Yawning Bread. July 2007

$2,500 to rent a 3-room flat?


    

 

 

It was right there on the front page of the Straits Times, 21 July 2007. The story 'HDB rents at 10-year high" had a box listing the "rentals above $2,000" per month. There were 8 examples, of which one was a 3-room flat.


   

On a per square metre basis, that flat must be the most expensive of the lot.

Since I've not been in the HDB rental market, I'm not exactly familiar with the usual rates, but from casual conversation, I have gathered that it is rarely above $1,200 per month for a 3-room flat. 

So the reported $2,500 for a 3-room flat in Jurong East (which is some 15 km from the central business district) would indeed be quite newsworthy. The flat must be fabulously appointed. It must be on a very high floor with great views, I told myself.

Wait a minute -- don't I know roughly where Block 253 is? Isn't it close to where I live?

Indeed it is. And it is a low block (4 storeys) with noisy shops on the ground floor. It faces Jurong Town Hall Road, a major thoroughfare, which means an unceasing rumble from traffic day and night.

As soon as the rain stopped, I took a walk with my camera.

 

For those who are not in Singapore, let me provide some context. 

"HDB flats" is Singapore-speak for flats built by the Housing and Development Board and sold (mostly) on 99-year leases. Over 80% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats.

Generally, lessees (often called "owners") are required to live in the flats themselves, but if they have good reason, e.g. if they are working overseas, they are allowed to let out the flat. There is therefore a market for rented HDB flats.

HDB flats come in various sizes, usually denominated by the number of "rooms". A "3-room flat" has 2 bedrooms and a living room. "4-room" means 3 bedrooms and a living room. "5-room" means 3 bedrooms, plus living and dining rooms and so on

 

This is what Block 253 looks like. If you look closely at the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors, it will strike you how bare the common walkways are. The flats look unoccupied. A typical occupied block would have plants, laundry, toys and bicycles all over the place.


 
Here is a telephoto of the 2nd and 3rd floors. See how bare the walkways are?

 

 


  
Just to be sure, I went up to each floor and walked about. Here is a picture from the 3rd floor.

Why would a new tenant pay premium rates when there are so many unoccupied flats on offer?


 
Some of the flats had broken windows, which had been boarded up.

 


  
A few flats had windows that weren't entirely closed. I looked in to confirm that they were vacant.

 
At least one flat had a door left ajar. From the looks of it, it was being stripped. You see here the PVC cable trunking strewn about.

There were about 4 or 5 flats in the block of nearly a hundred units which were lived in. But they appeared to be occupied by foreign workers, cramming themselves 6 to a room or something like that.

Surely they weren't the ones paying $2,500 a month? 


  
On the wall at one of the staircases was this notice. Scroll down to see a close-up.

This confirms it. Most units in the block are being repaired and refitted by an appointed contractor.

 

Because Block 253 is largely abandoned, parts of it have fallen into disrepair. Drains are chocked, and as you can see from the picture, puddles of water accumulate after a bout of rain.

Plants and empty plant pots have also been left behind by previous owners.

Together, they make breeding places for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which propagates the potentially lethal dengue fever.

 

 

 

Is the Straits Times' story credible now? Where did it get its information? The newspaper cited "property agencies ERA Singapore, PropNex and C&H Realty". These are quite well-established companies, and I don't suppose the reporter or editors had reason to doubt the information they received.

It's not my intention to bash anyone for what is beginning to look like a big mistake. I'm citing this merely as an example to remind us how difficult it is to check everything before a story goes to print. Reporters work to a deadline and editors are desk-bound.

If there's a moral to the story, I'd say it would be this: our mainstream media should be very careful not to boast too much about being paragons of "truthful and objective" reporting, in their attempt to belittle new media and preserve their market share. You're only as good as the sources you depend on.

This is especially as, in an attempt to exploit the digital age, newspapers are increasingly relying on "citizen reporters" to contribute breaking news, notably photos and video. Precisely because they are "breaking news", there is a rush to get such reports out. But how does one check that they are truthful or fair in the little time that one has?

* * * * *

 
In the same edition of the Straits Times, was a story datelined Beijing, "Cooking up a storm". It's about how the report that steamed buns contained moistened cardboard turned out to be fabricated.

This story had gone around the world fanning food safety scares over Chinese exports, already fuelled by stories of toxic ingredients in toothpaste and the like. It must have caused serious damage to the country's export reputation.

Well, it's revealed now that the TV news story about the buns was entirely false. Zi Beijia, an employee of Beijing Television, has admitted to the police that

... he had initially raised the idea of buns filled with dubious meat at a brainstorming session with editors in early June. His editors urged him to pursue the topic. Zi is a temporary staff with the station. [1]

For half a month, Zi scoured Beijing for fake baozi, or buns. He found none which contained cardboard.

Under pressure to deliver, to make a name for himself, as well as to earn some extra cash -- reporters are paid 5,000 yuan for special reports, said The Beijing News -- he turned to fraud.

Zi headed out to the outskirts of Beijing and located an area where migrant labourers working as street food vendors rented rooms. He bought pork and flour and recruited four migrant workers from Shaanxi province to act out the choreographed scene.

-- Straits Times, 21 July 2007, 'Cooking up a storm'

Elsewhere in the Straits Times' story,

His footage showed four workers in a dirty courtyard, soaking cardboard sheets in basins and chopping up the softened cardboard with kitchen cleavers. They mixed the cardboard pieces with minced pork, and finally steamed the buns in bamboo steamers.

'We use 60 per cent cardboard. The rest is fatty meat,' says one worker in the video. 'We save a lot of money this way, pork is expensive, cardboard is cheap,' says another.

On July 8, Zi's report was aired as a 20-minute 'expose' on Beijing TV's news programme, Degree Of Transparency. It gained a nationwide audience when state television CCTV picked up the report on July 11.

-- ibid

The story caused a furore domestically and hurt the country's reputation abroad.

* * * * *

 
Escalating rent and property prices in Singapore is getting our government concerned. It is raising the cost of doing business, working against the aim of getting international companies to locate here.

On 20 July, the Straits Times -- front page again -- reported that "Singapore's office buildings have shot up in value by more than anywhere else in the world over the past year." [2]  In the weeks earlier, there were also reports about how expatriates have seen their apartment rental rates leap out of their budget. I'm not saying this trend isn't true. By all reports, rates have been increasing very fast during the last 12 months. But particularly when this issue is becoming such a hot potato, the media needs to be a bit more responsible.

Reporting new records reached in rental rates may make striking headlines, but it in turn fuels more greed among property owners and much despair among tenants. Yet, records are always anomalies. An equal effort should be made to report averages to better reflect the situation. As well, a greater effort should be made to verify the "new records", such as in Block 253 Jurong East, before going to print.

Yawning Bread 


 

Footnotes

  1. Did you notice the bad English there? "Zi is a temporary staff with the station" is the wrong way to use the word "staff". "Staff" is a collective noun for all the people working at a firm or location. It is not a synonym for "employee". An employee is a "member of the staff".
    Return to where you left off

  2. Straits Times, 20 July 2007, 'Rise in value of office space here is highest in the world'.
    Return to where you left off

 

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