A short history of Public Housing in Singapore
‘Public housing’ evokes a powerfully negative spatial iconography in many western countries. The term is often associated with ‘dysfunctional neighborhood imprints of a discredited welfare state’ in popular discourse and policy debates in the west (Wyly & DeFilippis, 2010: 62). Spatial imaginations of public housing landscapes range from dilapidated physical structures, crime and vice infested neighbourhoods where the lower-income of society dwells, to the grim living conditions of ex-communist states in Eastern Europe. Yet, nested at the core of every public housing project is a modernist utopian ideal—the possibility of a more equitable distribution of wealth in society; where the basic human right of having a roof over one’s head would be met. While many of these utopian projects have failed in the west (see the examples of Heygate estate and Pruitt-Igoe), Singapore’s massive public housing programme has been hailed ‘phenomenally successful’ (see Ramesh, 2003; Tremewan, 2006) and heralded as the party-state’s greatest achievement. According to Pugh (198: 873), public housing in Singapore is ‘a symbol of pride, of nationhood, of the political achievement of the People’s Action Party, and of government benevolence towards the public interest.’ So successful is this public housing programme that it is exported as a ‘model’ to parts of China, adopted by cities such as Tianjin. Statistically, these accolades are well-founded—in 2013, 82 percent of the Singaporean population live in public housing apartments; and 91 percent of the household population own their homes (Singstat, 2013). Ooi (1991) has rightly called the public housing landscape a ‘new spatial order’. Needless to say, public housing is a dominant feature in the everyday lives of most Singaporeans.
A critical reading of Singapore’s public housing history is needed in order to understand this uniquely Singaporean landscape. Broadly speaking, Singapore’s public housing history can be divided into three periods, each responding to societal concerns and serving distinct political ends. Firstly, from the 1960s to 1970s, public housing was mainly conceived as a means to provide basic shelter for the rapidly growing population of the newly independent nation. The resultant new towns built by the party-state also alleviated the problem of over-crowding within Singapore’s downtown urban core. Having fulfilled their emphatic promise to house the masses, the ruling People’s Action Party gained political legitimacy partly through the successful housing programme. Since the 1980s, public housing has increasingly become a tool for social engineering and is complicit in the maintenance of the state’s hegemony. Thirdly, public housing has moved beyond being merely a roof over one’s head, and is increasingly re-conceived as ‘home’. Generally, public housing in Singapore is inseparable from governance—it is an indispensible technology of governance for the Singaporean state.
With the self-governance of Singapore in 1959, and subsequent independence in 1965, Singapore inherited various problems faced by the colonial administration. The problem of overcrowding in unsanitary living environments was especially notable. The PAP recognized the need to improve the housing environment as a prior condition of economic success (Wong & Yeh, 1989). While the colonial administration—the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT)—had attempted to ameliorate the housing problem, the scale of the SIT’s housing programme was simply too narrow. Following the developmental principles of post-war British towns, the housing programmes helmed by the SIT emphasized on small, low density neighbourhoods with maximum privacy between individual homes (Jensen, 1967). Thus, in its thirty-two years of existence between 1927 and 1959, the SIT completed only 23,000 units (Wong & Yeh, 1989: 1). Recognizing the inadequacy of a low-density public housing programme, the Housing Development Board (HDB) made a ‘realistic and pragmatic’ decision to turn to high-density housing in order to ‘house every citizen decently’ (Wong & Yeh, 1989: 8). Hence, unlike the ‘Manhattan transfer’—in which skyscrapers and high-rise apartments are symbols of power and modernity of the post-colonial states (see King, 1996)—the high-rise apartments erected by the HDB during the early 1960s to 1970s were borne out of necessity.
Along with the turn towards high-density housing came urban decentralization and a uniquely Singaporean form of suburbanization. A large proportion of the population was residing along the south-central areas of Singapore—the center of commercial activities and near the port of Singapore. In the 1960s, it was estimated that as many as 1.3 million people lived in squatter settlements near the urban core, out of a population of 1.9 million (CLC, 2013). The overcrowded tenement squatter units were problematic with the high rates of communicable diseases and instances of fire. Hence, moving the population out of these areas was high on the housing agenda. With the passing of the Land Acquisition Act in 1966, the HDB was able to quickly and cheaply acquire land outside the urban core. Those living in villages and settlements—kampongs—located on land acquired by the state were resettled into new public housing apartments. Many argued that the resettlement project was done in the name of social justice (see Wong & Yeh, 1985: 305; GSSDA, n.d.)—the resettlement of downtown tenement and rural kampong dwellers into new high-rise flats with proper sanitation services was a welcomed improvement to the living conditions of the population. Yet, it may also be argued that the almost forceful acquisition of land below market value and the resultant destruction of close-knitted, established communities were against the principles of social justice (see Quah, 1983).
