Monday, April 21, 2014

The Straits Times : Insight into heritage of Tiong Bahru

The Straits Times
By Amelia Teng
20th April 2014

 
Volunteer guide Choo Lip Sin, 43, taking people on a guided tour of Tiong Bahru estate as part of the Tiong Bahru Heritage Fiesta 2014, which runs until May 7. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Cafe owner Jason Soon has lived in Tiong Bahru for 14 years and in that time he has noticed more cafes and eateries "popping up" and more flats being built.

But it was only yesterday that he got an insight into the area's past. The 34-year-old was one of 34 participants who explored the 78-year-old estate, one of Singapore's oldest, as part of the second Tiong Bahru Heritage Fiesta. The trail - spanning 2.5km and 10 stops - was launched a year ago by the National Heritage Board.

But this time, the entire event, which runs until May 7, was organised by volunteers from Tiong Bahru Youth Executive Committee, Seng Poh Residents' Committee and the Tiong Bahru Heritage Volunteers, among others.

Mr Kelvin Ang, chairman of Seng Poh RC, said: "We hope to make this an annual and sustainable event."

As part of this year's event, volunteers will lead the tours over three weekends. There will also be air-raid shelter visits and an open-air movie night at Seng Poh Garden later this month.

Among the things to look out for are five animal murals on the estate's walls - of common pets in the past like a chicken, and goldfish - by photographer and visual artist Ernest Goh.

"Every street in the estate is named after prominent businessmen and people," said Mr Soon, regarding the historical nuggets he picked up yesterday. "The architecture of the pre-war flats is very interesting - their design was so detailed, down to even the colour scheme and the window grilles."

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Straits Times : Your grandfather's road? Not in Tiong Bahru

The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus

6th January 2014

Campaign urges motorists to use the 700 public parking spaces in estate

The leaflet also lists alternative parking spaces around the estate. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

THE traffic snarl-ups that have plagued the narrow streets of the Tiong Bahru conservation estate for the past five years could soon become a thing of the past.

A new campaign - "Is this your grandfather's road?" - was launched yesterday as part of the Seng Poh Residents' Committee's kindness movement. It will encourage motorists to use the 700 public parking spaces across the estate instead of parking illegally.

Complaints from residents about inconsiderate drivers and congestion have been on the rise since cafes and eateries started setting up shop in the neighbourhood. Common black spots include the area around the Tiong Bahru market and Seng Poh Road.

"It now takes me six minutes to drive out of the estate via Tiong Poh Road on a weekend instead of the usual two minutes," said resident Choa Haw King, 37, a financial entrepreneur.

A group of 20 residents and volunteers took to the streets with Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah yesterday morning to distribute pamphlets, detailing the locations of these parking spaces, and placing them on windscreens of illegally parked cars. The parking spaces include the freshly repaved open-air carpark at Block 78 and another in Seng Poh Lane.


Ms Indranee and volunteers giving out leaflets encouraging drivers to park at designated carpark spaces. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

"Now that I know there are parking spaces for us, I will make the effort to park there," said lorry driver Raymond Oh, 43, who frequents the Qi Tian Gong temple and had parked illegally in Eng Hoon Street.

The initiative is part of a slew of measures rolled out by a seven- member task force set up by Ms Indranee last February to address "disamenities" caused by the rise in commercial activities in the residential estate.

Comprising residents' committee members and residents, it works with agencies such as the Land Transport Authority and the National Environment Agency.

Task force co-chairman Chris Hooi told The Straits Times: "The agencies used to act independently. The task force helps to coordinate and gel everyone together so that matters can be addressed quicker."

Over the past few months, the team has worked on adding 50 public parking spaces in Eng Hoon and Eng Watt streets and has improved walkways, lighting and landscaping on the streets of the 77-year-old estate. It has also addressed hygiene concerns such as rat infestations and littering.

