Monday, 23 June 2008

Enbloc Wars: A New HOPE -

One of the major disadvantages of being a minority owner or someone who is against enbloc sales (a stayer), and which the pro-sales people use to their greatest advantage, is the fact that often such owners are isolated from the processes within their estate, as well as other estates.

After all, the Sales Committee has the advantage of a professional consultancy in the form of marketing agents with plenty of experience in enbloc sales, as well as enbloc lawyers. Stayers, often in fear of retribution from neighbours, live in the shadows and are afraid of voicing their opposition. Sales Committees everywhere know this fact, and use it to their benefit. A marketing agent once told us (in my estate) that there are 3 groups of people in any enbloc estate - the pro-sales, the fencesitters, and the die-hard no-sale stayers. For the last group, information blackout is crucial - the less they know, the less problems they'll pose to the sale. Marketing agents concentrate on working the fencesitters and pushing them towards signing the CSA, but leave the stayers out of the loop. It's an unfortunately legal loophole, but they use it to ensure there are minimal problems. It's a time-tested technique used by most authoritarian governments and dictatorships.

Over the months, we've seen stayers gather within their estates to put up a resistance to their own sales. Some, such as Bayshore Park, are well organised. Others struggle to get their own groups off the ground. Yet other estates have stayers who WISH they could form a group but do not know how to. Some have used this blog and many other anti-enbloc blogs to connect with others in their estates, or learn more about the processes. But on the whole, it's been hard work for many, to mobilise a group, to keep themselves updated on what works, what doesn't.

In recent months, a group of stayers, FROM A NUMBER OF ESTATES, have started to gather together online. From (at last count) 11 estates, these stayers have decided to pool their resources to provide their collective experiences and knowledge to others who hope to stop their own enbloc sales, or at least keep their sales committees straight and above board.

So from now on, any owner who feels concerned about their own enbloc sale, need not be alone anymore. They have the shared wisdom of at least 11 estates who are in the same boat, struggling with enbloc battles. The group - Hope4stayers ( - aims to:

  1. share with selected invited subsidiary proprietors (SPs) of some estates our en bloc experiences and let each other know what is happening in our respective condos;
  2. disseminate information on the en bloc process, current legislation and other related policies to enlighten, educate and provide advice to SPs who are facing en bloc attempts in their condos and who are not aware of what the laws provide for;
  3. provide a morale booster for Stayers to deal with the dreadful hammer of the enbloc syndrome. (from their website)

Please do visit their site, and if you are facing problems with your own enbloc sale and you are a stayer, do contact them. They are well organised, knowledgeable people, most if not all of them professionals in their working lives, who have decided to devote their personal time, resources and efforts to helping other stayers in other estates.

The Hope people are volunteers, and they do not ask for any professional consultancy fees, unlike marketing agents. They are good people, and are genuinely passionate about helping stayers out there.

Give them a call if you are a stayer. Left in the dark. Left out of the loop of your enbloc sale. Need help and seek others who can help you.

You can read their Straits Times Forum letter below, which was a response to Jessica Cheam's article (blogged here):

Straits Times Forum Online
12 June 2008
En bloc blues? There's hope, says support group

WE REFER to the report, 'En bloc sales bring out the worst in Singaporeans' (June 1) by Ms Jessica Cheam.

We are a group of concerned friends who love Singapore and the estates in which we live. While we welcome progress, we also cherish the old and familiar.

Our cityscape has improved enormously in the past decades, thanks to the vision of Singaporeans and its leaders.

But for our communities to forge together in good-neighbourliness, roots to grow deeper and future generations to see Singapore as home, we need to preserve our homes. We need to retain the kampung spirit that binds us.

The recent spate of attempts in en bloc sales have impacted us in a way that is counter-productive to our nesting instincts and identity as a gracious society.

We need to stop perpetuating these negative experiences. We want to be free from the constant worry of losing our homes to those who see them as mere financial tools for increasing wealth.

In this spirit of proud home ownership and community living, we have formed an online community called Hope for Stayers ( where we share our experiences and educate others on the whole process of an en bloc sale.

As 'stayers', we hope that we can contribute to the ethos and values needed to enable Singapore to evolve into a truly first-class progressive nation, where the term 'prosperity' reflects more than dollars and cents.

Lastly, we agree with Ms Cheam's view that it would be prudent to consider a requirement for an 80 or 90 per cent quorum for an extraordinary general meeting to decide whether to push for en bloc sale. This is consistent with the current 80 or 90 per cent requirement for an en bloc sale to succeed.

