Housing, Policy, Sustainability

The Success of Singapore’s Public Housing

Singapore is an island city-state at the tip of the Malay peninsula which is renown for its wealth, its incredibly high development ranking and for its interesting relationship with regards to public housing. For some jurisdictions around the world, the agenda of public housing has been subject to long neglect, mismanagement and deferral – treated as an “ambulance service” that offers only emergency-type provisions to the most vulnerable households that meet a stringent criteria list (Joo & Wong, 2008). In these communities, sharing the same postcode as one of the complexes has a lot of stigma and negative connotation of decreased property values and quality of life for neighbours (Davison & Liu, 2016; Duke, 2016).

In Singapore, a different narrative is followed. Over 85% of the Singaporean population live in public housing and up to 95% of those residents are home owners. Owning of one of these units constitutes a core part of the Singaporean identity and the agency that has spearheaded efforts over the past several decades has been lauded for its efforts, having been awarded the UN-HABITAT Scroll of Honour in 2010 for providing one of the world’s greenest, cleanest and most socially conscious housing programs (HDB, 2015).

Colonial Times & the Municipality Period (19th Century; 1896–1927)

During the era of British colonial rule, Singapore served as a trading post and naval base for the empire in Southeast Asia. It was primarily an island full of fishing villages in the 19th century before undergoing the transformation to a city landscape that would be facilitated by the British (Eng & Savage, 1985).

The Raffles Plan, named for the modern city’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles, provided some administrative oversight for the city’s development and of the rapidly growing city but it also incorporated ethnic segregation which had been leading to the development of slum areas/ghettos in the city. Here, urban families lived in the same vicinity as the shops they operated, which were rather unsanitary and hazardous for proper living. On the outskirts, housing would continue to take the form of the traditional kampongs and farmlands. By 1950, most of the growth in Singapore occurred within a 6-8 km radius from the city centre (Eng & Savage, 1985; Vasoo & Lee, 2001; Bin & Naidu, 2014).

In the first half of the 20th century, Singapore faced a problem of rapid population growth. This was initially due to the high immigration influx but soon the problem stemmed from natural births, as those migrants looked to establish roots in the country. By the 1930s, three quarters of Singapore’s population was of Chinese descent, most of whom would commune with relatives and friends in less than sanitary living quarters – crowding out the now dense city centre (Eng & Savage, 1985).

Singapore Improvement Trust (1927–1959)

The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was established with the passing of the Singapore Improvement Ordinance in 1927, with the aim of providing public housing to relieve the overcrowding problem and to prevent the unsanitary slum conditions from further escalating added to its scope in 1932 (Bin & Naidu, 2014). The first satellite town of Tiong Bahru was built by 1941 and housed around 6,000 people but further developments were put on hold due to the war. Between 1947 and 1959, the SIT would provide just under 21,000 units in primarily the Queenstown district.

The SIT would only manage to cover around 20% of the country’s total housing requirements during its existence, therefore rendering the SIT arguably ineffective in solving the housing shortage. However, this was in large part due to the lack of support that the SIT received from the government at the time in terms of funding and legislative power. The skills that the SIT required to deliver public housing and to incorporate local social, cultural and economic sensitivities were in shortage. Furthermore, it was tasked with general infrastructure works which also detracted it from serving its primary purpose. Local needs needed to be funded through local resources (Eng & Savage, 1985; Vasoo & Lee, 2001).

The SIT did manage to embed the idea of satellite towns and the “neighbourhood concept” for future developments. This helped to decentralise the population growth occurring in the city centre and to establish apartment dwelling as the socio-cultural norm (Eng & Savage, 1985). The SIT would be replaced by the Housing & Development Board, following Lee Kuan Yew’s successful appointment as Singapore’s Prime Minister in 1959.

Housing & Development Board (‘60s & ‘70s)

By 1960, the Housing & Development Board (HDB) had inherited a significant challenge. The housing shortage was now an acute problem and the HDB was tasked with building 10,000 low-cost units annually over a 10-year period. By the end of the first Five-Year Plan in 1965, the HDB had constructed just under 54,000 housing units, thereby meeting and even exceeding their target (HDB, 2016). Over 400,000 people, representing a quarter of Singapore’s population at the time, had been rehoused during this five-year period – an achievement only surpassed by Russia and West Germany (Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore, 2009). The HDB had been granted the legal powers, a large budget and otherwise full support of the government that the SIT lacked.

