Squatters No More: Singapore Social Housing
As with Latin America and Africa, the number of urban
residents is fast expanding in Asia. Asia is also home to the largest
concentration of poor people in the world (Chapman et al, 1999;
Montgomery et al, 2001). About a quarter of the total urban population
in Asia is living below the poverty line although the proportion may be
higher in some countries. India and China each holds about a third of
the region’s urban population with many living in relative poverty
(Jacquemin, 1999). Of the 12 million people in Mumbai, for example,
about 50 per cent lives in slums, dilapidated chawls and on
pavements. In the extreme, they join the number of homeless people,
estimated to be in excess of 100 million in the world (UNCHS, 1999). In
one recent estimate, Asia alone will need to invest a sum of US$280
billion a year over the next 30 years to meet the basic needs of the
population in housing and other urban sectors (Brockman and Williams,
The lack of housing access is one of the
most serious and widespread consequences and causes of poverty in Asian
cities. The improvements in housing that are important to improving the
quality of life among the poor often do not receive the attention they
deserve from policy makers (Daniere, 1996). To make any appreciable
improvement, substantial government spending is needed, both in the
physical expansion of the city’s infrastructure and implementation of
poverty alleviation programs. Buttressed by the heritage of literature
that argues the importance of affordable and improved housing in urban
poverty reduction (see, for example, Mitlin, 2001), the immediate
research issue is how poor families can access urban shelter more
By its policy interventions, the state
has the power to assist the poor and uplift their situation. A review
of the literature indicates two broad approaches to policy interventions
in poverty alleviation (Ahluwalia, 1990; Echeverri-Gent, 1993). The
first is a more direct approach comprising those policies intended to
reduce the incidence of poverty to explicitly defined levels through
such anti-poverty programs as self-employment and micro credit for small
businesses. The latter schemes, for example, the Alexandria Business
Association’s micro-credit scheme for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises
(SMEs) in Alexandria, Egypt, generally offer small loans often with few
collateral conditions and flexible repayment schedules. By comparison,
the second approach is indirect and somewhat longer term. It involves
the adoption of growth-oriented policies to make efficient use of
resources to accelerate economic development and spread the benefits to
the poor. Strategies include ensuring greater availability of land to
the poor through land reforms and ensuring greater accessibility to
social services, particularly housing, education and health services.
The Indonesian Kampung Improvement Project, the Caracas Slum Upgrading
Project, and the Singapore public housing program are examples of this
approach. To what extent do the poor benefit from these policy
In this paper, we investigate the public
housing policy of Singapore, which is often cited as a successful
example of affordable housing production in Asian cities. As with Hong
Kong, the Singapore public housing policy intervention for resident
population has progressively led to society-wide enjoyment of the right
to adequate housing. Some 85 per cent of Singapore’s resident population lives in public housing. More than 850,000 housing
units in 23 new towns have been constructed. While the poor elsewhere
are homeless, the poorest 20 per cent of households in Singapore have
equal access to housing resources, albeit public housing, and many are
homeowners. The proportions bear witness to the realization of housing
rights. How did Singapore scale up and provide housing access to the
urban poor? What are the key policy tools and reforms? What are the pros
and cons of those policy tools and interventions? To what extent are the
lessons learned transferable notwithstanding Singapore’s uniqueness
(small city size, particular cultural, economic and political
conditions)? More critically, to what extent does the public housing
policy intervention improve the urban quality of life among the poor
especially when their traditional abode is changed from low-rise (2-3
story) to high-rise living (the tallest is presently 30-story and going
Given its widely recognized success, the
Singapore public housing development has attracted keen research
interest (see, for example, Wong and Yeh, 1985; Yuen et al, 1999) but
few have clarified the public housing-urban poverty nexus. This provides
the starting point for the present analysis of the performance of
housing development. To set the context, we first describe the extent of
poverty in Singapore followed by an examination of government attitudes
and responses to the housing problem and delivery. This is followed by a
survey of the key instruments for better housing for the poor. Finally,
the paper will consider the reality of high-rise public housing living
as the city continues to build taller housing for its growing
A Profile of Singapore
Singapore (land area of 690 sq km and GDP per capita of
USD20,767) is ranked 25th on the 2002 United Nations Human Development
Index with hardly any of its population living below the poverty line.
While this may be the international outlook, closer examination points
to poverty in an otherwise middle-class society. As reported by the
leading local newspaper (The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2005), there
appears to be a rising number of poor in Singapore with the present
economic downturn: reviewing statistics from the Community Development
Councils, the number of those needing financial aid has risen from
14,300 in 2001 to 22,500 in 2002 and 31,570 in 2003 and the amount given
out has increased from S$14.6m in financial year 2001 to S$27m in 2003. The number of
families on public assistance has similarly increased from 2572
households in Mar 2002 to 2714 households in Dec 2004. These families
(means tested) receive between S$260 per month for a 1-person household
and S$825 for households of 4 or more persons under the Public
Assistance Scheme administered by the Singapore Ministry of Community
Development, Youth and Sports.
As with Hong Kong,
there is no official poverty line in Singapore. There is little data on
the number in the ‘Left-Behind Class’. If going by the recent number of
street people picked up by the authorities, about 170-300 people in
Singapore make the streets their home every year. Many (50%) are old (60
and above years old) and have no family, employment or skills. Others
are abandoned by their own families. In one report, the Singapore
Department of Statistics has released a figure of about 4 per cent of
Singapore’s resident population (or 120,000) living at or close to the
poverty line in 1998 (The Straits Times, 31 May 2000). Income
distribution as measured by the Gini coefficient was 0.481 in 2000. In
the most recent population census (2000a), 12.6 per cent of households
(116,300 households) in Singapore earned less than S$1000 a month
(average household income was S$4943 per month). The lowest 10% of
households excluding those with no income earners had an average monthly
income of S$459 in 2000 (average household size was 3.7) (Singapore
Census of Population, 2001). The unofficial national definition of
poverty drawn from the income qualifying criteria in various public
assistance schemes seems to cover those surviving on less than S$10 per
person per day.
appears miniscule in relation to countries elsewhere. Poverty data in
recent poverty assessments (by urban poverty headcounts) for East Asia,
for example, indicate that 16 per cent in Indonesia, 12 per cent in
Philippines and 9 per cent in Vietnam’s urban population are living in
poverty (World Bank, 2002). According to the US Census Bureau Current
Population Survey March Supplement 2000, 11.8 per cent of the US
population was living in poverty in 1999. About one fifth or 1.2 billion
people in the world survive on less than US$1 a day, 44 per cent of
these live in South Asia and 23 per cent in East Asia and Pacific. Many
are living in informal housing, without security of tenure, and in
deplorable housing conditions that can be described as life and health
threatening (Roebuck, 1999; UNCHS, 2001).
By contrast, there are
fewer homeless people in Singapore. The lowest income citizens are not
excluded from the housing system. Data from the public housing
authority, the Singapore Housing and Development Board (HDB), showed
that as of Dec 2004, 37,823 households could not afford to buy their own
flats or rent homes in the open market and occupied heavily subsidized
1- and 2-room public rental flats under the Public Rental Scheme.
Through the HDB set up in 1960, housing is provided under the
government’s shelter for all policy. Over time, poor quality overcrowded
housing and temporary mass self-help housing in unimproved squatter
settlements has been progressively cleared and replaced by high-rise
accommodations and improved facilities in public housing estates and new
towns. In the process, the public housing sector has grown to become the
predominant housing sector and stock of affordable housing in Singapore.
