By Nabilah Mohammad
Most Singaporeans desire a home to call their own, however, there are inevitably marginal segments of society who encounter obstacles to having access to home ownership and, require assistance with this. For them, the government has provided schemes that offer affordable rental housing options, with rental rates that start from as low as $26 a month. The rates are heavily subsidised and tiered according to household income so that they remain accessible to the lower-income households.
In 2016, The Straits Times reported that the proportion of Malay families living in one- and two-room rented flats had doubled in the last decade. In the same article, Mr Zainal Sapari, Member of Parliament (MP) for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC shared that he had seen more Malay constituents appealing for rental flats and they included elderly couples, divorced families, and those who couldn’t afford a flat yet. A big proportion of Malay rental home dwellers also include those with younger children.
The Karyawan team set out to understand the lived experiences of those in rental flats and met four interviewees of diverse profiles who shared their stories.
Starting a Family in a Rental Unit
Arif (not his real name), 30, is currently staying in a two-room rental flat in Yishun’s new Build-to-Order (BTO) area with his wife and their two daughters – aged 7 and a newborn.
It is easy to miss the newer rental blocks like Arif’s as they blend in with the purchased flats in the area but a closer look will reveal the old-fashioned metal louvre windows, corridors with metal railing, and units located in close proximity to one another – features typical of rental flats in Singapore. It is also common to see the tenant’s belongings placed outside their units, and the living room, or sometimes even the kitchen, converted into a sleeping space due to the limited living capacity. Since 2008, there have been initiatives to create opportunities to encourage social mixing in public housing estates. The concern stems from the recognition that the two housing regimes – public renting and ownership – presented vastly unequal experiences. Rental flats have since been built alongside sold flats in various HDB towns so that families of differing economic capacities grow up in the same neighbourhood and share access to common public spaces and facilities. Recent plans include integrating rental and sold units within the same HDB block.
Arif, who dropped out of polytechnic due to his family’s financial struggles shared that he went to prison a few years back for being absent without official leave (AWOL) from National Service.
“I AWOL-ed from National Service because I wanted to work and earn extra money. I was working odd jobs that didn’t pay CPF to avoid getting ‘traced’. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t have enough in my CPF to afford a flat,” Arif explained.
When Arif got married a few months after his release, he wanted to have his own place to start a family. However, they could not afford to buy a house so they settled for a more feasible option – a rental flat. The Karyawan team asked Arif about his experiences in raising a family whilst staying in a rental flat.
“Honestly when we moved in three years ago, I thought it was awesome. You have your own space and rental is cheap. However, after two years, I found it psychologically damaging. Furthermore, it is not a good environment for my kids to grow up in, especially at this vulnerable age where they get influenced easily. People here are often very rowdy and police presence is a constant,” Arif said.
Arif shared that he had to compromise on quality living experience in order to have an affordable roof over their head.
“I try to make my house comfortable, but the interior of the house keeps reminding you that it’s a rental unit. They don’t even cover the piping. The lighting is just a screwed on bulb. Even the void deck is nicer. We didn’t bother making the place nicer because tenants are expected to return the unit in its original condition. Waking up to this every day inspires me to have a better life,” Arif shared.
According to the Ministry of National Development (MND), public rental flats are not intended to be a permanent shelter or a substitute to homeownership, but a transitional shelter and a safety net for those who need help until a permanent solution is found. As such, these rental flats are designed mainly to fulfil their functional purpose of housing the tenants with little consideration for aesthetics.
Ask a young father like Arif if he aspires to have a home he can call his own, and the answer is invariably ‘yes’. However, he shared that life is getting harder for him since he lost his job earlier this year. Arif and his wife are currently earning a living as food delivery riders. He shared that these gigs are cushioning the blow of his job loss.
“I’ve been looking for a customer service job for a good six months but to no avail. All of them require a diploma. People always say there are avenues of help, but I don’t think the assistance are ‘spot on’. My wife took up SkillsFuture courses, but they didn’t make a difference to her employability,” Arif said.
While the tenet of Singapore’s public housing rests on home ownership for the people, Arif shared that so far, none of his neighbours have plans to move out of their rental flat. Arif attributed such a mindset to family upbringing.
