The Ridout Road saga revealed the personal motivations of two senior Singapore Cabinet members. Usually reported discussing law and society, Singapore and the world and other generalities. For once, they spoke about where they lived and why.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, father of four, wanted his children and grandchildren to live under the same roof as he and his wife, Joy. Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam, accustomed to bungalow living, could not get out of his bungalow habit even after deciding to put up his home for sale.
That’s how the two ministers became neighbours.
Shanmugam rented 26 Ridout Road and Balakrishnan 31 Ridout Road, the bungalows state properties, each occupying more than 9,000 square metres of land, bigger than a football field.
How a bungalow’s land area almost tripled in size
And 26 Ridout Road became even bigger. Before leasing the bungalow, Shanmugam expressed concern that the empty adjacent slope posed risks from snakes, mosquitoes and fallen trees. He offered to maintain the land at his own expense. The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) then cleared the land and fenced it within the property boundary, increasing its land area from 9,350 square metres to 23,164 square metres.
This was stated by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who said there had been no wrongdoing by the two ministers and the SLA, which leased out the bungalows.
Why rent, and leave your own home?
Shanmugam, who pays a monthly rent of $26,500, says he decided to put up his Good-Class Bungalow in Astrid Hill for sale when he realised too much of his savings were tied up in his family home. He is renting out his home for now, but he is not making any money from the rental of his home as he has to pay the rent for 26 Ridout Road.
The bungalow was unoccupied for four years and had to be made habitable.
Shanmugam said he spent $500,000 on improvements. He signed the tenancy agreement in June 2018 and had it renewed in June 2021.
The attractions of Ridout Road
But why did he choose the Ridout Road bungalow?
“I have long liked black-and-white houses,” he said.
So is he an anglophile, a history lover with a soft spot for the colonial past or architecture? For the black-and-white bungalows go back to the colonial era. The question didn’t come up in Parliament, where he, Balakrishnan, Teo, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong all gave their views.
Balakrishnan, who rents 31 Ridout Road for $20,000 a month, also paid for renovations. He spent $200,000. Vacant for five years, the bungalow had a leaky roof and holes in the wooden floors “so you could see downstairs from upstairs”. There were also termites – and snakes in the garden as well as the house.
And yet, despite the expense, the snakes, termites and mosquitoes, the ministers moved into the Ridout Road bungalows. Balakrishnan’s wife signed the tenancy agreement in October 2019 and had it renewed after three years.
What’s so special about the bungalows? Their spaciousness? Imagine living on a property bigger than a football field! Incredible!
Ridout Road: Exclusive preserve with a rich history
It is a luxury in land-scarce Singapore, affordable only by the uber-rich and high society. No 23 Ridout Road is the home of the Dutch ambassador. Sheng Siong co-founder Lim Hock Leng reportedly bought a $50 million Good-Class Bungalow (GCB) on Ridout Road.
The Peak Magazine reported in May 2023 that the managing director of a listed firm, who didn’t want to be named, had his Ridout Road bungalow built to entertain over 200 guests. About a 10-minute walk from Queensway Secondary School, according to Google Maps (does anyone walk there?), Ridout Road is the exclusive preserve of bigwigs, big shots and big bucks far removed from the hoi polloi.
Ridout Road has always been home to the rich and powerful. The road is named after Major-General Sir Dudley Howard Ridout, General Officer Commanding Troops, Straits Settlements, from 1915 to 1921. He died in 1941 at the age of 75. It became a public road in 1929.
A newspaper report from September 5, 1929, said, “A motion that the following roads should be declared public roads was adopted: Townshend Road, running from Lorong Lalat to Kitchener Road; road from Dhoby Ghaut, east side known as Kirk Terrace; road from Wallich Street to Maxwell Road, known as Peck Seah Street; road from Neil Road to Kreta Ayer Road known as Kiong Saik Road; road from Peirce Road to Swettenham Road known as Ridout Road; road from Ridout Road to diversion of Ridout Road known as Swettenham Road.”