This has encouraged the formulation of policies aimed at reducing the
cost of housing and easing access to owner occupation in public housing,
even for the lower income residents.
The proportion of the
resident population living in public housing has risen to 85% (since
1985), with the majority (95%, or nearly 3 million people) owning the flat they occupy. As the
Minister for Trade and Industry has announced in the 2000 Parliament
session, many families in the poorest 10 per cent of Singapore
households have significant wealth in the form of their flats and
compare well with those in other countries. The government’s commitment
to subsidize the three basic services of housing, education and health
care to make them affordable was reiterated by the Prime Minister in his
2001 National Day rally speech, “No Singaporeans should be denied these
basic needs, he said, no matter how poor he is.” (The Straits Times,
21 Aug 2001). The state commitment is a key cornerstone of the Singapore
Government Attitudes and Responses
Singapore’s housing for all policy development, it is perhaps relevant
to briefly review the social and urban development context that gave
impetus to the policy. As with many other cities, as the Singapore city
grew in population, the pressure on housing increased (Table 1).
Table 1: Population and building density in early Singapore
(persons per building)
Source: Colony of
Singapore, Report of the Housing Committee 1947; Master Plan 1955.
The combination of low construction and
war damage had resulted in a substantial housing shortage in the
immediate post-war years. According to the 1947 British colonial
government Housing Committee Report, by 1947, Singapore had one of the
world’s worst slums,
‘a disgrace to a civilised
community’ (p. 16). About
300,000 people were then living in temporary squalid dwellings in
squatter areas with no sanitation, water or any of the basic health
facilities and another 250,000 in
within the city area, in
neighborhoods such as Chinatown
‘in which gross overcrowding was common’ (HDB, 1966, p30).
To give just one example, as Mr. Lim Kim
San, the first HDB Chairman recalled of his visit to Chinatown in the
I went into a three-story shophouse with one lavatory
and two bathrooms. We counted 200 tenants living there. It was so
dark and damp. It was an inhuman and degrading existence. Underneath
the staircase was a single plank. A man was lying on the plank. He
had rented it. That was his home! And he was lying down covered by a
blanket; the thick red blanket made in China. I paused to ask him if
he was sick: “Why are you covering yourself with a thick blanket?”
He replied: “I am covering myself out of respect for you. I am
wearing only undershorts. My brother is wearing my pants.” They were
too poor to afford clothing. In those days, there were shops which
pulled clothing and shoes off the dead to sell them. “My God,” I
thought to myself, “I really must help those people.” (The
Straits Times, 9 Aug 1997)
At night, many
others would sleep on makeshift canvas beds placed along street
pavements (Chen, 1983). Policy interventions on housing provision during
the colonial administration, 1819-1959 (Singapore was granted internal
self-rule in 1959 and independence in 1965) were, however, limited.
Resources were largely directed to entrepot trading and the British
military complex. The housing problem was regarded as something of a
transitory phenomenon that would disappear as the economy grew. Such an
attitude was convenient as it provided the basis for taking little or no
action on housing. In effect, the outcome was housing stress and the
cumulative need for improvements was immense: in 1959, the total number
of dwellings completed by both public and private agencies was 4003 when
14,000 new units were needed as summarized in Table 2.
Table 2: Housing need
New housing required
No. of units
for current housing deficit from
overcrowding in urban areas
for natural increase in population
Total new housing units required
(14,000 new homes a year)
Source: HDB, 1966
Of the 14,000 new homes
a year, the private sector had the capacity to provide some 2,500 new
homes a year. Many of those dwellings would however be at price levels
beyond the means of the lower income households. In the absence of
alternatives, the burden of the remaining housing requirements including
shelter for the poor must fall on the government. The challenge was
taken up by the newly elected self-government, which had won the
election on a manifesto of providing employment and housing (and has
been re-elected to power ever since).
Unlike many other Third World
governments, which have tended to act on housing as a social problem to
be addressed after the achievement of economic progress, Singapore
considered the two as of equal and symbiotic importance. Two
statutory agencies, the Economic Development Board (EDB) and HDB were
immediately set up with reformed financial, legal, and institutional
framework to promote the supply of economic growth-employment and
housing respectively at the start of self-governance. The complementary
between employment and housing has been extensively argued elsewhere to
be an important factor in the government’s continued political
performance and legitimacy (see, for example, Chua, 1997; Ho, 2000).
The core objective of
the public sector housing initiative is to make housing affordable and
accessible to lower-income families, which until then suffered from
discriminatory actions. As elaborated by the Minister for National
Development in 1959,
Most of the houses
will accommodate those in the lower income group, who have never been
cared for in the past. The previous Government cared only for the middle
class group, who can afford to pay tea money to get S.I.T. (Singapore
Improvement Trust [the colonial administration housing authority])
flats. (The Straits Times, 19 Sep 1959)
Rejecting the popular but incremental
construction of assisted self-help in low income housing, Singapore
launched a comprehensive development of public housing. Following from
the view that the state bears a major responsibility for organizing the
conditions of growth, the government has taken a major role in
determining the production and consumption of housing – in particular,
by providing affordable and inclusive housing to the lowest income
residents and, thus, demonstrating that often the determination to
realize a political vision breaks down barriers to action and starts the
path to real housing reform on the ground.
and Inclusive Housing
Central to public
shelter provision is the pro-poor goal to maximize the housing options
of poor Singapore residents while guarding against exclusion,
exploitation, and unsanitary living conditions. Of significance was the
crystallization of two basic functions of the HDB that have set the
context for adequate housing delivery and changes in housing conditions
for the poor:
provide housing of sound construction and good design for the lower
income groups at rents which they can afford (HDB Annual Report, 1962);
encourage a property-owning democracy in Singapore and to enable
Singapore citizens in the lower middle income group to own their own
homes (HDB Annual Report 1964).
The first follows a traditional philosophy: the state as a provider of
housing. The second strengthens homeownership and opens the possibility
for the state to assume the role of facilitator and social engineer. The
following illustrates how these functions have been supported by various
housing policies and diverse interventions to allow the poor to select
the housing type and support that is most appropriate to them. As Mitlin
(2001), Rachelis (1999) and many others remind, the urban poor differs
in background and needs. Thus, different groups with multiple needs
fall within this income category.
Good Affordable Housing
Based on the government’s commitment to
achieve adequate shelter for all who lack, the policy on good housing
includes interventions along two broad dimensions: 1) physical, in terms
of occupancy and minimum physical requirements for housing units to
improve living condition within the overall urban development of the
country and 2) financial, to enable housing access and affordability.
Fundamental to the housing improvement and upgrading is provision of
quality self-contained flats within a functional and landscaped
residential environment. At the heart of that policy are the multiple
interventions for comprehensively planned housing estates and, since
1965, new towns with improved services and facilities.
For each of the facilities, planning standards have been developed to
ensure that a quality service environment is achieved within a general
framework of growth and modernization. The
trend is towards self-containment of public housing towns where
household members - especially the low income - can fulfil most of their
basic needs within the new town: work, shop, school, entertainment,
sports and other recreational pursuits. Development in the main is based
on comprehensiveness in housing.
