On the HDB (Amendment) Bill – Speech by Louis Chua

Mr Speaker, home is where the heart is. And at the heart of our public housing estates are our heartland retailers and hawker centres, which play an integral role in our lives throughout one’s life stages. Growing up as a child in Ang Mo Kio and certainly before the age of e-commerce, I still fondly recall how the unassuming neighbourhood centre had almost everything that we needed, with the wet market, hawker centre, coffeeshops, bakeries and minimarts serving our F&B needs, the friendly neighbourhood GP and dentists looking after our health needs and the retailers selling everything from clothes, hardware, spectacles, laser discs and even Tamiya cars and Pokémon cards!

While shophouses and five-foot ways of yesteryears have given way to HDB town centres and neighbourhood malls, it would be a pity if our heartland shops are not able to overcome the challenges of modern retail and the current difficult business environment. Hence The Workers’ Party had in our manifesto called for a strengthening of our hawker centres and HDB shops, and I am supportive of the Bill’s intent to support our heartland shops through creating a new category of commercial property upgrading works, while providing for such upgrading works to be carried out.

Time is of the essence

The convenience of e-commerce has changed most of our lives, largely for the better. During the periods of Covid-19 related lockdowns and mandatory quarantine, food delivery and e-commerce have helped us tide through some very difficult times. Based on Singstat data, online sales now represent about 12-15% of total retail sales in 2022, up from mid-single digit percentages during the pre-pandemic periods from 2018-19. For computer & telecommunications equipment, this is as high as 52% in March 2022, and even for supermarkets & hypermarkets, which was the domain of brick-and-mortar retail, this is now similarly at 14% of total retail sales. I believe online sales will only continue to rise as a share of the overall retail wallet.

For our heartland retail shops, significant upgrading and rejuvenation is much needed, and time is of the essence for many shop owners who are struggling with narrowing margins amid competition and input-cost inflation, and slowing sales volumes as they continue to lose market share to glitzy shopping malls and e-commerce alike. While the future of retail is likely in omnichannel retailing where both digital and brick and mortar retail coexist, it is important for us to urgently revitalise our heartland shops so they do not lose relevance, as they play an important role in adding vibrancy and character to our neighbourhoods I thus hope Revitalisation of Shops Scheme and other commercial upgrading initiatives can be rolled out expeditiously across our heartland shops once the Bill is passed.

Lower threshold welcome, is co-payment necessary?

Moving on to the specifics of the Bill, I welcome the move to reduce the threshold for shop owners to approve upgrading works from 100% to 75% of the total value in votes under Clause five. This would facilitate the upgrading process, and not allow any single dissenting shop owner from halting the process indefinitely, while still ensuring that there is supermajority approval for any proposed works. 

Clause six however prescribes that the Board may recover from every owner of such commercial property within the precinct as is mentioned in section 77(3A), the costs incurred by the Board in respect of the commercial property upgrading works.

Any upgrading works will necessarily benefit our heartland shops directly, as it is the clear intention of the ROS and related schemes. Even for heartland shop units which are directly owned, common areas are under the ownership of the HDB. It follows logically that any capital expenditure incurred on common areas should be the responsibility of the HDB as well. This is similar to retail malls owned by commercial landlords, who may undertake upgrading works and Asset Enhancement Initiatives or AEIs to ensure that the mall is in a good condition, and continues to be attractive to shoppers.  

I take Minister Desmond Lee’s point that the Government is studying the possibility of reducing the level of co-payment for upgrading costs by shop owners. However, I hope the Government can review this issue and consider if there really needs to be a co-payment element at all.

Proactive curation of tenant mix

More broadly, I wish to share several points of consideration to better support our heartland shops. The first is the proactive curation of the tenant mix or trade mix. I note changes to the Price-Quality Method tenders for HDB shops which will apply to new tenders starting in 1H2023, where the weightage for the business concept and affordability criteria, will be raised from the current 25-30% to 35-45%. The lower emphasis on pricing is a welcome move, given the importance of the affordability of goods and services, and the types of trades offered. Beyond the specifics relating to each tenderers’ design & layout, affordability and productivity, I hope the higher-level curation of trade mix for each area can be conducted on a more proactive basis, to ensure the optimal share of each trade category via increasing or reducing the number of similar shops. For example, while F&B is the most relevant to our daily needs, there should be a conscious effort to ensure that less popular trades such as a dental clinic or even a veterinary clinic can be found within each neighbourhood.

Continued digitalisation push

Related to the point about the proactive curation of tenant mix is the push for digitalisation. With residents conditioned to the scanning of QR codes because of Covid, it is heartening to hear that today 93 percent of heartland merchants have gone digital in the form of accepting e-payments. To take it one step further, I wonder if additional support can be provided to our heartland shops, to adopt digital Point of Sale (POS) systems? This could further enhance our heartland shops’ store productivity and enable them to manage their finances better. Should there be consent provided, sales information on an aggregated basis could also be studied by the HDB, to provide for a data-driven approach to curating the appropriate trade mix for any particular precinct.

On the customers front, I recently downloaded the ShopperLink app but frankly, did not find it very useful. A search for “bubble tea”, Singaporeans’ favourite drink for example, did not throw out any results even though we know that there are many such shops in our heartlands! Moreover, the coverage only appears to be that of HDB malls, rather than the large pool of heartland shops across our town centres and neighbourhood centres. To take it one step further, perhaps the HDB can consider introducing a rewards programme to encourage continued patronage of our mom-and-pop shops in the neighbourhood, similar to those of retail mall owners such as the CapitaStar and Frasers Experience programmes.

‘Forgotten’ towns such as Sengkang

Finally, while the attention of this bill is rightly centred on facilitating the upgrading of our existing heartland shops, let us not forget the precincts and neighbourhoods which do not have the benefit of the convenience and rich diversity of having heartland shops in close proximity to our homes. The town of Sengkang which I represent for example, is a case in point. Many residents have often shared with me and my fellow Sengkang MPs, about the lack of coffee shops and everyday conveniences in their neighbourhood. Within my Rivervale division for example, while it is great that Rivervale Plaza and Rivervale Mall provide various retail offerings to those living in the immediate vicinity, there is only one coffeeshop and one convenience store or ‘mama shop’ in the entire division. For the elderly or for those who are less mobile, having a meal or buying groceries can be quite a troublesome affair requiring the use of public or private transport. If my childhood was spent living in present-day Sengkang compared to Ang Mo Kio where I lived, I wouldn’t have been able to buy lunch for myself!

I would thus like to urge the HDB to also look at neighbourhoods or precincts such as Sengkang which are currently underserved. The Workers’ Party has called for a revival of convenience and coffee shops, where the HDB should allocate a portion of void deck space to provide for at least one coffee shop for every two precincts. Or repurpose the unused parts of our MSCPs to allow commercial spaces, even if not coffeeshops. To take it one step further, the HDB could even offer low-rent commercial spaces allocated by ballot, to stimulate microbusinesses, social enterprise and entrepreneurship in the heartlands. Coffee shops and convenience shops are community spaces that allow residents to meet their everyday needs and foster ties with their neighbours while also being an integral part of our heartland culture and should be more actively promoted.

Notwithstanding my clarifications and suggestions, I support the Bill.

Delivered in Parliament on 23 January 2023