Public housing in Singapore

Public housing in Singapore may be said to have begun in the 1930s with the housing schemes undertaken by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), the predecessor of the Housing and Development Board (HDB). HDB replaced SIT as the national housing authority in 1960 and is now the sole provider of public housing in Singapore. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of Singapore's resident population now live in public housing, that is, flats managed by HDB.

In 1918, the colonial government set up a housing commission to review the living conditions in the central area of Singapore. The SIT was formed following the recommendations of the commission and started functioning in 1920 with the recruitment of Captain Edwin Percy Richards as deputy chairman. However, SIT was not constituted as a legal entity until the Singapore Improvement Ordinance was passed in 1927. Although Singapore was facing an acute housing shortage at the time, SIT was not given the authority to build housing for the people except for those left homeless by its improvement schemes. It was only in 1932 that SIT was given more powers to undertake building projects. One of its earliest projects was the Tiong Bahru housing estate, which is regarded as the first public housing estate of Singapore. However, SIT's building efforts were far from adequate to meet the needs of the fast-growing population and the housing situation worsened, especially after the Pacific War of the 1940s.

By the time Singapore attained self-government in 1959, the housing shortage and its related problems such as overcrowding and squatter colonies had reached alarming proportions. Public housing for the lower-income groups was thus given top priority and HDB was set up by February 1960 to replace SIT. This marked the beginning of large-scale public housing development in Singapore. Compared to the cramped and unhygienic living conditions in shophouses and squatter areas, flats built by HDB seemed luxurious  they were spacious and equipped with basic services such as electricity, flush toilets and piped water. By 31 March 1976, more than 50 percent of the population was living in HDB flats, a significant improvement from the 8.8 percent living in SIT flats in 1959.

Besides those built by HDB, a limited number of public flats were also built by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) in the Jurong and Sembawang industrial estates for the lower-income groups between 1968 and 1982, and by the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) for the middle-income groups between 1974 and 1982. HDB took over the management of JTC and HUDC flats in 1982 and is now the sole provider of public housing in Singapore, excluding dwellings built or managed by other government bodies as staff quarters. As of 31 March 2008, 82 percent of the resident population was living in HDB flats.

Public housing in Singapore generally comprises high-density, high-rise developments, mostly located in the suburban areas. The majority of public housing estates are self-contained communities with not only the essential facilities to meet the residents' basic needs but also various community amenities such as schools and recreational facilities. The larger estates are called new towns. Singapore's first new town, Queenstown, was initiated by SIT in the 1950s but has been developed mostly by HDB. The second new town, Toa Payoh, was the first to be developed entirely by HDB. Presently, there are more than 20 new towns and the three largest by population size are Jurong West, Tampines and Woodlands.

There are eight categories of public housing: one-room flats, two-room flats, three-room flats, four-room flats, five-room flats, executive flats (including executive apartments and maisonettes), studio apartments (reserved for Singaporeans who are at least 55 years old) and HUDC flats. Studio apartments and one- and two-room flats are the smallest with floor areas of less than 50 sq m; five-room, executive and HUDC flats are the largest with floor areas exceeding 100 sq m. The size and layout of new flats are guided by standard design plans, with some degree of variation.

The standard design plans for new flats have been updated over the years to cater to the changing expectations and preferences of buyers. For example, three-room flats did not have a bathroom attached to the master bedroom until the 1970s, and executive flats were launched in the 1980s in response to the desire for bigger flats while the elderly-friendly studio apartments were introduced only in 1997. These changes reflect the broader shift in the focus of public housing programmes from quantity to quality.

Whereas the emphasis of the early building programmes was on meeting the population's basic need for proper shelter, there is now an emphasis on quality that extends beyond the design of the flats to the surrounding living environment, as evidenced by efforts to improve the landscape architecture and enhance the visual identity of housing estates and to provide better amenities for the residents. Furthermore, upgrading works are carried out under various estate renewal programmes to prevent physical decay and obsolescence and to enhance the residents' living environment.

Most public flats are sold units, a result of the government's conscious effort to build a nation of homeowners in the belief that homeownership would promote a sense of nationalism by giving Singaporeans a bigger stake in their country. At the end of March 2008, 95 percent of public flats were owner-occupied, with the rest being rental flats. The government encourages ownership of public flats by providing concessionary home loans and housing grants and by allowing Central Provident Fund savings to be used to finance home purchases, subject to some conditions. These incentives are available for purchases of both new and resale flats. In addition, new flats offered directly by HDB are sold at subsidised prices. However, only those who meet HDB's eligibility criteria are allowed to buy public flats, including new units sold by private developers (under HDB's Design, Build and Sell Scheme) and resale flats.

Public housing as a tool to achieve social and political objectives
Through the application of eligibility conditions, public housing has been used explicitly to support certain government policies. For instance, before 1991, singles were not allowed to buy HDB flats on their own, in line with the government's pro-family and pro-marriage stance. However, the rule was gradually relaxed, initially giving singles access to three-room or smaller resale flats in certain areas, then to such flats in any location, and now single Singaporeans aged at least 35 years old can purchase resale flats of any size in any location on their own. Another example would be the maximum proportions that are set for the various ethnic groups in each HDB block and in each HDB neighbourhood. To prevent the formation of racial enclaves and promote ethnic integration, HDB will not approve the sale of a new or resale flat to a particular ethnic group if it would lead to that ethnic group's limit being exceeded.

Public housing services have also been linked to support for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). This is demonstrated in PAP's use of estate upgrading as an incentive to pull in votes during past elections. However, in July 2009, the government announced that the two opposition wards – Potong Pasir and Hougang – would be included in HDB's lift upgrading programme earlier than expected, prompting some to suggest that PAP was finally depoliticising the national upgrading programme.

Valerie Chew

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Tai, C.-L. (1988). Housing policy and high-rise living: A study of Singapore's public housing. Singapore: Chopmen Publishers.
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Tan, A. H. H., & Phang, S.-Y. (1991). The Singapore experience in public housing. Singapore: Times Academic Press.
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Wong, A. K., & Yeh, S. H. K. (Eds.). (1985). Housing a nation: 25 years of public housing in Singapore. [Singapore]: Maruzen Asia.
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Yeh, S. H. K. (Ed.). (1975). Public housing in Singapore: A multi-disciplinary study. Singapore: Singapore University Press.
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Further resources
Ooi, G. L. (2004). Future of space: Planning, space and the city. Singapore: Eastern University Press.
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Singapore Improvement. (1925, August 11). The Straits Times, p.11. Retrieved August 5, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.

The town planner departs. (1924, May 10). Malayan Saturday Post, p.10. Retrieved August 5, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.

The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Law and government>>National development>>Housing development
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Residential Buildings
Public housing--Singapore
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