As the national
housing authority, the HDB adopts a comprehensive approach to secure
sectorwide public housing development within the country’s economic and
urban development framework. In strengthening effectiveness, the HDB
master plans, develops
and manages (latter until the formation of town councils in 1989) the
entire production-consumption process of public housing towns and all
their dwelling units and infrastructure. The construction of housing and
infrastructure is contracted to the private sector. By centralizing its
public housing effort under a single authority, Singapore has
circumvented the common problems of duplication and fragmentation of
duties, and bureaucratic rivalries associated with multi-agency
implementation. Even though increasingly advocated by some housing
scholars (see review in Pugh, 2001), centralized comprehensiveness has
For example, in the
area of housing supply, to
build cheap and fast, a strategy of standardization by building
prototype flats and blocks was adopted. In addition, the HDB uses
long-term supply contracts and bulk purchase strategies to ensure
continuous supply of essential building materials at steady prices.
While these pragmatic development interventions may have facilitated the
rapid construction of the dwelling units and towns, standardization of
building blocks had led to criticisms of cookie-cutter, monotonous
townscapes of many of the early public housing town development (see
Wong and Yeh, 1985; Yuen et al, 1999). Shoddy workmanship and building
defects were a problem in several of the early quickly-built projects
that attracted many complaints, even debate in Parliament (e.g. cracks
in walls and ceilings, inferior fittings, frequent lift breakdown).
Learning, modifying and innovating, the problems were quickly rectified
and reforms introduced into the next cycle of construction improvement.
Quality considerations were given more emphasis with the decline in
the country’s recent quest for a distinctive city in the global age,
attempts have been increasingly made to enhance the place identity of
the towns and neighbourhoods (see Yuen, 2005).
In support the HDB has devolved its estate management
function to town councils comprising residents. Through the town
councils, residents can get involved in the management of their towns.
Experiences to date have shown that the reform of centralized
comprehensive low-income housing is anything but regularized and static.
It requires a dynamic problem-solving capacity, a continual process of
learning and improving housing policies, and diverse interventions in
order to affect significantly the target families.
Infrastructure. In the effort to provide not simply housing but good living conditions
with a full complement of services, Singapore new towns have taken the
form of high-rise, high-density development. Occupying an approximate
land area of 650 ha, a new town typically accommodates a population of
250,000. The resulting new town density (gross) is 92 dwelling units per
hectare where about half of the land is for residential development and
the balance for facilities to support an improved housing environment
Table 3: Land use distribution and gross density of new town
prototype new town (60,000 dwelling units)
land area (ha)
(town centre and neighborhood
utilities and others
gross new town density
92 dwelling units per hectare
* includes civic, cultural, recreational uses and incidental
developments in the town and neighborhood centers
** includes private housing within the town boundary
*** non-polluting industries only
Source: HDB (2000a)
The average height of most public housing apartment blocks is 12 stories
with some, the more recent development, rising to 30-40 stories. The
trend is towards taller buildings with increased population growth (the
private sector has recently announced plans to construct 50-70 story
apartment developments in the downtown area).
The new towns are all
carefully located and planned within the country’s macro-spatial
planning (see Yuen, 2004 for more detail).
The principle of planned development
is crucial in the provision of housing that is taking place over a
length of time. It helps to regulate land and housing development to
meet demand and infrastructure needs and, in particular, to ensure
on-time infrastructure provision for residents who move into completed
The capstone in the provision of in-time infrastructure and housing is
the state policy of compulsory land acquisition. The importance of such
a land policy cannot be over-emphasized. In many developing countries,
the implementation of state housing has often been hampered by the
shortage or unavailability of land. Without land, there would be no
housing. The task of land assembly and clearance in housing development
is clearly formidable even for the size of Singapore. To illustrate, in
1960, only 44 per cent of the land in Singapore was owned by the
government while over 35 per cent of the population then lived in
squatter settlements. Effective legislation was implemented to ensure
the availability of unencumbered land to supplement the stock of state
In 1966, the colonial legislation on land acquisition was repealed and
in its place the broader Land Acquisition Act was passed. Under the
reformed Land Acquisition Act, the government can compulsorily acquire
any land of private and commercial use for public interest. The Act
provides for the payment of compensation, which is determined by the
state. In determining the payment rate, no account is taken of any
potential value for more intensive uses, only the existing use or zoned
use is considered, whichever is lower. The prices paid by the HDB for
the acquired lands are therefore usually much lower than the market
price. This approach, described as draconian by some housing scholars
(for example, Chua, 1997), has helped the government to lower the costs
of housing provision and has been particularly helpful in the early
phases of housing delivery. It has also furthered the dominant position
of the state in Singapore’s urban development — 85 per cent of land is
now in state ownership (Motha and Yuen, 1999)
while contributing to a
‘captive’ market as public housing is offered as a resettlement benefit.
In providing a better
housing environment than that from which the residents come, this policy
helps enhance the attraction of relocation to public housing. As borne
out by early resident surveys (1968 and 1973, see Yeh and Tan,
1974/75) on public housing tenants’ present and past living conditions
and more recent statistics on Singapore public housing residential
mobility, there is a consistently high level of resident satisfaction
with public housing living: 82.5 per cent of all households living in
public housing have indicated that they would be content to always live
in those flats (Housing and Development Board, 2000).
From its inception, public housing is seen as a way to
provide a good living environment for income groups who cannot afford
the cost of renting or buying private housing. This inclusive approach
puts the needs, expectations and lifestyles of its residents at the
center of the housing supply and has required the provision of better
housing be a dynamic process that seeks continuous improvement to meet
changing consumer preference.
On a day-to-day basis, the HDB (and since 1989 the
town councils) is concerned with estate management and maintenance to
ensure that the public housing units and towns do not degenerate into
slums over time.
On a longer-term basis,
instead of allowing older flats and towns to become obsolete, public
flats and estates are progressively upgraded with resident participation
(Lau, 1998). To enhance affordability, public housing residents pay only
a small fraction of the upgrading cost and at times not at all,
depending on the scheme they elect. On average, about 10-13 per cent of
HDB annual operating expenditure is spent on flat upgrading and
improvements. In 2003/04, 13 per cent (S$565 million) was spent on
upgrading and improvement works (HDB Annual Report, 2003/04). The
spending is justified by the Minister of Finance as a means of
redistributing economic growth and government budget surpluses to
increase the housing assets of Singapore citizens (The Straits Times,
9 Aug 1995). Apart from maintaining quality living, improvement of older
homes also offers a sustainable building alternative to demolition that
allows the residents to continue to live in familiar towns and build
communities. All these are important factors in the consistently high
public-housing resident satisfaction scores. There have been a number of
studies concluding that Singapore public housing improvement has over
the years become comparable to middle class housing and gained
international housing awards including the UN Habitat World Habitat
Award for ‘innovative and successful human settlement’ (Teo and
Phillips, 1989; Foo, 2001).