This would establish whether an estate has such support from the very outset. The current system of 30 per cent quorum encourages a possible abuse of MCST funds in repeated and wasteful attempts at the en bloc 'lottery' and results in the depletion of funds meant primarily to maintain the estate.

We also hope that the entire en bloc sale process is tightened in such a way that it reflects and acknowledges the need for fair play and the deep-rooted sentiment that we have for our homes.

Dai Qiujin
(This letter carries 12 other names)

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Being a Responsible Home Owner

Yesterday's Straits Times (Saturday 21 June 2008) has a follow up to my previous blog post's ST article ("Landmarks at risk"). Written by the same reporter - Tan Hui Yee - the Saturday review gives a cogent argument about the differences between private and public ownership, and in particular the responsibilities that a private home owner should have, NOT ONLY to her private home, but to the common property as well.

Ms Tan Hui Yee asks an important question - at what point do we 'give up' on an old property and consign it to the demolition beasts? She points to an irate owner who told her that her condo (slated for conservation) does not deserve to be protected, as it was leaking and too old to be saved; better to enbloc it and reap the rewards. But the point of private ownership isn't just that you can do what you will to your own home, including selling it when you want, in whatever condition it is in. The point of private ownership is that you are responsible for your home and its surroundings. There's no fall back to some town council to help you out with major repairs. Instead, you and your neighbours are ultimately responsible to ensure your estate is in good, liveable condition.

And that, as Ms Tan Hui Yee points out, is something private condo owners have yet to learn to do.

Straits Times Saturday Review
Packing up your troubles is a mere cop-out
Tan Hui Yee
21 June 2008

A RECENT Saturday Special Report I wrote on Singapore landmarks drew an indignant call from a homeowner whose graceful 30-year-old development had been declared worthy of conservation.

She said there was no point in conserving the condominium because it was leaking. She and her neighbours hoped to sell the development in a collective sale, or more popularly known as an en bloc sale.

Did you try to fix the leaks, I asked.

Whatever for, she retorted. The estate was too old and the pipes were embedded in the floor.

Buildings are meant to outlast human beings - unless you live in disposable Singapore. Here, cars can be scrapped after five years and people suffer a pay-cut - while still doing the same job - after hitting 50. In all likelihood, there are many homeowners like Ms Too-Old-To-Be-Fixed out there.

Heritage lovers will have you believe that property owners gunning for en bloc sales are philistines all too willing to trade their spacious (but leaky) homes for gleaming new boxes in the sky.

These are the same people, they charge, who see no point in fixing leaks if they can still get good money for renting out their deteriorating properties.

These cardboard villains are products of a deeper problem. About 15 per cent of Singaporeans live in private homes today. Although that figure has been rising in recent years, it has not been matched by a growing awareness of how private estates should be run.

The colourful advertisements selling the pleasures of condominium living make it easy to forget the responsibility that comes with owning a private home.

The key difference between public and private housing lies in the parties which own and maintain common spaces. If a leak occurs in the common area of a public housing block, the town council fixes it. If that same leak occurs in a private estate, all its owners are responsible.

Laws governing strata-titled properties soften the weight of this responsibility by requiring owners to appoint a council among themselves, which then usually outsources the care of their estates to managing agents.

The resulting structure somewhat resembles that for public housing, except for the fact that the homeowners themselves hold the purse strings for expenditure on the estate.

Assuming that the estate's council works in the best interest of the estate, it still would have to contend with its ignorance of building maintenance. This is a specialised and grossly underrated field of practice, especially where residential buildings are concerned. It is a major component of study in the Project and Facilities Management degree programme offered by the National University of Singapore.

Estate management is a thankless job, made worse by the tendency of homeowners to stint on maintenance fees because they have splurged on their homes. Homeowners who suggest raising maintenance fees are quickly shot down by sceptical neighbours. Too many people, it seems, think they know what it takes to maintain a building and not enough are willing to spend money on the professionals.

The result is a race to the bottom: homeowners pick the cheapest managing agent, who picks the cheapest contractors, who hire the cheapest staff.

Adding to this recipe for neglect is the unregulated nature of the facilities management industry. There are currently about 30 managing agents accredited either by the Association of Property and Facility Managers or the Association of Management Corporations in Singapore.

