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The Story of Singapore’s Public Housing

Singapore’s public housing is touted as one of the island-state’s crown jewels, alongside our water solutions, world’s best national airline, top-rated airport, urban infrastructures and many more. Our modern housing today can be regarded as having begun with Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), set-up in 1927 by the then-British colonial government to build affordable housing and carry out improvement works. In 1960, just before independence, Singapore replaced the SIT with The Housing and Development Board (HDB) as the statutory board in charge of overseeing all public housing development.


The History of Singapore’s Public Housing

In 1918, a housing commission was set up by the British colonial government to study the residential conditions around Singapore’s central area. Upon recommendation by the commission, the government established the SIT in 1924 and it was constituted in 1927. SIT’s objective was to improve the town, the island and Singapore.

SIT was not, initially, granted the authority to construct housing for the general population except for those made homeless by the ongoing improvement schemes undertaken by the government. The powers to take on housing construction projects was only granted to SIT in 1932 to address the rapid population growth, with the Tiong Bahru estate (regarded as Singapore’s first public housing estate) being one of SIT’s earliest projects.

The population’s growth and needs, especially post-World War 2, soon began to overwhelm SIT’s supply of public housing.

After Singapore achieved self-governance in 1959, the island’s housing issues and shortage became a serious problem for the newly-minted government. As such, the government established the HDB in 1960, replacing SIT, to make providing public housing for lower-income groups as a top priority.

The flats built by HDB were a luxury as compared to those built by SIT which were small and unhygienic. Each HDB flat was more spacious, fitted with electricity, running water and flush toilets. By early 1976, most of the local population were living in flats built by HDB.

As of 2018, nearly 80 per cent of the population lives in public housing.


Public Housing in Singapore

Overall public housing in Singapore is generally made up of high-density residential blocks within carefully-planned and designed infrastructure like parks, living spaces, community centres and malls.

By forming such self-contained communities, the basic and essential needs of the residents’ are not only provided for but the various amenities like schools and municipal facilities increase convenience, the overall standard of housing and social interaction. Larger estates are known as “new towns” and there are more than 20 of such towns like Jurong West, Tampines and Woodlands.

To ensure there are proper housing options for different income groups and family sizes, flats come in various sizes of various prices: two-room flexi, three-room, four-room, five-room, 3Gen (for extended families) executive flats and executive condominiums among other less-conventional choices.

Over time, as Singapore’s populace matures and grows more sophisticated, the design for HDB flats shifted from just meeting the basic need for a roof over the head with essential provisions to housing quality that goes beyond the flats’ design to the outdoor environment and surrounding amenities. HDB has been putting a lot of effort into improving estates’ landscape architecture, enhance the visuals of housing estates and construct better, and sometimes even designer-quality, neighbourhood amenities.

In addition, the HDB carries out upgrading works regularly to refresh, repair and revitalise damaged and ageing properties.


Home Ownership

Singapore’s housing situation is distinct from many countries’ in that we enjoy exceptionally high homeownership. The founding leaders of Singapore recognised that to build a strong societal fabric and national participation, Singaporeans need to hold greater stakes in nation-building; they believed that owning a home is a powerful way to achieve that.

A great majority of public housing today are owner-occupied, with some renting out a part of or all of the flat to make some additional income. To ease the financial burden of maintaining a home, and soften the blow to one’s finances when purchasing one, the government allows homeowners to service their housing purchase with the savings they have in the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a national comprehensive savings plan compulsory for all citizens and permanent residents (Find out more).


A Social and Political Tool

With stable housing being such an essential part of daily living, it is also a powerful tool for motivating the public to support government policies to build a strong nation.

For example, prior to 1991, there was no provision for singles to purchase an HDB flat so as to encourage people to get married and contribute to population-building, although the rule has now been relaxed to give singles access to public housing under some conditions.

One other example of public housing being used as a social and political tool is the setting of an ethnicity composition quota in each HDB block and neighbourhood, known as the “Ethnic Integration Policy”. Racial harmony is one of the social pillars of Singapore, with the population believing strongly that a stable multicultural society in Singapore is hinged on ethnic and religious harmony. As such, the scheme takes into account the racial make-up of any given block of flats and institutes maximum and minimum numbers of homeowners of each race so as to ensure representation, encourage interaction and avoid segregation. This policy extends to both new flats and resale flats, and any sale of a flat that results in exceeding the ethnic quotas will not be approved.