Billionaire Bhupendra Kumar Modi, who became a Singapore citizen last year, is urging his adopted nation to end a ban on young singles owning state-built homes because it hurts one of the city’s key goals: making babies.
Modi’s Global Citizens Forum, which the Spice Group chairman started this year to help youths worldwide, will ask the government to change a policy that only allows single adults over 35 to buy flats built by the Housing & Development Board. Modi says lowering the age to 25 would encourage sexual relationships and earlier marriages, helping to counter a slump in the birthrate that’s depriving the economy of workers.
“Most of the girls and boys these days would like to have sex before they marry,” said Modi, 64, who has three children and five grandchildren. “There are no virgin marriages.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is treading a line between reining in soaring property prices that put housing ownership beyond the means of many Singaporeans, and encouraging more citizens to settle down and start a family sooner. Over the past decade, Singaporeans are marrying later and now barely produce enough children to replace one parent.
Modi’s proposal may touch a nerve in Singapore, especially among religious leaders and others who oppose premarital sex.
“There will be two sources of resistance -- the conservative groups who would see this as a challenge to the traditional family unit and those worried about the costs,” said Bridget Welsh, a political science associate professor at Singapore Management University.
With 82 percent of Singaporeans living in apartments built by the state, housing policy has been used to encourage the development of families. Grants are given to married couples buying their first homes, with additional funds for those living close to their parents, according to HDB’s website.
Singapore raised childcare subsidies and cash bonuses for parents this year, spending S$2 billion ($1.6 billion) a year to encourage larger families. To curb speculation, it increased downpayments and sales taxes on property and tightened restrictions on purchases by foreigners. The HDB is building about 25,000 new homes a year, up from 13,500 units in 2009.
Singapore this month announced rules allowing singles over 35 who are first-time buyers and don’t earn more than S$5,000 a month to purchase new two-bedroom HDB apartments that are 45 square meters (484 square feet) or smaller. Previously, they could only buy state-built flats that are being re-sold.
The government will unlikely lower the age for singles as it will “put additional pressure on property prices,” said Carmen Lee, head of research at OCBC Investment Research Pte.
The median price per square meter for condominiums rose to a record S$11,056 in the fourth quarter. Singapore’s home ownership rate was 90.1 percent for resident households, according to government data.
“While families will continue to be our top priority, singles have housing needs too,” National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in Parliament on March 8.
Helping singles move out of their parents’ homes earlier will accelerate decisions on marriage and parenthood, Modi, who estimates his net worth at $2 billion, said in an interview in Singapore on March 14. His Singapore-based company has invested in telecommunications and financial services. The former Indian citizen has 14 homes around the world, including in Beverly Hills, California, and a penthouse on top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, according to his company.
Modi said singles who earn at least S$2,000 a month should be able to buy public housing.
“This is a good proposal as it will help people start an independent life and set up a family at an earlier age,” said Kenny Loh, 29, an unmarried research analyst. “But few singles can afford a flat. There must be more subsidies in place.”
An HDB apartment sold for more than S$1 million for the first time in September, and the median price of a three-room HDB flat has risen 30 percent in the past three years, to S$353,800, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The median income has risen 19 percent to S$3,480 a month, according to government data.
“Having one’s own flat may facilitate establishing relationships, marrying and procreating at an earlier age,” said Tan Ern Ser, a faculty associate at National University of Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies. “Having an apartment could raise the probability of earlier family formation.”
Singapore’s birthrate was about 1.3 children per woman in 2012, and handouts and extended maternity leave haven’t stemmed a decline in fertility. About 36,000 babies were born to residents in 2011, compared with nearly 50,000 in 1990.
The island, smaller than New York City, may have 6.9 million people by 2030, 30 percent more than now, with about half being foreigners, the government said in a white paper in January. The report prompted a backlash against immigration and the biggest political demonstrations since a ban on such protests was lifted in 2000.
The average age for Singaporeans’ first sexual experience was 23, compared with 18 in the U.S., according to a 2007 survey of 26 countries by Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc’s condom unit Durex. Only respondents in India and Malaysia started at a later age, according to the survey. The company didn’t provide more recent data.
Measures to boost the birthrate “should not compromise on building strong families,” said Lim Yu Ming, executive director of charity Focus on the Family Singapore. “Encouraging premarital sex as a way to increase Singapore’s fertility rate only opens the door to more relationship and health issues.”
Even those who do marry often delay starting a family. Peak fertility was in the 30-34 age group for women in 2010, compared with 25-29 in 2000, according to the government’s National Family Council.
“We’re just not ready at the moment for the responsibility,” said Lim Yi Shan, a married 27-year-old business development executive at an engineering company. “It’s a mindset thing.”