The task force is monitoring the number and types of food and beverage outlets setting up shop there and helping to curb illegal sub-letting, alterations and additions to conservation buildings.

Ms Indranee said these will continue. Efforts will also be made this year to foster a stronger sense of identity among the estate's stakeholders. There are plans, for instance, to include facilities such as a chill-out area for youth.

"There are residents who have lived here for a long time and those who are new to the area," she said. "Both groups have a sense of pride and affinity to the neighbourhood. We want to build on that."

melodyz@sph.com.sg


_________________________________________


Seriously speaking, were any of the streets named after your ancestor?

AS WELL as encouraging motorists to park considerately, organisers of the "Is this your grandfather's road?" campaign are seeking out the descendants of the 17 pioneers whom the streets of Tiong Bahru are named after.

"Their contributions will add to the body of knowledge about Singapore's very own pioneers and generate awareness among residents, their descendants and Singaporeans today about the impact they made on the community," said Mr Kelvin Ang, chairman of Seng Poh Residents' Committee. He hopes to erect storyboards in the estate bearing snippets of their biographies and accounts from family members.

The following pioneers are three of the personalities whom the streets are named after:


Tan Kim Ching (1829-1892); Kim Cheng Street

The eldest son of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng was one of Singapore's leading Chinese merchants of his time. He was also a member of the Royal Court of Siam.


Seah Eu Chin (1805-1883); Eu Chin Street

Seah was a wealthy Teochew merchant who made his fortune from the cultivation of pepper and gambier. He was also the founder of social welfare organisation Ngee Ann Kongsi.


Low Kim Pong (1837-1909); Kim Pong Road

The businessman and devout Buddhist is famous for his contributions to the building of the Siong Lim Temple in Kim Keat Road in 1902. He was also a founding member of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

MELODY ZACCHEUS

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Straits Times : Newfound hip factor comes at a price

The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus
15th November 2013


Yong Siak St's rent rise ousts old businesses as chic ones move in


The owner of Books Actually, one of the newer establishments in Yong Siak Street, may move his shop as the rent is becoming too high. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

THE last few veteran shopkeepers in Yong Siak Street, including noodle and beverage suppliers, a coffee shop, and a blinds and curtains manufacturer, find themselves out of place at Tiong Bahru's hippest stretch.

Over the past three years, the narrow street has shed its laidback past and transformed itself into a hipster hot spot, as chic joints such as cafe 40 Hands and independent bookstore Books Actually set up shop.

Their entry in 2010 and 2011 hastened the street's gentrification - several creative agencies, a boutique and restaurant-bars such as SocialHaus and Ikyu have since joined the influx. About 15 of the 25 or so shop spaces there belong to these businesses today.

"It used to be a quiet place and rental was reasonable, but it (the rent) has since quadrupled to $8,000 as compared to six years ago," said Mr O.H. Lee, 45, co-owner of a family-run beverage supplier, who is considering moving out.


At general supplies store Hock Leong Hin Teck Kee, Mr Lee Hon Fay (left), 75, and store owner Lee Sui Tiong, 65, load supplies for a client. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Xing Zhi Language Centre owner Tan Mei Huan, 50, cited rising rents as the main reason for the upcoming move of her Chinese tuition centre to Jalan Bukit Merah.

Said Mr Tony Neo, 40, the second-generation owner of Sin Yick Seng Bamboo Chick Centre, a blinds and curtains maker, who has fond memories growing up there: "While the (newer) shops have brought life to the neighbourhood, their clientele does not match ours and we don't get much benefit from their presence."

He plans to move and rent out the 1,500 sq ft shop that his father handed down to him.

Seamstress Lu Mei Cui, 37, working on a set of curtains at her boss' shop, Sin Yick Seng Bamboo Chick Centre, a blinds and curtains maker.

Rental rates per month in Yong Siak Street have more than doubled from $2.70 per sq ft (psf) in mid-2011 to $6.20 psf in the same period this year, said Mr Nicholas Mak, SLP International's head of research and consultancy.

