Social Justice or Kingdom Righteousness? Part 4


In response to feedback that this series is a little dense for many, we will unpack the content so it is more accessible.

We are discussing what our Prime Minister considers the “fundamental reason” why the lease on the land has to be 99 years (and not longer or freehold). The reason is moral. If the land is not redistributed after 99 years, Singapore will have a landed and a landless class and this will surely lead to social unrest. Therefore the state has to take possession of the land to redistribute and rejuvenate it.  

The morality of the land distribution by the government begins with how the government has land to lease.

Land acquisition, improvement, and redistribution

Soon after Singapore became independent, the government passed the Land Acquisition Act (1966). This law gives the government power to acquire private land by compulsion for public development; and the amount of compensation is also determined by the government.  In 1949, the state owned 31% of the land, but by 1985, the state owned 76.2% of Singapore. (

The acquisition of private land is not unique to Singapore. Many countries do it because private owners can block public development. Private owners can be selfish, or they can demand exorbitant compensation, or use their ownership as blackmail against development.  The acquisition of private land is called “eminent domain” in the US, “compulsory purchase” in the UK, NZ and Ireland, etc. They all mean the same thing: the mandatory acquisition of land from an unwilling private seller because the interest of the state must take precedence over the interest of an individual.

This is different from private acquisition of land. In Singapore, private acquisition is determined by the willing sale of 80% of the share owners of the property. Most people think this is eminently just, even though some may be extremely disgruntled by the collective decision, or suffer from the sale. The principle is that a significant majority should have the power to change the status quo because they are acting in their interest.

However, we need to be careful and not give a government unbridled power to acquire land where no such majority is required. In the Bible, we have a case of an unwilling seller and the king’s forced acquisition of land.

King Ahab wanted Naboth’s beautiful vineyard, but Naboth did not want to sell. This troubled Ahab so his wife created false charges against Naboth and had him stoned to death. His vineyard was confiscated. God sent Ahab a message through Elijah the prophet, Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it.  Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’” (1 Kings 21:18-19)

The king cannot acquire private property for personal gain. And the unjust use of law to deprive a person of his property and his life is an abomination in the eyes of God.

Let’s take the story of Naboth’s vineyard in a different direction. Let’s say Jezebel declared Naboth’s vineyard must be acquired for public good and he was not killed, but simply removed from his land. After the land was acquired, it was never used for public good. If that were the case, the evil may not be as heinous, but few will argue that it is acceptable.

I like to suggest two criteria that justify government land acquisition. (1) It is done for the public good; and (2) there should be fair compensation for the land that is acquired. The government must conscientiously demonstrate in every instance that the land it acquires is truly done for the public good.  People who are concerned with justice in society need to be the watchdog over the government and hold the government accountable. The acquisition of land for public good must be real and not a pretext.

Let’s consider a purely theoretical situation. Let’s say you own a piece of prime freehold land, but there is something about you the government does not like. The government acquires your land for “public good” and compensates you with (1) a piece of leasehold land that is not prime and (2) a paltry cash payment not enough to rebuild what you lose on the land. This course of action is fundamentally unjust even though it is done for the public good.

But there is more. Twenty years later, the land the government acquired from you is left fallow and no public good has come from the land you lost. Now it is clear that there is no kingdom righteousness with this acquisition. How can people hold the government accountable for every piece of land that is acquired?

The Christian community in Singapore is largely non-adversarial towards the government.  That is a good thing. We are not called to be contra-culture and we do not have a political agenda. But we do have an agenda of righteousness; of justice in society. In this regard, the Christian community in Singapore appears to be too pliant. We seem to accept government decisions and actions without question. This is where we have room to improve. We must be aware that no government is perfect, no matter how good that government may be. The people need to hold the government accountable. While this is true in all areas, it is certainly true in the matter of land acquisition. The Christian must want a righteousness in land acquisition that brings blessings to a nation, a kingdom righteousness that Jesus taught.

Hence, the moral references to land acquired for HDB housing are that (1) it is land acquired for the public good and (2) it is land that the government has paid fair compensation. On the second condition, we may be justified to ask if the government had paid fair compensation. But there is another side to poor compensation. If the land is acquired through a token sum from private persons, is the land sold to the public also based on a token sum?

The land the government acquires has to be improved. That costs money. When we finally get our HDB flat there are many costs in addition to the land acquisition cost. Let’s say the land costs $1million and all the improvements including the building of 100 flats costs $9million. This adds up to $10million. As a non-profit public housing entity, the HDB should then sell the units at cost, which is $100,000 each. This would justify land acquisition at the token sum of $1million.

Did the government charge us cost for the HDB flats? We don’t know because the public is denied access to such information. The issue of the lease renewal also renews this question. Are we paying cost? Many doubt it. I think it is healthier for the Singapore government to hold itself accountable to its people on the real cost of HDB flats and how the cost is broken down.

Solving the Problem of the 99 year HDB lease

I disclaim all cleverness or ability to think better than people whose paygrade I will never attain.  But what I want to explore with you are situations that are already in operation and ask if these are better moral and practical considerations to the problem of the 99 year HDB lease.

  1. Why can’t HDB flats privatize like HUDC and become private estates?

HUDC flats were privatized and they function like other private housing estates. The privatization of the HUDC has been overwhelmingly successful in that the land can be sold to private developers at market price. If the owners refuse to sell, the building gets older and eventually the lease runs out. So it is in their best interest to sell at some point before the lease runs out or the building becomes unmanageable. The government still makes money charging the premium differential for renewing of the lease to 99 years but is free from the duty of managing the housing.

The proposed VERS program is a type of a government guarantee that housing that is not desirable to the private market can be redeemed by the government. But as in all government acquisitions, the owner is left with no option. If we are made to pay for the land again, then it is unjust. Development costs must be paid, but the land is already paid by the citizens of this country and it would be unjust to make the citizens pay again.

  1. Do freehold properties create a class divided society?

Singapore has freehold properties. Do these properties get passed down in perpetuity? I think there are not many freehold properties owned by more than three generations; we don’t need to speak of perpetuity.

Let’s look at freehold condominiums. Do they create class societies through perpetual ownership? History does not bear it out. Further, the wear and tear on a building does not allow perpetual ownership. I am not entirely convinced of the argumentation that we will have a class-divided society unless the government takes back the land. I think it is good that we take steps to preempt a class-divided society, but we can ask if taking back the people’s land is the best way to do so.

 [To continue …]

Pastor Peter Eng


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