BTO Culture As Part Of The Singaporean Dream
As a fresh grad in my 20s, conversations over dinner have now taken a turn. Questions about engagement ring costs and complaints over how difficult it is to secure a successful Build-To-Order (BTO) application now plague the happily attached in the group. Almost everyone is planning for the future.
In the midst of these conversations, I wonder: Is this what adulting is all about?
Get a degree, get a good job, get married and settle down. Welcome to the Singaporean Dream.
What is the Singaporean Dream?
Curious, I asked my friends if they have a chronological “life plan” of sorts for themselves. Turns out, most of them do.
The average trajectory seems to be one where you find someone nice (preferably in junior college or university), date for a couple of years as you build your career, apply for a BTO, get married and finally settle down in your late twenties (girls) to early thirties (guys).
There’s even a card game by SGAG that pokes fun at the ideals that come with the Singaporean Dream. The cards range from scoring a BTO on the first try to corporate job milestones.
After the government introduced the BTO system in 2001, the demand, especially in the 20s age bracket, has always been high. A government announcement of increased BTO launches in 2020 reaffirms the millennial couple’s preference for this affordable option. However, with an average wait time of 2.5 to 4 years and a laundry list of criteria to meet, securing a BTO most likely means you have to decide on your person for life pretty early.
For years, I’ve struggled to understand this concept. What happens if you don’t find someone you like in your undergrad years? Or if you break up with your significant other after making plans to BTO? What if you realise after 5 years that perhaps this person isn’t truly YOUR person, but any alternative path sounds like hitting a huge restart button?
Those who stand by it
As sceptical as I am, the Singaporean Dream seems to have worked for some.
Beatrice with her husband, Nigel
The trajectory of Beatrice Lee’s life seems to have followed it to a T. Beatrice has a stable and successful corporate role. She met her husband Nigel when they were in their teens. They tied the knot last July at Andaz Singapore.
“I definitely think society encourages the same chronological sequence of life events,” said the 29-year-old. “Singaporean millennials are competitive. When conventional ‘success’ is defined for us, it’s difficult to carve or envision a different path.”
But even though Beatrice’s path looks tidily conventional, she has always been a “happy-go-lucky, short-term goals” person.
She describes her career history—which includes a digital lifestyle editorial role and joining a travel technology start-up doing marketing—as having “zero relevance” to her degree in university. “I always thought I was made for routine and structure, but taking chances has put me on the other extreme.”
The BTO also came to her and Nigel by pure chance. She recognised a friend of hers in a BTO advertisement in 2017. Upon checking, she realised the BTO was close to her parents’ place.
“Nigel was overseas then and we had 2 days left to apply.” At that point, they had been dating for 2 years, but marriage wasn’t on the table yet. “One long phone call later, we decided to take that chance. I spent one whole night trying to familiarise myself with all the BTO policies, and we applied.” By a stroke of luck, they managed to secure a unit.
Jia Yao with his girlfriend, Xin Ting
For other couples, a BTO does not come so easy. Lim Jia Yao, 24, started applying for BTOs with his girlfriend Xin Ting towards the end of his third year in university, but has failed thrice.
The Enhanced CPF Housing Grant policy update in September 2019 turned up the heat on their race to apply before starting his job. If they do not secure a BTO by August 2020, it will cost them an extra $50,000 due to the policy’s combined income criteria.
If this BTO application doesn’t work out, they’ll consider other housing alternatives such as resales and executive condos.
Despite the couple’s BTO woes, Jia Yao understands the pull of BTO culture for millennials. Ever since the system launched 19 years ago, BTO flats have cemented their role as an ‘engagement ring’ of sorts—and this tradition doesn’t seem to be dying out anytime soon.
“It’s the go-to option for many new couples, and for good reason,” he said, adding that it creates a unique dynamic amongst couples looking for a longer runway to marriage.
Making it work
“BTO culture is great until the point where people think it’s the OG best option bar none, and get uncomfortable venturing from the herd”, said Jia Yao.
He compares the Singaprean Dream to the collective definition of success bred by other countries like China and America. “For Singapore, this ‘dream’ provides the masses with a mental handlebar to guide them toward a better quality/standard of living. But that’s not to say it’s the only definition of success.”
For Beatrice and Nigel, the couple was (thankfully) never under any pressure to make the relationship work for the sake of the BTO, whether from their parents or each other.
“My dad gave this advice: don’t settle down with someone just for the sake of a house. You can always earn your money back, but you won’t be able to get your youth or happiness back the same way.”
She doesn’t advocate that millennials lock themselves to a set path. “Plans are just plans until you make them a reality. Even then, there are so many factors beyond our control. But that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it?”
Own Your Singaporean Dream, Whether That Includes Particpating In BTO Culture Or Not
The Singaporean Dream is not one size fits all. Conventional goals exist for a reason. It could be due to existing societal pressures from the previous generation, or practical perks that come with following a certain path. But choosing this path does not guarantee you happiness.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with chasing the conventional Singaporean Dream or taking whatever alternate path you wish—as long as you are 100% sure that it’s what you want.