"With new condominiums springing up in the vicinity and nearby estates such as Redhill, rents are soaring and landlords will try to take advantage of the growing interest in Tiong Bahru," he said.

The rising rates might ironically drive out some of the first wave of newer establishments such as Books Actually. Its co-owner Kenny Leck, 35, said the store, which pays $8,000 in rent, will not stay if the landlord goes ahead with his plan to jack it up by another $6,000 or so once the rental contract is up in early 2015.

"It will be hard to sustain a bookshop at that new rental. It will be a pity because we have become friends with many of the residents here," he said.

On the part of the authorities, there is an urgency to better manage the mix of businesses in the 77-year-old conservation estate which attracts Singaporeans and expatriates from all corners of the island, as well as tourists.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority, which manages the private shophouses in Yong Siak Street and other nearby areas, and the HDB, which takes care of 64 commercial properties in the area, are keeping a tighter lid on eateries hoping to set up shop there because of concerns raised by residents.

This year alone, four applications to turn shop premises into eateries were rejected.

This comes after residents complained about loud music from some of the establishments and the rowdy - and often drunk - patrons who would spill over to other streets and leave a messy trail of cigarettes and alcohol bottles on weekends.

The situation has improved somewhat after some Yong Siak Street residents banded together to give feedback to the authorities.

Still, residents have different opinions about the recent transformation of the street from its sleepy past.

Housewife G. Devaki, 47, said she misses the old Yong Siak Street, where it used to be "very conducive for children to study and was just a regular residential neighbourhood".

But retired hairstylist Annie Cho, 65, who lives at Block 78, said that while the occasional rowdy groups are a source of annoyance for the residents, she believes the changes are for the better. "I like how some of the nice book shops and cafes create a pleasant atmosphere in the neighbourhood.

"It's very different from the past when it used to be a very ugly street and nobody wanted to live here - just the elderly," she said in Mandarin, adding that many Yong Siak apartments used to be occupied by bar girls and prostitutes.

Some of the shops there are also aware of their responsibility to residents. "We remind all our customers that they are dining in a residential area whenever we sit them outside the cafe. We also close shop at 10pm instead of midnight as our licence permits," said Ms Michelle Lingo, 27, supervisor of PoTeaTo.

Mrs Vanessa Kenchington, 29, the chef-owner of Plain Vanilla Bakery, said businesses have the responsibility to bond with their community, not "merely take advantage of the area's hip and cool quality".

"We are here to grow with the neighbourhood and build relationships. As business owners, we have to be aware of the environment around us - we are the guests and we don't want to be a nuisance," she said.

Designer Ella Zheng, 27, who works in the area, believes this balance of needs between the two groups can be achieved. She said some shop owners carefully curate their space to cater to the growing number of Singaporeans interested in "style, design and culture".

Cultural geographer Lily Kong from the National University of Singapore said some of the new tenants appreciate the historical and economic value of the vicinity.

Although the commercialisation of Yong Siak Street may be viewed by some as "adulterating the authentic", Professor Kong said these new establishments help keep the memories of its past alive, as elderly residents pass on and older businesses pull down their shutters.

"Some of the new tenants along Yong Siak Street are actually very interested in history and heritage, both as a source of identity and distinctiveness, and as a commercial opportunity."
 
melodyz@sph.com.sg

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Straits Times : Govt keeps lid on eateries in Tiong Bahru

The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus
12th November 2013

4 applications to turn shop area to eateries rejected in 2013

A TIGHT lid is being kept on eateries hoping to set up shop at the 77-year-old Tiong Bahru conservation estate, after residents complained about noise, traffic and fewer shopping options.

The Housing Board (HDB) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) told The Straits Times that this year alone they have rejected four applications to turn shop premises there into eateries.