Improved housing is only relevant to the
poor if it is also affordable. As Stone (1993) argues, affordable
housing cannot be produced without consideration of the broader context
of the households’ earning power. The Singapore response is an inclusive
housing delivery system that recognizes the needs of varying income and
family size. From the start of the program, the emphasis is on expansion
of choice: not one but a range of flat types roughly in the proportion
of 30 per cent 1-room units, 40 per cent 2-room units and 30 per cent
3-room units were offered. Care was taken that the exercise of housing
choice did not exclude lower-income families. This consideration is
central to the system’s success. It has resulted in pragmatic strategies
that are inclusive. In the area of affordable housing, the strategy,
was, as Teh, the Chief Architect of HDB, explained, the building of
small flats to be let at low rents,
While it is generally considered that a two room flat should be the
ideal minimum standard for public housing, because of economic reality
that a lower income working class family is unable to afford a two room
flat which costs S$40 rental per month, the one room flat at S$20 per
month rental was introduced as the minimum standard of public housing
for the lowest income group in Singapore…It is hoped that when the
economic position of the people improves, the occupants of these one
room flats may eventually move to the two or three room flats. (Teh,
1955 survey of housing applicants had revealed that 2,655 of 7,388 (35.9
per cent) applicants on the SIT housing register were ready to pay more
than S$40 a month for rental. An important factor was therefore the
tenant’s ability to pay. As a large proportion of the population was
then lacking in adequate means to meet their needs for housing and other
daily sustenance, provision was made to match affordability and to forgo
the principle of charging economic rent. Instead, the policy was for low
rent. In the 1960s, rents were at S$20 per month, S$40 per month and
S$60 per month for the 1-, 2- and 3-room flats respectively (no more
than 15 per cent of the average wage-earner’s monthly income). The
building costs of flats were S$3,000 each for 1-room unit and
S$4,500-5,500 each for 2-room unit
(the average building
cost of the flat was about S$8 per square foot of net floor area,
excluding public access and staircases).
The low rent is a
‘deliberate policy of the government to improve the standard of living
of the people’ (HDB Annual Report 1969, p16). On social grounds, current
rents have continued to remain low:
S$26-33 a month for 1-room flat and S$44-75 a month for 2-room flat for
households with monthly income of S$800 or below, notwithstanding the
increase in per capita GDP at current market prices, from S$1306 in 1960
to S$39,585 in 2000. The rental costs compare favorably with those
provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (1995):
in 1991, 33 per cent of very low income renters in USA paid more than 50
per cent of their income on housing. Whilst the HDB maintains a low rent
housing policy, parallel effort has been made to grow the economy and
improve family income through education and employment including
industrialization (Yuen, 1989). By the 1980s, Singapore had joined the
ranks of Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan to become one of four newly
industrializing countries in Asia. Its per capita income has increased
to become the second highest in Asia after that of Japan.
Over time, with economic growth and elimination of the housing shortage,
bigger housing units have been built. However, price-access to rental
(and homeownership) remains important in meeting the housing needs of
the poor and is very much guided by affordability.
As explained by the Minister for National Development, ‘When
we price our flats, we don’t just price them based on our costs. We
price them with an eye on the affordability for those who are purchasing
them, and we try to keep that level of affordability the same over the
years.’ (The Straits Times, 12 July 1996). The government has
announced that it would set the price of 4-room flats to the
affordability level of 70 per cent of Singaporean households while the
price of 3-room flats will remain affordable to 90 per cent of
households. It has also been stated that should incomes not increase
neither would the costs of 3- and 4-room HDB flats (The Straits
Times, 21 Sep 1996). No one is discriminated or excluded from
housing on grounds of affordability.
To further illustrate
this commitment, to make them affordable, the selling prices of flats
are equivalent to about 2 years’ income of the purchasers. To help the
lower income, flats are sold at
discounted prices. Smaller flats are subsidized more than the larger
flats. According to a report in the local newspaper (The Straits
Times, 30 May 1980), each 3-room flat is subsidized by 44 per cent,
each 4-room flat by 33 per cent and each 5-room flat by 27 per cent.
Most Singaporeans (87 per cent of 523 adult Singaporeans) polled in the
1997 Straits Times opinion survey indicated that they were happy
with public housing; 55 per cent said the subsidy levels for public
housing are just right. Almost all (99 per cent) favored giving
subsidies to buyers of 1- or 2-room flats (The Straits Times, 27
Sep 1997), lending support to the pro-poor goal of helping the lower
Subsidy is a central issue in the housing for the poor policy
and has been argued by various housing scholars (see, for example,
Daniere and Takahashi, 1999). Since housing is regarded as a public
duty, not a commercial operation, and the government’s core policy is
one of providing homes for the people at rents they can afford, the
difference between rent income and expenditure is covered by a grant
from the state. The annual housing deficits are fully covered by
government subsidies and the HDB starts each financial year with a clean
slate. When it took office, the government had reserves of S$322 million
from which it could and did draw for housing and other key urban
developments. Between 1960 and 1964, the government advanced S$17
million in grants. In 2004, the cumulative grant since HDB inception in
1960 stands at S$13,109 million. The amount stands witness to what Teh
(1975) has observed, ‘there has never been a single instance where the
request for funds for the public housing programs has not been approved
by the Government’ (p10). This substantial financial support represents
a major commitment by the government and is an important aspect of the
Singapore housing policy to improve the living condition of the lower
Security of Tenure Through Homeownership
The second major driver
of Singapore’s public housing development is safety of secure tenure
through the option of homeownership. Although begun as rented housing,
homeownership of public housing is encouraged as a policy since 1964 to
‘enable Singapore citizens in the lower middle income group to own their
own homes’ (HDB Annual Report 1964, p9). The Report went on to state,
‘Without this scheme the majority of wage-earners in this income group
will not be able to buy their own homes because of the prevailing high
prices.’ (pp9-10) Aimed at preventing discrimination in housing,
promoting security of tenure and promoting access to finance for
affordable housing, this policy is instrumental in facilitating the
participation of lower income households in homeownership in Singapore.
The core instruments include a transparent flat allocation system and
the homeownership scheme aimed at making homeownership more affordable
by increasing popular access to mortgage finance.
Flat allocation system
Flat allocation policy
is an important part of housing access. Right from the start,
transparency of flat allocation and eligibility is an institutionalized
aspect of the public housing system that takes pride in
non-discriminatory action. As Chong et al (1985, p. 230) explain,
A major challenge of
the HDB lies in the desire to devise the right schemes and policies that
will ultimately place, in the hands of the deserving public housing
applicants, the keys to their new homes. The need for rigorously
formulated schemes and policies arises from four factors often
associated with a good public housing program. Firstly, there must be
equity so that public resources ploughed into the housing program are
fairly distributed; thus, the need for rules and procedures to determine
who gets a flat at which point in time. Second, it should benefit the
majority of the population and thus involves the processing of large
numbers. This calls for strict procedures to maintain efficiency, reduce
errors and prevent abuse. Thirdly, it should offer some degree of choice
in the location and type of public housing…and finally, the existence of
special groups requiring priority or special assistance in obtaining
public housing complicates the task of maintaining equity at the broader
and the flat allocation process are clearly set out and made public.
Flats are allocated on the basis of need, families before singles, on a
first registration basis (Tan, 1998). Through various allocation
priorities, the state has promoted the values of the family institution
(for example, to encourage early marriage and married couples to live
close to their ageing parents). Applicants can ‘walk in’ to select flats
from existing housing stock or wait for their appointed flats to be
built on a build-to-order scheme. To
help guard against exclusion and exploitation, the HDB maintains a
detailed applications list that indicates the particulars of all
applicants, the type of flat applied for and the geographical zone
desired (Liu, 1988). The applications list serves a further function of
providing the HDB with the means to better match housing demand with
All Singapore citizens
who do not already own homes and whose combined monthly household income
falls below a specified ceiling are eligible to rent/buy HDB flats.