Anyone, regardless of credentials, can set up a company to 'manage' properties. If his rates are low enough, he will have no shortage of business. From then on, it is simply a matter of keeping up appearances.

As long as the appointed contractors keep the lobbies spanking clean and security guards patrol the boundaries zealously, cracks and leaks in hidden areas go unchecked. In the long run, it is the cracks and leaks that will prove to be expensive - and perhaps even dangerous.

Barring cases of truly shoddy construction, the truth is that leaky pipes embedded in floors can be fixed. All it needs is an owner to raise the red flag and a managing agent to investigate and rectify the problem.

But it is so much easier for a lone homeowner to shrug off the problems and proclaim one's property 'too old'. Doing otherwise might be to set oneself up for a huge expense, a whole lot of heartache and nasty comments from penny-pinching neighbours.

For a nation obsessed with property, we haven't quite got the hang of caring for it so as to make it last. Such wasteful behaviour does not make good sense at a time when climate change and unchecked development are driving up construction costs worldwide.

The buck needs to stop somewhere, before our residential districts become a perpetual construction site as homeowners pack up and go at the first sign of physical deterioration.

It is time we learnt that stumping up the cash for a condo is not the end of private homeownership. It merely marks the beginning of a long journey.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Every Building Tells a (Hi)story

As battle lines continue to be drawn in estates that are undergoing the enbloc sale, owners pitch against owners to protect their homes. What it all boils down to, this notion of the enbloc sale, is this:

The value of space.

That space is valuable need not be repeated because it’s so obvious in Singapore’s context, and it has been drummed into our consciousness by years of national education. 'Valuable space' is the primary drive behind the government’s policy that gave birth to the enbloc sale. Urban renewal is another way of saying that space is a premium.

But here’s where policy meets reality, when things start to become problematic: What do we mean by “valuable”?

To policy makers, the value of space is the maximum living and/or commercial potential an area can provide. Profits and revenue (they’d argue) are secondary. ‘Sentimental attachment’ isn’t even in the consideration.

To the construction industry, the value of space is their bread and butter. Profits can only be achieved if they have something to build, and sell. Space potential depends purely on whether profits can be achieved or not, and how much. ‘Sentimental attachment’ is realised in aesthetic terms – whether a building is pleasing to the eye, or purely functional.

To the ‘specuvestor’ (to use Jessica Cheam’s term), those investor-speculators that buy units in private estates purely to sell at a profit, the value of space is their luxury. After all, in all likelihood they have their own homes (typically untouched by such enbloc sales), and investing in additional homes is a lucrative way of improving their bank accounts and lifestyles. Space potential is a investment risk assessment – no increase in plot ratio means an estate is less likely to go enbloc. ‘Sentimental attachment’ is non-existent.

To the resident home owner, the value of space is their histories and memories. It is unquantifiable, it cannot have a value placed on it in any simple manner. It is one’s identity and being in the world, one’s relation to the world. Today’s Saturday Special (“Landmarks at Risk”) brings home this point.

Each space has a story, and a history.

Whether it’s a home or a shop space or a building, that space is empty until someone associates it with memories. Without these memories or histories, these spaces do not provide any form of ‘anchor’ to any person. A young child going to the Civilian War Memorial in town will not understand or appreciate its significance unless it is explained to her in a history lesson. But an old man who went through the Japanese Occupation will see the memorial space as far more significant than a lesson in national education – it triggers memories of a dark time in Singapore.

The value of space is where battle lines are drawn, but it is the fact that the value of space is a (hi)story, which cannot be quantified, that will cause many who read the Saturday Special article with fond memories of those buildings mentioned.

It is the value of space as (hi)story that is making resident owners fight so desperately to keep their homes.

When will policy makers ever realise this value of space?

You can read the Saturday Special piece here, here, here and here (in 4 parts).

Sunday, 1 June 2008

"It is ugly. And it brings out the worst in Singaporeans"

An excellent article appeared in the Sunday Times today by frequent enbloc reporter Jessica Cheam. I'm going to reproduce the entire article in this post, simply because it hits lots of relevant points, and it is really a well-written piece. Feel free to comment as usual (and as usual, I do not censor comments except for spam.)

Just an interesting observation - Are Singaporeans (note - not expats who own properties) the main (or even only) culprits in the enbloc saga? From my own experience, it looks like the owner-resident expats are often the ones who would fight enblocs, and are often quite vocal about their stand against enbloc sales.