The Dough and Grains bakery, which set up a tapas bar and restaurant at the back of the shop in July after getting a snack bar licence from the National Environment Agency, was one of those whose requests to change the use of their premises was rejected.

The owners have been given a grace period to change HDB's mind.


Mr Khoo Chee Wee (above), 40, a co-owner of Dough and Grains, which is among those whose requests to turn their shop premises into eateries were rejected. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI, KUA CHEE SIONG

An e-mail from the HDB in May explaining its decision said residents had given feedback on the "noise, smell, nuisance and traffic congestion" already caused by existing eateries, and that there was "no shortage of eating establishments in the vicinity".

The HDB told The Straits Times that it takes into account residents' feedback and needs when evaluating whether to grant such change-of-use requests.

This will help ensure a better mix of shops and services for residents of the pre-war estate, with mom-and-pop businesses such as hair salons, textile shops, coffee shops and medical halls having made way for 13 new cafes, bakeries and eateries in the past three years.

The estate is now left with a sundry store, two convenience stores, a tailor, two hardware shops, a Chinese medical shop, two clinics, an optical shop and 10 coffee shops.

Residents said that the changes have come too fast, leaving them with fewer amenities within walking distance.

Retiree Alex Lee, who has lived in the estate since the 1950s, said it is unfortunate that just one provision shop - as opposed to the 10 that used to line the estate in the 1960s - is left.

"As we age, it is harder to venture farther out and take a bus to get the provisions we need," said the 72-year-old.

Bounded by Seng Poh Road, Outram Road and Tiong Poh Road, the estate has 64 HDB commercial properties, out of which 48 have been sold and the rest rented out.

The URA oversees the private shophouses located along Yong Siak Street, the southern part of Eng Hoon Street and Tiong Bahru Road.

A seven-member residential task force, set up by MP Indranee Rajah in February to address problems such as illegal parking and noise pollution, told The Straits Times that it has also received some complaints of bar patrons smoking and laughing loudly along Yong Siak Street.
 
Residents said changes in Tiong Bahru estate (above) have come too fast, leaving them with fewer amenities within walking distance. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI, KUA CHEE SIONG

The task force is therefore working to encourage businesses to be more "community-minded to create a cohesive environment in the estate", said its chairman Chris Hooi. It helps too that the authorities have been very strict about giving out licences, he added.

Ms Indranee said the other objective is to help the estate retain its charm.

"We allow establishments to come in if they provide something unique to the neighbourhood but there's no one-size-fits-all solution."

melodyz@sph.com.sg

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Sunday Times : Rats alive

The Sunday Times
By Cheryl Faith Wee
4th August 2013

Pest control people are combing Tiong Bahru to get rid of the rats that have infested the estate

An exterminator checks drains (above) and burrows in Tiong Bahru where the rodents (below) were spotted. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM


Tiong Bahru estate is well known for its hip eateries and shops. It is now also home to a growing rat population.

The Straits Times reported last Monday that more rodents have been spotted there in the last six months. So SundayLife! accompanied a team of four exterminators from The Pestman on their rounds there last Thursday.

The pest management company is hired by Tanjong Pagar Town Council to do pest control in Tiong Bahru.

The exterminators pointed out eight burrows with rats living in them: three in Eng Hoon Street, near a coffee shop; two burrows in Moh Guan Terrace, near a cafe; and one burrow each near ground-floor apartments in Chay Yang Street and Kim Pong Road.

Mr Nur Muhammad, 31, The Pestman's project manager for pest control in Tiong Bahru, said these burrows are mostly located in grass turfs near drains.

The entrances are small holes that lead to up to 6m-long tunnels about 1m below ground level. Each burrow normally has two entrances and houses six to eight rats. If not dealt with, a litter of six rats can multiply to more than 1,200 rats in one year, he said.

The National Environment Agency found 26 rat burrows in Tiong Bahru last month, up from 16 the previous month. Of these, The Pestman said only eight burrows have rodents living in them.