The Ridout Road bungalows date back to the colonial era.
Popularly known as black-and-whites, the bungalows were built in the 1900s by colonial engineers in the Public Works Department, says the National Library Board website. The façade of these bungalows incorporates black timbering, white plaster and huge black and white blinds. The grand mansions, with their spacious grounds and ample privacy, were the homes of high-ranking officials and wealthy people.
Fires and flies
The presence of wealthy and powerful people in the area did not spell immunity to danger. There was the occasional fire hazard. The Straits Times, on September 12, 1934, reported lalang fires at River Valley Road, Delta Road, Chancery Lane and Zion Road, among other places. “The most serious of these was the one in Ridout Road where a blazing patch was beside a number of bungalows occupied by Europeans,” it said.
Flies were another nuisance. “The flies of Ridout Road” was the headline of a news report which appeared in the Singapore Free Press on October 27, 1953. It said:
“Singapore Rural Board authorities are aware of the complaints by residents of the Ridout Road and Holland Road that there is a fly nuisance in their area, traceable to a nearby kampong with vegetable gardeners and stock-rearers.
“The vegetable gardens and piggeries had been in the area for many years, and it was only recently that residential development had taken place.”
Good-Class Bungalow area
Since those colonial days, Singapore has changed beyond recognition, but the black-and-whites remain. Shanmugam and Balakrishnan’s renting them demonstrates their abiding attraction. The bungalows are part of a plan to preserve the past.
Ridout Road is part of the Holland Road/ Ridout Park Conservation Area, also called Good-Class Bungalow (GCB) Area, by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Located on the other side of Queensway, away from Commonwealth and Queenstown, it is a leafy enclave of stately mansions. They stand out in land-scarce Singapore for the space they occupy, standing on their own grounds, shielded by greenery.
What’s a Good-Class Bungalow?
According to the URA, a Good-Class Bungalow has to be sited on at least 1,400 sq m of land, of which only 40 per cent can be occupied by the house itself. The rest of the land can be used for other facilities, such as sculptures, tennis courts, water fountains and lawns. Moreover, the buildings are limited to two storeys and must have sufficient greenery separating them from the next property to ensure seclusion and privacy.
While the bungalows rented by the two ministers are old buildings, there are newer Good Class Bungalows. Shanmugam’s own home in Astrid Hill, which he is renting out, is a Good Class Bungalow.
Ridout Road property prices
Ridout Road mansions are among the costliest in Singapore. Two Ridout Road properties were among the 12 record-breaking Good Class Bungalow sales from the last 10 years, reports Tatler Asia.
A 33,700 sq ft mansion on 27 Ridout Road went for $35 million, making it the most expensive sale of the year. Situated atop terraced fields, this was originally a plantation house said to have been inhabited by a British military officer and his family in the early 1920s.
The Good-Class Bungalow at 35 Ridout Road, occupying a 73,277 sq ft plot, topped the list in 2015, selling for nearly $91.69 million.
While the Good-Class Bungalows sell for millions of dollars, many of the black-and-whites, such as those rented by the ministers, are not for sale at any price.
They are called black-and-white houses because of the dark timber beams and whitewashed walls often found in these buildings. They typically have pitched roofs and wide overhanging eaves, and they may also have large verandahs.
Property Guru reported in 2022 that about 500 black-and-white houses remain. Managed and preserved by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), they are mostly state-owned. While most are rented out for commercial purposes, some are reserved for residential use. The buildings’ appearance cannot be changed.
The black-and-white houses are available for rent from SLA, but are not for sale, said Property Guru.
Can a minister living in a large private property relate to the people?
That was the question raised by Murali Pillai, the ruling People’s Action Party MP representing Bukit Batok in parliament.
Shanmugam, who grew up in rental housing in Bukit Ho Swee, said his empathy did not decrease as his houses got larger and he made more money. “You don’t deal with inequality by preventing poor kids from doing well,” he said. “You tackle inequality by providing for social mobility, by helping people to move up.”
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