Love in Singapore: When the third-party is the state

Love in Singapore: When the third-party is the state

There is a longstanding quirk associated with getting married in Singapore. Instead of proposing to their partner, a Singaporean might ask, “Wanna get BTO?” This entails applying for a public Built-To-Order (BTO) flat under the government’s Fiancè/Fiancèe scheme. It’s a balloting process, as BTOs are highly subsidised and hence often in very high demand. If you’re lucky enough to secure a flat, the condition is you have to be legally married to your partner within 3 months of obtaining it. 

It takes an average of 4 to 5 years for a new BTO flat to be built, which buys you time to decide if your partner is truly The One, and save up for a wedding. So “Wanna get BTO?” is really shorthand for “Do you think we’ll still want to be together in 5 years’ time, and if so, shall we try our luck and apply for a flat now so we have a place to stay when we actually do get married?”

This is romance, Singapore-style. Or perhaps “Singapore-designed” might be the more appropriate term. A BTO proposal is practical and forward-thinking, the same way policymaking in the country often is. It doesn’t sound too romantic, but many couples wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a house here, where flats can be sold for a million dollars.

Staunch supporters of the status quo will defend this policy. After all, Singapore is land-scarce and housing is expensive because of demand—how else can public flats be allocated fairly? With subsidised housing, young couples can plan for a life together without breaking the bank. 

Image of billboard in a Singapore neighbourhood with the message "BTOgether: Kickstart your home buying journey with the HDB Flat Eligibility (HFE) Letter."
Are you destined… to buy a subsidised flat? Source: Author’s photo

But this plan only works for straight couples. Gay marriage is not legal in Singapore, so same-sex couples can’t apply for public housing in a similar way. For gay couples, if one or both partners are 35 years or older, they can buy a flat either as a single buyer or two single buyers applying jointly (notice the semantic gymnastics). They can get a BTO flat, but only specific types of two-room apartments in selected estates. Many queer individuals, whether in relationships or not, resort to renting. Other options involve significant financial investments, such as buying private property, which have less restrictive eligibility criteria. 

So when straight couples apply for a BTO flat, they unconsciously feed into and reinforce a system that does not include non-standard families. The BTO proposal is no mere promise of commitment, it’s also an act that tacitly accepts how a specific Singapore society that shuts out many others is being built, brick by brick. 

Why the heteronormativity? You could argue that ever-pragmatic Singapore is simply putting in policies that could help boost its worryingly low birth rate—the third-lowest globally after South Korea and Taiwan. Because Singapore’s top resource is its people, population control has always been part of the state’s mandate. 

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