June 16, 2007

This is my home, or maybe not

As en bloc fever rages on through private estates, some are questioning if the monetary gains may be at the expense of Singaporeans' sense of belonging to their homes and country

By Peh Shing Huei & Keith Lin P

FOR OLD TIMES' SAKE: Three elderly members of the Gujarati community at Windy Heights condominium in Kembangan are facing the possibility of a collective sale later this year. But they are reluctant to give up their place of residence because they want to continue living together as neighbours. -- DESMOND LIM

POOLSIDE parties on weekends are so yesterday at Windy Heights. Residents at the condominium hold them every day.

Every evening, almost without fail, Mr P.K. Doshi, 85, and his group of Gujarati neighbours would gather by the waters for a chat, community gossip and even the occasional dosai (Indian pancakes).

But the lights may be going out at their nightly gatherings soon, along with the pool and the 200 units in the estate.

The en bloc rush has reached the Kembangan condominium, and Mr Doshi, whose family has lived there for 14 years, is in no mood to party.

'Where are we going to go?' he laments. 'All my friends and memories are here, there's no way I will move.'

He may not have a choice.

A preliminary survey of the homes, which drew a 70 per cent response rate, shows 80 per cent will sell at a reserve price of $2 million. This sum is about 40 per cent higher than the $1.4 million most units would fetch in the open market.

But while most Singaporeans would relish at the possibility of adding zeros to their bank accounts, there are some, mostly the elderly, who scoff at the hard cash.

At stake, for them, are intangibles like friendship, neighbourliness and nostalgia.

So as en bloc fever sweeps through private estates, some are feeling the emotional pain of losing their homes.

What is the impact of this craze on Singaporeans' sense of place and identity?

Hotel versus home debate

AS A young nation, Singapore seems to face a perpetual identity crisis.

Shorn of a long history, a common race and religion, or even the galvanising, albeit painful, memories of a war of independence, Singaporeans and the Government grapple constantly with issues of rootedness and the meaning of home.

In the late 1990s, as more Singaporeans ventured overseas for work and play, the debate of whether the country was a home or hotel had airing at the highest levels.

Then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong said he recognised that Singapore needed to go into Phase Three of building a sense of belonging.

Earlier phases saw the Government making sure everyone had a home and the country, a top-class infrastructure.

The next phase would focus on 'heartware', Mr Goh said in 1999.

This push has continued, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saying last year that overseas Singaporeans are part of the country's global family. The Overseas Singaporean Unit was also set up to keep in touch with the diaspora.

Yet, as the country strives to lure back those who have left, here in its own backyard, questions about what makes a home are being played out among the en bloc naysayers.

For some of them, the first phase of engendering a sense of belonging by building a home for everyone feels as if it is at risk of unravelling. Suddenly, the house that made Singapore home does not seem that safe a sanctuary any more.

Roots of restlessness

ACADEMIC Cherian George wrote in his book Air-Conditioned Nation about the loss he felt when his childhood home, school and even hospital where he was born were all demolished.

'The cost of all this is an unsettling impermanence...the place you grow up in will not be the place you grow old in, and that you can never go back, because what was there then is here no longer,' he wrote.

Agreeing, Associate Professor Kwok Kian Woon from the Nanyang Technological University says the en bloc phenomenon reflects 'a society in perpetual motion''.

'There's a certain sense of restlessness and rootlessness,' he says.

'The universal currency here is money and the promise of taking profits, whereas there are other kinds of currencies no less important, such as sense of place, memories and neighbourliness.'

But Institute of Southeast Asian Studies fellow Terence Chong feels en bloc sales should have no impact on Singaporeans' collective identity.

'Vanishing icons such as the National Stadium and the old National Theatre have a greater effect on the collective identity and national psyche because of the milestone events that have taken place there,' he says.

En bloc lawyer S.K. Phang, whose former home was sold in a collective sale, believes 'the fast pace of life distracts us from living in the past'.

Combative communities

BUT for many estates, the rows and ruptures in their communities are all too real.

A retired civil servant in her 60s, who spoke on condition of anonymity, describes the meetings in her Neptune Court estate as ugly and unruly. 'Those who favour en bloc will shout and boo at dissenters, usually the older residents. You come home from the meetings very stressed. We have lost all sense of value and respect for the elderly,'' she says.

For many seniors who have invested much of their savings and accumulated memories in their estates over decades, the sense of loss is acute.

Mr Dinesh Maheshwari, 64, for example, has been living in Teresa Ville for 17 years. As en bloc talk swirls in the 264-unit Telok Blangah estate, the business consultant feels insecure.

He had spent about $300,000 over the years renovating his 2,000-sq-ft home. 'In making a house, you put a lot of yourself into it. It's not just the walls around you,' he says.

Prof Kwok observes that for the elderly, having to relocate may not only be 'traumatic' but may even result in 'fairly serious' social consequences. 'They may end up not having a social life as their network of friends in the estate is scattered elsewhere. They could become more prone to illnesses, like old-age depression.'

En bloc civil society

THE tussles have given rise to what Dr Chong terms an 'interesting case of civil society activism'.

Neighbours are mobilised, platforms lobbied and even blogs set up to further causes.

'All the ingredients that make an active civil society are visible during an en bloc sale - personal interest at stake, lifestyles being threaten, mobilisation, solidarity, petitioning, debate and conflict,' says Dr Chong.

'However, you also get residents calling for the State to mediate when there is conflict, which is an example of how civil society still needs the State as final arbiter.'

In threatening some communities' ties, en bloc sales could also erode one of the Government's key attempts at rooting Singaporeans here: a secured home.

A 50-year-old manager is considering leaving Singapore for good. Earlier this month, her 13-year-old estate near Orchard Road received two unsolicited collective sale offers in 10 days. She estimates that seven in 10 private properties in her area have been razed by the en bloc fire.

'There is no concept of home here. I feel like a squatter in my own flat,' she says. 'There are other places more gracious than Singapore.'

In this relentless chase for money, Singaporeans runs the risk of unwittingly sliding down a slippery slope towards increased detachment from the island they call home.

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'They may end up not having a social life as their network of friends in the estate is scattered elsewhere. They could become more prone to illnesses, like old-age depression.'
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR KWOK KIAN WOON from the Nanyang Technological University, observing that for the elderly, having to relocate may not only be 'traumatic' but may even result in 'fairly serious' social consequences.