Tell anyone who knows about property matters that you live in Sentosa Cove in Singapore, and you will most certainly attract admiration. It is in a beautiful corner of the famous resort island off the Singapore mainland. The small and relatively exclusive residential enclave was built by the Singapore government as a project to attract the hot foreign money swirling around the globe in search of good investments in these turbulent times.
Well, I live in Sentosa Island. I am not a foreign investor and it costs me an arm and a leg to live here. About 50 percent of the people who live here are local. But I have come to like the sea fronting apartment where I live, where I can watch the ocean-going container ships literally outside my living room, go for long walks in idyllic resort settings, drink wine with friends late into the night on the balcony looking across the bay, and write.
Let’s just say that residents of Sentosa Cove need a better reason to go to any of the resorts in Bali or Phuket, if these can’t match the facilities – a yatch club, bungalows with berths for boats alongside, great swimming pools of all sizes and all the trappings of a holiday resort.
The signs of ostensible wealth is everywhere in this place. In the basement car park of the apartment building I live in, there are about several Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys, Maserattis and still some names I miss. At the time of writing, the going price of a property here is upward of S$2400 (US$1900) per square foot. I think you get the drift.
But just to keep things in perspective, I only drive a simple Honda Civic Hybrid – enough to get me to the office and back, 17 minutes away in town. Only 300 out of the more than 2800 properties here are “landed,” which would imply that their owners net worth is upwards of US$15m. The rest, including where I live are relatively affordable apartments. So, the people who live here range from the struggling pedestrian at the lowest end of the spectrum, like me, to those whose net worth is the size of the GDP of a small country somewhere in the world.
While the absentee owners of $30 million villas – mostly from China, but also the US, Europe and India – give this place this enclave the aura of wealth, a large majority of the residents are new money professionals in jobs that pay only too well today – lawyers, bankers and executives in the many multinational corporations with their regional offices in Singapore. There are many Westerners here, renting a temporary lifestyle paid for by their employers. So, it is a diverse enough mix of people not to assume that everyone here is genuinely wealthy.
On 7 January, 2010, a full year after many of the pioneering residents had happily moved in, the Sentosa Cove Resort Management (SCRM), the property management subsidiary of the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), a company formed by government charter to manage the entire island – a small technical point that will become clearer later in this tale – sent out a circular that effectively said that visitors to residents of Sentosa Cove will be charged resort entry fees when they come into Sentosa Island. No easements or right-of-passage to the residential area of the resort. They said it was to manage the growing traffic into the island because of the new attractions.
The state-owned SDC manages the entire island under a Government charter, which includes the concessions for the casino, the Universal Studios, hotels and entertainment complexes, all of which are mercifully far away on another side of the island. Prior to the ruling of 7 January, visitors to the residential part of the island needed to only say they were visiting and were waved through at the entrance gate, and treated differently from the visitors to the entertainment complexes. After the ruling, everyone had to pay the SDC the S$7 or $6 or S$2, depending on the time of the day, every single visit into Sentosa Cove.
The residents naturally thought it was fundamentally unfair, that people going about their normal everyday lives – family or friends coming over for dinner, or a colleague dropping off a kid – should pay a resort entry fee although they are not visiting the resort but people who live here. Nowhere else in Singapore, let alone anywhere in this planet, do people have to pay a resort to visit a friend. It’s disruptive of normal everyday lives, and was patently unfair to the residents who already pay a lot to live here. The ruling was particularly insidious because some of the new attractions had their own car parking fees that were much higher than the basic entrance fee, so the risk of too many people misusing the residential privilege was non-existent.
This obviously did not go well with the residents at all. There was this feeling about it meant to be a “resident”, when you got treated the same as the thousands of visitors to the entertainment side of the island. Then suddenly Sentosa Cove, the “world’s most desired address” which is the tagline the developers use to promote living here, had become a glass house, nothing more than part of the tourism income of Sentosa Island.
Some residents started an email campaign going. “This is not right, we must fight this,” they said. Now, you would imagine that home owners whose personal net worth was in the top two per cent of the country would have some rights, to say the least. But one and a half years later, it became very clear that all the Austen Matins, Lamborghinis and Ferraris in the world cannot hide the fact that the wealthy in Sentosa Cove are also about the most powerless people in Singapore.
