Saturday, May 14, 2011

Chope a flat

May 13, 2011

The audacity of chope
By Ong Soh Chin

FORGET the Merlion or the Vanda Miss Joaquim. For that one ubiquitous Singaporean symbol, look no further than the humble tissue pack.

Nondescript and unassuming for the most part, it suddenly assumes super powers when placed on a public seat, with the ability to repel hordes of people from unoccupied spaces at hawker centres and foodcourts.

The tissue pack is the physical emblem of a particularly Singaporean trait - choping. It is deeply embedded in our psyche, coming from a deep, dark Third World place where insecurity still reigns and where there is a constant need to plan ahead.

It is a quaint manifestation of the Singaporean mettle, inherited from ancestors who lived with contingency. Those with parents and grandparents who still hoard plastic bags and Tupperware containers 'just in case' know what I am talking about.

You snooze, you lose. The tissue pack is also a placeholder, a momentary stay while other things are attended to, ensuring you don't lose your status when you return.

Recently, however, reader Francis Cheng wrote in to The Straits Times to complain about this anti-social choping behaviour, prompting several impassioned letters in response. Most say it is a deplorable trait, while others see it as a harmless and uniquely Singaporean characteristic.

As an example of the latter, Changi Airport's signs informing visitors of the practical significance of tissue packs can be seen as a tacit sanction of the practice.

Choping with tissue packs is, in the big picture, annoying but harmless. Yet, seen in the light of Singapore's brushed-steel credentials as a First World country, it reeks of a mud-hut mindset.

By the same token, however, choping, with or without tissue packs, is something that Singaporeans can truly claim as their own. It can also be a bit of a comic bloodsport, as witnessed when budget airlines were first introduced here, with free seating instead of allocated seats.

A friend recalled walking towards an empty seat ahead of him, when he suddenly sensed, from behind him, the hot and urgent whizzing of a bag flying past his ear and landing unerringly at the vacant seat he had been eyeing.

In this case, choping is about the survival of the fittest, Singapore's own version of musical chairs where the last man standing is the one who does not have a tissue pack. Or a bag projectile.

Another variation of choping can be seen on public buses, in the particularly Singaporean habit of occupying a two-seater by sitting near the aisle, thereby psychologically blocking others from taking the inner seat.

Sometimes, this practice involves physically blocking others by plonking shopping bags on the adjacent empty seat.

Of course, one is not sure if this is an act of choping or if it is because people do not want their bags to get dirty by putting them on the floor. (This second point is hugely ironic when one considers that Singapore is one of the world's cleanest cities. It is also another strangely Singaporean trait.)

While choping may be inherent in the Singapore DNA, its nature today does appear to be mutating, fuelled perhaps by the space squeeze one is experiencing from a burgeoning population and a more stressful and materialistic way of life.

These new factors have led to the evolution of a different kind of choping mentality. While one can overlook mildly aggravating kiasu habits involving tissue packs, one cannot forgive acts that stem from selfishness and mean-spiritedness.

Take the mask-wearing folk who occupy the seats on MRT trains reserved for the elderly, the handicapped, or pregnant women. By closing their eyes literally to others who might need the seats more, they are uber-chopers who make the tissue pack brigade look like Singa the Courtesy Lion.

Then there are the recent cases of two car owners who repeatedly parked in spaces reserved for the handicapped. One had been abusing the privilege for many years, due to an oversight by a government body that had mistakenly given him a label that allowed him to park in these spaces.

The other had illegally and repeatedly parked at the handicapped space in his estate, despite seven police summonses within two weeks, simply because it was convenient.

In these cases, choping has crossed the line to become a callous act of self-centred entitlement that goes beyond mere quirkiness. Tissue packs on seats are a bizarre quick-fix reservation system that can perhaps be tolerated.

But by choping things that are not rightfully theirs and depriving others who might need them more, Singaporeans are doing themselves and their First World reputation a great disservice.

[On the same day from the paper, Today, there's this - "choping" HDB flats.]

Too much advance buying distorts true demand

by Colin Tan

I have always advised potential new home owners or genuine upgraders that their main motivation to buy a property should be based on need and not greed.

Buying in advance slightly ahead or delaying a purchase for a short period of time is alright but not when it is too far from the period of need.

Buying ahead may mean getting married earlier than planned - when there are still issues to be resolved.

At the other end, in delaying a purchase, there may be opportunity costs that are not quantifiable, such as having children, privacy and shorter commuting times.

It was therefore quite worrying that, despite a significant ramping up of Build-To-Order (BTO) launches over the past several quarters to reach new highs in recent years, the demand for new HDB flats has remained as strong as ever.

We continue to read news reports of this or that BTO project being oversubscribed several times. We are told that a significant number are repeat applicants - households that have failed to secure a flat in earlier launches. However, what is disquieting is that there appears to be no discernible trend to show that the underlying subscription rate has come down in any significant way.

Even if the public housing authorities have seriously underestimated demand in previous years, it is inconceivable to think that all this new demand - at multiples of average demand five to six years ago - is simply pent-up demand.

Basic economic theory tells us that when prices go up, demand falls. Yet, in our current situation, more are buying as prices head upwards. The only explanation is that quite a significant proportion of this demand is advance buying - from households who do not anticipate that they need their flats in the short term but are applying to buy now before prices go even higher. The greater the panic, the higher the proportion of advance buying.

Some of us simply cannot understand the panic felt by young couples, especially since the Government has made it clear both by words and deeds that they will increase the number of BTOs if there is demand.

Take a hypothetical young couple who are not even remotely contemplating marriage. But because of advice from other couples and their peers, they apply to buy in advance, just to be on the safe side. They may not worry if their first two applications are rejected. But with the third rejection, they start to feel anxious.

And because they have been monitoring the market closely, they can see prices climbing with each new BTO. When they are rejected the third and fourth time, panic sets in.

Such "panicky" couples are a walking advertisement to all other couples to buy now rather than later. And so the proportion of advance buying snowballs with more of such couples. The news spreads fast among their friends and, as we know, bad news spreads even more quickly. Many young people have told me that even their parents are urging them to apply without delay.

Common sense tells us that we cannot have too high a proportion of advance buying because there will be severe market repercussions down the road, some of which can be pretty unpleasant.

Too much advance buying leaves too little demand in future years. Too much building at about the same time also stretches the capacity of the construction sector and leads to high demand for materials and resources, in turn leading to higher prices. After these units are completed and the minimum five-year occupation period reached, the pool of resale flats will balloon, leading to sharp falls in prices.

To arrest or quell this panic buying, the authorities should consider launching even more BTO projects, maybe twice or even triple the current number, at the same time.

Alternatively, if there are insufficient manpower resources to prepare for so many BTOs to be launched together, the authorities could impose a temporary price freeze - of maybe a year or two. This way, those who are not in urgent need can wait right up to the end of this grace period before applying. This would immediately calm and remove most of the advance buying in the market, leaving just the true current demand.

Like any inflation scourge, this bout of panic buying needs to be stopped quickly before it grows and spirals out of control.

Colin Tan is head, research and consultancy, at Chesterton Suntec International.

[The theoretical framework of complexity studies can be found here.]

No comments: