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For most of the world, the term ‘public housing’ conjures a clear mental picture:
At best, it means uninspired rows of the same drab concrete boxes.
The Soviet-era, copy-and-pasted ‘Urban Hell’.
That, or the poor, run-down, crime-infested ‘bad’ neighborhood - the place those with
no other options end up.
For most of the world.
And then there’s Singapore.
There, public housing looks like this, this, and this.
Because 80% of the population lives in one of its one million public apartments, they
carry no social stigma and are enjoyed by the rich and poor alike.
The small island city-state has adopted such a unique set of policies that the usual measures
fail to accurately capture just how far ahead it is.
The ratio of median house price to income, for example, is the most common simple way
of comparing affordability.
It reveals how many years the average person would need to work to afford the average house
in their area.
Unfortunately, it’s based only on privately-sold properties - a reasonable standard for most
countries, but meaningless in Singapore.
It also neglects factors like the availability of loans, government subsidies, and national
savings funds - all of which help make public housing the obvious choice for most all Singaporeans.
Another misleading statistic is the homeownership rate - which would seem to make it only one
of many countries where ownership is near-universal.
Confusingly, this number is calculated based not on the number of adults who own a home,
but rather the share of homes occupied by their owner.
In other words, a hypothetical city where prices have risen to such completely unaffordable
levels that all adult children are forced to live with their parents would technically
have a 100% home ownership rate, seeing as every home would still be occupied by its
So, while Singapore does have a 90% home ownership rate, its true accomplishment is 90% flat,
neighborhood, and estate satisfaction while, at the same time, remaining affordable for
Somehow, its leaders seem to have “solved” the problem of housing: That it can be affordable,
high-quality, or plentiful - but not all three.
The question, then, is: Can these policies be exported elsewhere?
Public housing was first introduced on the island with the creation of the Singapore
Improvement Trust under British rule in 1927.
The SIT was an attempt to solve the city’s growing problem of overcrowding.
The poor, at the time, mainly lived in unsanitary slums and high-density shophouses, where they
readily spread disease.
The situation was made even worse by Japan’s World War II invasion and occupation - during
which thousands of homes were destroyed and thousands more were haphazardly constructed.
When Singapore finally gained self-governance in 1959, just 9% lived in public apartments.
While the population had grown rapidly - from 250,000 in 1907, to 567,000 in 1931, and nearly
a million by 1947, housing had lagged behind.
An already-dense 9.7 people per building had become 18 in that same period.
By almost every measure, the SIT had failed.
Major changes were needed, and fast.
Just weeks after assuming power, the newly formed People’s Action Party began replacing
it with the current Housing and Development Board.
While the new department clearly had its work cut out for it, in hindsight, this regulatory
‘blank slate’ was probably its biggest strength - allowing it to envision utopia
unhindered by the past.
It was also highly motivated.
Lee Kuan Yew, the nation’s first Prime Minister, considered the Founder of Singapore, wrote
that home ownership was the key to giving its population of immigrants a stake in the
Because of this, the HDB was given an extraordinary degree of freedom - including a personal guarantee
that money would not be a problem.
It was exempted from building ordinance laws and mostly allowed to operate without approval
from other departments.
Immediately, it got to work.
The first priority was existential - solving the acute housing shortage by building as
much and as fast as possible.
Early flats were designed as emergency single-room units with the most barebones of amenities.
At the same time, using its almost infinitely-long leash, it began aggressively acquiring land.
In 1961, a massive fire broke out in a squatter settlement - prompting the government to pass
the Fire-Site Provision, which allowed it to acquire any land occupied by squatters
which was cleared by fire or natural disaster.
The fire and the government’s success in relocating the victims was held up as proof
of its efficacy, paving the way for future legislation.
3 Years later, another law was amended which enabled the state to reclaim land without
needing to compensate the affected seafront landowners.
Then, in 1966, the Land Acquisition Act took this trend to the extreme - authorizing the
acquisition of land by quote “any person, corporation, or statutory board for any work
or an undertaking which, in the opinion of the Minister, is of public benefit or of public
utility or in the public interest for any residential, commercial, or industrial purpose.”
Landowners could not object and compensation was then provided at below-market prices.
When it ran out of land to take, the state began reclaiming the sea - which makes up
about one-fifth of the country today, including the famous Marina Bay.
From 1960 to 2005, the percent of government-owned land grew from 44 to 90%.
And by the mid-1960s, hundreds of thousands had moved into government housing under the
leadership of the prolific Lim Kim San.
Naturally, there were a few snags along the transition from slums to high-rises.
Many residents had no idea how to budget for rent or electricity, while others simply found
life that high up unnatural.
Overall, though, the process was remarkably smooth and when Lim died in 2006, he was remembered
as the mastermind behind Singapore’s residential revolution.
In 1964, the HDB introduced the Home Ownership Scheme which today attracts international
attention and envy.
As of 2020, there are over one million public flats - mostly situated in 24 ‘new towns’
around the island.
Each is designed to self-contain around 1 to 200,000 people - with their own schools,
grocery stores, hospitals, gyms, and malls.