If anything that came close to such an entry charge was implemented in a middle or working class enclave of another city, the sheer anger of ordinary people over the stupidity of bureaucrats who run state-owned enterprises like the SDC, would have been immediate. People are known to have burned the gantries, voted the government out of office and other dramatic things like that. But the residents of Sentosa Cove were hemmed in, by a combination of self-perception and the nature of the wealthy, for reasons that are worth understanding.
When the email track started, I had written into the group saying that we have to be united and escalate our position with the SDC in a business-like manner. Step one, organise a signed petition, and if that did not work, step two, get a lawyer (there were several in the group) to harass the SCDM, and if that did not work, step three, go public with the campaign, until they relented. It was important, in my mind, that we meant business every step of the way. We did not even have to be legally accurate, the publicity alone would have killed their joy.
But the group could not even get started on a group petition. I initially thought I could understand that because I imagined that the rich were also powerful and preferred getting things done quietly through a phone call or two. Every society has this cohort of rich who are also powerful, the people who get things done in one or two phone calls. They exist not just at the national level but at every level, right down to the local school district. They don’t just assert power, they are part of the social fabric, a force for good as much as for evil, depending only on what they set out to achieve.
In Singapore, that cohort who are both rich and powerful do not live in Sentosa Cove. They live in another part of town called “District 10”. This cohort in Singapore is abysmally small not because the really powerful exclude others, but because the potentially powerful exclude themselves. I have found that in Hong Kong or Thailand, even I as a foreigner, am ever only 1-2 phone calls away from the secretary of finance and even the prime minister through a network of friends. But in Singapore, while it is true that some ministers are just one email away, there are others who are more inaccessible than the Pope himself, because they see their position just as a job.
After a while, one couple wrote into the group’s email track saying that a local Chinese newspaper was interested in the story of the entrance fee for residents, and that we should publicise what the SDC was doing to us. But strangely enough, others killed the idea. They feared more that poor publicity will dampen the prices of their carefully invested properties than simply doing the right thing. It was at this point that it began to strike me that the merely wealthy live in their own little glass house, afraid to do anything that could threaten their very existence.
Then there was an amusing one. A lady announced to the group that she had met Jeannie Chua, a board member of the SDC (please see http://www.sentosa.gov.sg/about-us/organisational-structure/ for the full list of the board) at a tea-party and that Jeannie expressed that she was “very concerned” about the problem and promised to look into it. At first, I thought to myself that I was again wrong to suggest a confrontational manner to resolve this fee-at-the-gate episode. Someone always knows someone in this high society. Again, I was wrong.
Now, why this lovely lady would have thought that the lovely Jeannie Chua, being part of the board which approves the management’s decisions, would not have been aware of the policy and even approved of it, is anyone’s guess. The “concerned” gesture at the tea party was a farce. Jeannie Chua was the enemy. What she really needed at that tea party was a public scolding – like the one that the retired old ladies gave the local banks for duping them into buying Lehman Brother bonds.
When the promising tea party amounted to nothing, someone else asked, “why don’t we go to the local elected member of parliament for help” instead? This suggestion was mooted at a lower level of expectation. There was no expectation that anyone in Sentosa Cove knew anyone powerful enough who could help. The only recourse left was to access same reasonable institution of society – the elected representative – that the ordinary people used.
Just about this time, the SDC, sensing that dissatisfaction was growing, agreed to a town-hall meeting with the residents. The residents were even told that its CEO, Mike Barclay, a seasoned “Singapore Inc” man (more Singaporean than a Singaporean administrator, some would say), would be there. But what happened at that first meeting, held on 31 March 2010, was stranger than a high school student union meeting.
As it turned out, Mike Barclay did not bother to show up. The SDC and its subsidiary SCRM, were represented instead by very junior executives, whose only reply to every concern raised by the multi-millionaire residents with powerful boats berth in the Marina visible nearby, were “we will study the data” and “we have commissioned a study” and “we are looking into it”. The reason for the gantry charge, we were told repeatedly, was to keep the road usage in Sentosa Island low.
