Saturday, 9 June 2007

Measures to Ensure Transparency - Deconstructing a Parliamentary Discussion

The Pariah sent me a link to what looks like a 'transcript' of the parliamentary discussion around en bloc sale committees and the en bloc process in general, dated 22 May 2006. This was between A/P Ho Peng Kee, Snr Minister of State for Law, and Mr Chiam See Tong, Opposition Member. You can read the transcript here.

The discussion centered around en bloc sale committees (SCs) and the need for transparency, fairness, and accountability ('do not abuse its powers'). Let's take the points raised in this discussion paragraph by paragraph. In no way is this intended to be a direct attack on A/P Ho, but it is meant to open up a space for further debate on what is seriously lacking in the legislation, and on the issue of transparency.

Para 2: "The Board takes all objections seriously and examines them very carefully."
While this is true, the issue here is that the STB is bounded by what the legislation defines clearly as permissible objections - financial loss (defined in a limiting manner), acting 'in good faith' (again, defined in a limiting manner), and being partisan to the redevelopment. Given these tight boundaries, what 'objections' fall through the cracks, which can then be thrown out as legally excluded? Issues of intrinsic value of home, valuation of units that are factored in the original sale price but excluded in the en bloc method of apportionment, aggressive behaviours of SC/agent/law firm, lack of transparency, etc.

Para 3: "the Board had, on two occasions, dismissed the applications because the procedures set out in the legislation were not complied with."
Two out of what must be close to 100 en bloc sales by now, is not a lot. IF, however, one counts how many en bloc sales has to go TO THE STB (ie did not achieve 100%), then the number rises substantially. Has the government or the STB asked (and produced findings) on why these estates never achieved the 100% consent? Note the addition qualifier - "set out in the legislation" - which means there are numerous owners who might have complained about the issues mentioned above, but couldn't because these are not set in legislation. Furthermore, the proposed changes include one which aims to make it such that minor non-compliance with procedures would not cause the sale to be dismissed.

Para 4: "[Requiring the CSA to be signed within 12 mths will make it such that] all owners.. will not be kept in suspense for an indefinite period."
How about all owners being subjected to repeated en bloc attempts, on an almost regular basis? The 12 mth limit to an enbloc process will not preclude SCs from forming again and again. Unfortunately, I don't think the government has a record of how often estates repeat the enbloc process.
More importantly, while I applaud the effort to make the update of the enbloc process accessible to people in 4 different languages, more needs to be done to make the CSA itself accessible to laypeople, not just in different languages, but in everyday English rather than its current legalistic form.

Para 5: "[The proposal to require a general meeting to start a SC] will also serve as notice to all owners of a possible en bloc sale initiative being started."
I think this is the clearest case of where the policy makers are not in touch with "the ground". The fact is that almost all en bloc initiatives are started by a broadcast letter by the marketing agent to ALL owners, requesting them to attend an owners' meeting (or in some cases even a general meeting). Any agent with enbloc experience knows that the initial stage of announcing to all owners in as public a manner (notice boards, registered letters to owners etc) is crucial in getting the prerequisite 80%. Will the EOGM requirement change anything? Not likely.

Para 6: "I expect many useful points [from the public consultation on proposed changes] will be incorporated into the final amendment Bill."
I certainly hope so!! Over 100 feedback was sent to MinLaw, surely that has to cause them to consider some of the problems with current, and proposed, law.

Para 7: "the sale committee is perhaps the most important component in the en bloc sale process."
Absolutely, but posting "minutes of the sale committee.. so that all owners, whether majority or minority, will be kept au fait with the discussions" (Para 8) is insufficient. Anyone in the business world will easily realise that minutes are cleaned up versions of what transpired in a meeting. A transcript might be better, but an even better solution would be to require the sale committee to comprise of both pro- and anti-sale members. Something that Prof Jayakumar suggested but was not seen in the proposed changes.

Para 10: "[the idea of legislating a 1-to-1 exchange] is one area where we should leave it to the owners to decide, because not all owners may want a replacement flat."
Do read Pariah's blog for more details on collective exchange; she's probably the most knowledgeable person in terms of exchange. She points out that the suggestion raised by Chiam is not that everyone must receive a replacement flat via an exchange, but that the option be legislated such that should an owner want a replacement flat rather than cash payout, they may do so. Australia is looking into such a suggestion, as mentioned previously, and perhaps Singapore should consider it seriously too.

Para 10: "I know on the ground that owners who want a replacement, in fact, negotiate with the developers who are buying the property."
Wow. Can anyone who has in fact negotiated with the developers please contact me, so that I can believe this statement?
(a) Most agents don't even bother offering possible replacement flats for displaced owners (ie the investment arm is separate from the residential sales arm).
(b) Most CSAs do not include or build into it the possibility for owners to obtain a discount or first dibs, much less negotiate, with the developers on new units. If it does, it means a much lower sale proceed and that might upset investor-owners who prefer the higher premium.

I would dearly love to obtain a negotiated replacement flat, but was never given that opportunity at all. Those I've spoken to recorded the same situation. The whole issue of negotiating for new units before it is built, or even planned (or designed), is highly complicated, perhaps on par with the process of exchange. Unless A/P Ho is referring to owners approaching the developer/new unit agents and asking for a discount because they sold the land to them. In which case the usual discount would be given, rather than a special one, I suspect. Most sales agents want their commission after all.

Did the parliamentary discussion address the issue of transparency? Only narrowly defined, and certainly not enough to tackle the increasing dissent and frustration over the aggressive machinations of SCs. But for all the points raised above, they are made outside of parliament and it's a small voice in a sea of greed. I can only hope some of the feedback sent by the little people, actually make a dent in the law.

1 comment:

The Pariah said...

As to Ass Prof Ho Peng Kee's parliamentary reply (para 4, 22 May 2007) about not keeping owners in suspense for an indefinite period, it speaks volumes about what our good Senior Minister of State really knows, eh? I suppose that's the risk of opening one's mouth, if I may make a wry observation.

As rightly pointed out by Dr Minority, en blocs go into a Cycle of Infinity. The present law does NOT have clauses to define (or deem) an en bloc failure even after Expression of Interest/Collective Sale Agreement Signature exercises fail to garner a 80% (90%) consent. Instead, the law now incubates the CSA on life support for 12 months by which time the reserve price is totally irrelevant (even the price of condensed milk cannot hold for 12 months)!

As reported in The Straits Times, owners in "hot" residential districts are assaulted with "cold calls" by marketing agents even though there is no solicitation by owners (ie, no or dormant Pro-tem or Formal Sales Com). They just won't leave you in peace.

I feel like a Squatter in my own home ... like some ballistic Palestinian literally living in Gaza strip, not knowing when the Shylocks of marketing agents/en bloc vultures (serial or otherwise) will strike a home run!

If Singapore can have an Anti-Spam legislation, then we should have an Anti-Enbloc Cold Call legislation. This industry obviously needs a Code of Conduct against such unseemly behaviour!