Income ceiling is imposed on
applicants of public housing to serve as a cut-off point to determine
the group who is eligible for HDB flats since such housing is primarily
designed to help those who cannot afford private housing. Applicants
whose total household income exceeds the eligibility ceiling would thus
not qualify for public housing. This is an important intervention to
help low income families. Without income ceiling, higher income families
may competitively raid low income housing resulting in ever under-supply
situation for the poor as outlined by Pugh (2001).Table 5 gives
one illustration of the prevailing eligibility conditions.
Table 5: Eligibility conditions for rental/purchase of HDB flats
Floor Area (Sq M)
at least 21 years of age
total household income not more than S$800 per month
must form a family nucleus
must not own other property
buying a flat direct from the HDB
at least 21 years of age
have a family nucleus
total household income not more than S$8000 per month
must not own any private residential property
have not bought any flat direct from HDB nor enjoyed any housing
As with many other aspects of the housing delivery system, to be
effective, the implementation of eligibility criteria is contingent upon
regular review and adjustment. First, its effectiveness is affected by
the setting of the income ceiling at an appropriate level, that it would
include the intended target group without an unmanageable influx to the
applications register and consequential very long waiting list. Second,
the setting of the income ceiling is not a ‘one-time’ exercise. As with
the good housing process, the income ceiling has to be constantly
reviewed in the context of changing income levels, prices of private
housing and the HDB ability to extend its programs. The eligibility
income ceiling for homeownership has been periodically revised (from
S$1000 a month in 1964 to S$8000 in 1996 and since) in step with
economic growth to include 90 per cent of households in the community in
the nation-building objective of providing housing to all who lack.
An input to the large inclusion is the housing need of the sandwich
middle income class whose income is beyond public housing income ceiling
and yet not sufficient to enter private housing. The bottom line is to
create equal housing opportunity for all citizens and reduce the
potential for socioeconomic polarization. Yet, there remains the
homeless sleeping on public benches at night, albeit a small number
compared to other cities. Their presence has cast reconsideration on the
social exclusion of specific groups (such as the destitute) within an
increasingly middle class society. Has this group of the poor been
neglected in the shelter for all program as it widens to provide
‘universal service' and promote ownership among a broader segment of the
population? As one homeless (an odd job laborer in his 40s, an
ex-convict whose family does not want to house him) shared in a
newspaper interview, “Flats are very expensive, aren’t they? A few
thousand bucks?” (Streats 25 Jul 2003). As Angel (2000) reminds,
a fundamental explanation for homelessness is economics—the urban
housing supply has a minimum price associated with it. The reemergence
of homelessness is a housing policy issue that warrants further
homeownership rates are generally found to be highly dependent on
income, age, marital status, family size and race (Carliner, 1974),
Singapore has broadened homeownership and made it a reality to many
low-income families. Under the homeownership scheme first introduced in
1964, public housing is sold to eligible households on a 99-year
leasehold basis. The rationale for promoting homeownership may be
glimpsed from the memoirs of then Prime Minister (Lee, 2000, pp116-7),
preoccupation was to give every citizen a stake in the country and its
future. I wanted a homeowning society. I had seen the contrast between
the blocks of low-cost rental flats, badly misused and poorly
maintained, and those of house-proud owners, and was convinced that if
every family owned its home, the country would be more stable…I had seen
how voters in capital cities always tended to vote against the
government of the day and was determined that our householders should
become homeowners, otherwise we would not have political stability. My
other important motive was to give all parents whose sons would have to
do national service a stake in the Singapore their sons had to defend.
If the soldier’s family did not own their home, he would soon conclude
he would be fighting to protect the properties of the wealthy. I
believed this sense of ownership was vital for our new society which had
no deep roots in a common historical experience.
To happen, homeownership requires
affordable housing credit. Mortgage lending has to reconcile
affordability to borrowers, viability to lenders and resource
mobilization for the housing sector.
The policy and
interventions developed are those attempting to cheapen the costs of
public homeownership through pecuniary assistance with down payment and
mortgage interest payments. The aim is to ease front end loading and
mortgage financing problems for the potential purchasers so as to
encourage renters including lower income families into owner occupation.
To give one recent example of the help to lower income households to buy
their first HDB flat or upgrade to a bigger flat when the family grows,
the Special Housing Assistance Program introduced in 1994 offers the
flats to sitting tenants at a discount with 100 per cent financing;
back 3-room flats from the open market to sell at subsidized prices to
families with monthly household income of less than S$1500 (the subsidy
is about S$50,000 for each 3-room flat);
budget 4-room flats with slightly smaller floor area and simpler
finishes (budget flats constitute about 10 per cent of total number of
HDB flats offered for sale annually);
applying for 4-room flats under the Registration of Flats System are
given a 6-month head start over non-tenant applicants in getting their
flats. They must be first-time home buyers and have stayed in their
rental for at least 5 years;
and purchase scheme will allow families with a gross monthly household
income of between S$800 and S$1500 to first rent a 3-room flat from the
HDB and subsequently purchase the flat.
Within three years of its introduction, about 16,000 families
had availed the program. To further assist the low-income families, as
of 1994, the government has given S$30,000 grant to households of four
with a monthly household income of less than S$1500 towards their
purchase of a subsidized 3-room flat. As with the provision of a range
of housing types, the diverse interventions potentially allow the
families to select the support that is most useful and appropriate to
The most enduring and
significant assistance for homeowners is perhaps the 1968 provision
under the homeownership scheme, which allows buyers of public housing to
withdraw a portion of their savings in the Central Provident Fund (CPF)
for down payment (20 per cent of purchase price) and mortgage payment
(the remaining 80 per cent of purchase price, which can be paid in
installments through a HDB assisted mortgage loan with interest rates
set below the prime rate). The CPF savings are essentially
accumulated funds from the worker’s pay-as-you-go social security scheme
to which both employer and employee make mandatory contributions of a
certain percentage of the employee’s monthly contractual wage (Low and
Aw, 1997). On average, the flat
applicant who has worked for 4-5 years would be able to pay the 20 per
cent down payment using their CPF savings, thus eliminating the burden
on cash outlay.
The use of CPF savings for housing is an attractive financing solution
as monthly mortgage repayment for the flat is generally less than half
of the individual’s CPF deposit (remaining CPF savings are left for
retirement while the take-home pay remains intact for other
consumption). According to HDB records, the majority of first-time house
buyers could pay their monthly housing loan entirely from CPF savings
without the need to use their take-home pay. In addition, the CPF Board
administers a low premium mortgage reducing insurance scheme to protect
the ownership interest of the owner’s surviving family members in the
event of death or incapacitation. Thus, with the use of CPF, it became
possible to own a flat for a lease of 99 years without suffering a
reduction in monthly disposable income. The working and impact of CPF on
wealth generation has been much examined elsewhere (see Low and Aw,
1997; Chua, 1997).
In aggregate, this mechanism has generated a rapid expansion of
homeownership and the broad spreading of tenure benefits to the lower
income families. To quote
the Trade and Industry Minister in Parliament on 29 June 2000, many in
the bottom 10 per cent of households in Singapore have significant
wealth in the form of CPF savings (The Straits Times, 30 June
2000). In 1999, the median CPF savings for the poorest 10 per cent of
households in Singapore was S$20,000.
Thus, even though housing provision
is dominated by the state, a high proportion of the public housing stock
is under private ownership. The proportion of homeownership public flats
had increased from 26 per cent in 1970 to 92 per cent of the housing
stock by 1999 (HDB, 2000b).
