Exploring how Singapore navigated a housing crisis by employing creative strategies and promoting social unity to redefine urban living for the better.
Singapore had one of the worst housing crises in the world in the 1950s. The landlords were greedy, the economy was in shambles and most of the residential buildings were in poor condition. The Singapore of today is vastly different. Around 90% of the residents of the country now live in their own homes and homelessness is practically eradicated. It is a modern-day fairytale and a case study for the world.
Singapore was originally a British colony and one of the most important trading ports in all of South Asia. Somewhere in the 1940s, Singapore went into Japanese control, a period of time that spelt devastation for the country. There was infrastructural loss and an economic downturn that left the country in a famine. Three years in, however, the draconian rule ended and the British resumed control. The buildings, although not too damaged by warfare, were falling into disrepair. After its independence in 1959, the economy of Singapore was quick to make a turnaround, but the plight of those living in shanty settlements was still too severe to ignore.
Only 9% of the country’s residents lived in government-allocated apartments – the rest lived in squalor. Slums and crowded, unsanitary establishments were the norm. The living conditions of the residents of the country were emblematic of an uncertain future and a very edgy, nervous population. The governing body was quick to realise that Singapore needed an urgent housing policy, one that could be implemented immediately, to help solve its grave housing shortage and speed up its economic development. The leadership of the country wanted to use the resolution of this problem to give the nation hope and form the foundation of its social structure and culture.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
Legal bodies were set up and empowered to enforce the aggressive policies. Expenditure on housing slowly climbed from 8% of GDP in the 1970s to nearly 15% in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The nation had one government branch that was entirely dedicated to the housing project management and it actively collaborated with other core government branches. In the span of five years, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was able to build more than 54,000 flats. In a decade’s time, Singapore was able to solve its housing crisis situation almost entirely.
While the HDB takes the lion’s share of credit for the resolution of this issue, its integration with other units played a crucial role in ensuring that the housing schemes were successful. One of the boards that successfully integrated with the HDB was the Public Utilities Board. The Water Supply and Drainage wing of the board ensured that residents had access to clean and safe running water at all times. The board also made sure that there was minimal to low flooding due to monsoon rains. Another board that joined forces with the HDB is the Land Transport Authority. Singapore came out with an intricate and effective network of buses and mass railway transit (MRT) trains that reduced the need for personal vehicles and did away with demands for garage spaces and parking lots. This freed up more land to house residents.
In a book written by the late Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, he mentions how the government played a pivotal role in ensuring that its people moved from squalid settlements to proper homes. It did so by enforcing compulsory purchase orders and limiting land purchase prices for those landowners who would otherwise profit from high prices. Due to this one measure alone, the country exceeded its house-building targets by the end of 1965.
One other way in which the government supported its citizens to afford homes is through offering tiered subsidies. Housing subsidies were offered based on each person’s income level. Needless to say, even these subsidised flats were funded at market rates and then sold to the citizens at a loss.
According to the book, Singapore first tried to encourage home ownership through the reduction of interest rates. This approach, however, was not too successful as people were still unable to afford the 20% down payment deposit. As a result, the government introduced a forced money-saving scheme called the Central Provident Fund (CPF) scheme. This was a national mandatory pension scheme, a portion of which could be used to serve as down payment for the flat, without making too large a dent in the citizens’ retirement fund. For those who were still unable to go for a direct purchase, the government ensured subsidised rentals and grants.
The country currently has one million public apartments, housing 80% of its population. The population, notably, has tripled since the inception of the aggressive housing policy in 1960. The residents are allowed to sell off their property but only after five years of ownership. Foreigners can also invest in these properties but the process is much more tedious and expensive for those who are not natives of the land.
The unprecedented success of Singapore’s housing dilemma got the world thinking – could this solve the homelessness and congestion issue globally? Experts seem to think that it can do much more than just that. In fact, a closer look at Singapore’s success is enough to understand that the housing project had a deeper objective than just housing its citizens.
Neither ill-maintained nor poor in quality, the gorgeous high-rises and composite societies of the country are used by members of all social strata. The societies are known as ‘towns’ and come complete with schools, hospitals, stores and malls.
To begin with, it is important to understand that Singapore is a small country. With an area of about 637.5 sq. kilometres, it housed roughly 1.646 million people in the 1960s. In order to tackle the problem of limited land, Singapore started to build upwards, and residential buildings typically stood at 30 to 50 stories in height. The structures were built to withstand earthquake shocks and provided longevity to the infrastructure of the country. This way, HDB was able to provide hundreds of accommodation units in each block. The ground floors of these buildings were used as space for communal gatherings, or given to small retailers, grocers and meat markets, saving further space.
The housing project was designed in a deliberated and well-thought-out manner. A peek into the government-owned housing projects of Singapore makes it readily apparent that they are nothing like what public apartments across the world are infamous for. Neither ill-maintained nor poor in quality, the gorgeous high-rises and composite societies of the country are used by members of all social strata. The societies are known as ‘towns’ and come complete with schools, hospitals, stores and malls.
EMBRACING DIVERSITY ACROSS ALL SPECTRUMS
The planners made sure that the town would be a mix of high-rise and other structures in a variety of dimensions and layouts to manage better airflow for residents and to make the homes look less uniform. The diversity held strong inside the building as well. Three-room units were built next to four-room units, and one-room units next to two-room units, to ensure that people from all economic strata and backgrounds coexisted with each other. The relationship between residents is further nurtured through a program called Resident Committees which arranges frequent recreational programs and Community Centre activities to help create solidarity between the dwellers.
Being a diverse country hosting a number of different cultures such as Chinese, Indian and Malay, the authorities foresaw the dangers of these housing units being dominated by any one prominent ethnicity. They therefore created a fair allocation system to ensure a pre-set quota of flats to be sold to each ethnic group. This ensured equal opportunity for members of all cultures.
Evidently, therefore, the project is an exercise in maintaining social harmony in a multicultural setting. Prior to the housing scheme, these ethnicities tended to stick to their own. In stark contrast, they now share the same spaces and much of the same lifestyle, allowing them to reap the synergistic benefits of each other’s diversity. Not only has this scheme increased tolerance levels among the residents of a nation, it has been so impactful in creating perceptions of nationalism and communal living, that the last time Singapore saw a racial conflict was all the way back in 1964, during the time of the Singapore-Malaysia merger. Coupled with the government’s positive market policy, it is no surprise that the nation enjoys a booming economy.
Singapore is a solid example of how a country, through collaborative efforts and a concentrated focus on the future, can tackle social issues such as homelessness, unemployment, quality of life, endemics, and even the mental health of its citizens. The country has nipped corruption in the bud to make sure the scheme unfolded as per its plan. Any other country wishing to replicate such a scheme would have to do the same if it hopes to see similar success.