While Singapore has made some progress on LGBT issues in recent years, the country’s reputation for conservatism is echoed in archaic rules governing the purchase of public housing. Photo: lazyllama/Shutterstock
While there is no contesting the success of the country’s public housing programme, things aren’t as inclusive as they seem on the real estate scene.
Singapore can be excused for taking pride in its breakneck transformation from sleepy seaside port to fourth on the International Monetary Fund’s list of richest nations. This 50-year evolution can be partly attributed to the rigid planning that has, on the one hand, fostered the world’s most successful public housing programme, and on the other, earned it the reputation of being the governmental equivalent of an overprotective parent.
Often called “The Nanny State,” the island nation can be seen as strict with its 5.6 million children. Rules govern what Singaporeans say (speaking against the prime minister and Christianity are both illegal) and how they behave (famously, there are fines for chewing gum, littering, graffiti, spitting and jaywalking). The upshot is a gross national income of USD78,293 (the second highest globally), and a public programme housing 80 percent of the population, 90 percent of whom own their own Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat.
However, not all groups are included in the math of Singapore’s success. One such group? Singapore’s Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community.
Singapore currently has the world’s second highest rate of homeownership, largely due to a generous system of grants and subsidies the HDB provides its citizens. These, however, come with restrictive conditions. Married heterosexual couples, who can apply for housing grants at age 21, enjoy the biggest advantage; whilst unmarried couples, singles, and gay couples are restricted to applying under the Single Singapore Citizen Scheme or Joint Singles Scheme, both of which require applicants to be at least 35.
These restrictions may not be specifically targeted at LGBT families, but Indulekshmi Rajeswari, a lawyer, LGBT activist, and author of Same But Different: Legal Guidebook for LGBT Couples and Families in Singapore, points out the government has stated openly on several occasions that they are meant to “encourage families”. As same-sex marriage is not recognised, “LGBT people are cut out of this definition. Only those in a recognised family unit—primarily married heterosexual couples—are normally allowed to buy a HDB apartment.”
Ann, a new homeowner who identifies as lesbian, felt pressured to buy private property as she didn’t feel secure waiting eight years to be eligible for an HDB flat. She ponders, “What if I waited until I reached 35, and they say, ‘no, the age is now 45’?”
Buying a private apartment meant a big mark-up for Ann, whose two-room condo (still three years from completion) cost USD650,000. The same sized HDB apartment would’ve cost a married couple between USD150,000-220,000. Because Ann’s partner is a foreigner, purchasing the apartment together would have resulted in a 20 percent Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty. Since her income and savings weren’t enough to secure a mortgage solo, she purchased the apartment with a friend.
Some in the industry feel that the limited supply of new HDB apartments, coupled with an elderly generation of homeowners reluctant to give theirs up, is locking many young Singaporeans out of the market. Currently, Singaporeans who qualify for HDB flats have to wait three years for Built-to-Order apartments to be available. “Affordability and costs of living are bigger issues than the alleged ‘LGBT segregation,’” says Wenhui Lim, director of Singapore-based firm Spark Architects.
In fact, a large portion of non-homeowners continue to live at home. Singapore’s 2016 National Youth Council Survey reveals 97 percent of unmarried young people live with their parents.
For some in the LGBT community, though, this might not be an option.
“If your parents aren’t accepting of who you are, you get chased out of the house,” says Deveshwar Sham, a transgender activist who runs Kopitiam Brothers, a shelter and support group for transgender men.
Renting poses its own problems. Legally, LGBT individuals are not protected from discrimination, meaning landlords can opt not to rent to them. Sham relates experiencing first-hand the difficulty of renting a room as a transgender man. “Renting was an issue, because as I was transitioning, I was looking more male, but my ID still showed I was female. Landlords would think, ‘oh, you might be a thief or a con man.’ They don’t discriminate in front of us, or publicly, but they’ll say they already have a tenant,” he relates.
Since Sham transitioned, his ID now states he is male, making his later marriage to his wife legitimate, and easily qualifying him for the HDB subsidies. Transitioning has drastically improved his life. “If I’d not transitioned, I would have considered travelling out of Singapore,” he admits, “but now that I have, I feel comfortable in my country, and don’t have my rights stripped off of me.”
As with some of its more conservative neighbours in Asia, Singapore’s stance towards its LGBT residents could be costing it talent, and money. China, for instance, represents the world’s third largest “pink economy”, with 90 million LGBT Chinese with a total spending power of USD928 billion, according to the World Property Journal. When it comes to where to invest those dollars, they’re more likely to buy property in such foreign markets more accepting of their lifestyle as Bangkok, Phuket, and Manila.
Singapore’s policies not only cost foreign investment, but there’s a danger LGBT Singaporeans will emigrate to more tolerant countries when they’re ready to settle down and buy property.
Ann, for one, hasn’t ruled out leaving Singapore one day. “Even though I purchased this property, it may not be somewhere I want to be for life. If the value increases, I may want to sell it off and move overseas,” she says. “I know a lot of LGBT couples who have chosen to move their lives elsewhere, because here it is ignored that we are humans, too.”