According to a 1992 HDB
survey of 1- and 2-room rental flats, 27 per cent of those tenants had
expectation of becoming house owners on their own while another 25 per
cent indicated that they would be encouraged by the provision of
financial assistance to buy a flat. The popular attraction of
homeownership may lie in deeper household aspirations articulated by
some housing observers including Knight and Eakin (1998) as the
‘American Dream’ and in the Singapore context, the ‘Singapore Dream’
(Koh and Ooi, 1996). The remaining 47 per cent of households that
intended to stay on in rented flats gave reasons of affordability, small
household requirements and satisfaction with their present flats as the
main pull factors. To ensure that members of the lower-income groups
have continued access to public housing and are not made worse off by
changes in the wider macroeconomic environment, the families who cannot
afford to pay for the housing are offered assistance.
The public housing
legislation provides for the forfeiture (or repossession in cases of
non-payment of mortgage installments) of a flat when the rental is in
arrears for 3 months or more but there are few cases of
forfeiture/repossession because of arrears. As the only sector of
affordable housing, any eviction would leave the family homeless. Rental
and mortgage arrears are part of the realities of providing affordable
housing in a shelter-for-all housing policy, a management problem that
may escalate in times of economic difficulties. To contain the problem,
help is offered to families in financial difficulties, in terms of job
search and rental assistance. During the recent 1998 Asian crisis, for
example, assurance is given to public housing residents to help them
ride out the crisis.
In Oct 2001, the
government rolled out S$11.3 billion package to help Singaporeans cope
with the economic downturn. Of this, S$698 million is specifically aimed
at helping the poor and the unemployed. In the area of public housing,
assistance is extended to service and conservancy charge rebates,
reduction of utilities bills and rental assistance. Families unable to
meet their mortgage payments may have their repayment scheme rescheduled
or move to a flat within their financial ability. Mortgage loan
reschedule schemes include:
repayment under which the homeowner can apply to defer 25 per cent of
his/her monthly repayments for a 5-year term. On the 6th
year, the monthly installment is recalculated based on the loan balance
then and the remaining loan term;
deferment of loan repayment where the homeowner can apply for deferment
of his/her loan repayment for 6 months and if need be for a further 6
extension of loan term
where the HDB will consider allowing an extension of the 25-year loan
term up to a maximum of 30 years or until the homeowner turns 65
whichever is shorter (The Sunday Times 16 Dec 2001).
As the Minister for National Development
assures, ‘There’s no question of anyone losing their flats because of
this downturn’ (The Straits Times, 21 July 2001). This position
conveys the government’s commitment to equal housing access rights.
Realization of Housing
The first, and perhaps
most immediate, effect of the realization process is improved housing
for the families. Instead of shared and unhygienic accommodation,
families can look forward to unique occupation, equal access to housing
and for many, homeownership. The
realization process brings improved housing conditions for the housing
poor, manifested in better housing, security of tenure and improved
quality of life. Comparative statistics reveal a progressive
improvement in housing conditions: living space per person has increased
from under 3-6 square meters per person in slums and squatter
settlements (Yeh and Lee, 1968) to the current average of 20-25 square
meters of living space per person (Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1991).
As revealed by the Singapore Census of Population 2000b, the average
number of rooms per person has increased to 1.29 in 2000. Other signs of
housing and quality of life improvement among HDB households include:
The proportion of population staying in 1-room and 2-room flats
declined from 13.3 per cent in 1987 to 6.6 per cent, while those
staying in 5-room and bigger flats increased from 12.3 per cent to
18.3 per cent. More than one in three (36.9 per cent) of
Singaporeans who were living in public housing rental flats have
upgraded to better housing between 1991 and 1995.
The overall mean household income of households living in public
housing estates increased from S$1,558 in 1987 to S$2,653 in 1993.
More than 97 per
cent of all HDB households have refrigerators, TV sets and
telephones. More than two-thirds have washing machines, video
recorders and water heaters. About 50 per cent owned personal
computers. (HDB, 2000b)
In a recent time-use
study of public housing households to analyze residents’ daily pattern
of activities within the flat, we found the largest block of family time
(after removing work and sleeping time) is expressive time (defined as
time for leisure and self-actualization) and the primary activity is
watching television (Appold and Yuen, 2003).
Housing access and affordability
including homeownership is no longer the exclusivity of upper and middle
income families. Of the 21,300 households that upgraded from rental
flats, 41 per cent of 1-room renters and 28 per cent of 2-room renters
upgraded to either bigger rental or owner occupied flats (Department of
Statistics, 1995). Among the different major ethnic groups (Chinese 76.8
per cent, Malays 13.9 per cent and Indians 7.9 per cent in national
population), the Malays have moved forward to register the highest
homeownership among all ethnic groups in public housing in the latest
population census (Singapore Census of Population, 2000b). Data from the
Singapore Department of Statistics confirm the public homeownership
sector as the leading housing sector in Singapore, accommodating over 80
percent of total households from low income to middle income
groups. The very low-income group (bottom 5 per cent of income groups)
is accommodated by the public rental sector. Less than 0.1 per cent of
the squatter settlements remain to be cleared. Even these settlements
have been improved with paved roads and basic modern services. Compared
to other cities, there are few homeless people on the streets. Occurring
in parallel is the economic development that has significantly raised
income and saw unemployment decline from double-digit in the 1960s to
full employment in 1970s-1980s and 4 per cent in recent years with
recession. In public housing, the mean number of income earners per
household is 1.7 persons and income has risen over the years with the
general economic performance (HDB, 2000c). The poor have become less
poor. They are squatters no more.
public housing has solved severe problems of housing shortage and
overcrowding, it has in the process transformed the Singapore landscape
from a predominantly low-rise shophouse colonial city to a modern city
of high-rise, high-density living. The transformation has brought
certain adjustments and concerns that are in part the realities of
High-rise public housing has often been viewed with
problems in many western cities (see Conway and Adams, 1977; Helleman
and Wassenberg, 2004). In Latin America, Venezuela has initiated
high-rise redevelopment in the 1950s but failed by reason of excessive
costs and social shortcomings as reviewed by Pugh (2001). In Asia,
Singapore and Hong Kong have similarly experimented and scored high
residential satisfaction. Developments worldwide would seem to indicate
that many other cities are revisiting and building high-rise (some by
private sector in up-market districts) to house the growing population.
What are the attractions and concerns of high-rise living? Will public
housing residents consider living ever higher as urban realities push
towards taller buildings? We have initiated research in an attempt to
investigate these issues to better understand the living experience of
public housing residents in high-rise (Yuen et al, 2003). The emergent
promising lines of our enquiry in reasserting the importance of
people-centered planning are beginning to lend support to the latest
British premise that tall buildings can have a positive role in urban
development if carefully considered (Corporation of London, 2002).
Our evidence reveals
that as building height extends continually skywards, more households in
Singapore are living (and preferring) higher floors now than 30 years
ago, indicating that if conditions are suitably included high-rise may
yet provide a satisfying living experience (Yuen, 2005). The majority of
public households (54 per cent) were living on ground to 4th
story in 1973, the tallest public housing block then was 20-story (HDB
Household Sample Survey, 1973). The highest most preferred floor in 1973
was ground to 4th story. In another more recent survey where
48.5 per cent of those interviewed (344) were living on 15th-30th
floor (the present tallest public housing block is 30-story), more
people were apparently expressing a preference for higher floors
— 29 per cent
stating 15th to 20th floor as their highest
preferred floor and 52.9 per cent for above 20th floor (Yuen,
2005). Other recent work has supported a similar preference trend (Tan,
2002). It would appear that as more people become used to high-rise
living, more are seemingly confident and willing to live higher.
