Sunday, August 5, 2007

Bukit Merah Blast - Now where am I going to stay?

Source : The New Paper, August 05, 2007

A FLUORESCENT light cast a dull glow along the sixth-floor corridor of Block 105, Jalan Bukit Merah.

The entire floor was flooded with water that firemen had used to put out a raging fire yesterday morning.

It was pitch black inside each of the eight abandoned one-room flats.

A burnt smell lingered in the air.

The silence was almost eerie - until the rustling of a plastic bag was heard in one unit.

I peeked through the door and Mr Poon Shu Min, 56, slowly walked out of the darkness.

Mr Poon has nowhere to stay because he missed the resettlement exercise. 'I don't have a place to stay,' he said. 'I am trying to pack. But I can't see a thing.'

It was partly his fault.

He went missing when the authorities relocated his affected neighbours in the afternoon.

Around 6.15am yesterday, Mr Poon was awakened by the sound of a loud blast.

He looked out of the window and saw 'balls of fire' coming from his next-door neighbour's kitchen.

Mr Poon said he put on his pants and immediately walked out.

He then waited all morning at the void deck and tried to enter his flat at 2pm.

But the corridor was still barricaded and the authorities did not allow residents to enter.

So, while the rest of his neighbours continued waiting near the block, Mr Poon, a bachelor, decided to take a very long walk.

The odd-job worker said he had been out of work for a few months.

He returned only at about 8pm.

But by then, his neighbours had gone home or been relocated.

Mr Cheong, was luckier. Hewas allocated anew rental unit on the 10th floor.
So he sat in his damaged rental flat, where he had lived for 20 years. His mother, who used to live with him, died in 1999.

Only his altar was untouched by the fire.

'My mattress is burnt. Gone,' he said.

In the dark flat, Mr Poon fumbled around and finally packed four shirts and hangers in a plastic bag.

He also took a roll of toilet paper, a metal cup and a pair of jeans.

The rest of his clothes were either charred or drenched.

Then holding plastic bags, he lit a cigarette and walked up and down the corridor.

Mr Poon had no idea where he was going.

'I will go to Housing Board (HDB) for help next morning.'

Just then, his sister appeared.

Ms Pan Ah Mei said she was not sure if she would take Mr Poon in, so they went to the void deck for a while to chat.

She said: 'I share a one-room flat in the next block with three others.'

Not everything was doom and gloom for other residents on the sixth floor though.

Mr Cheong Soon Onn, 65, was given a new, unoccupied rental unit on the 10th floor.

His sibling turned up and bought him a new mattress. He also managed to buy new toiletries and kitchenware in the afternoon.

When The New Paper spoke to Mr Cheong at about 10pm, he still did not have the time to take a bath, and his feet and face were covered with soot.

Mr Cheong said he had been sleeping in his 'underwear', a pair of sport shorts, when the fire started. He said he felt strange walking around the neighbourhood half-naked, all day.

He salvaged seven statues from his altar and a picture of a Buddha, a gift from his brother before he died.

'The gods saved my life,' he said. 'They protected me. And this Buddha picture is a vintage.'

Minister of State for Defence Koo Tsai Kee, who is also the Member of Parliament for the Tanjong Pagar area, visited the block yesterday morning and an emergency meeting was held with the authorities.

Victims who could not return to their flats were given temporary housing, while those who could were given help in cleaning up their homes.

Affected families were given $200 each in cash and vouchers.

Professor Koo said their needs would be assessed and more help is available

HDB To Improve Housing Grant Scheme To Help Low Income Own Flat

Source : Channel NewsAsia, 04 August 2007

The Housing Development Board (HDB) is studying ways to help needy Singaporeans own their own home as well as to unlock the value of flats to aid retirement.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan said these plans will be rolled out by the end of the year.

He was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a National Day Dinner in Tampines.

Low income families who dream of owning their own home might be a step closer to realising it, as the HDB is looking into improving the Additional CPF Housing Grant scheme which was implemented last year.

Currently, the scheme provides needy families with an extra grant of up to $20,000 to help them purchase their first flat.

"Even as home prices go up, it's important for us to keep public housing affordable to as many Singaporeans as possible, especially to low income (Singaporeans). So I think we need to look at how grants and subsidies can be tweaked," said the National Development Minister.

Separately, the HDB will also expand options for home owners to unlock the value of their assets beyond what's available now.

Currently, this includes downgrading to a smaller flat, subletting a unit and reverse mortgage, which hasn't been popular.

On the recent recommendation by the HDB Heartware Forum panel to give residents more say in estate upgrading programmes, Mr Mah said this will foster a sense of ownership among residents. A consultation process is expected to be worked out within a couple of months. - CNA /ls

Bukit Merah Fire Victims Pick Up The pieces

Source : The Straits Times, Sun, Aug 05, 2007

HE LIVED through the terrifying Bukit Ho Swee Fire of 1961.

