The Weight and Wait of BTOing

Image by: Loh XinYi

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In one of my modules, we learnt that language planning and policy are deeply interconnected with, and shaped by ideologies. An ideology should be understood as a neutral term referring to a set of beliefs, rather than fallacies that are inherently flawed. For example, English is not considered a Mother Tongue in Singapore due to beliefs that Mother Tongue languages should reflect Asian heritage, and that English (originating from non-Asian countries), cannot be owned by a group of Singaporeans (who are Asian). Based on a different set of beliefs—such as if a Mother Tongue should be one’s home language or first language—English could be considered a Mother Tongue in Singapore, where a growing number of people now speak English as a first language with their families. However, given different ideologies present in any society, policymakers serve as gatekeepers who are able to decide which of them should be the dominant ideologies that shape the state’s policies.

Of course, ideologies also influence policies in other aspects beyond language planning. Bringing this concept to housing policies, particularly surrounding the Housing Development Board’s (HDB) Build-To-Order (BTO) system, we can certainly observe the underlying ideologies that are promoted.

For the uninitiated, the BTO system involves buyers applying (i.e. placing their order) for flats before the flats are built, as suggested by its eponymous title. This pre-order typically involves a considerably long waiting period of 4 to 5 years from application to key collection.

As the more affordable option compared to private housing, HDB flats are commonly considered by young couples for their first homes. Only couples though, because by and large, singles (and “singles”) are only eligible to buy HDB flats after they turn 35. Of the options offered by the HDB, BTO flats are brand new and tend to be cheaper (HDB resale flat prices have been around 28% more expensive than BTO flats), partly due to the long waiting time involved compared to getting a resale flat. From 2002 to 2021, the price of resale flats was an average of 28 percent higher than BTO flats. Similar to other HDB flat policies, singles under the age of 35 are not eligible to buy BTO flats. This stems from the state’s desire to promote family planning among (a specific group of) young Singaporeans, especially with the total fertility rate (TFR) falling to a low of 1.10 in 2020.

Among Singaporean youth, BTOing, done under the Fiancé/ Fiancée Scheme, is the equivalent of getting engaged. Under the scheme, couples have to get married prior to or within 3 months of key collection. With high rental prices and the cultural norm that takes marriage as a marker of coming of age, staying with one’s parents even in young adulthood before marriage is customary practice. Moving out in Singapore often not only comes with the logistical aspects of doing laundry and housekeeping or paying for utilities, but also the mental-emotional aspect of getting married to and cohabitating with someone else. If you think about it, it’s a pretty huge leap into adulting without testing the waters. But with how the system is set up in Singapore, it becomes the dominant trajectory for young heterosexual couples.

And that is how, a couple of weeks after my 21st birthday—the age at which I’m allowed to make this decision without my parents—I found myself on a Zoom call with my partner, reciting my NRIC details as he filled in our BTO application form. Little did we know that was the day we got engaged. How romantic. But let me explain.

The demand for BTO flats is notoriously high, with a recent 4-room development in a non-mature estate being 24.9 times oversubscribed. The process of application could also take a few years since one can only apply for a single development in each quarterly launch, and there might not even be an ideal location or flat type in each launch. Hearing stories on how many couples take a few rounds of balloting before successfully getting a flat, like the Singaporeans we are, pragmatism was a key factor in our decision to start early. We reasoned that we weren’t guaranteed to get a flat anyway, and a failed attempt would increase our chances in subsequent rounds (but we later realised this was only in non-mature estates). However, we were lucky (or unlucky) enough to get our flat on our first try, since we had applied with the Married Child Priority Scheme which doubled our first-timer chances (so goodbye to my Dream Home™ in the yet-to-be-launched Greater Southern Waterfront district).

 Privilege is an advantage one receives, often by merely existing.

I wouldn’t say that we were exceptionally kiasu or kanchiong. But having been surrounded by a certain dominant ideology in society that normalises this pressure to to stay ahead of the ‘game’—whatever the ‘game’ might be—one’s personal bias is perhaps obscured. It is also with the recognition of the problematic nature of the HDB eligibility system that made it difficult for me to reconcile feeling like a sell-out and feeling like I could celebrate; I knew that many others might be feeling extra pressure because of people like me who perpetuate an already-dominant narrative that might not work for everyone.