The residents explored several different options, and the SDC explored as many excuses as to why every single one was not feasible. But after they tired out on the topic, the residents resolve started breaking down. Some started asking about inane things like paths for buggies, security, noise and speed traps. They could just as well have discussed nose hair. The SDC had won.
At the meeting, a certain Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who had become increasingly vocal in the email track, kept volunteering himself to coordinate with the SDC on behalf of the residents. I vaguely knew his name as being an old-timer member of parliament and, if I was not mistaken, one of three “mayors” – a now discarded policy to create yet another layer of something over the heads of the elected representatives.
He was obviously a well-meaning old man, but man, he sounded like a national day parade all through the evening, with phrases like “we should all work together to build a (sic) harmonious living” and so on. But by this time, the residents were in fact grateful that someone with the background that he had was volunteering – it could not have come at a better time.
As the meeting drew to a close, Dr Tan said some strange things. He said that in the time he was in government he had seen city planning close hand and that he will closely study some of the points raised together with the SDC. I looked around the room, and it was obvious that nobody at the SDC was planning on inviting him to study anything with them. He forgot he was no longer in government.
He then asked the SDC to build a cohesive “community” for the residents. Now why would they do that? He was talking to the same property developer that was not relenting on a stupid $7 entry charge for visitors for the past two hours. Also, developers don’t build communities, residents do.
A few days after that meeting, Dr Adrian Tan Cheng Bock wrote into the email track to introduce himself. “I fought and won 6 general elections. 1980 to 2006,” he said. “Singaporeans know me as the former Member of Parliament for Ayer Rajah. I had the distinction of winning the highest no. of votes in my last General Election in 2001 capturing 88% of the total votes…I decide to stay in Sentosa for my retirement years but I will come out of my retirement and help settle this issue.”
I must say that it did flash across my mind that if he was really so influential, why did he need to advertise himself as if nobody remembered him.
At the town hall meeting, his internal compass about exactly what he was fighting for, who his friends were, who the enemy was, and where the battlefield was being fought, was so completely messed up by his innate desire to be liked by everyone. But he more than made up for these shortcomings by coming across as being sincere, and that probably corroborated with his strong approval rating in the 2001 polls. He was not a leader, but certainly a grassroots man.
Unfortunately, Dr Adrian Tan Cheng Bock was a tragic character in this plot. His subsequent efforts were disastrous. When he did secure what he thought was a meeting with the board members of the SDC, he frantically asked as many residents to write-in to support his position, and many did. It was not the board that met him, and the answer to his request to waive the entrance fees was still a simple “no”.
Like Don Quixote, he then went back to the SDC with what he thought was a compromised position that they could not refuse – please, reduce the entry charge by half. All that the windmill had to do was ignore him. It did not occur to the people in the email track that if what we were fighting for what was the very principle of charging a entrance fee to visitors in the first place, why were we suddenly bargaining for half price? Maybe, by this time, they did not care.
The only people more tragic than Dr Tan was the number of the obviously accomplished multi-millionaire residents who were simply clueless about what was really happening to them. They were hemmed in by their own self created glass houses, worried about all the most irrelevant things and then lost the plot. Clueless is the worst characterisation you can give to people who think too well of themselves and equate wealth with intelligence and power. Because even after you call them clueless, they remain clueless.
Dr Tan did write to the member of parliament for the area, who also happened to be a minister. But the reply he got was not from the minister nor the minister’s assistant, nor from the minister’s public representatives office. It was from the more-Singaporean-than-Singaporean chief executive of the SDC, who started his letter with, “Minister Lim, in his capacity as Member of Parliament for West Coast GRC, has asked Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) to reply to your letter..”
You would have imagined that a minister, a fellow party member in the battle for votes, from a part of the country that included the constituency that Dr Tan once represented, would at least acknowledge a comrade directly, even superficially, because every vote counted. 30 years in politics, counting for nothing.
I will always remember that letter. I was taught a long time ago by a banker in Malaysia, that when they received a letter from a local representative anywhere in the country to set up an ATM or a branch at a certain location, they had to consider it seriously and replied personally, because, “in politics you never know who will become very powerful one day.”
This deference to the unknown value of all people is such an important thread in any society. It prevents anyone from taking anyone else for granted. In a completely dysfunctional democracy like India, it is this thread that keeps powerful people, who may not even like each other, just one phone call away from each other in life and death social situations. But in super-efficient Singapore, even the minister thinks of himself as a mere administrator.
