Since border control measures between Singapore and Malaysia were relaxed in April, over a million people have crossed the Causeway, particularly Malaysians making the long anticipated trip home to be with family.
But to the consternation of many homeowners and buyers in Singapore, these Malaysian workers and tradesmen, who make up an essential part of the local construction and renovation industry, are staying away for the time being and inadvertently prolonging the severe manpower crunch in the sector.
Apart from this fact, there were reports earlier this month that homebuyers of three build-to-order (BTO) projects were informed of further delays to their completion dates. These hold-ups have disrupted lives and derailed renovation plans, so it is no wonder many of the homebuyers are incensed.
Speaking to the media, the homebuyers of the three delayed housing projects say their biggest concern is that no assurance can be made that there will not be future delays.
Despite the couple’s disappointment with the delay, account manager and new Woodleigh Hillside homeowner Rachel Lee, 30, says she is more upset that the HDB only informed them of the delay months before the stipulated completion date.
“We feel that HDB could have notified us earlier, especially since construction delays can be foreseen with reasonable project management. It feels like we have no choice but to accept it now,” Ms Lee says.
“There had been a lot of excitement around our renovation planning. But with the timeline pushed back, we have had to put everything on hold. My kid’s preschool enrolment plans have also been affected,” she adds.
While Ms Lee and her husband are helplessly stuck in a limbo, she points out that it could have been worse.
“Some of my neighbours’ flats have been delayed for an even longer period. They were enraged when they heard it. They felt it was incredibly unfair, and HDB’s responses left much to be desired,” she says.
Another new Woodleigh Hillside homeowner Joelle Lo, who has had her move-in delayed until next year, says she wishes HDB “would take more responsibility”.
“All they did was send us an email informing us about the delay and apologising. How does that help people like us who now have to drastically change our lives,” Ms Lo asks.
Ms Lee shares her sentiments. “All they said was that it was due to supply chain disruptions and that they will monitor the situation closely,” she adds.
“And when I responded with a request for compensation, I was told by HDB that that would only be possible if the project was still incomplete by the end of the lease agreement in June 2023,” Ms Lo says.
“I’ve told all my friends not to get a BTO. With all these uncertainties and no accountability, it is simply not worth it anymore. We would give up our flat if the resale market wasn’t at an all-time high right now,” she adds.
While both Ms Lo and Ms Lee may have been given the short end of the stick, the experiences of home buyers dealing with delays vary.
One new homeowner, who wants to be known only as Ms Tan, says she actually anticipated delays to her projects and was given 15 months’ notice to make alternative plans. She is currently waiting for her flat in Punggol Point Woods.
“It was reasonable. Foreign workers were in lockdown, the borders were shut,” she says, adding that she would not want HDB to rush the completion of the project and “end up with excessive structural defects”. “I think we are just unfortunate to live in these times,” Ms Tan says.
A perpetual crunch
In the related home renovation industry, while homeowners had initially assumed that with the relaxing of border control measures, there would be an influx of tradesmen and contractors, interior designers are witnessing the opposite happen.
Interior designer at MET Interior Shawn Ng sees “help wanted” signs whenever he makes regular trips to his contractors’ workshops and factories — something he has not seen in his years with the company.
“The borders opening up has meant less workers, not more. And with the backlog of jobs due to the pent-up demand resulting from the lockdowns and border closures coming together, it is no wonder prices, even taxes, have shot up,” he says.
As a result of the industry’s dire supply issues, firms such as MET Interior, where Mr Ng works, have had to adapt quickly and find workarounds to provide the same quality of service their clients are used to. He says that while the company has long stuck to its “verified lists” of reliable contractors, it had to “be more flexible”.
“For cases where the client set a strict deadline and cannot accept delays, we have had to source for contractors beyond our verified list,” he says. “But in doing so, we have also become more meticulous in our assessment of workmanship. And so far, there were no complaints.”
While Mr Ng and his team managed to keep their clients happy, other homebuyers have not been as lucky. According to the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE), the industry received the second highest number of complaints in the first half of 2021, just a few grievances behind the beauty industry.
Almost half were from consumers dissatisfied with the quality of the renovation works, while a third of the complaints were about contractors failing to complete projects on time.
CASE says that the increase in the number of complaints is likely due to a prolonged shortage of manpower and raw materials arising from the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions.
Having waited for the renovation of his flat to be completed since October last year, Mr Chris Lim believes his renovation journey, marred by missteps and disappointments, has opened his eyes to the cracks within the industry.
Mr Lim says his October 2021 contract with local interior design firm Interior Times initially promised a completion date of December 2021.
“The interior designer I signed with subcontracted my job to another interior design firm as soon as he closed the deal. This second firm then split the work among a group of freelance tradesmen and contractors. Because the handover process was so terrible, nothing went according to plan, and I still haven’t moved into my home,” he says.
Mr Lim adds that it is not uncommon these days for a single interior designer to have over 50 projects under his purview at any one time.
No light at the end of the tunnel
Apart from issues faced by eager new homebuyers, the challenges have also affected a group of people who have not received any attention from the media: Homeowners in older apartments and flats that are in need of repairs. Some have even taken to social media to vent their frustrations.
Having waited two years for the HDB to fix a ceiling leak, Ms Jocelyn Tan has seen that leaking area turn into spalling concrete. Initially put on a “months-long” waiting list, Ms Tan tried WhatsApp, emails, and phone calls to HDB but to no avail.
She has since turned to social media platform Facebook to air her grievances.
Another Facebook user who calls herself La Vi Ra writes that her aged parents have had a leak in the ceiling of their Hougang flat, and they had been put on a waiting list for five months since August 2021. During that period, the leak spread across the ceiling and damaged the elderly couple’s kitchen cabinets, which she says was precisely what they had told HDB would happen. The damage, she claims, amounted to $3,000.
Having reached out to the Member of Parliament of the area, La Vi Ra says that it was disappointing to receive a “devil may care” reply that showed that the MP does not share her concerns.
“We have absolutely no idea how to proceed from this point,” her Facebook post reads.
From the interviews and posts, homeowners and homebuyers share a single sentiment — that there is nothing they can do when dealing with the uncertainties of the renovation and construction sector and it has left them high and dry.
“That’s just the way the industry is at the moment. It’s not good, but it is what it is, and we just have to soldier on,” Mr Ng sums.