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Plans afoot to help firms raise skills and embrace innovation

Property transaction services and facilities management cited as sub-sectors with most room to transform

Desmond Lee (Second Minister for National Development).jpg
Mr Desmond Lee said: "We can plan for FM systems to work seamlessly, not just within a single building, but across a group of inter-connected buildings," he said. "This may be at the district-level or for buildings of the same 'use class' or within the same family like JTC."


IN the government's push to future-proof the real estate sector, it has identified property transaction services and facilities management (FM) as the two sub-sectors with immense potential to transform.

But the impact of the initiatives is expected to be more far-reaching; they can also affect other sub-sectors of the real estate value chain, said Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee.

At the launch of the Real Estate Industry Transformation Map (ITM) on Thursday, he listed its two main objectives - to help companies embrace innovation and technology, and raise the professionalism and skills of their workforce.

Industry players have identified the move to fully digitalise property transactions as a potential game changer.

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To this end, the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA) will lead a workgroup consisting of key government agencies and industry representatives.

The group's brief is to review the transaction processes and to develop standard sales and rental contract templates, checklists and common protocols for e-contracts, e-payments and e-submissions to government agencies.

The goal is to develop digitalised contract templates and checklists for consumers and property agents to use by the early-2020s.

In the nearer term, the group is working on the sharing of government data with the industry through application programing interfaces (APIs), without compromising data privacy.

This seamless sharing of data from the HDB, Singapore Land Authority and the Ministry of Manpower will be progressively rolled out this year. The data will include property ownership details or whether a potential foreign tenant has a valid work pass.

Access to this data will facilitate due-diligence checks and automate administrative processes, hence freeing agents to do higher-value work.

To help agencies get up to speed with the adoption of IT solutions, the CEA will provide support to 100 property agency businesses by 2020.

Last month, the Housing & Development Board (HDB) took the lead in making the resale transaction process more seamless, with a streamlined process that has cut the total transaction time from 16 weeks to eight.

But some lawyers see the risk of property conveyancing work being displaced by standard contract templates and a digitalised transaction process.

Patrick Ee, a real estate partner at Kennedy's Legal Solutions, said: "Lawyers focused only on the run-of-the-mill contracts will be affected, as it becomes easy for a savvy person to complete a transaction without much assistance from an agent or lawyer."

Sandra Han, real estate partner at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP, said that, in time to come, there may be "a paradigm shift" which will differentiate licensed conveyancers from lawyer conveyancers, with each handling a different type of conveyancing work, as is the case in Australia.

JLL senior consultant Karamjit Singh said that the only way to preserve the role of agents is to upgrade their skills.

"The more information gaps are plugged in the transactions space, the more empowered buyers, sellers and agents are," he said.

He recently founded a new portal called Showsuite, which showcases new property launches to homebuyers, allowing them to explore multiple projects remotely, saving them from travelling to view show flats.

CEA executive director Lee Kwong Weng said agents need to stay relevant and be able to meet the increased expectations of a more sophisticated clientèle.

On that note, the CEA is revamping its continuing professional development (CPD) framework by the end of this year, to ensure that agents are kept abreast of the latest changes in policies and procedures; it is also looking to train 4,000 property agents via SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace programme by 2020.

To help customers to choose their agents, the CEA will work with the industry to publish property transactions closed by agents, starting with HDB transactions from the end of this year, and private residential transactions, from end-2019.

In the long term, the CEA plans to work with the industry to collect and publish consumer ratings of agents to improve their accountability to clients. This has already been introduced by property agencies such as OrangeTee & Tie and ERA Realty; PropNex and Huttons Asia are looking to launch their agent search engines soon.

OrangeTee managing director Steven Tan said he is looking to upgrade the review ratings platform to offer more information on agents, and dive deep into data analytics as the government makes more property-related data accessible.

Under the Real Estate ITM, the government is also looking to raise the adoption of "smart" FM solutions and practices island-wide to boost productivity.

Mr Desmond Lee said: "We can plan for FM systems to work seamlessly, not just within a single building, but across a group of inter-connected buildings," he said. "This may be at the district-level or for buildings of the same 'use class' or within the same family like JTC." (see amendment)

He stressed that smarter FM systems will streamline processes, reduce abortive work, reap cost savings and, ultimately, lead to greater productivity. But a building's maintenance cannot be an afterthought.

This is why consultants are encouraged to design and construct buildings with maintenance in mind, to minimise the need for expensive retrofitting and labour-intensive maintenance in the future, he added.

In building up FM talent, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) said it will review the current curriculum taught in institutes of higher learning and will explore an industry accreditation scheme with FM associations.

There is no official data on the number of FM service providers in Singapore. By the estimate of the president of the Association of Property and Facility Managers (APFM) Lim Lan Yuan, there are more than 60 such firms, among which 45 are members of APFM.

Dr Lim said that as the building stock grows, the need for FM personnel will rise in tandem, with demand leaning towards higher-skilled workers.

Tony Khoo, chief executive of E M Services, said an accreditation scheme will raise the professional standards of the FM industry. "Currently, without accreditation, any firm can tender for FM work. Competitive tendering drives prices down, so there's less incentive for companies to invest in their people."

He is also president of the Singapore chapter of the International Facility Management Association.

While there are immediate costs to adopting smarter FM solutions, the costs are expected to come down as more firms embrace them, he added.

Amendment: The original story attributed the quote in the 25th paragraph to CEA's Mr Lee due to an editing error. The comments came from Mr Desmond Lee instead. 

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