The cynic will say, “See, I knew the government would ram it through, regardless of public opinion.”
Saturday’s Straits Times carried the news that the go-ahead has been given for building a day-care centre for the elderly within the void decks of Blocks 860 and 861 in Woodlands (Straits Times, 11 Feb 2012: Plans for Woodlands eldercare centre to proceed, by Janice Tai). Two weeks ago, news had erupted that residents in the area vociferously objected to the plan. Reported objections ranged from the loss of communal space, to fears of traffic congestion and the inauspiciousness of having the old and dying in the area.
A similar tussle is happening in Toh Yi Estate, off Jalan Jurong Kechil. There, plans have been announced by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to build a block of 130 studio apartments at the corner of Toh Yi Road and Toh Yi Drive. Studio apartments are meant for people aged 55 and above, and will be equipped with grab bars, anti-slip tiles and other elderly-friendly features.
Residents of Toh Yi estate in Bukit Timah said HDB’s plans to build studio apartments for the elderly will ‘rob’ them of their common space and the estate’s main recreational facility.
A handful of the residents also likened the apartments to ‘death houses’ for the elderly to wait out their last days.
The apartments will probably be housed in one block. It will be sited on a plot of land at the junction of Toh Yi Road and Toh Yi Drive.
This site is currently occupied by a basketball court, jogging track and a small garden.
On Wednesday, the residents submitted a petition with some 230 signatures to their MP, Ms Sim Ann.
Residents who signed the petition include those from the 19 HDB blocks in the area, as well as those living in the private landed estate opposite, and a nearby condominium.
Last night, HDB officials held a closed-door meeting with more than 100 residents to address their concerns.
— Straits Times, 9 Feb 2012: Facilities for elderly not welcome in Toh Yi estate either, by Janice Tai
You can bet that this plan will also go through.
I am waiting for the third one to make the headlines: a nursing home to be built at Jurong East, next to a block of five-room flats.
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Let me make my position clear: the need to increase facilities for the elderly is a no-brainer. Our population is aging rapidly; these facilities have to be built. But two things have struck me about the debate so far:
- the strong “not in my back yard” tone, acronymed “Nimby”;
- the way the debate devolved into the form of people versus government.
This is not to dismiss some valid concerns, such as the loss of recreational space and possible congestion, for which I have quite a lot of sympathy, but where these should have been front and centre of the debate, it seemed to me that they’ve been overshadowed by the above two characteristics. Recreational space and congestion concerns can be tackled by refining the planning, but the loud, truculent “No” from residents suggests that nimby was the primary motive for a significant number of objectors.
A letter by Dennis Lee to the Straits Times Forum says it well:
Genuine social care and concern for improving the lives of fellow citizens are sorely missing.
Not only is the wealth gap widening between the rich few and the rest in Singapore, but there also appears to be much deterioration in the level of tolerance, patience and fellow feeling.
Self-centredness seems to be the underlying attitude towards government projects.
If it profits a person, accept it – if not, watch us scream ‘no’.
— Straits Times Print Forum, 10 Feb 2012: Letter by Dennis Lee
Almost surely, property values lie at the root of nimbyism, nor is it unique to Singapore — lots of other countries have nimby debates every time somebody (not only the authorities) wants to build something in a neighbourhood, from airports to prisons to mosques or temples. What I find a little ironic is that in our case, the debate is coming out of people who live in public housing, people who have benefitted from the kind of large-scale town-planning the HDB has done over the years.
As Dennis Lee wrote in his letter,
It is really much harder these days for politicians to get things done, what with so many demands from the people. I sympathise with their plight.
However, I will argue here that in a way, the government shot itself in the foot, with its own past actions heightening its present difficulty. Since the 1990s, it has kept up the mantra that rising property values are the proof of the worth and success of the People’s Action Party. Vote for us, the PAP says at each general election, and we will upgrade and beautify your estate, and manage the economy so wonderfully, that the values of your homes will go up and up.
Secondly, the liberalisation of Central Provident Fund (CPF) rules, allowing huge chunks of personal pension fund savings to be shunted into property, has only made protecting the value of flats so much more acute.
Thirdly, this government, by its market-fundamentalist mentality, has created a society where conspicuous consumption and the flaunting of wealth and social exclusion have become indicators of social status. Living in a well-provided, socially rounded, “authentic” neighbourhood is considered low-class; living in a pretentious, environmentally irresponsible (you have to drive to get to your kids to pre-school or to your nearest convenience store!) , and demographically sanitised bubble is the aspirational good.
