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Government spells out 'ambitious' plans for housing spanning generations

SINGAPORE — The Government will act to tackle issues that have been topmost on Singaporeans' minds recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised in an expansive National Day Rally speech that was packed with announcements.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong waves at the start of the National Day Rally.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong waves at the start of the National Day Rally.

SINGAPORE — The Government will act to tackle issues that have been topmost on Singaporeans' minds recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised in an expansive National Day Rally speech that was packed with announcements.

These include the rising cost of living and healthcare, and concerns about the value of ageing public flats as their 99-year leases run down.

On Sunday (Aug 19), Mr Lee spent time during his Chinese speech addressing the reasons many Singaporeans feel that their "wallets are shrinking", pointing to lifestyle changes and inflation as some of the reasons for this.

Having focused on education in previous years, he dived this year into housing and healthcare during his main English speech, pledging that the Government will "spare no effort" to ensure that these three big-ticket items remain affordable for Singaporeans.

Some of the initiatives he announced to help citizens manage healthcare costs include medical subsidies for those born between 1950 and 1959, what he termed " the Merdeka Generation".

The Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas) — which provides subsidised care for patients with chronic ailments — will be extended to all Singaporeans regardless of income levels.

Mr Lee said that the "Merdeka Package" will be akin to the Pioneer Generation Package, though it will be less generous.

The details are being worked out and will be announced next year.

Over the 2.5-hour rally, he returned to several familiar themes: How the Government is committed to thinking about the future and sharing its vision with Singaporeans, how the business of building and improving the country will never be done, and how Singapore should always remain a nation of boundless opportunities, where every skill and talent is recognised.

PUBLIC HOUSING INITIATIVES

Mr Lee devoted significant air-time on a hot topic in the news lately: The lease expiry of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats and what looks to be their diminishing worth.

He reinforced the point that the lease duration cannot be extended "easily" and it is better that the Government take back housing blocks when leases expire, demolish them and rebuild new flats for future generations.

He also reassured the people that "very few of today's HDB owners will outlive their leases".

But for those who are still worried, the Government will do its part to help residents monetise their older flats.

The Ministry of National Development is working on expanding the Lease Buyback scheme and improving "the liquidity of the resale market", Mr Lee said.

He also announced that every HDB flat can expect to undergo major upgrading twice during its 99-year lease period, with the new Home Improvement Programme II (HIP II) rolled out for ageing units at the 60- to 70-year mark.

At the same time, the HIP scheme — which currently covers flats built up to 1986 — will be extended to blocks constructed up to 1997.

This works out to another 230,000 benefitting from the programme, allowing estates like Pasir Ris, Yishun, Tampines and Jurong to qualify for upgrading.

Mr Lee noted that the existing HIP scheme — launched 10 years ago — has been a "very popular… essential upgrade".

Under it, the Government foots up to 95 per cent of the bill, with residents paying as little as a few hundred dollars for the upgrading which covers maintenance issues, such as ceiling leaks and damaged pipes, and upgrade of the electricity supply.

The upgrading will proceed only with at least 75 per cent of a block's eligible Singapore Citizen households voting in favour of it.

As of Aug 1, the HIP has been announced for about 242,000 of the 320,000 eligible flats under existing criteria. Of these, upgrading works have been completed for more than half, or 122,000 flats, with work underway in the remaining flats, the HDB said in a press release.

Mr Lee said the final batch of HIP flats will be announced by next year.

Noting that the original HIP will cost the Government more than S$4 billion, Mr Lee pointed out that HIP II is a "huge financial commitment for the Government", as it "will probably cost even more, because the flats will be twice as old by then".

"But it is well justified, and we will do it so long as (the Ministry of Finance) has the money," he said.

He added: "We are determined not to let our public housing degenerate into ragged, squalid slums, which has happened in many other cities."

Mr Lee also revealed that the authorities are going to start planning for a new Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme (Vers), which will allow owners of HDB flats to vote if they want the authorities to take back their apartments for redevelopment at the 70-year mark of their lease.

If residents vote to go ahead with Vers, the Government will buy back the blocks of flats to redevelop the precinct and the owners may use their proceeds to pay for another flat. Otherwise, they continue to live in their homes until the lease runs out.

This new scheme will not start until 20 years later, as the authorities "need time to work out how to select the precincts, how to pace the redevelopments out", as well as the specific terms of the Government's offer, Mr Lee said.

They will also need to study "how to afford" Vers for the long term.

PLANNING FOR THE LONG-TERM

Plans laid out on Sunday to improve healthcare and housing will stretch over 50 years, across several generations and many General Elections.

"They are ambitious endeavours, and will require large expenditures," Mr Lee said.

He pointed out that it is important to plant the seeds now, for the benefits will be felt by the future generations, decades from now.

Being able to make such long term plans and anticipate the needs and opportunities into the distant future is something very few countries can do.

"But in Singapore, we can and we will," Mr Lee said, adding that the Government owes it to Singaporeans to look ahead, share its thoughts with citizens, and work with them to bring the plans to fruition.

Having said that, Mr Lee cautioned that the Government's plans will not unfold exactly as planned, due to unknown factors such as new technological disruptions, the ability of big and small countries to work together, as well as war.

"Whatever the future brings, we know what Singapore must strive for, to give ourselves the best chances of success," he said. "We must have a thriving economy and sound Government finances, to generate the resources to carry out our projects. We must maintain political stability and outstanding leadership, so that we can continue to plan for the future.

"And most important of all, we must always stay one united people, and work together to build a better Singapore for ourselves."

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