The irony is that there are gaping holes in super-efficient societies like Singapore, endless pits into which you fall and fall and fall and scream and scream and scream – until you come to terms with the fact that there is nothing in the system you can hold on to or get help from. It can be truly frightening, regardless of whether you are rich or poor. The politician will not help you. The public servant will not help you. The local member of parliament passes it on to the administrator. The judge thinks the law does not allow him to help you. Everybody is in charge of something, but nobody is responsible for you.
If you are reading this blog from a gated community in Florida or Spain or the Palm Jumeira in Dubai, or even next door in Malaysia, you would find this entire episode bizarre. A $7 charge to visit the residents? Unheard of. A super-efficient state where the wealthy can’t organise themselves? The fact that the Sentosa Cove is a relatively new development does not explain it, because everywhere else in the world, residents get together almost as soon as they move into their estates to protect their self-interests.
Strangely enough, the Sentosa Cove episode magnifies the terrors of a society that is too efficient. When everything works, when the process to move in is so easy, which is what Singapore as an economy is, the reason for residents or citizens to coagulate, to form communities and fend for themselves does not carry with it the same sense of urgency. This terror affects the rich more than the poor, because the poor, even in a super-efficient society, always have reasons to coagulate. There is a case to be made for the less efficient society, where people actually need each other.
In this particular episode, the rich of Sentosa Cover were also not hungry enough or angry enough to want to solve the matter decisively. The gantry charge, whether it is $2 or $7 was not enough for them to feel the pain, and the dithering in the email track set the stage for further encroachment into their privileges. Even today, one and a half years after the episode started, the principle bothers them, but the actual money involved has not.
In a sense, this has been the case all through history. The wealthy have a front seat view of history, they go to the right tea parties, they even have people amongst them with links to power. You would imagine that they are the best protected. But whenever there has been a perversity of justice, or even a revolution when the rules are changed, they have also been the first victims, the most powerless, and what they thought they owned was only too easily taken away from them –for all of the same reasons as in this episode.
On 29 October, 2010, the SDC finally showed its hand. It shamelessly launched a product called “Special Sentosa Islander Plus Membership for Residents Friends.” For $75 per person or $120 per family per year, “members enjoy … up to 25 free entries … into the Island” every year. Suddenly there were no concerns about traffic jams posed by resident’s friends and relatives visiting them. Please register as many of your friends and relatives! It was now clear that they had restricted access into the island for one reason and one reason only – to be able to commercialise access and make money from it.
They had kept saying that they were afraid of too many vehicles coming into the island. Their real problem was something else – not enough were coming into the island to patronise all of the outlets that were paying them rent. So even as they were maintaining the stand-off with the residents, the SDC was frantically experimenting with a whole range of entry prices – $7 on weekends, $2 during weekday lunch time and $6 and $3. I wondered if anybody even kept up with the different rates. These and the “Island Plus membership” were just attempts to find the point at which people paid the highest rates for entry into the island. Allowing visitors to the residential area was only a source of leakage, while they went about finding that rate.
Unchecked, the deeply patronising position of the SDC with the residents knew no bounds. The managers of these state-owned enterprises come across as meekly enough. But when they are given limitless power that even high court judges cannot not touch, but which the administrators themselves have no clue how to wield and for what purpose, they lose sight of the very people they are entrusted to serve.
This was so evident in the one concession to residents that the SDC announced on 20 January 2011 – a whole year after the first restrictions. The SDC offered a scheme that if a (multi-millionaire) resident applied for a waiver by writing into a website … and providing the mobile number of the person wanting to gain entry to visit them … an SMS will be sent to that person …. that can be used at the gantry to gain a … concession rate of $3. All that work, and why oh why is it so important to collect $3?
In any other country, with far less administrative power, an enterprising administrator would have applied his mind in the opposite direction – how to make residents spend $3000 on a sumptuous dinner at one of the Michelin chef restaurants (yes they have a few in Sentosa Cove) or a membership at one of the clubs. Winning a pyrrhic war for $3 is the administrator’s real misuse of power – to win at all cost.
