SINGAPORE: Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong’s ministerial statement on the Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) role in the Ridout Road controversy has addressed some questions, but a range of concerns on whether the statutory board could have done better remain unanswered.
Calling the state-owned bungalows along Ridout Road rented by fellow Minister K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan “black-and-whites,” Mr Tong explained SLA’s policy mandate, objective and strategy in managing state properties and clarified the process through which the colonial bungalows are leased out.
Asserting that SLA did not take any unusual steps or measures deviating from their standard procedures in the case of 26 and 31 Ridout Road, Mr Tong said that SLA adhered to its internal processes, guidelines, and requirements when leasing both properties.
He cited the report by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), which had interviewed numerous current and former SLA officers and the agency’s property and managing agents. The CPIB probe scrutinized SLA’s processes, involving the requisition of documents such as emails, leasing agreements, approval chains, and messages from private messaging applications.
Mr Tong said that the rental prices were determined based on market value, as assessed by independent valuers unaware of the prospective tenants’ identities, although the SLA was aware of the Ministers’ identities.
Mr Tong also reiterated that Law Minister K Shanmugam recused himself from any decisions or discussions related to his tenancy to avoid a conflict of interest.
The ministerial statement focused on the SLA’s practices in assessing historical properties for conservation, repurposing heritage housing, the feasibility of longer-term leases, the demand for colonial bungalows, and the process of leasing state properties.
He said that SLA required open bidding for state properties when the residential property market was strong in 2007. However, when the market cooled, it allowed direct letting, particularly for estates with less than 80% occupancy.
Mr Tong said that SLA and its managing agents avoided listing all vacant black-and-white properties online in weak market conditions to prevent driving prices down. He added that renovations and refurbishments are the responsibility of tenants and become the landlord’s property and revert to the state when the property is returned to SLA.
While the explanation that SLA did not deviate from its internal processes could pass muster, the underlying issue is whether SLA’s current processes are as financially sound as they could be.
Critics continue to ask why SLA didn’t think to renovate the properties in advance and market the bungalows more prominently to attract competitive bids, especially since it ended up spending a total of $1,257,900 on “essential repair works” on the two bungalows to make them habitable.
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