It may be worth trying, to help reduce stigma and bridge differences
By Tan Hui Yee, Correspondent
TAMPINES and Pasir Ris residents are fretting about new rental flats in their neighbourhood - and the whole affair has a sense of deja vu about it.
Two years ago, private residents in Serangoon Gardens threw a fit when they got wind of plans to locate a foreign worker dormitory there. Now, these HDB home owners are upset about new rental blocks they fear will block their breeze and devalue their homes.
It's hard not to see the parallels. In the Serangoon Gardens' case, the bogeyman was the drunken foreign worker cum molester. In Tampines, it's the drug addict with three hungry children in tow.
One resident summed his fears thus: 'Smokers and drinkers may gather at the void deck. Many families here have young children and teenagers. We don't want them led astray.'
Living next to poor people, they reckon, will put them constantly on their guard in their comfortable neighbourhood.
One could be forgiven for thinking that rental HDB flats are full of layabouts, criminals and drunkards. The truth is many are elderly folk living on public assistance, as well as families with valid but low-income employment. And some are young couples trying to save up to buy a modest home of their own.
All tenant households earn not more than $1,500 a month. The HDB says it spread rental blocks across the island 'to achieve a balanced social mix'. In other words, it tries to integrate rental flat residents with the rest of the home-owning population, so that the underclass don't form enclaves.
There is good reason for that. Studies, such as those done by Northwestern University professor James Rosenbaum of low-income black families relocated from inner city homes in Chicago to predominantly middle-class suburbs, have found that such moves benefit the poor.
His team found that the Gautreaux Housing Relocation Project, which began in 1976, resulted in such movers being more likely to be employed. Mothers who were reluctant to get a job before because they needed to keep an eye on their kids became more open to seeking jobs when their living environment was safer. Their children were also more likely to go on to university and find full-time jobs at higher wages than those who remained in the inner city.
In Singapore, rental flat residents who live among communities of home owners stand to gain from a more balanced living environment. This is not to say that all families who live in flats they own are better off or better adjusted. Rather, living together with families across a wide spectrum of income groups will prevent both sides from acquiring a distorted sense of reality.
This point is particularly relevant to middle-income heartlanders who worry their children will grow up too coddled to understand the real world. Here's the thing: Poverty need not be something abstract, learnt from textbooks or school excursions, if children can get some sense of what it's like to be poor from the kids they interact with in the neighbourhood playground.
They will learn not to despise or fear the poor. They will learn, hopefully, to approach them with modesty and compassion, because they understand that hardship can strike anyone at any point in their lives.
The fortunate thing about this whole affair is that the Government looks unlikely to budge from building the rental blocks. The downturn has swelled the ranks of applicants and prompted the HDB to increase its stock of rental flats by 17 per cent to 50,000 in 2012. That said, one wonders what concessions might be made, such as the separate road entrances in the Serangoon Gardens' case.
It is no secret that public housing in Singapore functions also as a sophisticated form of social engineering. Housing policies help integrate the races, bond families across generations, and encourage marriage to boot.
As society changes, and new forms of social divides appear, the authorities will constantly tweak the formula further to see how they can bridge the social divisions. For instance, last month Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew spoke about having separate ethnic quotas for permanent residents to prevent them from forming enclaves.
The current quotas limit the proportions of Chinese, Malay, Indians and other minority races in each block and precinct. But these quotas do not affect new immigrants, who have been buying up resale flats near one another. Hence the current review of the ethnic integration policy.
Could rental flats become the next area for social experiments? After all, HDB already has a policy of mixing different flat types in each block to encourage interactions across different income groups.
In a launch early this month, a batch of 750 upcoming flats called Punggol Crest comprised two-room, three-room and four-room units, while another 784 units called Treegrove@Woodlands offered studio apartments for the elderly together with three- and four-roomers.
Given the high number of flats being launched these days, wouldn't it make sense for the HDB to build new rental flats within the same block as sold flats?
The average heartlander who may baulk at living next to a rental block is likely to be less resistant to the idea of living with one or two families on subsidised rental just down his corridor.
In fact, he might not be able to tell that they are subsidised tenants, and might interact with them without any preconceived notions.
Done sensibly, this merging of rental and sold flats can blur boundaries, reduce stigma and bridge differences.
Given Singapore's rising income gap, such a policy could prove to be as socially beneficial as the ethnic integration policy.