This episode is probably being played out in different forms in other rich and fast growing Asian countries – where the relationship between wealth and power is up in the air. It used to be different when governments were poor and the rich were patrons of everything from the arts to explorations to the new world, as during the reign of King Ferdinand of Spain. In countries like Singapore, the state is sufficient unto itself and therein lies its power. So even the wealthy do not really matter.
Dr Tan was right about one thing, though. The defence of the individual against everything that can undermine him is his sense of community – whether it is with the church he goes to, the schools his children go to, or the community he lives in. Sadly, the rich in a transient world find it hardest to create that sense of community.
A group of residents did set out to form a residents association. But as they invited only their friends and the people they liked into their nice little committees, many other residents just did not feel welcome and quietly dropped out. There is something to be said about the virtues of the inefficient society, formed out of messy consensus, where people who don’t necessarily like each other come to the same table and hammer out a shared existence they call community.
But even when they do succeed in rallying some residents around themselves, the prognosis is not good. On 10 May 2011, the ever vigilant SDC sent out a circular inviting other unsuspecting residents to join their own version of a resident’s committee. So, there will likely be two and more resident associations, and none will have any effect on the SDC’s desire to do whatever it pleases.
Many ordinary people have this horrendous misconception that to be wealthy is to have “arrived”. in terms of creature comforts, in terms of respect of society and in terms of power. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, we live in a world today where to be wealthy is to be in the most unstable and unsustainable state of economic existence known to modern man. What they arrive into is purgatory.
Everybody in Sentosa Cove is in transition, having arrived here by riding a recent tide in the global economy – the rise of China, the technology bubble, the rise of financial services as an industry, the miscalculations of America, and so on. None of these phenomena will last forever. As this tide retreats, it will carry with it at least half of the wealthy in Sentosa Cove today out with it, and then a new tide will carry in a new generation of wealthy on a different wave, and so on.
Wealth itself has become unsustainable also because it has become technically impossible to pass wealth to the next generation, except in very exceptional circumstances. In the old feudal days, succession was more assured because the money-making asset was entrenched in the landed gentry as a class, or the king’s entitlement in perpetuity.
Today, where everybody has a chance to be wealthy, only in very exceptional cases is a progeny able to take over the machinery that produces the wealth – a factory, a business – from the incumbent, and be entitled to the income that is required to sustain the lifestyle. The vast majority of the residents in Sentosa Cove, having made money through the professions or businesses that cannot be passed on, will see their children enter the workforce at salaries that simply cannot afford the lifestyle.
All the property in Sentosa Cove is a 99 year lease that reverts to the state, so even the very houses they live in is more like a tradable commodity and not a generational asset that can survive 1.5 generations. The middle class, on the other hand, have it better. Their assets are much less subject to volatility, and even if they also live in leasehold accommodations, it is in the state’s interest to give them some revisionary benefit.
The same rulers who used to protect the priests, the noblemen and the entitled gentry in exchange for proceeds of their wealth, today protect the middle class in exchange for their vote. The wealthy imagine that they are the entitled gentry of today, but they are not. The rulers don’t need them in the same ways as they used to anymore. So they are far more exposed to the elements than they dare to imagine.
I somewhat suspect that many of today’s wealthy, not just in Sentosa Cove but around the world, play out this realisation consciously or otherwise, by living as if there is no tomorrow – cars and boats and toys, $35,000 handbags – a lifestyle that looks into itself and not into the future. But who can blame them? You only know what you have today. The phenomenon of so many expensive racing cars all in one estate owned by so many middle aged men who can’t even speed on the roads of Singapore is indicative, not of the power, but of the helplessness of the wealthy. The more powerful the car, the more helpless they are in real life.
I do not make these severe observations out of travesty, to belittle the achievements of the wealthy. The question I ask myself all the time is “surely all this wealth, and the beauty of wealth should mean something to society, if not be a society unto itself.” The wealthy today can’t answer this question in the short term, because they are in transition. But that connection, between being wealthy and being relevant to society, is where the power lies. The old money people, and the wealthy who have made that connection, know this to be true. That is why we call them the truly rich and the truly powerful. But right now, none of them live in Sentosa Cove – at least not the ones who can free us of this dastardly $3 gantry charge.
On Twitter @EmmanuelDaniel