“Majority of the people I talked to think that this rental scheme is a way to exploit the government’s assistance. To them, staying here is considered “untung” (beneficial), so they don’t want to get out. They questioned why they would buy a house when they’re only paying $44 per month. Bills are also low, and assistance is easy to get. The older generation, at least from my experience talking to my parents, think that staying here is a good deal. That is probably how the youngsters could have gotten the mindset from,” Arif added.
Arif hopes that the government can provide assistance to improve the social mobility and financial literacy among those living in rental flats because according to him, majority of them are not utilising their time there to better themselves.
Sandwiched Generation Trap
We also spoke to, Zila (not her real name), a single mother, is currently staying in an older rental block. As the building of new rental flats stopped completely between 1982 and 2006, most of the rental housing stock is old.
For the past 13 years, Zila’s home has been a two-room rental flat in Teck Whye Lane. The 38-year-old is now her family’s sole breadwinner, caught between supporting her ageing parents and raising her two young children aged two and four.
“Initially when we got the rental flat, we planned to stay temporarily. After a few tenancy renewals, I realised we’ve been here for more than ten years. It’s a bit crammed because there are five of us now in this small unit. There is a lot of stuff in our house because my parents are hoarders. It doesn’t help that I have two very young and active boys who like to run around,” Zila shared.
Zila had to quit her well-paying full-time job in the shipping industry to look after her children. She shared that her eldest son has a speech delay and attends the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC). Zila also sends her parents to the hospital for their regular check-ups. These take her time away from seeking and sustaining a full-time job. She now depends on financial assistance from national agencies and her small online business to survive.
“I was the last to get married among my siblings, so I took care of my parents. The load wasn’t really that bad when I was single. Then I got married and had kids. Things got tougher after my marriage failed last year. When I voiced out to my other siblings about taking turns to care for our parents, they said they couldn’t help,” she said.
Zila shared that she has enough CPF savings to afford a small flat. However, the ongoing divorce proceedings and her current ambiguous marital status, on top of being jobless, makes her ineligible to apply for a house now. She plans on buying a 3-room flat once everything settles.
Zila claimed that she knows several tenants who can afford to buy a flat but can’t access the market due to various reasons.
“One of my neighbours always goes on holidays. Another neighbour even has a maid. Don’t be surprised, some of those staying in rental flats are doing better than those staying in purchased flats so don’t look down on people,” she added.
Indeed, there are many who were born or grew up in rental housing but overcame the obstacles in their path just like our next two interviewees.
Navigating Through Rough Waves with an Aspiring Ship Captain
We had the pleasure of meeting Haziq, a 27-year-old maritime student who is currently staying in an old 2-room rental unit at Taman Jurong.
Haziq graduated from Singapore Polytechnic with a Diploma in Nautical Studies in 2013. He worked for a big shipping company as a cadet after he graduated, and gained seagoing experience in many different countries including India, Europe and Venezuela. Haziq shared that he is currently getting his Certificate in Nautical Studies as he works towards becoming a nautical officer and eventually, a ship master.
“I moved in to a rental flat with my mum and two brothers when I was about 10 years old. That was when my parents got divorced and had to sell our 4-room flat. We live on the first floor and I’ve seen many things thrown down and land in front of our house. Pots, pans, you name it. It’s just a different environment here,” Haziq shared.
Haziq regards sailing as a way to escape the constant struggles at home. For Haziq, there is something euphoric and elemental about being out at sea.
An interesting concern raised by him was how some rental flat dwellers do not want to seek better paying jobs so they can avoid paying higher rental fees. This apparently stems from the monthly rental fee system that is pegged to household income.
“The main issue conveyed is that if they find a higher salary job, their rent increases relative to their salary increases. In the end, the balance will still be the same. Furthermore, the job expectedly entails more responsibilities. If you under declare your income and the authorities find out, you will be evicted. Where are you going to live then? It is demotivating,” Haziq explained.
A quick read on the government agency website, however, states that HDB does exercise flexibility and suspends the rental increase for one or even two tenancy terms to ensure that tenants will have the opportunity to build their finances after an income growth.
Teacher – Paying it Forward
The Karyawan team also met Rita (not her real name), aged 32, who is an allied educator in a secondary school. She is currently pursuing her part-time degree in English with Psychology at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). Rita grew up in a rental flat but now stays in her 4-room BTO flat in Sengkang with her husband and nine-month-old daughter.
