The Big Read: Amid societal changes, how will the link between family formation and housing policies evolve?

Published date13 March 2021
Publication titleMalay Mail Online

The first thing that Ms Rahayu Natalya did after her newborn was allowed to go home -she was born premature and had to remain in hospital for a month - was to bring her along to see their Member of Parliament (MP), Mr Christopher de Souza, to seek help in getting a rental flat from the Housing and Development Board (HDB).

The single unwed mother started her quest for a rental flat when she was about four months' pregnant in 2016, and was still without a home after giving birth.

'When I brought my daughter to him (the MP) I said, 'Why do I feel like my government has turned its back on me?'. Because I am here literally homeless with my daughter,' said Ms Rahayu, who works part-time at non-profit organisation Daughters of Tomorrow.

About a year after she first started her search for a home, the 39-year-old eventually got her one-room rental flat - after 'a lot of letters' and much help from Mr de Souza, who looks after the Ulu Pandan ward in the Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

Then there is Mr Fadhil Azmi, who was renting for 10 years before he finally bought his own HDB flat in 2019 when he reached the minimum eligible age of 35 years old.

He moved out of his parents' home as he wanted his own space, given that he comes from a big family living in a small flat.

'The amount I spent on rent in the last 10 years, I could have paid for the house (if I was allowed to buy it) back then I would have been debt-free by now,' said the 36-year-old who works in marketing.

For single Singaporeans such as Ms Rahayu and Mr Fadhil, the road to securing a roof over their heads has been more challenging than some others.

That's because for the longest time, a Singaporean's marital status is a key factor in determining whether he or she is eligible for public housing.

According to experts, linking housing eligibility to matrimony is meant to help the Government, among other things, achieve its wider national objective of encouraging couples to get married and have children, so as to boost the local population growth. It also helps to prioritise housing resources in land-scarce Singapore.

Married couples or those intending to get married do not face age limitations and get higher housing grants.

Singles, on the other hand, can buy an HDB flat only when they turn 35, and are limited to only smaller units in newer estates when they buy flats that are built and sold at subsidised rates by the Government.

In recent years, in a nod to societal changes and intense lobbying by MPs, there have been moves by the authorities to alleviate the plight of some groups of singles, including single unwed parents and divorcees.

Most recently, the Ministry of National Development (MND) announced on March 4 that it would be piloting a new scheme, where low-income singles looking to apply for public rental flats will soon no longer have to find a flatmate first.

Currently, only two or more singles can apply for a public rental flat together under the Joint Singles Scheme (JSS). Individuals who are not able to find a flatmate would typically have to approach the housing agency for help to source for one.

This latest change comes amid anecdotal evidence that some co-tenants could not get along with each other and ended up in an acrimonious living environment.

Still, the general sentiment among singles in Singapore - which was also borne out by interviews with this group conducted by TODAY - is that the policy changes do not go far enough and more can be done.

Mr Abhishek Ravikrishnan, who is currently renting a room as he is not old enough under HDB rules to buy a public flat, said he understands the wider objective of designing policies that prioritise the nucleus family, which is understood to refer to a heterosexual married couple with children.

However, the 31-year-old who produces sports content, said the Government should look at other ways of catering to the increasing number of Singaporeans who do not wish to form such a nucleus family.

'At the end of the day, if your objective is just to give birth and have babies, perhaps then we don't fit in the country. Is that what you are trying to say? What kind of message are you sending to people who don't conform to that?' said Mr Abhishek.

The tweaks in housing policies in recent years are also taking place in the wider context of demographic shifts in Singapore's population.

According to data from the Department of Statistics, marriage rates have been on the downtrend as fewer couples got married in 2019 compared to 2018 and the number of divorces has gone up. Over a longer-term period, it also showed that Singaporeans are marrying later.

Singapore's total fertility rate, which refers to the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime, has also been trending downwards over the last few decades.

The total fertility rate in 2020 is 1.1, far below the replacement level of 2.1.


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