HDB's Ethnic Integration Policy still necessary: Desmond Lee

A HDB estate. (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)
A HDB estate. (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

SINGAPORE — The Housing and Development Board's Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) which was implemented in 1989 to ensure a balanced mix of ethnic groups in public neighbourhoods remains necessary today, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee on Monday (5 July).

Replying to questions filed by Members of Parliament on the EIP, Lee told the House that "left entirely to social and market forces, ethnic concentrations will start forming in different areas again".

He noted that nearly one in three HDB blocks and 14 per cent of public neighbourhoods have reached an EIP limit.

"In some areas like Bukit Merah, Pasir Ris and Woodlands, the limits have been reached persistently across time," he said.

"So just imagine how much more the different ethnic groups would concentrate in different neighbourhoods, if we did away with the EIP. And how much harder it would then become to promote mixing and understanding across ethnic groups in the home environment," he added.

MP Cheryl Chan (East Coast GRC) had asked about the necessity of the policy and steps taken to help those who may have difficulty in selling their flats, while MP Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked whether the policy would be reviewed and if proportions for blocks and neighbourhoods would be adjusted.

Acknowledging the "rough edges" of the EIP and the difficulty that some homeowners may face in trying to sell their flats, Lee said the HDB exercises flexibility on a case-by-case basis. For instance, the board will give the household more time to sell their flat and even waive the EIP limits if there are exceptional circumstances.

Last year, the board received 500 appeals for an EIP waiver, comprising about 2 per cent of the 23,100 resale applications. Lee said the percentage of successful appeals have also risen from 14 per cent in 2018, to 21 per cent in 2020.

"However, whenever HDB waives EIP limits to address its impact on certain households, it is mindful that this may lead to even higher imbalances in the concentrations of certain ethnic groups in some areas," he cautioned.

"So we are studying the situation carefully and are looking at what more we can do to help affected sellers," he said.

"The EIP is by no means the perfect tool, nor the only tool to promote and ensure racial harmony. We are very conscious of the trade-offs and will keep working to smoothen its sharper edges," Lee noted.

"But it has an essential place among the range of tools and programmes and policies and safeguards we deploy to protect and promote our racial harmony," he added.

Meanwhile, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh noted that when the EIP was introduced in 1989, 28 per cent of neighbourhoods had reached one or more EIP limits.

Noting that the percentage has since been halved, Singh asked in a supplementary question whether the EIP can be loosened, or if precinct and block quotas can be removed in favour of a larger area of coverage "in view of the rising number of EIP waiver requests over the last few years, Singapore's changing demographic profile and for policy equity considerations towards communities that are adversely affected by the EIP".

Singh also suggested that the HDB commit to buying back flats negatively affected by the EIP at valuation prices.

In response, Lee reiterated that the board considers appeals on a case-by-case basis and will "continue to look at how we can smoothen out the rough edges of the EIP".

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