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News & Opinion Electoral Boundaries Candidate Profiles Multimedia

Giving a lift to the upgrading debate

THIS year, topography has become an election issue - more specifically, mountains and molehills. And it is quite clear that what the Workers' Party deems to be a molehill - Gomezgate - is only the tip of a huge mountain in PAP's eyes.

Then there is the NKF issue. In the beginning, the Singapore Democratic Party vowed to make it a mountain to block the PAP's path to success. But the defamation lawsuit filed by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has quickly whittled it down to molehill status.

But the biggest edifices that will decide how Singaporeans vote on Saturday are probably not mountains or molehills, but HDB flats.

Estate upgrading and the retrofitting of old HDB blocks so that they can accommodate lifts on every floor are, if you like, molehill issues - small mundane affairs. But a lot of molehills put together make up a pretty formidable mountain, and the PAP knows this.

As the incumbent party which wants to hold on to its position, it makes perfect sense for it to dangle estate upgrading as a carrot. Any other political party anywhere else in the world would do the same.

But Singapore is unique in the sense that the Government rules over HDB homeowners, who make up a whopping 84 per cent of the population. And the majority party in government is the PAP.

While the Government, not the PAP, doles out the funds for upgrading, the line between the two is blurry because the PAP has been the government of Singapore since independence.

If estate upgrading is always going to be an election issue, or a condition, the playing field is always going to be tipped in favour of the ruling party.

This means that, should the day ever come when the PAP falls out of favour and another party becomes the majority, that party would hold all the upgrading cards. In the worst-case scenario, Singaporeans could find themselves held hostage by a rogue opposition party which forces them to live in squalor if they vote against them.

Nobody wants to see the value of their homes dropping. Nobody wants to live in a ghetto. So, while in the short term, it makes perfect sense to link a vote for the PAP with state-of-the-art lifts on every floor, covered walkways and bus services, in the long term it may not work out to be the best decision.

Some might reason that in order for HDB policies to be more equitable, it would make more sense to vote more opposition members into government. That way, there is less of a chance of having one's home held ransom for political purposes.

Already, some have pointed out that the upgrading strategy could backfire, leading to a situation where a voter decides to vote for the PAP this time around merely to get his upgrading, but then decamps to the opposition next time around once he has gotten what he wants.

Also, with the volatility of the real estate market and an unpredictable economy, aligning oneself with housing policies may not always work in a party's favour. Earlier this year, there were discontented rumblings from HDB downgraders who felt hard done by because they were not entitled to concessionary loans. If a vote for the PAP is a vote for the HDB, one must ensure that all HDB-owners are happy campers.

Most important of all, perhaps, is this relatively intangible issue: If voters must always worry about whether their estates will be upgraded, Singaporeans will never move beyond to larger issues. After all, 84 per cent of the population is a huge captive audience, especially since a large percentage of them in walkover constituencies will not even get the chance to vote in the first place.

Currently, the opposition and its supporters see upgrading as an unfair issue which the PAP will always win, even though Mr Low Thia Khiang of the Workers' Party has pointed out that his Hougang residents have managed to enjoy free lift upgrading even with the limited funds of its town council.

Mr Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Alliance also noted that he managed to build 89 new lifts for Toa Payoh Lorong 8 last year - for free. But Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has said that Mr Chiam's PAP challenger Sitoh Yih Pin would be able to carry out lift upgrading faster if elected because 'he will be in government'.

Nobody yet knows which side of the mountain the cards will fall in these hotly-contested opposition wards. But one thing is for sure, no matter which side the voter is on - the stakes are higher than what they may appear to be.


If voters must always worry about whether their estates will be upgraded, Singaporeans will never move beyond to larger issues. After all, 84 per cent of the population is a huge captive audience.