The Straits Times (Singapore)
June 21, 2007 Thursday
Can money ease
loss of memories?
Linda Lim, For The Straits Times

A RECENT visit to Singapore vividly brought home to me, for the first time in my nearly 40-year sojourn overseas, that perhaps it is true that 'you can't go home again'.

People in Singapore and the United States, where I have lived for nearly twice as long as I did in Singapore, often ask me with some bemusement why I have clung on to my Singaporean nationality.

My American family lawyer has yet to meet a foreigner who refuses to become a US citizen, even though this means being subject to a discriminatory penalty under US tax law (foreign spouses of US citizens are denied the estate tax 'marital deduction' that citizen spouses receive). My continued foreign nationality also disqualifies me from some fellowships, grants, consultancies and US government posts.

There are few, if any, commensurate benefits on the Singapore side. Indeed, I moved to the US in the first place because, while the foreign wives of my colleagues could get permanent residence based on their spousal status, and their families could qualify for certain subsidised housing, my foreign spouse and I did not have the same rights. Nor would our child be eligible for Singapore citizenship if she was born abroad, as she would have been if her father, but not her mother, is a Singaporean. (I managed to give birth to her in Singapore.)

I have never even been able to exercise the citizen's right to vote, since my family's electoral constituency has always been a PAP 'walkover' district - from our bungalow days in Ulu Pandan to the flat where my mother has lived for the past 20 years, during which it morphed from being in River Valley to Cairnhill and then to Tanjong Pagar constituency.

The loss of this family flat through a recent en bloc process finally confronted me with the inevitability of the permanent loss of home. After more than 40 years of ownership and 20 years of residence, my mother has had to vacate it.

The move was wrenching, causing her to lament that this past Chinese New Year was 'the worst in (her) life since 1942', when the Japanese invaded Singapore during World War II and her family had to flee their home.

The same thing has been happening to some of her friends - all, like her, in their 80s and living independently. For them, moving is not simply exchanging an old home for a new one - itself a disruptive process - but also dismantling a lifestyle, bidding farewell to familiar neighbours and service personnel.

Witnessing my mother's experience made me realise that 'retirement at home' is no longer an option for me.

As an economist and business professor whose thinking is rooted in market logic and financial rationality, I do not always agree with policies and financial actions which may be rational only in a particular institutional and collective cultural context. Singapore's current en bloc fever is a prime example of economic irrationality on all sides.

GDP growth numbers rise when foreign workers are employed to tear down perfectly good residences, and then to build new ones that hopefully enough people will buy to justify the developers' investment. But it is not clear that individual or collective well-being is enhanced in the process.

Many of those who have been 'en bloc'd' become cash-rich but property-poor. They look around desperately for new properties to buy so that their families will not be subject to the estate duty imposed on 'movable' assets worth more than $600,000, and payable on properties valued above $9 million.

This feeds a speculative property bubble that increases risk, threatens to undermine Singapore's cost-competitiveness, retards the development of an asset management industry (given the over-investment of savings in residential housing), and even discourages 'foreign talent' from buying property and settling down in Singapore, because it is 'too expensive'.

The en bloc concept is not all bad, especially if used as a tool to reallocate scarce resources on the margins, if home-owners and investors calculate the risks properly (rather than assuming, as some have, that the property market will not crash because the 'Government will support' it for political reasons), and actually prefer living in less desirable but more expensive properties, or downgrading their properties to spend their cash 'windfalls' on other purchases, investments or early retirement instead.

But regardless of the economic considerations and outcomes, one thing is for sure - the destruction of so many homes not only pollutes the environment and tightens short-term housing supply, but also could cause excess supply and loss of property values in the longer term.

It also destroys the sense of home itself, which is much more than an economic phenomenon. As a friend contemplating an en bloc sale says: 'I am torn. It will make me rich and give me financial freedom...But it will also take away my children's memories.'

Money or memories? Perhaps only a romantic expatriate like myself - with values rooted in the Singapore of the 1960s when we were a new nation, and who has eschewed an economically rational decision when it has meant surrendering the ephemeral identification with home that citizenship brings - will choose memories.

A Singaporean visitor to my home in Michigan, looking out on the 2ha of gardens and woods where I have lived longer than in that now-gone flat in Singapore, exclaimed: 'In Orchard Road, this will be worth $500 million.'

But everyone and everything has its price, and even I will not (and obviously cannot) pay that much to live in Singapore.

Because you cannot go home again, if you are homeless when you get there.

The writer is professor of strategy at the Ross School of Business and director of the Centre for South-east Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.