Which would you rather…

… a house, or a right to housing?

Professor Thio Li-Ann asked me this at my admission interview to NUS law this morning. (I’m applying for the GLB.) I gave a disappointing answer, in my opinion. I pointed out that a house could always be repossessed or expropriated whereas a right to housing was protected by the law. She replied that resources might be constrained, and that right to housing wouldn’t always be fulfilled. Moreover, the resources which had to be devoted to fulfilling this right to housing would have to be taken from someone else. We went back and forth a bit, and I brought out my standard argument: this is a society that has solved the problem of scarcity, and if we wanted to, everyone could have a good standard of living. Our problem is therefore not overcoming scarcity, the way it has been for millennia, but distributing abundance. (The idea of a post-scarcity society is something I found in JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, if anyone’s interested.) At that point we switched to a different line of questioning.

A few hours later, I thought of a better response. I should have reminded her of the occasional press reports that have come up about Singaporeans who have been forced to move over to Johor because the cost of living here is too high. (This is not about middle-class people who buy landed property there for the price of a condo unit here—it’s about those who are struggling to make ends meet.) Singapore has done well in mobilising its resources to provide housing, that’s for sure. But without a right to housing in Singapore, there is a slice of our society that can’t fully participate in the development and progress of the whole. If those kids want to study in Singapore schools, they’ll have to endure inhumanly long commutes. When they register for an NRIC their card won’t have a Singapore address. When they grow up, they’ll still have to serve NS despite not having lived in Singapore much (or at all). Their national loyalties will be questioned. That’s what not having the right to housing might do to you—economic realities undercutting allegiance to the Singaporean community. I don’t think it’s a big problem in terms of numbers, but it certainly seems unfair if one enjoys few of the privileges of citizenship, but is called on to perform the same obligations.

In short: if you’re a citizen of a country, you deserve to be able to live in that country. And that entails a right to housing.

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