The Sunday Times (Singapore)
June 1, 2008 Sunday
En bloc sales bring out the worst in Singaporeans
Jessica Cheam

After a most spectacular year for the en bloc market last year, sales activity has finally frizzled out and for most parties involved, it is a welcome time-out. While property agents may lament the slowdown, one group of home-owners can heave a sigh of relief, as the threat of being forced to sell their homes retreats into oblivion.

Well, for most, anyway.

The recent debacle at the annual general meetings of two of the most iconic condominiums on the East Coast - Bayshore Park and Mandarin Gardens - proves that while the market has gone dead, en bloc woes have not, and will not, go away.

Some points of contention that arose at the meetings were the use of proxy votes to influence decisions, and conflicts of interest arising over the roles of management councils and sales committees.

In the course of my job, I have covered my fair share of en bloc deals, and as a non-partisan observer of proceedings, I have come to one conclusion about the 'uniquely Singapore' phenomenon that is the en bloc.

It is ugly. And it brings out the worst in Singaporeans.

Recent developments have also highlighted weaknesses in the law regarding collective sales and a private property owner's rights. This is despite the tightening of en bloc rules that kicked in last October, which ensure, among other things, that sales committees are properly elected, and collective sales agreements witnessed by lawyers.

This has no doubt cooled the en bloc fever which gripped the nation last year, with a total of 116 collective sales generating record investment sales of $13.64billion.

But some glaring flaws in the en bloc process remain. They include the distribution of sale proceeds, the role of the management council versus the sales committee, and the use of proxy votes at annual and extraordinary meetings.

Let me elaborate.

Firstly, owners should be compensated according to their flat attributes - height, cost of renovation, view.

I have found that pro-en bloc types usually own low-floor units, with average furnishings and view. Anti-en bloc types, by contrast, typically own beautifully renovated top-floor units with stunning views - it is no wonder that these owners want more compensation or refuse to sell, according to how much they have invested in their homes.

Current laws favour the average owner, who receives a pay-out equal to that of his top-floor neighbour, which is obviously unfair and has been the root of many conflicts and arguments.

The Strata Titles Board (STB) has also previously ruled that renovations, along with interest, are not a 'deductible expense', which means your renovations count for nothing in a collective sale.

To create a level playing field, provision should be made so that owners get fair value for their homes, perhaps by a government-appointed independent valuer.

Secondly, the management council and sales committee should be kept separate by law, since the role of the former is to maintain the upkeep of the estate, while the other's role is to sell it.

Current laws allow a sales committee member to be on the management council as well, but this has caused unhappiness at many estates - not just at Bayshore and Mandarin - where suspicion breeds among residents towards those who carry both positions.

On the issue of proxy votes, it is theoretically democratic. But it also allows decisions to be skewed one way, because residents who want certain things changed will attend meetings and get proxies from similar-minded neighbours to achieve the results they desire.

Meetings currently require only 30per cent of the total share value held by residents of an estate to attend, which enables decisions to be made without majority consent.

This should be looked at. One solution could be to raise the minimum requirement of residents present to 80per cent, or instead to do away with proxy votes altogether so that voting cannot be manipulated - perhaps via an online or e-mail voting system.

My advice in the meantime?

Don't buy into a strata-titled property if you do not want to be forced to sell your home. Current laws do not ensure you will be able to live in your condominium unit until your dying days - even though, in my opinion, you should be able to.

Most countries in the world allow this basic right, why can't we?

Perhaps the lawmakers could take some of these issues into consideration when compiling the next set of refinements.

Beyond the economic value of urban rejuvenation or boosting shareholder value for property developers, the en bloc phenomenon has ripped apart the moral fibres and harmony of our society.

Is this a cost our society is willing to pay?

On the one hand, I can sympathise with those who want to sell: they may be approaching retirement, or perhaps have plans to move away, and want to get the best price.

But there are people who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars beautifying their homes to be their retirement nests, plus those who value the environment they live in beyond any amount of realisable value.

Do the former have the right to determine if the latter lose their homes? Owners still have a choice to sell their homes on the open market.

In terms of 'specuvestors' who swoop in to snap up units in the hope of making a quick collective sale buck, their motivation is even more inexcusable. It is okay to want to make money, but do it without hurting someone else.

It's not just Singaporeans who become embroiled in controversial sales, but also foreigners and permanent residents.

I just hope that my estate never has to go through this nightmare. It is sure to do permanent damage to relationships which have taken years to build up, but which take only a sale notice to destroy.