Think of “luxury housing” in Singapore and the images that typically spring to mind are of spacious condominium units with high ceilings and large windows into the city scape. But in the land-scarce island nation, the property asset that really sets apart a “crazy rich Asian” from a merely rich one is the Good Class Bungalow (GCB). These are sprawling homes set in their own expanses of greenery, whose limited numbers and vast price tags make them the exclusive preserve of only the wealthiest of the wealthy. To be classed as a GCB, the property’s plot of land must be at least 1,400 square metres while the building itself must occupy less than 40 per cent of this space and be limited to two storeys. GCBs are located in just 39 gazetted areas in Singapore, many nestled in the central area, and there are only about 2,800 in total, making up just 3.8 per cent of all completed landed houses. Then there is the cost. While a luxury condominium might set you back millions of dollars, GCBs are in the tens of millions. Still, sales this year have been brisk and continue to climb. According to research by Knight Frank and Arcadia Consulting, in the first half of 2021, 37 GCBs changed hands to the tune of S$1.2 billion (US$1.15 billion). This compares to the 44 GCBs sold last year for S$1.09 billion and 40 sold in 2019 for S$816.6 million, as found by ERA Realty’s head of research Nicholas Mak. Not even the coronavirus can slow things down. Figures from boutique real estate advisory and brokerage firm Arcadia Consulting show there were more GCB sales in the six quarters since the start of the pandemic than in the previous six quarters. From the first quarter of last year until June this year, Arcadia’s chief executive Leong Boon Hoe tracked GCB sales amounting to S$2.2 billion, more than double the S$974 million from the third quarter of 2018 – when the government introduced measures to cool the housing market – until the end of 2019. While Singapore’s economy suffered a 5.8 per cent contraction in 2020, the housing data shows no sign of the recession that battered the trade-reliant economy. Mak said that people buying homes for S$20 million to S$50 million had deep pockets anyway, adding that some of the richest families were “collecting GCBs”. The resilience of the market for GCBs, which can only be bought by Singaporeans, was partly because the pandemic had affected poor and marginalised people disproportionately, while the rich were getting richer. A study by Singapore’s largest bank of 1.2 million customers’ data found that 300,000 had pay cuts from March to May last year and half of those affected earned less than US$2,190 a month. At the same time, the prices of stocks and other assets have soared, sending company founders to the top of the Forbes rich list. Leong, who used to be chief operating officer at List Sotheby’s International Realty Singapore, said: “As much as the economy has been rocked by Covid-19, the technology , logistics and pharmaceutical sectors continued to do well and even outperformed during this period. And many business owners and senior executives from these industries purchased luxury properties during this period.” Mak said this meant the profile of the average GCB buyer was changing, from families with “old money” – he gave the example of the Wee family behind UOB bank and the Ng family running property developer Far East Organisation – to a class of self-made entrepreneurs, many from the tech industry. One GCB on Nassim Road, a stone’s throw from the Botanic Gardens and among the most sought after addresses in Singapore, sold in March for a record S$128.8 million, or S$4,005 per sq ft. Singapore’s love affair with property resumes amid Covid-19 The 32,160 sq ft property was bought by the wife of Nanofilm’s founder Shi Xu. Nanofilm is a nanotechnology company that was started in 1999 with US$300,000 and listed on the Singapore Exchange last year, turning China-born Shi and his wife into billionaires. On its debut, the stock closed 12.4 per cent higher from its initial public offering price of S$2.59, with 106.5 million shares changing hands although prices fell by a third this month after disappointing results. Shi’s wife isn’t the only tech wife buying these exclusive homes. The wife of Grab co-founder and chief executive Anthony Tan bought one on a 21,602 sq ft site in Bin Tong Park for S$40 million. The purchase by the Malaysian born couple was reported in local media just last month. The property purchase comes as Grab – a Southeast Asian super-app that started out in ride hailing – is working on a US$40 billion special purpose acquisition company deal which is expected to conclude towards the end of 2021. Tan debuted on the Forbes rich list for Singapore at 47th place with US$790 million. And just