Not too small for comfort

CapitaLand Holdings chief executive Liew Mun Leong is not one to shy from controversy. In fact he appears to love being drawn into one. Sometimes he is right and once in a while he gets it wrong.

So it is no surprise that he recently roused the ire of shoebox apartment developers and buyers with his remarks on what he thought of such residences. And although I admire Mr Liew for his frankness and his views, I think he got it wrong on this one.

He told wire services agency Bloomberg that such units were “almost inhuman”. Well, they may not be the kind of residences that CapitaLand, South-east Asia’s largest developer, builds but at between 400 sq ft (37 sq m) and 500 sq ft (46 sq m) they can hardly be thought of as hell-holes.

“I am dead against shoebox developments. The Government should intervene. Singapore’s land is very precious and you are wasting your scarce resources by building shoebox apartments,” he said in his interview with Bloomberg.

According to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), developers sold a record 1,764 shoebox units – defined as units 50 sq m or less – in the first quarter of this year, or 27 per cent of all home sales.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan disclosed in Parliament last month that by 2015, there would be some 9,700 shoebox apartments, up from around 2,500 now.


While there is nothing stated in writing about the minimum size for a residence, the URA is said to no longer approve apartments that are smaller than 35 sq m, up from the previous benchmark of 25 sq m.

In 2007, Auckland’s Council had outlawed apartments smaller than 35 sq m. But in Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines and some American cities, it is not uncommon for even whole families to live in apartments smaller than 35 sq m.

Even at 25 sq m, this space is larger than many hotel rooms in Singapore. And there are many serviced apartments here, especially the so-called studio and one-room apartments that are just around the 35-sq-m mark. I have known people who have lived for years in such abodes without showing any signs of discomfort or claustrophobia.

(As a matter of fact on looking up the website of CapitaLand’s Ascott serviced apartments, I came across quite a few of their apartments in Singapore under the 50-sq-m mark.)

I am not advocating living in apartments like the 7-sq-m microstudio in Manhattan featured on YouTube and occupied by architect Luke Clark Tyler, but 35 sq m is definitely comfortable for a single or a couple.

Rather, the example to be followed is the 30.6-sq-m apartment of Hong Kong architect Gary Chang who, in a YouTube clip, showed how to efficiently make use of tight space.


There is nothing like owning your own apartment. I remember how proud I was when I got my first flat. With the price of property so high these days, shoebox apartments are one of the few affordable abodes for those who have not been working for long.

Even our Housing & Development Board started with one-room flats which were only 23 sq m. Mr Liew himself admitted to growing up in one such unit with eight others. Perhaps that has coloured his view on shoeboxes. While his was a case of extreme overcrowding, I see nothing wrong with such a unit for a newlywed couple to start off with before upgrading.

And that is precisely what the developers of shoebox apartments have in mind: Singles or couples purchasing these flats as their first property, or as an investment to rent out. It is often a question of affordability and eligibility; the HDB caters only up to a certain income level for direct purchases.

I like the URA’s attitude toward shoeboxes. “In general, residential units should be self-contained with basic amenities such as a living area, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom,” a URA spokeswoman was quoted as saying last month. Rightfully, the authorities’ concern should be with quality and safety issues.

And do we really want further government intervention in curbing the number of shoebox units? Let the market decide. If the yields from these apartments are not good enough, people will stop purchasing them and developers will stop building more. Why should they want to cater to a non-existent market?

Conrad Raj is editor-at-large at TODAY and a journalist with more than 30 years’ experience. He owns some property shares.

by Conrad Raj

Source : Today – 2012 Jun 7

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