So when his neighbour pounded on his door at 6am last Friday, waking him with shouts of 'Fire!', Mr Cheong Soon Onn had an overwhelming sense of deja vu.

'Can you believe it, twice in my lifetime? I can only thank the gods that I'm still alive,' said the unemployed 65-year-old in Hokkien.

His family lost their home and medicinal shop in the biggest fire Singapore has experienced since World War II in the 60s.

But on Friday, just hours after he lost his one-room rental flat in Jalan Bukit Merah to a fire in his next-door neighbour's unit, he found a new home in the same block, on the tenth floor.

He was one among seven affected residents who drew lots for new flats - all immediate neighbours of Mr Chan Fook Seng, 73.

One resident, odd-job labourer Juan Kai Tiong, 45, was given a temporary flat because his unit was not as damaged as the rest.

He at least escaped unscathed in the 6.15am blast which blew out a wall and kitchen windows.

But Mr Chan suffered burns on 80 per cent of his body.

The fire and smoke also spread quickly to the other neighbouring units, destroying furniture and blackening walls and ceilings.

The Kim Tian West Residents' Committee is working with Sarah Senior Activity Centre in the block to identify needs specific to each family, and may provide financial aid, household appliances and daily meals to tide them over.

Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar GRC Koo Tsai Kee said the spartan new flats in the same block and neighbouring blocks may be furnished with beds and cupboards.

An HDB spokesman added that the board would bear the full cost of repairing the damaged units.

But some, like sixth-floor resident Ms Salbiyah Sinin, need more than just furniture.

The unemployed 33-year-old, who is getting married to her 26-year-old fiance in November, lost all her wedding favours to the fire.

The 400 pieces of packed towels were covered in soot and smelt charred.

Mr Cheong, who also received a new bed from a social worker, was trying to rescue what he had left. He was up washing his soot-covered clothes till 5am yesterday.

Yesterday, close to 10 workers trudged up and down the darkened and wet corridor outside Mr Chan's flat clearing the burnt debris from the units and doing rewiring work.

Part-time office cleaner Madam Lim Soo Kiow, 58, said she will need 'weeks' to resettle into her new home with her 20-year-old son on the sixth floor.

Her blackened unit directly above Mr Chan's was filled with baskets, boxes, even a cargo bicycle.

She hopes she can be compensated for the damage - the family's computer, fridge and cupboard are destined for the dump now.

The cause of the blast is still under investigation.

A spokesman for Singapore General Hospital (SGH) said both Mr Chan and his neighbour in the opposite flat, Madam Chan Soo Ngan, 79, are in critical but stable condition at its Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Madam Chan was trapped in her home after a front wall from Mr Chan's flat collapsed and blocked her only way out.

Her next-door neighbour, who wanted only to be known as Mr Wong, said he was gasping for air at his kitchen window when he heard Madam Chan calling out to him.

'Her voice was getting weaker like she was going to die. I was very worried and wanted to save her, but I couldn't,' said the 23-year-old air-conditioning technician who has been close neighbours with Madam Chan for years.

The two were reunited in an ambulance shortly after.

'She extended her hand to me as we lay there and she showed me her keys. Then she said, 'Can you take my keys and lock up my flat for me?''

Govt Defers Quarrying Granite In Ubin

Source : The Straits Times, Aug 4, 2007

NO BLASTING: The government has put off quarrying works in Pulau Ubin (above) because the granite supply situation has improved significantly over the months. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

THE government has decided to put off a plan to quarry granite in Pulau Ubin because of diversification in the building industry and adequate regional supplies.

'As the industry is able to diversify and import adequate granite from many sources, we have decided that there is no need to commence the physical extraction of granite from the quarry for the time being,' according to a Building and Construction Authority news release on Saturday.

The BCA said that 'the granite supply situation has improved significantly over the last one to two months'.

'There is adequate granite supply coming in from both nearby and new distant sources in the region.'

The BCA said 'as a result of this diversification of supply, there has not been any drawdown from the national stockpile from May'.

It said prices of granite have also moderated and stabilised.

In April this year, the Government announced plans to carry out limited quarrying works at the Kekek Quarry in Pulau Ubin.

Over the past few months, the BCA carried out preparatory works for reactivating the Kekek Quarry. These included carrying out an environmental impact study, conducting water quality tests and regulatory reviews.

The BCA added that it is 'still keeping all our options open, including reactivating our own quarries if necessary'.

'The reactivation of our local quarries remains a part of our contingency plan to ensure supply resilience of essential construction materials.'

Additional CPF Housing Grant To Be Improved: Mah Bow Tan

Source : The Straits Times, Aug 4, 2007

THE Housing and Development Board (HDB) is looking into improving the Additional CPF Housing Grant to offer more help to more households.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan made the announcement on Saturday at the Tampines East National Day dinner.