Taking a closer look,
the three common items that seemed to have consistently attracted
Singapore public housing resident respondents to live high-rise are the
view, breeze and privacy they can get in high-rise living — ‘top of the
world’ feeling. Among the worries, others have cited considerations of
safety, in particular, height phobia, safety of children and elderly,
‘scared if the lifts are broken’, or ‘scared if a crime occurs in high
floor’ as reasons for not wanting to live on high floors (Yuen, 2005).
The importance of lift provision in high-rise living and preference has
appeared in other studies (Tan, 2002; Chew, 2004/05). Just as personal
inclinations may be a motivating factor, personal fears, real or
perceived, would appear to detract from the high-rise experience. As
summarized in Table 6, it would appear that the very high and very low
floor levels were not particularly favored by most residents if the
recent survey among resident respondents is any indication.
6: Highest floor in which survey respondents were willing to live
Higher than 50
Note: % only includes
valid responses to this question: 344.
While many may be
willing to live on the 16th to 30th floor, less
than 2 per cent were willing to live higher than 50-story. One
respondent shared that she would be too afraid to hang her clothes out
if it was too high (the local practice is to hang the clothes on long
bamboos out of the kitchen window to take advantage of the tropical
sun). Others related incidents of persons falling off while cleaning
their windows (cases reported in the local press and media were
mentioned) and were thus not comfortable to be living too high. The
reality is that while many look forward to improved housing and view
with height, there will be others who will express concerns over the
spatial constraints that come with high-rise. In the dimension of
height, as one resident shared in a recent press interview,
It was quite scary at first to look down. I didn’t want to live so high
on the 10th floor
but what to do? We’d already picked this flat in the ballot (The
Straits Times, 9 Aug 2001).
The worry will only
intensify with population growth and plans to build taller housing in
both the public and private sector, underscoring the need to take
greater cognizance of the concerns of the residents in the planning and
design of high-rise living for some such as the poor may not have the
option to choose. Even as further work remains, it would appear that
respondents’ acceptance level of living higher is seemingly restricted
to their perception. As one respondent shared with us, she was
previously afraid of living on high floors but no longer after she
visited a friend living on the high floor and found that the height was
acceptable. The absence of living experience does not shut the
possibility that when taller buildings are built and more people move to
live in them, resident perception and preference may change accordingly.
Othman (aged 65) who moved from village to high-rise living in 1971
recalled, the initial adjustment to vertical living was difficult. Among
others, he had to study the habits and cultures of other races (unlike
village living which was largely mono-ethnic, different races live in
public housing under Singapore’s shelter for all policy), ‘Living with
many races, we have to cooperate and be understanding.’ (HDB, 2000d, p.
151). Following early concern of decreasing patterns of neighborly
interaction in public housing, recent
HDB sample household
surveys indicate improvement in neighborly interaction among the
residents. Its latest 2003 survey found that 97 per cent of residents
polled said they know their neighbors while 90 per cent would greet
their neighbors and 80 per cent would regularly have conversation with
other residents in their neighborhoods (The Straits Times, 23 Feb
2005). Older residents especially those aged 60-69 with longer length of
stay, seemed the most active in community relations. They meet along
corridors and lift lobbies of the apartment block and at ground level
open spaces of void decks, markets and neighborhood parks. Resident
interaction need not be limited in high-rise.
Each group has
apparently developed his/her coping mechanism with high-rise. The
farmers, for example, who
were among the first generation of residents resettled
from village to high-rise public housing developed their own coping
mechanism to the new spatial constraint as recounted by then Prime
Minister (2000, p120),
Some were seen coaxing
their pigs up the stairs! One family, a couple with 12 children, moving
from a hut to a new HDB flat at Old Airport Road brought a dozen
chickens and ducks to rear in the kitchen. The mother built a wooden
gate at the kitchen entrance to stop them from entering the living-room.
In the evenings the children would look for earthworms and insects at
the grass patches outside for feed. They did this for 10 years until
they moved into another flat.
Spatial constraint is a significant
problem in modern urban living. Some such as Singer (1991) have
persuasively argued that with the quickening pace of urbanization there
is a tendency for modernity to replace tradition. Old ways gradually
adapt to new form as society moves along the continuum of
gemeinschaft and gesellschaft. Others such as Cooperman, et
al (1981) astutely observe an element of self-selection in housing as
people are likely to choose the living situation they prefer since the
home is the most important physical setting for many of us. A number of
other studies by Michelson (1977) and Cooper-Marcus (1995; 1999) have
shown that specific kinds of people with pre-existing behavior are
attracted to particular residential milieus. Cooper-Marcus (1995), for
example, has described the ‘house as a mirror of self’ in her
exploration of the deeper meanings and relationships to the residence.
However, while this may be true for many, the poorer residents perhaps
more than other residents may not have the option, and are most affected
in situations of spatial constraint.
As of 1999/2000, 298,698 families have
been resettled, more than half of those families relocated to public
housing. The process of resettlement did not take place without
problems. In an early sociological study, Hassan (1977) highlighted that
for the poor families in the beginning, increasing household expenses
and growing anxiety over such increases outweighs the advantages and
facilities available in the new housing environment. As Lee (2000, p120)
more recently shared,
There were enormous
problems, especially in the early stages when we resettled farmers and
others from almost rent-free wooded squatter huts with no water, power
or modern sanitation, and therefore no utility bills, into high-rise
dwellings with all these amenities but also a monthly bill to pay. It
was a wrenching experience for them in personal, social and economic
At times, the squatters would refuse to
move and frustrate plans of redevelopment. To ease the resettlement
process, the squatters were offered resettlement terms and encouraged to
move, failing which action would be taken in the courts to obtain
warrants for eviction. As one resident shared, the resettlement
compensation was paid according to the size of the house to be
demolished and other factors including the number of fruit trees and
other improvement such as fish ponds and chicken houses on the land
(HDB, 2000d). Eviction is the last measure and the resettlement policy
is continually reviewed to provide a better deal in resettlement
compensation so that “there will be no room left for pro-Communist
elements to instigate the farmers and squatters against the Government”
(The Straits Times, 7 Jan 1964). Despite the initial problems,
housing scholars have variously observed the changing attitude of those
affected by resettlement from resentment and resistance in the initial
years of the public housing program to resignation and progressive
acceptance because it has become evident that everyone in the squatter
areas throughout Singapore is affected ‘equally’ and that land is needed
for housing of the nation (Wong and Yeh, 1985; Chua, 1997). Along with
the increased resettlement compensation, the comprehensively-planned new
towns with improved infrastructure, utilities and housing offer the
potential for homeownership and subsequent resale at market prices after
a minimum occupation period (buyers must satisfy the public housing
eligibility requirements for homeownership).
This paper has
presented a perspective on Singapore housing policy for squatters and
low-income families. It underscores that diverse interventions are
important in housing for the poor as they allow these groups to select
that which they consider most appropriate to their condition and need.