Home for Rita used to be a 2-room rental flat in Tampines that housed five family members. Rita, together with her 3 siblings and mother, had to move out of their comfortable 5-room flat into a rental flat when her parents divorced during her teenage years.
Now an allied educator in a secondary school, Rita provides structured and systematic support to students in her class. According to her, she assists with ‘difficult’ classes – usually classes with students who are often associated with truancy.
“Majority of my students come from broken families and of these, more than half are staying in rental flats. I do regular home visits to my students’ homes in Jurong. On one visit, I met four families crammed in one house. Although it’s meant to be temporary, it has been eight months. I don’t think it is a healthy environment to live in,” Rita shared.
Indeed, having sufficient space is essential to meet our basic need for privacy and for making a home a pleasant place to be in. Too many tenants in a living space may have a negative impact on the quality of life and potentially a child’s educational attainment. There have been research documenting the profound negative effects on children raised in crowded homes, which can persist throughout life, affecting their future socioeconomic status and adult wellbeing.
Perceptions towards Rental Flat Dwellers
When we asked our interviewees about the public’s perception towards them, they felt that sometimes, rental flats are unfairly tarred with a bad reputation.
“I feel that the media sensationalises news related to crimes by those living in rental flats. There are crimes committed by people staying in private housing and landed properties too, but I feel that they rarely get emphasised,” Rita shared.
Haziq also shared the same sentiments about the tendency of the media over focusing on crimes linked to rental flats or its dwellers.
“My former neighbour, who lived in a 4-room flat in my previous estate, was robbed in broad daylight. That happened in an affluent neighbourhood. That didn’t make it to the news. Even if it did, they won’t explicitly mention ‘purchased flats’ like how they would mention ‘rental flats’ in the news,” he said.
Rental flats recently made the news when the remains of a two-year-old toddler was found in a one-room rental flat at Chin Swee Road. In another case, a couple is accused of causing the death of their five-year-old son in their one-room rental flat in central Singapore.
Some of our interviewees also shared that they feel stigmatised by the people around them.
“For me, the negative perceptions mainly came from my own relatives. They always say that children from rental flats can’t make it, and that they are uneducated and have no manners,” Rita shared.
“People shouldn’t look down on us unless they have been in our situation. There are a lot of reasons why we are here. It can happen to anyone. There’s a whole spectrum of people staying here. Nobody wants to make this as their first choice of accommodation,” Arif said.
Ultimately, rental flats should not be seen as an inferior housing choice. People end up in rental flats for many reasons. It can happen due to complex family dynamics, unexpected financial challenges, or simply structural barriers resulting in homeownership ineligibility. Initiatives should be taken to improve the societal attitudes and perception towards residents of rental units and promote upward social mobility among them so they are not left in limbo.
 “More Malay families living in rental flats,” The Straits Times, May 11, 2016, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/more-malay-families-living-in-rental-flats.
Morgen Johansen, “Social Equity in the Asia-Pacific Region: Conceptualizations and Realities”, accessed December 23, 2019
“Mixed results in HDB block that mixes rental and purchased flats,” The Straits Times, June 6, 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/housing/views-mixed-in-block-with-purchased-rental-flats
“COS 2015 – Speech by MOS Maliki Osman “Helping Public Rental Tenants Own Their Homes”” Ministry of National Development, Mar 11, 2015, https://www.mnd.gov.sg/newsroom/speeches/view/cos-2015—speech-by-mos-maliki-osman-helping-public-rental-tenants-own-their-homes.
“How is HDB helping low-income households with a roof over their head?” gov.sg, 25 June,2013, https://www.gov.sg/factually/content/how-is-hdb-helping-lowincome-households-with-a-roof-over-their-head.
 Lopoo LM & London AS, “Household Crowding During Childhood and Long-Term Education Outcomes”, National Center for Biotechnology Information, June, 2016,https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27103537.
 Claudia D. Solari & Robert D. Mare, “Housing Crowding Effects on Children’s Wellbeing”, National Center for Biotechnology Information, March, 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3805127/.
Today Online. (2019). lleged murder of 5-year-old boy: His skin turned yellowish and whitish from burns
Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.
This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, January 2020, Volume 15, Issue 1.
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