The grant, introduced early last year, was to provide lower income first-time flat buyers with up to $20,000 in additional subsidy to help them buy their first HDB flat.

HDB also resumed building new two-room flats to keep home ownership within the reach of Singaporeans, including the lower income households, said Mr Mah.

He added that moving forward, the Government can and will do more to put in place more options to help citizens unlock the value in their HDB homes.

Currently, flat owners can do so by selling their flats and moving to a smaller unit or studio apartment.

The proceeds can then go towards meeting their retirement expenses.

Mr Mah also spoke about how HDB flat owners have benefited from enhancements in flat value through the upgrading of HDB estates.

He said the Government's on track to complete Lift Upgrading for all eligible blocks by 2014.

The town councils have also been working hard to put in place ramps and other improvements in the estates.

This is so that the growing number of elderly residents can move within the estates with greater ease.

Extra Help For Needy To Buy HDB Flats

Source : The Straits Times, Aug 5, 2007

LOWER-INCOME families buying their first Housing Board (HDB) flat are to receive more help from the Government.
The move is to ensure that HDB flats remain affordable for them amid rising property prices.

What they will receive is still being worked out, said National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan yesterday.

At the same time, the Government is looking into offering older Singaporeans more options to unlock the value of their HDB flats so that they can have cash in hand to live comfortably in retirement.

Mr Mah did not give details of these plans in his speech at a National Day dinner in Tampines last night, but later told reporters that they should be ready before the end of the year.

He also told reporters that in deciding the extra help for needy first- time flat buyers, factors such as family income and ability to repay the loan will be taken into account.

Early last year, the Additional CPF Housing Grant was introduced for families with a monthly income of up to $3,000. They can get up to $20,000 in extra subsidy.

'HDB is currently looking into improving the Additional CPF Housing Grant to see if it can offer more assistance to more households,' said Mr Mah.

The need to tweak it is because HDB flats are now costlier as a result of the economic upswing.

Prices have risen by 4.2 per cent in the first half of this year.

'Even as home prices go up, it's important for us to keep public housing affordable to as many Singaporeans as possible, especially to the low income.

'So I think we need to look at how grants and subsidies can be tweaked,' said the minister.

Hairstylist Peter Soh, 26, hopes to buy a flat with his jobless mother.

'Every little help from the Government counts,' said Mr Soh, who earns about $1,500 a month.

With the economy projected to rise by 5 to 7 per cent this year, Mr Mah sees the value of HDB homes continuing to rise.

On average, more than 800,000 HDB home owners have seen their property appreciate by over 6 per cent in the last 18 months, he noted.

It affirms the point that HDB flats are a good long-term investment, said Mr Mah, adding that they also have given Singaporeans a stake in the country's progress.

For the elderly, Mr Mah said they now have a few ways to monetise their flats to supplement their retirement expenses.

They are: sell and move to a smaller home, rent out the flat and move in with a family member, or do a reverse mortgage by pledging the property for a sum of money.

Noting that reverse mortgage has not taken off, Mr Mah said: 'We will have to study why it is not popular.

'Going forward, we can and will do more to put in place more options,' he added.

Please Don't Turn The Majestic Into Foodcourt

Source : The Straits Times, Aug 5, 2007

THE story of The Majestic is a tale of romance.

After the wife of businessman philanthropist Eu Tong Sen was turned away from an opera house, he built this one for her in 1927.

Now, the Chinatown landmark - once the grandest building there - faces a cold fate.

Cathay Realty put the three-storey conservation building up for sale last week for an expected $43 million and there are concerns about how buyers will redevelop it.

The Majestic is now a three-storey mish-mash of retail shops, yet pundits, architects and property consultants say it is not too late to save it.

Among their suggestions - a nightclub, boutique hotel, or just restoring it to its former glory.

Architectural writer Dinesh Naidu, who is concerned that the building would be turned into a foodcourt, said it would be 'better to convert it back into a theatre which people in the area can appreciate'.

Others see commercial potential in a boutique hotel like Hotel 1929 in Keong Siak Road or the Scarlet Hotel in Erskine Road.

As Colliers International's executive director (investment sales) Ho Eng Joo pointed out: 'Tourists love hotels with a traditional facade.'

But Mr Loh Lik Peng, who owns the boutique Hotel 1929 and the New Majestic Hotel, said it might do better as a nightspot. 'The Majestic building has no windows. For hotels, it is always nice to have rooms with a view.'

Still others feel it should be bought back by the Eu family, which runs traditional Chinese medicine firm Eu Yan Sang. After all, it was their patriarch who built it.

The late patriarch spared no expense on the opera house. He commissioned Swan and Maclaren - the same architectural firm for the original Raffles Hotel and Victoria Memorial Hall - who developed the clean lines that made it one of the first modern buildings here.