According to the Singapore Pest Management Association, areas near eateries, wet markets and sundry shops are susceptible to rodent infestation. So the increase in the number of rats in Tiong Bahru could be due to the growing number of F&B outlets there. There are now about 30 eateries in the area, up from about 20 five years ago.

Rodents can contaminate foodstuff and damage things such as doors and electrical wires, which can result in short circuits and fires. They can spread diseases too.

Once every two weeks, a four-man team from The Pestman will trawl the 57 pre- and post-war HDB blocks in the estate that are managed by the Tanjong Pagar Town Council.

They rely on sight to locate the rat burrows, so the inspections are carried out in the day. The men look out for traces of the rodents such as gnaw marks, footprints, droppings and urine.

If they cannot locate the burrows in the day, they make another trip at night, when the nocturnal animals are most active. Armed with flashlights, they examine drains and dark corners where rats lurk in the hope that they can track down their dwelling places.

On average, the exterminators find five to six active burrows in the estate during their routine checks every month.

Two methods are used to treat and seal the burrows. First, solid Roban rat poison is placed in the opening of the burrows. This causes internal bleeding in rats and kills them within one to two days.

Rodent tracking powder is sometimes used instead of the solid poison. This sticks to the rats' fur and is ingested when they groom themselves.

The exterminators return to put more poison two to three times every two to three days. Then, the opening of the burrow is plugged with wads of newspaper. About three days later, the exterminators check for activity. If the holes are found to be unplugged, it means the burrow is still active and the procedure is repeated.

When the newspaper is no longer dislodged from the hole, it means the burrow is inactive.

Flies hovering near the burrow holes are a sign that the critters inside are dead. Rodents that manage to make their way out of the burrows die near their homes. During SundayLife!'s visit, there were no dead rats to be seen. The holes also remained plugged with newspaper.

Still, residents say they have noticed more rats in their estate in the past two years or so.

Rodent sightings are a daily occurrence for Madam Khoo Oi Neo, 76, a housewife who has lived in a ground-floor apartment in Eng Hoon Street for close to 60 years.

She said: "There are so many that when they scurry around in the grass patches in front of my house, they look like they are queuing up."

SundayLife! did not see any rats during our visit during the day, but we spotted three rats in Tiong Bahru Market after 10pm.

Some new eatery owners have taken measures to keep their establishments pest-free.

Ms Debra Chan, 33, who owns PoTeaTo cafe in Yong Siak Street, hires a pest control company to carry out monthly checks at her eatery. She also makes sure her staff secure bags of refuse tightly and keep bins closed.

Mr Khoo Chee Wee, 40, co-founder of bakery Dough & Grains in Seng Poh Road, also ensures his staff dispose of garbarge properly. They walk several streets to the refuse centre near the end of Tiong Poh Road if the bins nearer to the shop are full.

But some long-time residents of Tiong Bahru are unfazed by the recent reports of rats. Madam Alice Wong, 58, who repairs shoes for a living, has lived in Moh Guan Terrace for more than 30 years.

She said: "Decades ago, the carpark behind my block had so many rats that people did not dare to park there. Things are a lot better now."
cherylw@sph.com.sg

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Straits Times : Rats! Tiong Bahru faces gnawing problem

The Straits Times
29th July 2013
By Melody Zaccheus


Residents blame lack of covered drains and growing number of eateries


-- PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
THE increasing sight of rats in the 77-year-old Tiong Bahru estate has become a cause of alarm for residents, who say that the rising number of eateries there is one reason for the problem.

Over the last six months, rodents have been seen scurrying in broad daylight, with some even running into ground floor units of homes and shops.

"There's definitely a growing presence of rats along Tiong Poh Road and Seng Poh Road. I will spot one almost every time I walk there," said teacher Fred Ong, 30, adding that some of these pests were "huge".

"It's never been this bad," said Madam Yee Kwai Wing.

