50 and celebrating the spirit of questioning

50 and celebrating the spirit of questioning

I was looking for that one defining item of news that best sums up Singapore's 50 years as an independent nation, and there it was in the first week of the New Year.

"Pinnacle@Duxton flat sold for $900,000", The Straits Times reported last Saturday.

It was the first transaction from this ground-breaking public housing development, making the news one month after it became eligible for the resale market.

The owner, who had paid $340,000 for the flat in 2004, walked away with around half a million dollars in profit.

But this wasn't just another property deal, of which there are plenty, and lots of people have made much more in the real estate booms of the past five decades.

This was public housing, and it was the Pinnacle, with its distinctive architecture soaring 50 floors in the heart of the city, built specifically to showcase the country's housing achievements.

And located in the founding prime minister's Tanjong Pagar constituency, no less.

You couldn't find a better icon to highlight how much the country has progressed in the past 50 years. And now, as if to put the icing on the birthday cake in a jubilee year, the market was valuing a flat there at close to a million bucks.

Happy 50th, Singapore?

As an indicator of what a valuable piece of real estate the country has become, and how much confidence people have in its future, celebrations are certainly in order.

But - and at the risk of spoiling this birthday party - the transaction also raises many other questions that trouble many people at this stage in Singapore's development.

Should public housing even in the resale market be so expensively priced?

Should it change hands so easily, profiting the seller so handsomely in such a short period, and at the same time condemning the buyer to possibly a lifetime of debt?

Is it a source of pride to have Singaporeans living in million-dollar homes?

Or does it say much about the sort of society it has become where everything, including your home, is measured mainly in dollar terms?

Asset appreciation was a key national goal for much of Singapore's modern history and nowhere was this pursued more vigorously than in housing. It seemed then like a no-brainer and a sure-fire way to a better, wealthier future.

But as home prices went through the roof, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, the question is whether it's such a good idea to have ever-rising property values.

If everyone lives in million-dollar homes, does it mean we are all better off?

If not, what should housing policy try to achieve?

Can it continue to provide for the majority but in a way that strengthens the idea of what home means?

As Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary, these and other questions are beginning to surface, not just in housing, but in many other areas.

One that has recently made the rounds concerns the economy.

As growth slowed to just 2.8 per cent last year, amid declining productivity levels and a tight labour market, there is growing concern over the health of the economy.

If the trend continues, there is worry that Singapore companies will lose their competitiveness, resulting in business closures and job losses.

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