before the Tans’ purchase made the news, a 28-year-old entrepreneur also made headlines for a GCB purchase. Ian Ang, chief executive of the ergonomic gaming chair retailer Secretlab, bought a S$36 million bungalow in Caldecott Hill alongside a S$15 million luxury penthouse for him to live in while he builds up the GCB. This month, the former chief financial officer of Xiaomi and current chief executive of TikTok Chew Shou Zi bought an S$86 million GCB at Queen Astrid Park on a 31,800 sq ft plot. Meanwhile, local media report that gaming company Razer’s co-founder and CEO Tan Min-Liang, 43, is “in the early stages” of buying a S$52.8 million GCB. Safe as houses Analysts said the sale of luxury homes – expensive condominium units in the central region included – were probably propelled by geopolitical headwinds and the Covid-19 pandemic . After working from home during the pandemic, people who could afford bigger homes were now leaning towards larger floor plans, according to a prime residential report by Knight Frank. It said foreign and local homebuyers were looking for penthouses or larger units with more than 3,000 sq ft during the first half of this year. Mak said foreign money was probably also trickling in as the political situation in other countries shifted. “With China now cracking down on big tech , [affluent buyers are wondering if it will] diminish their wealth? One hypothesis is some may quietly want to move their wealth overseas, so Singapore is one of the destinations,” he said. While regional rival Hong Kong faces uncertainty with the national security law and other places have struggled to contain the pandemic, Singapore has managed to keep Covid-19 deaths and infection rates low while allowing for a semblance of normal life. As New Zealand and Australia shuttle in and out of lockdowns, Singapore’s vaccination rate has already passed 78 per cent and from next month it will allow vaccinated travellers from Germany and Brunei to enter without quarantine. Leong said: “Safe handling of the Covid-19 crisis and a business-friendly environment are attracting businesses, ultra-high-net-worth individuals and the extremely rich into Singapore.” Sales in the luxury market as a whole have been picking up speed. In the first half of this year 479 homes in central Singapore sold for more than S$5 million each. That figure not only outstrips the 427 sold throughout last year – supposedly a quiet year because of the pandemic and the two-month lockdown in Singapore – it is also close to the 498 such units sold throughout 2019. What’s more, analysts expect sales to accelerate, given the limited supplies of GCBs and big homes in central Singapore. Leong said: “There is a supply crunch for brand new, high spec and spacious apartments in the prime districts. Homeowners are holding on to their prized properties longer. In the luxury homes sector where only the very best will do, the trophy ones are limited edition collectibles and the extremely rich buyers are competing fiercely for them.” This “fierce competition” has some worried that the government will again introduce measures to cool the market. It last did so in 2018 when it raised the stamp duty by five percentage points and tightened loan-to-value limits so buyers couldn’t borrow as much. Then, the government cited a sharp price increase in private residential prices of 9.1 per cent over the past year. Ultra-rich Asians and Chinese citizens eye Singapore luxury homes However, analysts thought cooling measures were unlikely, pointing to how the central bank chief Ravi Menon said recently that while it was keeping an eye on prices, “we do not think the market is overheated right now”. Leong said the 2018 measures already meant “only blue chip players with healthy financial balance sheets” could enter the housing market. “Mortgage lenders, meanwhile, are maintaining tight standards, and buyers are drawn to the market by historically low interest rates, not by easy access to credit,” he said. Mak said the current cooling measures were “already very heavy”. He warned that even talk of cooling measures could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If media reports made it sound like the market was heating up, more people on the fence would enter the market, this would push up prices further and then the government would come in with cooling measures, he said. But Mak said what was happening in the luxury market – especially with the ultra expensive GCBs – should not trickle down to the mass market. “It is a bit like the sale of a Lamborghini, these one- or two-million-dollar supercars. Just because in a typical year in the whole of Singapore only 10 such cars are sold but in another year 20 are sold doesn’t mean the sale of Hyundai or Toyota cars will also go up,” he said.