The 76-year-old, who has lived there since 1986, spots two or three rats outside her ground floor flat at 73 Eng Watt Street almost every day.

Unsealed gaps along drains which run along some ground floor units provide perfect hiding and nesting spots.


The lack  of a centralised rubbish chute system and irresponsible disposal of rubbish (above) do not help the situation. -- ST PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE
"They find their way out from the many gaps in our drains, pipes and holes in the ground, to eat the garbage residents and restaurants throw away," she explained.

Minimart owner Rodney Goh believes the problem is made worse by the lack of a centralised rubbish chute system at the estate.

Instead, rubbish bins line the backs of the old blocks, some of which were built by the Singapore Improvement Trust in the 1930s.

As not all residents dispose of their refuse properly, the waste food only encourages rats to set up home, he added.

"Sometimes when it rains, the drains flood and the rats run in through our shop's front entrance," said the 58-year-old.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) told The Straits Times that it found 26 rat burrows during its latest inspection last Wednesday.

This was after the agency found 16 burrows, which were subsequently treated and sealed by the Tanjong Pagar Town Council's (TPTC) pest control team, in common areas of the estate during a routine check on June 27.

The lack (above) of a centralised rubbish chute system and irresponsible disposal of rubbish do not help the situation. -- ST PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE
NEA said that the town council has been advised to "intensify surveillance and treatment to reduce the rat population".

Last week, it was reported that more than 10 rodent nests were found in the nearby Bukit Merah estate, which also comes under the TPTC.

Rodents typically nest and burrow in the ground, under buildings, and in rubbish and other types of litter. In 2010, the NEA found 1,687 areas with rats, three times more than the 443 the year before. The Norway rat species makes up 90 per cent of the rodents in Singapore.

"The number of rats per burrow really depends on the time they are left alone to breed. Over time, they can form an underground network," said technical specialist Hadi Hanafi, 31, from Maximum Pest Management.

Tanjong Pagar MP Indranee Rajah has asked the town council and grassroots to address the growing rat problem.

"They will be checking on the eateries and adopting measures to control the problem. When dealing with rats we need to find out where the burrows and food sources are."

She added that rubbish should be secured tightly in bins as plastic bags alone do not suffice.

While the NEA said it has taken action against a food operator in Tiong Bahru, other operators in the area were found to be clean, with proper refuse management and food storage.

But it also reminded them to continue making sure that waste food is properly disposed of.

The Orange Thimble cafe in Tiong Bahru hires its own pest control company to ensure that it stays rodent free.

Said its manager Dewihajar Ali, 34: "Our pest control guy comes by at least once a month. He places a certain type of chemical in the drain to make sure the rats stay away.

"We need to be responsible over our garbage and make sure the bags are secured tightly. It will be good if every establishment does its part."
 

melodyz@sph.com.sg

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Sunday Times : HDB coffee shops are not District 10 bungalows

The Sunday Times
By Han Fook Kwang, Managing Editor
14th July 2013

They were built by the HDB to serve residents on state land acquired for a public purpose

Here's a $23.8 million question about Singapore's most expensive coffee shop, in Hougang: How come I can still buy a cup of kopi-o there for 90 cents?

The simple answer is that, disregarding the price of the property, what goes into making that cup of coffee didn't cost much - especially not the wages of coffee shop assistants.

They are likely to belong to the bottom 20 per cent of income earners, whose incomes have stagnated over the years.

Mean-spirited though it might be, it's their meagre earnings you have to thank for your cheap beverage.

If they were paid more, like workers in Japan or Switzerland, for example, you can bet your last teh kosong that you will have to pay a lot more.

That 90-cent coffee represents one part of Singapore, perhaps the part that many of us are fond of even if we would rather not have our livelihood depend on it.

The $23 million Housing Board coffee shop, however, is another story altogether and might as well belong to a different world.

What goes into making up the sky-high price and how did it reach such a level?