With the newly acquired lands, the state expanded plans by SIT to build self-contained, suburban new towns away from the city center. The earliest of such towns include Queenstown and Toa Payoh. This party-state orchestrated and controlled form of suburbanization was epitomized by the ‘New Town Structural Model’, which eventually emerged in the 1971. In these new towns, public housing integrates life, transport, work and leisure components (Lee, 2009; Yuen et al, 1999); the public housing programme provides shelter in a total living environment. Neighbourhoods were conceived as centers of convenience where amenities such as schools, shops, libraries, post offices and playgrounds were easily accessible. Light manufacturing plants and factories were also built within these new towns, thus, effectively decentralizing employment from the downtown urban core. By 1985, almost 80 percent of the Singaporean population were living in HDB flats, most of them in new towns (URA, 2013).
The public housing programme was, from the start, a political project. According to then-Prime Minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, his ‘primary preoccupation was to give every citizen a stake in the country and its future. [he] wanted a home-owning society’ (Lee, 2000: 117). Public housing was, and is still, therefore, closely tied to engineering a sense of loyalty towards the country and was part of the broader nation-building project. Although the early HDB flats were only for rent—with rental pegged at 15 percent of average household income—as the acute housing problem was resolved within the first five years, the party-state started encouraging home ownership. The Home Ownership Scheme started in 1964, however, the policy gained traction only later in the late 1970s to early 1980s—rental occupancy fell from 76% in 1970 to 16% by 1989. This policy was extended not only to middle income Singaporeans; the state had sought to create property-owning democracy which included the lower income groups (Wong & Yeh, 1989). Thus, Singaporeans were allowed to tap into their Central Provision Funds (CPF)—a mandatory individual savings scheme controlled by the state— to finance their housing mortgage. Legislation was also put in place to safeguard homeowners from dispossession—under the Housing & Development Act, no homeowner of a HDB flat can be disposed of his/her ownership as a result of bankruptcy (Wong & Yeh, 1989). Through various layers of policy liberalization and legislation, the state has effectively created a dominant group of homeowners.
Owning a HDB flat has since become a normative feature of everyday Singaporean life. Home ownership is now a rite of passage—‘shall we buy a HDB flat?’ is apparently the way many Singaporean men propose (Tan, 2011: 37). Marriage—arguably a deeply private matter—has been closely tied with public housing. According to Wong & Yeh (1989: 246), with land scarcity, the government has to prioritize public housing to (heterosexual) family units over unmarried individuals. This is, at best, a superficial understanding of the ‘(heterosexual) families first’ policy endorsed by the state. Families are prioritized for two reasons. Firstly, the state envisioned families to be the basic building blocks and support networks of society—one should always turn to their families, before the state, for help. For example, with the Multi-Generation Priority Scheme, children living in close proximity to parents are provided with more monetary grants. Thus, by encouraging close proximity living, the responsibility of caring for ageing parents is shouldered by the children instead of the state. Secondly, with rapidly falling birthrates since the 1990s, birthrates are now below replacement levels and there is a pressing need to encourage young couples to procreate. Hence, young newly weds are markedly prioritized in the application for public housing. The public housing landscape is therefore complicit in this pro-(heterosexual)family stance endorsed by the state. While unmarried Singaporeans, too, are allowed to purchase HDB flats, they are limited by age—one has to be thirty-five and above—and until recently have limited choices in the types of flats they can own. Thus, unmarried and divorced Singaporeans are indirectly marginalized in the housing policy. The statistically inclusive public housing system is, paradoxically, exclusive.
Pro-family stance of the party-state endorsed by the HDB. Definition of family is only narrowly extended to heterosexual family units. (Image from: http://mynicehome.sg/2013/02/01/rounding-things-up/)
Besides socially engineering the normative heterosexual family units, the state also saw the importance of the integration of all ethnic groups in the nation-building project. Singapore is a multi-ethnic society, during the 1960s distinct enclaves had emerged in the residential structure—the dominant Chinese group (approximately 75 percent of the population) was extremely prominent in the core areas of the city, the Malays (approximately 14 percent of the population) were located in the east around Geylang Serai and later, Jalan Eunos, the Indians (approximately 10 percent of the population) were centered around Serangoon Road, and the Eurasians were living mostly along the east coast of the island (See Sim et al, 2003). Spatial segregation is commonly seen as divisive, it is perceived as preventing understanding and ‘reducing social interactions between groups and individuals, leading to mistrust’ (Peach, 1996: 379). The Singaporean party-state did indeed see ethnic enclaves as problematic as their presence signaled a lack of social cohesion on a nation-wide scale. These ethnic enclaves reinforced differences in identities and the turn inwards for security (Sim et al, 2003; Ooi, 2005). The weak social fabric is particularly vulnerable to political crises—clashes between the Chinese and Malays broke out in 1964 and took place in specific enclaves such as Geylang Serai and Chinatown (Telok Ayer Street).
