Saturday, 31 December 2011

Property developers – the real landlords!

Developers – the real landlords

Insight Down South By SEAH CHIANG NEE

As a group, exclusive and rich, property developers have always wielded strong influence in small cities with rich land banks in a scale that probably rivals the government – until now.

TRADITIONALLY, property developers in cities like Singapore and Hong Kong have enjoyed economic power far beyond their numbers.

We were politely reminded of this when Singapore’s developers told the government they were disappointed at not being consulted before it announced recent measures to cool the market.

This was tantamount to a right to be informed in advance of any policy or price affecting their interests.

The developers’ reaction stirred public ire, with people considering it an audacity its demand to be consulted over changes.

Yet there is a tradition behind the demand.

As a group, exclusive and rich, developers have always wielded strong influence in small cities with rich land banks in a scale that probably only rivals the government.

After all it controls the city’s most precious asset.

My first lesson of this fact of life came in the 1970s when I arrived to take up the post as news editor of The Hong Kong Standard. A colleague asked who I thought were the colony’s most powerful people.

“The chief editor of New China News Agency” I ventured, regurgitating what I had often read.

“No, my friend, not even the Chinese mainlanders, and not the colonials,” he exclaimed, “It is the Hong Kong real estate developers.”

Land auctions often decided how well - or poorly – the Hong Kong people were to live.

Property prices would affect billions in budgets and living standards, in other words, people’s lives.

When I returned to Singapore, I found a little of the same, the difference being we were an independent country and not led by a passive colonial Governor. In short, developers here were powerful!

Once land values were decided auctions, the developers controlled the ultimate prices and timing of the sales.  To a large extent, it meant controlling of supply and demand.

If the developers thought the asking prices were too high, they would abstain from bidding, making them a sort of a little “pressure group”.

When I returned here I discovered a bit of the same.

Developers collectively could – if they chose to - influence the way the media reported the property market because they were big advertisers.

The bigger the spenders, the greater the influence! They could ensure newspaper reports did not report too negatively on the market and scare away buyers.

Some were not reticent exercising it by making it clear to advertising managers that their money could best be used in a media that keep encouraging property buyers, or at least not to predict weak markets too strongly.

Others stayed away from the game.

Many years ago when I was chief editor of a newspaper here I had one such run-in with several Singapore developers, who were among my paper’s frequent advertisers.

It was at a time when dark economic clouds were gathering and our Business Desk was reporting that property markets were heading for a fall. The bad vibes were strong, and they were reflected in our coverage.

During lunch, one developer referred to how much his company had spent on advertising in our paper.

He added that he “sometimes considered it a waste of money to advertise in a newspaper which frequently talked down the market”.

If this continued, they might as well stop or cut down advertising in the paper, he said.

I was very concerned. I replied that as a newspaper editor, I feared two things most; the government withdrawing the newspaper licence and secondly, businessmen threatening to withhold advertising unless we cooperated with them.

“In either case, our survival will be threatened, and we will bring the fight to Page One and let readers judge!”

We finally struck a deal: No advertising boycotts. In return I would run an interview on record with a property tycoon who predicted his views that the market would rise in the following year.

I am relating this to record appreciation of the National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan’s stand not to bend to the developers’ will “by consulting” them about market “cooling-off” action or price movements.T.T Durai and Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan at...

That would have been tantamount to tipping them off in advance of price-sensitive measures, an act no government can do.

Analysts expect the recent measures to cool buying and bring down the home prices by between 15 to 30% over the next two years.

“There will be a sell-off in the next three-to-five months,” said a property agent.

By imposing stiff measures against foreigners’ speculative buying, including a 10% duty, Khaw has gained public acclaim.

“Khaw has my full support. His policy is good for the younger generation,” a Singaporean commented.

“If the young people feel that even with hard work they still cannot achieve their goal, Singapore is done for. That dream is to own a private property.”

Khaw has also succeeded in shortening the queue of new Singaporean graduates applying to own their first public flat.

Since becoming minister after the May election, Singapore’s once world-acclaimed public housing is slowly working to dispel public discontent over shortage and high prices.

Many more years are needed to clean up the mess. But for now, wrote Khaw - one of the more popular ministers: “We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel”.

And instead of the usual brickbats, praises are starting to come in for fending off foreign speculators.
“I’m seeing the quality of Minister Khaw,” one surfer wrote.

Another said: “Thank you for the cooling measures. This shows Singapore is clean and NOT controlled by the (property) billionaires club.”

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