Take these histories into consideration and you’ll see that if the government is facing an uphill task today over these plans for the elderly, they are to an extent just reaping what they have sown.
A bully’s loneliness
Another, perhaps less obvious, feature of the present debate is the silence of those citizens who agree that eldercare centres are needed and that there is no perfect answer as to where to locate them. I am pretty sure there are plenty of Singaporeans who can see the issue in this light. Absent their mediating voices, the debate easily becomes a tug-of-war between two implacable sides that has the same contours as a government-people divide. It should not be so. The question of social attitudes should be a subject of self-criticism among the people themselves, it should not be a matter of government telling voters that they are self-centred, intolerant, boors.
But why don’t people speak up if they believe the complainants are wrong?
Again, it’s our history. Again, it can be traced to decades of the government reserving to itself the determination of right and wrong, and their habit of repressing civil society and censoring independent voices. “We know best,” the government has long said, treating all citizens as children.
Two things then naturally followed. Moderate-thinking civil society lost its vitality, and the PAP government gained such a reputation as a bully that no one is keen on speaking up to defend its plans. And so on this and many other issues, the government is left to fight its own battles, and every argument quickly morphs into a PAP-versus-the-people contest.
This is not the first time and won’t be the last. Remember the issue of foreign workers being housed in Serangoon Gardens? Remember the vociferous objection of residents of Maplewoods Condominium to the siting of a metro station close by?
I am aware that a counter petition has been started.
The decision to go ahead came even as a voluntary welfare organisation launched an online petition to make people aware of the need for elder-care services and garner support for such centres.
The petition – ‘Say yes to eldercare services’ – was started by the Marine Parade Family Service Centre and urges Singaporeans to speak out against those who oppose having elder-care facilities in their neighbourhood.
— Straits Times, 11 Feb 2012: Plans for Woodlands eldercare centre to proceed, by Janice Tai
But family service centres are quasi-government bodies. They may be set up as voluntary welfare organisations, but my understanding is that most, if not all, their funding comes from the government. It’s not clear that this little action by the Marine Parade Family Service Centre takes anything away from my main argument.
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Nonetheless, there are some aspects of both the Woodlands proposal to wall up void decks as eldercare centres and the Toh Yi proposal to eliminate green space that I think can do with some rethinking.
I have previously spoken out against the creeping requisition of void decks for all sorts of purposes. Others have too. The Straits Times, for example, quoted William Lau, president of the Singapore Institute of Planners as saying:
As urban planners, we wish to encourage the Housing Board to continue providing void decks in their new township developments, as there are many planning merits. . . Void decks are effective in creating airiness and good cross ventilation, which is much desired for our hot and humid tropical weather. Their presence also alleviates congestion at the ground level of HDB housing precincts.
— Straits Times, 10 Feb 2012: When residents want to have cake and eat it too
I would have much preferred the HDB to convert some of the neighbourhood shops instead if they needed space for day-care centres. Many of these shops are losing out to supermarkets and airconditioned shopping malls anyway; they do not represent effective use of the space. Alternatively, the HDB could have considered acquiring the second-floor flats and converting them into day-care centres. That way, those who have objected to the loss of void decks can be mollified (and those who used the void deck argument to mask their nimbyism can be shown up).
But the shops and second-floor flats have been sold and their prices have all gone up — goes the objection. How can the government take them back? Here again, we are looking at a consequence of the government’s aggressive sales and price-boosting schemes.
At Toh Yi, the little green space appears quite precious. Whether another green space can be found to replace it when the block of studio apartments has to be built is a question I, not being familiar with the neighbourhood, cannot answer. It seems to me though that in principle, the HDB needs to tell us where they are going to finally draw the line. What is the ratio of green space we will eventually keep? Or do we keep biting off more and more as new uses come to mind?
Could not another plot be found for the studio apartments? Perhaps where the Bukit Timah market is?
Basically, what is disappointing about this debate is that serious objections are mixed up with nimby-type objections. My guess (though I could well be wrong) is that if more people spoke up accepting in principle the idea that eldercare and elder-friendly facilities are needed (and within our neighbourhoods), we might be able to have a more productive debate. But the issue is harder than it need be because of our politics. If the government is feeling lonely and besieged because naysayers are so adamant and because few citizens would speak out to criticise their fellow citizens for materialism and selfishness, and in defence of the government’s plans (at least in principle), it’s really the PAP’s chickens coming home to roost.