With the large-scale development of public housing, the state saw an opportunity to engineer integration and ethnic harmony. Public housing was initially allocated with the aim of mixing the population to achieve a balance of different ethnic groups in every new town (Sim et al, 2003). Subsequently, as flats were re-sold, several trends towards ethnic groups in some new towns and estates were obvious—for example, the Chinese tended towards areas like Hougang and Toa Payoh, while the Malays preferred Eunos, Bedok and Tampines (Sin, 2002). To prevent the re-emergence of ethnic enclaves, the Neighborhood Racial Limit policy was introduced in 1989. A new buyer of flat in a particular housing estate must belong to an ethnic group where the ‘proportions’ have not been exceeded. While this regulatory mechanism was presented as necessary for the long-term stability of the nation (Sin, 2002), there have been debates about the unintended limitations caused by this policy. Notably, as the quota is imposed on an open market, some sellers belonging to minority groups may experience difficulty selling their flats if the majority group’s quota has been met. Thus, it may take a longer time for the seller to find a buyer, and the property may fetch a lower price (Today, 17 November 2003). Thus, there have been calls, over the recent years, for the government to re-evaluate the ethnic quote scheme.
Additionally, certain aspects of the public housing system have direct connection with electoral politics. Voters are divided into constituencies based on their housing estates and neighborhoods. Significantly, the lines of these constituencies are transient and fluid—they can be remapped. Electoral boundaries have been redrawn over the years, resulting in difficulty for opposition parties to plan and strategize (see Tan, 2013). Public Housing Renewal programmes —or in the local vernacular ‘upgrading’—were originally means by which the population shared some of Singapore’s economic growth (Yuen et al, 1999). However, since 1997, the HDB upgrading programmes are directly tied to support for the ruling party (Goh, 2001, Chong, 2010). Opposition-held constituencies are disadvantaged in the allocation of funds for such projects (The Economist, 8 May 2011). Then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong made this strategy clear in 1996:
You vote for the other side, that means you reject the programmes of the PAP candidate... if you reject it, we respect your choice. Then you’ll be left behind, then in 20, 30 years’ time, the whole of Singapore will be bustling away, and your estate through your own choice will be left behind. They become slums. That’s my message’ (The Straits Times, 23 December 1996)
The potency of this unpopular tactic, however, may be overstated—voters living in opposition strongholds Hougang and Potong Pasir (until 2011 when Mr. Chiam See Tong, long-term representative of Potong Pasir stepped down) have repeatedly voted for opposition candidates.
While public housing remains a key tool for electoral politics and social engineering, the communal characteristics of public housing has been increasingly emphasized over the past ten years. With state of the art facilities and infrastructure, the HDB have secured the ‘hardware’ of public housing, thus, the emphasis has shift towards developing the ‘heartware’. Questions of belonging and community spirit are currently being addressed—the ’s vision is now to ‘build a HDB community where residents do not just own their own homes, but also share a collective ownership of the entire community’ (Forum on HDB Heartware, 2007). Thus, the notion of home, in this case, is further extended to include one’s estate and neighbourhood. With high immigration and emigration rates, Singapore seems to be going through another round of existential crisis—debates surrounding questions of a ‘Singaporean identity’ are increasingly common(see Vadaketh, 2012, Mahbubani, 2013, Chan 2013, Singh, 2014).Perhaps by encouraging a sense of attachment towards the broader locale of a neighbourhood, it is hoped that the attachment would be further extended to the nation. The Singaporean identity, then, could be potentially anchored to the communal spaces of the HDB landscape.
In conclusion, public housing in Singapore is indeed deserving of its international accolades—it has efficiently housed the majority of Singaporeans in relatively pleasant living environments. In accordance with the ethos of a developmentalist state, Singaporeans have in turn capitulated some of their independence partly in exchange for a place in this housing system. Regulations to homeownership shaped individual decisions from marriage, childbirth to where one can live based on ethnicity. Access to better housing facilities depended on the constituency’s political loyalty. In all, the housing landscape has been utilized to encourage what the state deems to be ‘right behavior’ in its people (Pow, 2013). Yet, this highly regulated landscape is also a lived landscape. Seemingly mundane actions, to use Liu Thai Ker’s example, such as ‘clothing hanging at the window’ enliven and animate the landscape, creating multiple possibilities for individual action and everyday intervention.
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