Liu Thai Ker on million-dollar HDB flats, 99-year leases & planning for a 10 million population in S'pore

Singapore's "master planner" shared his thoughts on the state of Singapore's public housing today.

Low Jia Ying | September 02, 2022, 02:54 AM

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The growing number of million-dollar HDB flats transacted in recent years is a "surprising" development to former chief city planner Liu Thai Ker.

The 84-year-old was speaking at a seminar organised by the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) on Aug. 30, on the topic of rising property prices in Singapore.

Titled "Who moved my cheese series public housing: a Housing need or business venture?", the former CEO of HDB and URA shared his thoughts on a number of hot-button issues, like the "shrinking" sizes of HDB flats, their 99-year leases, and planning for the possibility of a 10 million population in Singapore.

On the "shrinking" sizes of HDB flats

Liu said that the "shrinking" sizes of HDB flats was "something to worry about".

However, the Ministry of National Development (MND) said that the sizes of HDB flats have not changed since 1997, according to a parliamentary reply to Sengkang GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Louis Chua Kheng Wee Louis earlier in April this year, though flat sizes did indeed shrink quite considerably in the 90s.

In a reply to The Straits Times for an article in 2011, the HDB said that flat sizes were reduced in the mid-90s in response to shrinking household sizes and the need to use land more efficiently.

Liu recounted how he pushed the government to increase flat sizes during his time in HDB: "During my time, and through a lot of research, I actually recommended that the government increase the one-room flat size from 24 square meters to 30 square meters."

"I proved it to the government that if you don't do that, people cannot live properly."

HDB flats' 99-year leases

Liu also addressed a question from a member of the audience about HDB flats' 99-year leases.

The audience member expressed concern that with a 99-year lease, he will be unable to pass on his flat to his children, or his children's children, in perpetuity.

Liu said he believes that Singapore is a legalistic society, and that if one enters into an agreement with the government, "the government has to apply the law on you".

The lease policy is applied to various types of land use, and the leasehold system is important for the government to respond to changing socio-economic needs, according to Singapore Land Authority.

Liu highlighted the government's current practice of acquiring land back from those who have leased out land for factories on 30- or 50-year leases, and cited two scenarios.

One, that if the government decides that it does need the land, it will take the land back "without compensation".

Two, if the government decides that it does not need the land, it will negotiate a new lease with the owner.

Liu said it would be "difficult" for the government not to apply the lease policy to residential properties.

"But at the end of the lease, whether the government will take the property back or not, depends on the needs of the land," said Liu.

Alternatively, the government can negotiate a new lease with the existing owners if it decides that it does not need the land, Liu highlighted as a possibility for when one's HDB lease runs out.

"Singapore being a legalistic society, I think we need to go by the law, otherwise, the factories lessees will question the government: Why are you applying two sets of laws on us?", Liu added.

On HDB flats crossing the S$1 million mark

Liu was also asked if he had ever envisioned that HDB flats, which he helped to conceptualise in the 1960s, would ever cross the S$1 million mark, as they have done so at an alarming frequency lately.

"It came as a surprise to me," said Liu.

According to data shared by panellist OrangeTee & Tie's Christine Sun, there were 259 HDB flats sold for over a million dollars in 2021, and 227 in the first eight months of 2022 alone.

Liu said that HDB flats have come a long way from when he started out in HDB.

He recalled an instance when then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara toured a three-room flat during one trip to Singapore in the 60s.

He remembered McNamara's surprise when he was told that the selling price for the unit was just S$7,800. McNamara apparently pointed out that sum was not enough to buy a car in the U.S. then.

In response to a parliamentary question from Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Nadia Samdin in July 2022, the MND said that the number of HDB resale flats that have been sold for S$1 million formed 0.4 per cent of all HDB resale transactions in the past five years.

Planning for a 10 million population

Liu was also asked again to clarify his position on planning for the possibility of having a population of 10 million in Singapore.

Liu reiterated that while the 10 million population figure was by no means a target for Singapore to hit, Singapore has to start planning for "a large enough population", or suffer the consequences in the future.

"As a good Singaporean, I have the virtue of a Singaporean, and that [means to be] kiasu," Liu said in prefacing his answer.

By Liu's rough estimates, if Singapore were to keep all its landed properties, historical buildings and parks, and increased its population to 10 million, new developments would have to be built with a 30 per cent higher density than before.

"I don't advocate for high-density [living], because if there's a lift breakdown, you're going to have a tough time dealing with that," said Liu.

The second reason, Liu said, was that Singapore's residents would "feel depressed" if they were unable to see the sky due to high-rise buildings filling up the skyline.

"This is one reason why I feel that we should start planning, so that we don't have to be forced into going with super high-density [buildings]," said Liu.

Liu also pointed out that 10 million may not be that large of a figure. He said that Singapore has grown its population by about four million since independence.

"What is 10 million? It's to add another 4.2 million. If we grow at the same rate, Singapore can last another 57 years. If we grow at half the rate, Singapore can last another 114 years." Liu said.

"How long do you want Singapore to last as a sovereign state? I want Singapore to last forever, so we must plan long-term," he added.

"In the event that I'm wrong, and we do not hit 10 million, then we can just keep the land for parks, for recreation, there's nothing wrong with that. There's only advantages, no disadvantages."

Top photo via NUSS