Said president of the Singapore Heritage Society Kevin Tan: 'Before that, there were only two types of buildings - shophouses or the traditional buildings with Corinthian columns.'

The Majestic, then known as 'Tin Yin Moh Toi' or the 'Tin Yin Dance Stage', quickly became the place to be seen for the Chinese elite.

'While the British colonial expats went to the Victoria Concert Hall, the rich Chinese towkays hung out at The Majestic,' said architectural history researcher Tan Kar Lin.

It calls to mind Chinatown's more glamorous heyday, an era gone by.

But the grandson of Mr Eu Tong Sen, Richard, told The Sunday Times that it would be unlikely for the family to buy back the building.

The group's chief executive said: 'We sold off the building in the 1950s. I don't think we will buy it back, not even for sentimental reasons.'

But his father, Dr Richard Eu, 84, has a clever compromise.

'The Majestic witnessed the various eras of Chinese entertainment. So it will be good if it becomes a museum showing the Chinese opera and theatre scene here in the 1930s and 1940s.'

Built for an opera fan

The Cantonese opera house was built in 1927 by philanthropist Eu Tong Sen, a tin mining and rubber magnate, for his wife, an opera fan.

He also formed an opera troupe for her, bought the street on which the theatre sat and named it Eu Tong Sen Street.

Swan and Maclaren, the leading architectural firm at the time, was commissioned to design the building.

Originally known as 'Tin Yin Moh Toi', it could seat 1,194 people. The exterior walls are panelled with shiny and colourful mosaic depicting Cantonese opera scenes and Chinese dragons.

In 1938, Shaw Brothers rented the place, renamed it Queen's Theatre and screened Cantonese films. The theatre was renamed Tai Hwa Opera House during World War II, when the Japanese took control of it.

It was leased to The Majestic Film Company, which lent the theatre its current name, shortly after the war ended in 1945.

In 1956, Cathay Organisation bought the building from the Eu family for $1.1 million.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the theatre was not only popular among the locals but also attracted film stars from Hong Kong.

In 1983, Cathay Organisation became the sole owner after it bought out the partnership. The theatre continued screening Chinese films until 1998, when it was closed.

On Jan 17, 2003, the Majestic Theatre was re-opened but as a shopping mall.

'The Majestic witnessed the various eras of Chinese entertainment. So it will be good if it becomes a museum showing the Chinese opera and theatre scene here in the 1930s and 1940s.' DR RICHARD EU, 84, whose father built The Majestic

S'pore's Last Kampung Worth $33m But Landowner Won't Sell

Source : The Straits Times, Aug 5, 2007

MS SNG MUI HONG, 54, refuses to even think of selling the 12,248 sq m Punggol property, which is jointly owned by her and three other siblings. She spends her days gardening, cycling and chatting with her tenants who live in the self-built kampung there. PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

DURING this period when people are rushing to cash in on their properties, Ms Sng Mui Hong is determined to sit tight on her sizeable piece of land in Punggol.
The 12,248 sq m plot - about the size of three football fields - sits at Kampung Lorong Buangkok, off Sengkang East Avenue.

Valued at $33 million, it is jointly owned by four people - Ms Sng and her three older siblings.

While her two elder brothers and one elder sister have married and moved into HDB flats, the 54-year-old Ms Sng has no plans to move or sell.

She gets by on the approximately $300 in rent she collects from her tenants.

'My father bought this land, it has much sentimental value for me,' she said. 'I would feel trapped in a flat.'

The family land was purchased for an unknown sum in 1956 by her father, the late Mr Sng Teow Koon, a traditional Chinese medicine seller.

Ms Sng was then only three years old.

The rent of the 20 families who live in the kampung's self-built zinc-roofed huts ranges from $6.50 to $30 a month.

Their huts are an average of about 1,500 sq ft each, and range from three to five rooms, depending on how their dwellers chose to build them.

They have basic utilities such as running water and electricity, and are surrounded by jackfruit and banana trees, as well as chilli padi and lime plants.

The kampung made headlines in March 2004 when it became flooded after heavy rain.

Mr Jamil Kamsah, 53, a make-up artist, has been living in the kampung for 40 years.

'I can have garden parties right on my doorstep!' he said.

The kampung residents also enjoy other benefits.

Ms Sng said she has not increased the rent in 40 years. When her tenants are short of money, she lets them pay in kind - with rice and fruit.

Ms Sng spends her days gardening, clearing drains, cycling and chatting with her tenants. She has a television set, a washing machine, radio and a flush toilet.

She seldom leaves the kampung. Relatives bring groceries during their weekend visits. She lives with her two single nieces, both in their 30s.

One of them, Ms Sng Li Jing, 34, works as a clerk at the Institute of Technical Education (Geylang Serai) and does not mind the one-hour bus journey to work. 'I enjoy the simplicity of life here,' she said.