Most residents only need to leave for work - which is made easy by the attached MRT train
And although their coverage is extensive, areas without them are connected by smaller
light rail stations.
While this is functionally similar to estates in Hong Kong, where rows of high-rise apartments
surround a common area, mall, and train station, there’s one critical difference: Instead
of “walling-in” residents and preventing air circulation, new towns in Singapore are
arranged in a somewhat checkerboard-manner, with alternating tall and short buildings.
It’s not hard to guess in which estate residents feel happier, are less likely to vandalize,
and are prouder of their communities.
Another important feature of its apartment buildings are known as ‘Void Decks’ - One
floor, usually the first, is reserved as a communal space - for Malay weddings, Chinese
funeral wakes, polling stations, and other events.
The units themselves come in many shapes and sizes - from 1 to 5-room flats and everything
There are even Executive Condos designed, built, and priced by private developers but
subsidized by the government at below-market prices, subject to the HDB’s restrictions.
The best apartments are nice enough to evade the usual ‘public housing’ connotation,
while the low-end is made affordable by a variety of government programs.
First, and most importantly, Singaporeans have no choice but to save their money.
All workers under 55 are required by law to contribute 20% of their wages, and their employers,
another 17%, to a social savings fund that can be withdrawn from only for a few specific
reasons - of which, buying a house is the most common.
In this way, and countless others, Singapore has completely removed housing from the free
Prices are set based on one’s ability to pay, individuals can’t own more than one
public flat at a time, and although foreigners are not banned from buying, they’re required
to pay significant stamp duties.
The nature of housing is thus a place to live, not an investment.
Which is not to say homes aren’t assets - they do serve that role, just secondarily:
Owners of new subsidized flats are allowed to sell them at market rates after 5 years
of occupancy, usually to buyers who don’t want to wait the 3-4 years for new projects
to be completed.
Likewise, the elderly are encouraged to sell their flats and down-size.
One catch underlying all of this is hidden in the definition of ‘ownership’.
Here, that means 99-year leases.
For the most part, residents are free to buy, sell, and inherit property - with a few exceptions
- but the government is always and only the true ‘owner’.
None have yet expired, but as that date steadily approaches, the question of what happens next
looms large and could present a heated political challenge.
In the meantime, there’s a bright side to government ownership: it’s responsible for
maintaining, renovating, and even upgrading public apartments free of charge.
Of course, no system is without flaws.
There is always a concern that the same heavy-handed policies which make housing so effective will
be taken for granted by younger generations, or, worse, perceived as a form of social control.
Indeed, from the very beginning, Singapore has designed flats with the explicit intent
of shaping society.
A mild example is the arranging of different size units next to each other to create cohesion
between income-levels - 2-room units next to 3-room, 3, next to 4, and so on, while
1 and 3 room or 2 and 5 room mixing was said to create more division than unity.
More radically, to prevent earlier racial tension created by separate and disconnected
communities, public housing follows strict ethnic quotas.
As of 2016, its majority 74% Chinese residents could occupy no more than 84% of a neighborhood,
its 13% of Malays could occupy at most 22%, and its 12% of Indians could occupy, 12%.
Once an ethnicity has reached its quota, no more are allowed to buy a flat in that neighborhood
or block level.
In theory, this encourages a sense of unity and ensures different groups have close contact
by going to the same schools and shopping together.
Controversially, though, it also means, as a byproduct, buying or selling a flat may
be easier or harder based on your ethnicity.
Finally, subsidies heavily favor married families with children - so much so that locals joke
“Will you marry me?” has been replaced by “Can we buy a house together?”
In truth, housing policy was always just as much a means of modernizing - some would say
erasing - the culture of Singapore as it was about giving people a place to live.
Supporters argue the People’s Action Party has maintained its seven-decade monopoly on
power for obvious reasons - by all measures, HDB policies have had a monumental impact
on Singapore, and there is perhaps no issue more personally significant than where, with
who, and how well your family lives.
Cynics, in turn, counter that it’s no coincidence the party which meticulously designed Singapore
receives the vast majority of its votes.
To the extent that demographics, family structure, and geography determine voting preferences,
one could say, the People’s Action Party has a built-in advantage.
Naturally, this raises questions about transferability.
Setting aside the environment which enabled its housing to thrive - like its disproportionate
number of smart, charismatic leaders and its world-class transit system, Singapore’s
public housing is also inseparably linked to its unique brand of authoritarianism.
Where else, after all, would constituencies trust their government to acquire nearly all
land and to exert near-total control over where and how they live?
Even in other autocratic states with similarly absolute powers to the HDB, how could these
powers possibly be utilized for the benefit of the people, not merely hijacked for political
So, while there are certainly lessons to be learned, and, indeed some of its State-Owned
companies have been contracted abroad, it should be clear that its public housing is
more an idea than a method.
That despite how tempting it may be to selectively copy-and-paste from what appears to be a model
nation, doing so without the foundation of a strong, powerful, technocratic state, would
produce only a weak house soon to fall.
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