The housing problem of
the urban poor, as Mitlin (2001) describes, is multi-faceted and may
hold the key to improved development. As Angel (2000) further suggests,
the housing problem can be broadly characterized as the presence of a
large number of urban families living in what society-at-large considers
to be unacceptable housing conditions or simply put, bad housing
conditions. Bad housing conditions often reflect the interaction of
poverty and affordability as evidenced by the early Singapore housing
situation of the 1960s. In the Singapore case, it has prompted the
pursuit of adequate affordable public housing as the solution. Using
comprehensive sector development of public housing as a vehicle,
Singapore has distinguished those in need of shelter, assisting the poor
while screening out those who could afford private housing at prices
generally several times higher. Such intervention has sustained a
functioning housing sector that has been translated into housing
improvements internationally recognized by many (see Foo, 2001;
Mitlin, 2001; Pugh, 2001).
In the process, it has worked to uplift
the quality of life of the poor through increased access to housing
including the creation of homeownership and a stake in society. Over 85
per cent of the resident population in Singapore is living in public
housing, with the majority owning their homes, an opportunity that is
not limited to those with higher and middle incomes. Many in the bottom
10 per cent of households in Singapore own their homes and have seen
their incomes rise steadily in real terms. Such an achievement is not
randomly produced but the result of much planning and determination on
the part of the government.
In a fundamental
perspective, without parallel economic development, the housing
improvements would not have advanced so dramatically. Deliberate action
was taken to diversify the economy and provide employment in Singapore.
With economic growth, the nominal household income had increased. Real
GDP had grown at an average of 8.6% per year over the 30-year period
from 1965 to 1999. This had fuelled growth in real per capita GDP from
S$4000 in 1965 to S$32,000 in 1999 (while inflation remained low, around
2 to 3% per year). At the household level, the average monthly household
income increased. As Ng and Yap (2001) illustrated, from 1988 to 1998,
average monthly household income had increased by 6.7% per year, leading
to higher asset ownership. The
proportion of homeownership public flats expanded from 26 per cent in
1970 to 92 per cent of the housing stock by 1999.
Although the Singapore challenges of
affordable housing and shelter delivery are context specific, drawing on
its development experience may yet show how the urban poor might be
helped through housing delivery. Two chief observations are worth
emphasizing. First is the degree of government commitment in helping the
lower-income households. The extent to which the shelter needs of the
poor can influence policy decisions will ultimately depend on the
political environment within which such decisions are made. In general
terms, government interventions can greatly motivate, enable and
constrain housing action. To illustrate, from the outset, the Singapore
government has recognized its role and accorded high priority and
commitment in helping the lower income families to meet their housing
needs. Diverse interventions are offered to these families to select as
their needs require. They are considered important stakeholders in the
new country. In all its policies, there is thus an implicit
consciousness to ensure that lower-income families are not made worse
off. For example, to make homeownership a reality for all, the
government has introduced a homeownership scheme with an innovative
self-help mortgage financial system drawn on the borrowers’ CPF savings.
The Singapore CPF for housing represents a lesson in housing finance.
At the same time, it demonstrates that
eliminating the urban housing and poverty problems require a massive
paradigm shift in thinking and acting towards the poor. Cities and
societies need to envision them as assets and not problems. Like the
rest of society, they should be able to select as their needs require.
The positive implication of the Singapore housing program is that with
commitment comes the will to change and to bring forth change. The
determination to achieve change is translated into state commitment. The
Prime Minister in his 2001 National Day rally reiterated the
government’s commitment to subsidize heavily the three basic services of
housing, education and health care to make them affordable. “No
Singaporeans should be denied these basic needs, he said, no matter how
poor he is.” (The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2001).
The second concluding observation concerns pragmatic program
implementation. In Singapore, planning is quickly translated into
housing policies and schemes. Priority is matched by resources and
support (policy, organizational, legal, and financial) aimed at
establishing a framework that enables the lower-income families to
select the appropriate assistance to meet their housing needs.
Implementation is indeed the hard part of urban development. With every
successful example, there are perhaps many more unsuccessful ones.
Besides resources and supporting framework, the process requires
constant review and learning. Through continuous learning and policy
refinement, Singapore has gradually evolved and built an institutional
capacity and housing system that ensures program delivery. Institutions
need not be identical. Singapore’s system of housing development with a
single empowered authority responsible for housing delivery may not be
the model for all countries, but effective pragmatic management
principles (such as inclusive housing and widening homeownership
opportunity for lower-income families, directed assistance for
low-income renter households and continual review of housing access)
apply in most contexts. There is a growing literature that emphasizes a
comprehensive approach to housing (see, for example, Pugh, 2001).
comprehensiveness in housing, as many housing scholars remind, housing
delivery is not a stand-alone issue (see, for example, Chua, 1997; Pugh,
2001; Mitlin, 2001). Housing policies pursued in a vacuum from other
social and economic policies have brought disastrous consequences in
some cities (OECD, 1996). There is a strong connecting thread and
interdependence between housing and overall macroeconomic and national
development that shows housing as anything but a ‘public burden’ (see
Wong and Yeh, 1985; Sandilands, 1992). National and economic development
in Singapore has provided the raison d’étre and resources for its
low income housing development. Its pro-poor public housing projects are
to a large extent enabled by the rising affluence that comes with
economic growth, which has seen the country progress from a developing
country in the 1960s to a newly industrializing country by the 1980s.
Although the financing
of public housing draws from the general background of the country’s
economic progress, Singapore’s experience also demonstrates the
employment-generation potential of this sector. By 2000, the HDB in
providing a total housing environment for all who lack has initiated the
construction of more than 850,000 dwelling units, 19,500 commercial
premises, 12,800 industrial premises, more than 1460 schools and
community facilities, 45 parks, 17,347 markets/hawker centers, and
numerous car parks. The construction of these facilities while providing
improved housing and better quality of life for the poor has created
construction jobs and has a high multiplier effect. Reflecting on the
economic impact, some housing scholars such as Sandilands (1992) have
described the construction sector as a leading sector since its growth
rates are above the rate of growth of overall GDP. Others have written
about the pump priming effect of public sector housing construction (see
Krause et al, 1987).
As with many other
cities, Singapore’s quest to provide its poor residents with good living
environment is not new. Adequate shelter with the promise of a decent
life of dignity, good health, safety, happiness and hope is one theme
that has been repeated internationally and enshrined in successive
United Nations declarations (see, for example, UNCHS, 1998; 1999; World
Bank, 1993). The Singapore development experience, however, shows that
public housing (even high-rise) for the lower income families need not
degenerate into polarized and marginal environments . Nonetheless, the
reemergence of the homeless underscores the urgency for further
research. In particular, the trend towards taller housing presents
challenges The poor of Singapore do not have the alternative to opt out
of this housing. In this regard, we are reminded of Mitlin’s (2001,
p512) exhortation to understand and follow the realities of the poor in
the continuing effort to create affordable housing that seek to address
their diverse needs.
is an Associate Professor of Urban Planning in the Department of Real
Estate and the School of Design and Environment at the National
University of Singapore, and a member of the Board of Directors of
Global Urban Development, also serving as Co-Chair of the GUD Program
Committee on Celebrating Our Urban Heritage. Her many published articles
and books include Planning Singapore, Sustainable Cities in
the 21st Century, Singapore Housing, and Urban
Quality of Life.
There are 5 Community Development Councils (CDC) in Singapore.
Each headed by an elected mayor, the CDC functions as a local
administration of its district with main responsibility to
initiate, plan and manage community programs to promote
community bonding. The CDC also provides various community and
social assistance to residents in need, services delegated from
Current exchange rate is approximately USD1 for S$1.6.
In 2003, the HDB building and development arm was corporatized
in the wake of the government’s long-term development plan to
increase private housing and ‘roll back’ public housing as the
society matures economically.
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