Singapore’s Rental Market: A Realtor Shares His Side Of The Story

8 November 2022 | BY

Singapore may have come a long way in terms of inter-racial relations, but racism in the rental market is still prevalent.

Racial Profiling In Singapore’s Rental Market: A Realtor Shares His Side Of The Story

The rental market in Singapore has become a boom town with more young adults chasing independence and moving out of their parents’ homes. But what isn’t as popular, is the topic of racial profiling in Singapore’s rental market. 

We’ve all heard through the grapevine of a friend of a who has encountered some sort of racism when trying to rent a home, but to put the proof in the pudding, we speak to Nathan, a realtor who has seen the works and has real-life experiences to share. 

Racism has always existed in the rental market

Singapore has undoubtedly come a long way to champion a racially-diverse society and being a melting pot of cultures, but when we zoom into the dynamics of the rental market, reality paints a different picture. Nathan shares that racism has always been prevalent in the property market in Singapore, and eradicating it will be a tall order.

There was even a survey conducted by CNA and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) earlier this year that revealed that Singaporeans prefer leasing their homes to tenants of the same race. Having served a diverse clientele of over 100 clients in a year from locals to expatriates, Nathan has experienced the full spectrum of racial profiling first-hand.

On the one hand, he reveals that Western expats and Singaporean Chinese have it easy in the rental market, with profiles in these categories usually getting immediate approval for viewing. Nathan goes on to detail that ”the most ridiculous instances are when landlords ONLY allow Caucasians as a profile to rent to, even Singaporeans are rejected.”

Why are expats the preferred tenant profile?

This is where racial profiling comes in. Why are Caucasian expats seen as the best potential tenants? Based on the sentiment that’s been expressed in forums and chat groups, some Singaporeans suspect it’s because expats are generally perceived to have high earning abilities, and this in turn leads to financial “longevity” in terms of them being reliable tenants for the long-haul.

Racism in the Rental MarketImage credit: @omsweethomesg

Those in another camp expressed that it might be because expats are also perceived to have a more “cultured” way of life – this might also mean, dining out more frequently, hence, less heavy cooking. Caucasian expats as a whole are known to keep the homes they’re renting well and pay on time.

From a professional point of view, Nathan explains that the suspicions are partially on the money. “Before the recent surge in rental prices, landlords used to periodically raise their rental prices. Caucacians expats made good tenants because they were able to meet those demands thanks to their high spending power and being able to afford an apartment in the Core Central Region (CCR).”

Majority expats living and working in Singapore for a multinational company have have the benefit of housing allowance that affords them the luxury of being agreeable to a slightly pricier rental for convenience sakes.

At present, Nathan states that with the surge in rental prices, Caucasians are willing to pay even more for the same unit, making them the preferred tenant profile to rent to. On top of that, landlords almost expect local tenants to demand a 1-year rental period whereas expats usually are happy to have more stability with a 2-year lease contract.

Who has the most difficulty renting?

Wanting to rent a home might appear straightforward: indicate your interest, view the apartment, sign the lease. But even securing a viewing can be a big challenge for local and Indian expats and mainland Chinese. Cleanliness and upkeep of the home are big factors that come into play.

Racism in the Rental MarketImage credit: Bing Hui Yau on Unsplash

Nathan also shares that “most landlords have this stigma that if the (tenant) profile is Indian, it would mean that they would not be able to take care of the home and would do a lot of heavy cooking like curry and stuff – that it would make the place so dirty and impossible to clean.” As an Indian Real Estate agent himself, he finds the reality of things quite disappointing.

As a realtor, Nathan does pull all stops to make sure that he minimises the discrimination his clients are exposed to by either looking for landlords who are Indian themselves or explicitly letting the listing agent representing the landlord know that his tenants have amazing track records and will not be doing any heavy cooking. 

“However, despite me also adding that the tenant is a professional working in a corporate company or a huge MNC – their profile eventually still gets rejected! Hence, it’s a long wait before Indian tenants can find suitable rental homes, ” Nathan explains.

This sentiment was echoed elsewhere with other Indians coming forward with their experiences. One particular lady, Meera, said she was advised by her agent to indicate that her race was Portuguese Serani to improve her odds of finding a home.

A redditor on r/Singapore revealed that his real estate agent friend told him that across the 15 years that he’s been renting properties out, he’s noticed that “China and India nationals tend to hand back the place in a much worse condition than say a westerner or a local… when renting (to) China/Indian nationals, there’s a very high chance the cleaning will cost them more”.

Racism in the Rental MarketImage credit: Brendan Yee

In the case of Chinese nationals, the discrimination stems of witnessing or hearing of multiple cases of illegal subletting where the tenants “sneak in” more coworkers or friends to make the rental more affordable. 

We’ve seen the case of a Singaporean family who rented their HDB flat out to 6 Chinese nationals, only to have a home raid by Town Council and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) agents, revealing an incredulous 21 tenants living inside. And this was the case even after background checks had been conducted on all tenants.

Educating ourselves about racial profiling in Singapore

Before we start pointing fingers or justifying racial profiling, it should be made known that racial profiling, though evident in many housing markets from the US to countries such as Japan and Korea, is not something that should be encourages in any way. 

And while some argue that any landlord has the right to profile participants in order to ensure that his or her property will be kept in a good condition. With racial profiling, comes unjust discrimination which can lead to trauma for minorities who are just trying to live their lives like anyone else. 

We all know that human bias is not something that is easy to rectify, but stereotypes can be broken if we do our part to educate ourselves and others about the impact of their actions. 

Things that landlords can do:

Give all races an equal chance to view the home

Each and every individual should be given a clean slate and a fair chance to view a home, especially if they have a clean rental track record to show for. This also gives you an opportunity to conduct face-to-face “vibe checks” to see if there are any red flags that you should be concerned about. 

Yes, racial profiling exists because some people have been scarred by bad experiences with tenants of a particular race in the past, but it’s not fair to lump all bad eggs together with the good ones. Regardless of race, anyone with a lack of respect for your home can cause serious damage to it. There have been cases of tenants being perfect on paper, but nightmares in real life.

Things that tenants can do:

1. Provide testimonials from previous landlords

Much like you do for work, getting testimonials from your previous landlords can be one way to show potential landlords that you’re someone who pays your rent on time and takes care of any home you stay in.

2. Document all “flaws” when you first move in

Document all “flaws” of a unit when you first arrive – much like you’re meant to do when you rent a car. Share this with your landlord to let them know that these were not the doing of your hands. 

This is to safeguard yourself from false blame when the end of your lease comes. Nathan has seen cases where racial profiling is used to conjure all sorts of scenarios and transfer blame onto the tenants so the landlord withholds the security deposit.

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Cover image adapted from: Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

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