En bloc law needs amendment to prevent triumph of majoritarianism?

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Commenting on an article about how the en bloc law “fracture(s)” communities on her Facebook, lawyer Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss noted that “destruction is legally facilitated”. She also wondered what “it (says) about our nation’s values”.

The article she was responding to is an extensive interview with veteran architect Tan Cheng Siong, published in Today Online in February 2018. In the article, Mr Tan expressed concerns about two properties he had designed in the 1970s – Pearl Bank Apartments in 1976 and Pandan Valley in 1978. Both properties have been in the news recently and face the prospect of being destroyed.

Pearl Bank Apartments, the landmark horse-shoe shaped building near Outram Park MRT station has since been sold to CapitaLand in a $728 million collective sale, and will be torn down for redevelopment. Pandan Valley on the other hand has started work to try and set up a collective sale committee in this month.

Three years ago, Mr Tan tried to save the Pearl Bank Apartments before it went en bloc, by setting up a “voluntary conservation” project with his partner Daniel Law. The architect lamented that the project hit a snag because only 92 percent of owners consented to the redevelopment which would have given the building a new lease of life. Under the en bloc law, the project would need 100 percent of owners to consent.

“So you need 100 per cent consent to protect a building, but 80 per cent to strike it off the surface of the earth,” Mr Tan said.

He added that if this gap in the en bloc law is not addressed, it will be unhealthy for future generations as they will see their properties not as homes but merely as “a market value to be realised or reaped very quickly”.

Mr Tan noted that not all en bloc attempts are successful and that when they are not, it creates “so much friction, so much fracture among residents and communities”.

“This is not quite appropriate especially if we want to encourage a sense of community, a sense of togetherness, and a sense of place in Singapore,” Mr Tan said.

en bloc lawMs Chong-Aruldoss commenting on Mr Tan’s attempt to conserve Pearl Bank Apartments, asked why the en bloc law does not encourage value-adding services. Ms Chong-Aruldoss currently sits on Mandarin Gardens’ management council and this development is all set to become Singapore’s largest collective sale ever. The 99-year leasehold development in Siglap sitting on sites close to or over one million sq ft, has set a S$2.48 billion price tag in a fresh attempt at a collective sale.

The 54-year-old lawyer is dead set against this collective sale, but failed to secure more than 50 percent of votes needed to be part of the sale committee.

Ms Chong-Aruldoss also opposed Mandarin Gardens’ last en bloc bid in 2008. Ms Chong-Aruldoss wrote a letter to the press at that time suggesting that the ‘majority wins’ en bloc law must be amended with consensus-seeking rule.

With asking price of S$2.5b Mandarin Gardens set to break record for largest en bloc sale

The letter signed by 13 others said:

“As a citizen of a progressive and global nation, I thought no one would be allowed to sell property that was not legally theirs, until my estate came under threat of an en bloc sale. En bloc laws, extant since 1999, empower and facilitate my neighbours to sell my home against my will and even without my signature.

“Although the Singapore Constitution contains no specific clause assuring protection of one’s property rights, it is natural for a citizen of any country to expect their government to safeguard his or her property, along with his or her life and liberty.

“Lately, the public has witnessed minority owners going to great lengths to defend their homes from en bloc sales. Perhaps their determination is an expression of an individual’s inborn unwillingness to be forced to give up what is rightfully his.

“Pre-1999, compulsory land acquisition was done only by the Government for public purposes. In an en bloc sale, the need to optimise land use in land-scarce Singapore is the justification for denying one’s property rights.

“But commercial interests may be served more than any. Increasingly, redeveloped estates are offering luxury condos that few Singaporeans can afford. Developers seem to be the real winners.

“If indeed en bloc laws are meeting their policy objectives, then they do so at an incalculable social price. When 100 per cent consent was done away with, the stage was set for the current controversies — the spate of court cases, misbehaviour at general meetings, breakdowns of relationships between neighbours — all of which surely outweigh the benefits of an en bloc.

“Pitting neighbours against each other to win a majority percentage to their side is a perverse application of the democratic process.“With news that en bloc laws will be reviewed, I appeal to the Ministry of Law to take this opportunity to consider replacing the antagonistic “majority wins” rule with a consensus-seeking process.

“Currently, owners’ concerns are largely sidelined if they comprise the minority. The Strata Titles Board steps in as mediator-arbitrator only after a buyer is found.

“Instead, the en bloc process could begin with platforms for owners to voice their concerns, define common goals, identify problems, with extended use of mediation, negotiation and arbitration to resolve disagreements, all before finding a buyer.

“The community-focussed, consensus-seeking approach may take longer, but the end result will be more satisfactory and dignified for all parties concerned, and certainly less traumatic.”

Netizens responding to Ms Chong-Aruldoss’s Facebook post noted how the en bloc law was changed in 1999 to encourage majoritarianism. In 1999, the LTSA (Land Titles (Strata) (Amendment)) was amended to provide for en bloc sales to be completed with majority consent. Depending on the age of the development, the criteria for majority consent is now pegged at 80 per cent, or 90 per cent, based on share values and floor area.

In 2010, the en bloc law was amended. The amendment raised some public concern that it will now make it more difficult and costly for minority owners to file objections to an en bloc sale application. Law Minister K Shanmugam assured minority owners that they can continue to file their objections to the Strata Titles Board (STB) even after the amendment, and the STB will then try to resolve any disagreement through mediation. If there is no resolution at the STB mediation stage, the STB will issue a “stop order”.

Mr Shanmugam clarified: “If the majority owners do not proceed to bring the case to the High Court for adjudication within 14 days of this “stop order”, the en bloc sale application will lapse. If the case is brought before the High Court, objectors can then decide whether they wish to continue with their objections to the sale.”

One commenter in particular linked the changes in en bloc law to immigration missteps by the Government.

“From 2000, the immigration floodgates were opened. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the Govt intended to displace Singaporeans from prime and popular residential areas (where they have miniscule land supply) so as to provide new condos with more swank and glitz for the “foreign talent” to take up residence and eventually PR/citizenship status.
“The national objectives underpinning LTSA are thoroughly negated:
“(A) Urban rejuvenation – This is a joke because SLA publicly disclosed that 65% of estates sold en bloc from 2012-2014 were under 30 years old. Similar pattern is repeated in the current frenzy as per MND’s parliamentary answer which may be fudged and possibly inaccurate as their stats could not be cross-verified with REALIS and msm reports of en bloc sales from 2015-2017.
“Youngest en bloc to date as of Mar 2018: The Olivio, Surrey Road (Moulmein) – 4 years old. The Asteria, Martia Road (East Coast) – 9 years old. Quite a number are in fact under 20 years old.
“(B) Land-use intensification – This is not true for a small segment where the redevelopments merely resulted in 40 units of 500 sq ft shoe-box condos whereas the old estate had 20 units of 1,000 sq ft units. Where there is genuine intensification and where those estates are under 30 years old, it also calls into question the validity of Master Plans/Concept Plans relative to the building plans approved by URA/BCA for each project.
“Why expend so much expensive public resources for Master/Concept Plans (how much are our Ministers and Senior Civil Servants paid???) when their Plans can’t hold up against market forces beyond even a mere 20 years or so?”