Parliamentary Debates Singapore: Official Report, vol 70 (4 May 1999)

Cases

Lo Pui Sang and others v Mamata Kapildev Dave and others (Horizon Partners Pte Ltd, intervener) and other appeals [2008] 4 SLR(R) 754

Tan Hui Peng and Others v Chow Ai Hwa and Another [2006] SGSTB 2

Speeches

Lee, Kuan Yew. “Speech By Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor, At The Key Handover Ceremony For The Pinnacle@Duxton.” Singapore Government Media Release. 13 Dec. 2009. Retrieved 6 Nov. 2014. <http://www.news.gov.sg/public/sgpc/en/media_releases/agencies/mica/speech/S- 20091213-1.print.html?AuthKey=>.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Prof. Barbara Ryan, who read an earlier draft of this paper and provided me with many insightful suggestions. More importantly, this paper would never have been possible without Prof Ryan’s invaluable guidance, not just through this paper, but also throughout the course of the entire WCT module. It is my honour to have been taught by such a dedicated tutor. My gratitude also goes out to a dear friend of mine, Priscilla Lee, for her constructive feedback towards my ideas. Last but not least, thanks are also due to all my friends who took the WCT module with me. I have learnt immensely from their honest comments towards my drafts and forum posts throughout the module. That being said, any mistakes or misrepresentations in this paper remain solely mine.

Notes

[1] The Pinnacle@Duxton is the first 50-storey public housing project in Singapore.(Information from http://www.pinnacleduxton.com.sg/about.php).

[2] 90 percent if the age of the development is less than ten years.

[3] Before 1999, unanimous consent by all homeowners in the development was required before an en bloc sale can be carried out. At the peak of the en bloc market in 2007, a record 6,566 units were collectively sold, with transactions amounting to S$13.3 billion (Christudason 109).

[4] Kaika mentions how the controller regulates the influx of social processes and natural elements through the porous membrane if the controller allows. However, she only focuses on the influx of natural elements into the home, in particular, water. This paper hopes to value-add to Kaika’s article by exploring the influence of social processes on the home.

[5] See objection (d) of Madam Chow’s appeal.

[6] See [33] of Tan Hui Peng and Others v Chow Ai Hwa and Another.

[7] An owner of freehold property is regarded in most jurisdictions as enjoying ownership in perpetuity.

[8] Both the Goldenhill Condominium and the Mandalay Court were sold under the En Bloc process.

[9] See the earlier discussion of Madam Chow’s objection in relation to her late husband’s spirit.

 

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