Most obviously, my single or LGBTQ+ peers do not have this same luxury of buying housing this young or marrying their partners. Privilege is an advantage one receives, often by merely existing. Recently, the privilege divide regarding housing has increased, where stricter limitations imposed on ‘Prime Location’ HDB flats mean that even resale units in those developments will not be available to singles above 35. This privilege I have just by falling into the heteronormative ideology prescribed by those in power—finding a suitable partner classified into the opposite gender in the state-recognised binary—is unfair. Someone else whose life does not cohere with the same script (and due to no fault of their own) would be denied the equal right to certain types of housing. Even the verb “find” that is so commonly collocated with “partner” puts the agency on the finder and seems to suggest that the onus is on you to work harder in your search to achieve this necessary goal. So what if it is not your goal?

My peers in their 20s often remark how they have barely started on their journey of self-discovery at this stage of their lives, let alone know what they want and need in a partner. Compared to the traditional mindset of settling down for stability, youth today navigate the concept of marriage with more wary self-awareness, with a priority to find stability within themselves first rather than pushing that responsibility onto someone else. Knowing that marriage is more than just a practical partnership or logistical necessity, but an emotional commitment that requires both luck and a conscious effort, they prefer to tread with caution in order to make well-informed decisions.

To me, it’s heartening to hear the voices that validate the journey of prioritising oneself, especially in this Asian society where collectivism (i.e. settling down and starting a family for your parents to get grandkids, or for the country to increase its dwindling TFR) frequently takes precedence over individualism (i.e. staying unmarried or childless for yourself to find your passions or chart your life goals). We need to recognise that caring for and getting to know oneself does not make one selfish. Being selfish is defined as lacking consideration for others, and having consideration for yourself does not take away your consideration for others. In fact, to take care of others you first need to have yourself taken care of.

 It seems unrealistic to expect one’s life goals to remain on a fixed path in the future, let alone that of two people.

To know someone on a deeper level, common online advice suggests meeting their friends and family to know how they interact with others beyond one-to-one dates, and living together to get a sense of their personal habits. Yet, the latter isn’t really accepted in Singapore’s conservative culture, where cohabitation before marriage is frowned upon, and this is reflected in the BTO regulations where only married or to-be-married couples are eligible buyers.

Despite the weight of marriage, knowing that there is such a long wait for a BTO flat heightens the sense of urgency felt by those eligible to adhere to this normative script: in order to marry before 30, you need to BTO before 25, which means you need to be meeting—or already dating—your partner right at this very moment!

But, let’s face it, even for happily-attached straight couples, the daunting waiting period is probably longer than the period they have dated for. Breaking up after BTOing comes with its own set of problems, such as losing different sums of money at different stages of the wait between application and key collection, and first-timer privileges should you apply again. Is it realistic to expect people to predict relationship trajectories like simply extrapolating a graph? Most of us in our 20s have barely started on our journey to self-discovery. It seems unrealistic to expect one’s life goals to remain on a fixed path in the future, let alone that of two people. Beneath the pressure to find The One lies a monogamous-for-life ideology that penalises those who do not adhere to that. Besides disadvantaging those who don’t marry (or ‘settle down with’) a ‘suitable’ partner, it leaves divorcees and widow(er)s excluded from public housing, unless they have a valid appeal to make (i.e. having children to support). The ideal and valid family structure remains as a nuclear family made up of straight parents with (hopefully multiple) children; every other structure is less valid in the hierarchy. 

I’m wondering if BTOing should feel like more of a milestone than it currently does for me. But without a job or even a degree, it is hard to feel anything but doubt and uncertainty for the future. Sure, it’s great to have a partnership stable enough to plunge into this relatively significant commitment together, but amidst slogging for our exams and hunting for internships, this attempt to ready ourselves for the future sometimes feels like sinking yet another foot deeper into a problematic rat race. It’s easy to get caught up in the practicalities of life, and subconsciously turn a blind eye to what appears peripheral to our own dominant truths. However, rather than romanticising or being fixated on specific ideologies, I hope that we as a society can come to a (not begrudging but wholehearted) acceptance that there is no Right Way™ to go about one’s individual voyage of life.