When The Straits Times spoke to people in the property business last week, they cited one possible reason: the prospect of capital appreciation of the shop, which means it might sell for an even higher price in future.

If those experts are right, the buyer was prepared to pay the record price not because it made business sense in the running of a coffee shop, but because it was a good property buy which he could hope to profit from at some later date.

Stallholders in the shop were quoted as being understandably concerned that the new owner might raise rents. Patrons were in turn worried about having to pay more for food and drinks.

Alas, the two worlds do collide, and when a $23m deal spills over to a 90 cents cup of coffee, you know what the outcome is likely to be.

But should the price of a cup of coffee be tied to the ups and downs of the property market?

Can't Singaporeans have their kopi without worrying about the next multimillion-dollar deal?

The reality is that in this land- scarce, market-driven country, almost everything is affected by the high price of land and property.

It's a lament I often hear from Singaporean bosses complaining about the cost of doing business here, especially rental cost.

A friend who runs an SME says he regrets selling a building he developed for a tidy profit and renting back some of the floors for his own operation.

His rent has gone up considerably over the years, and the profit he made from the sale has not been enough to cover the rising rent. He did not foresee industrial rentals increasing so much and says he knows others with similar stories.

For residential property, rising prices have led the Government to impose no fewer than eight sets of cooling measures since 2009 with only limited success.

It shows how difficult it is to tackle the problem once a property bubble builds up.

In a normally functioning market, the price of a coffee shop property cannot be so high that it would be impossible for the buyer to recoup his outlay from operating the shop.

If Singaporeans are only willing to pay 90 cents for a cup of coffee, it places a limit on how much that coffee shop itself is worth.

But if the shop is viewed more as a property buy and less as a place to sell food and drinks, its price will have more to do with the state of the property market than the price of a cup of coffee.

Eventually, though, that coffee price will have to go up, as is likely to be the case in that $23 million shop.

This is the same worry many people have over the setting up of real estate investment trusts (Reits) which critics say exert pressure on rentals because of the financial returns these instruments are expected to provide for investors.

They have been blamed for ever rising rentals of retail shops in the malls and industrial property.

Should the Government intervene to stop these price increases?

Or are they the result of market forces and best left unregulated?

The trouble is that, contrary to popular belief, the price of land, and hence property, is not decided solely by free market forces here.

In fact, it is mostly determined by the Government because it is the largest landlord and has control over many policies that affect selling prices: how much land it releases for development, the period of the leases it offers, the zoning parameters it draws up, the actual prices of public flats it builds, the restriction on property loans it can impose and so on.

With so much control at its disposal, the Government has a primary responsibility to ensure that prices and rentals do not get out of hand.

Indeed, it recognises and accepts this, which was why it intervened with all those cooling measures.

But it has to be clearer about what exactly is its overall policy regarding these prices.

It isn't at the moment, and this explains why it dithered in the past and did not act as decisively as it should have when prices moved so precipitously.

It has been only recently that it has taken a clearer position on, for example, public flats.

Earlier this year, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that when pricing new flats, the HDB would set prices on its own instead of pegging them to resale flat prices.

"We should be the price-setter, not be the price-follower... The social objective is to ensure home ownership and affordability," he said.

In practical terms, it meant pricing new flats in non-mature estates at four times the annual median income of applicants, 30 per cent lower than the current 5.5 times.

That's a good start to making it clearer, more transparent and affordable.

What about coffee shops?

For those in housing estates, such as the one in Hougang, there is no reason why they should be bought and sold like bungalows in District 10. They were built by the HDB to serve residents on state land acquired for a public purpose.

If the price of coffee has to go up eventually, Singaporeans would rather the increase went to those shop assistants and stall holders rather than property players out to make a financial killing.

One simple way to ensure these shops keep to their original objective is to require that they be sold back only to the HDB.

It would put a lid on spiralling prices.

And keep that cup of kopi-o within everyone's reach.
hanfk@sph.com.sg