The first Five-Year Plan targeted the Central Area where the shortage was most severe; properties had fallen into disrepair and many subtenants were living in cubicles. Those that were most in need of housing were also dependent on employment that was offered in the city and thus had to sustain themselves on as little as $SG 100 to $SG 500 a month. The HDB would thus prioritise these dense areas and focus on housing projects that were quick and cheap to construct, within the 6-8km radius of the city. Land was available but expensive, which prompted twenty-storey high-rise structures. Rents were kept at rates of $SG 20, $SG 40 and $SG 60 per month for one- (33 m2), two- (40 m2) and three-room (60 m2) units with periodical adjustments over time to keep in line with inflation and construction costs (Eng & Savage, 1985; Joo & Wong, 2008).

The second Five-Year Plan was able to focus more on urban renewal, now that the housing shortage issue began to show some signs of alleviation. The goal of maximising quantity in output had begun to shift towards the quality side of the spectrum. Larger floor plans were drawn up, family-size requirements were loosened and further amenities such as playgrounds and car parks were being added to the estate designs. The introduction of the Home Ownership Scheme in 1964 allowed those home owners to maintain the quality of their units, now that they had a vested interest in doing so. The plan delivered over 63,000 housing units between 1966 and 1970 and almost 2,800 commercial development projects, which is a significant jump from the approximate 650 that was delivered under the first Five-Year Plan (Eng & Savage, 1985; HDB, 2016).

The sixties would prove to be the formative years for the HDB as it gauged the public for their acceptance of high-rise housing types and shifted away from a rental-style service to one that focused on home ownership. The latter, a decision carefully considered by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to foster social ties to the country among a culturally diverse population, would become a key characteristic of the Singaporean model and an effective strategy in bypassing potential cultural conflict (Joo & Wong, 2008). As Lee Kuan Yew would put it:

“My primary preoccupation was to give every citizen a stake in the country and its future. I wanted a home-owning society. I had seen the contrast between the blocks of low-cost rental apartments, 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… 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 believe this sense of ownership was vital for our new society which had no deep roots in a common historical experience.”

In 1968, Singaporeans could start using their savings from the Central Provident Fund (CPF) to purchase a 99-year lease on one of the units under the Home Ownership Scheme. The CPF itself is a compulsory savings program that requires Singaporeans to contribute 20% of their income to the CPF every month and employers to contribute 16%. From these savings, up to 23% can be allocated towards mortgage repayments (savings from the CPF are set aside to be used primarily as one’s retirement fund, to meet healthcare needs or in this case for housing) (Dr. Cheong Koon, 2015). With the passing of such legislation, the Singaporean government could enable the rate of home ownership to increase without having to allocate a high proportion of government revenue to the program, thus overcoming the financing problem (Vasoo & Lee, 2001).

The seventies saw further change in the expectations and profiles of their applicants. Much of the lower income group had been accommodated during the sixties, which meant the HDB could now focus on the middle income households through yet larger four- (100 m2) and five-room (123 m2) units and better quality. New apartment designs considered minimising tropical heat, cross-ventilation and fire safety measures. Multi-tier family living was also incorporated into the designs and policy. The HDB also expanded its services and coverage across those neighbourhoods on the island, with yet even more amenities and facilities introduced in new neighbourhoods. In the forthcoming years, efforts would gradually shift towards the rejuvenation and upgrade of existing neighbourhoods; tweaking the architecture and working on building identity and character in each town (Eng & Savage, 1985; Joo & Wong, 2008).

Over 240,000 units would be constructed throughout the seventies (HDB, 2016). By the late 1980s, 90% of Singaporeans were living in HDB units (Chua, 2011).

The Satellite Towns

The model employed in Singapore looks to establish self-sufficient satellite towns, whereby the necessity to travel outside of the neighbourhood was kept to a minimal by including amenities within the vicinity such as schools, supermarkets, sports complexes, playgrounds and so forth. Every town holds a population of 50,000 to 200,000 and consists of four to eight neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods constituted 20,000 to 30,000 people and were within 500 metres of a “neighbourhood centre.” Each neighbourhood was also themed depending on the historical background of the site (e.g. “Fishing Village” or “Art City”), which worked to establish a type of local identity that residents could relate to (Vasoo & Lee, 2001; Joo & Wong, 2008).

Precincts contain three to eight blocks of flats ranging from 12 to 30 storeys high and housed between 600 and 1,500 families. These precincts contain facilities such as gardens, playgrounds, childcare centres, grocery stores and more, all with the intention of encouraging interaction among locals and fostering a sense of community and belonging. Residents of varying income and ethnic groups are housed in the same precincts, which has helped prevent the furthering of ethnic ghettos. Given previous experience with racial tensions throughout the sixties (and subsequent communist threat), racial issues were to be carefully managed during the seventies by ensuring a “good distribution of races” was accounted for in each new town. Through the program, ethnic groups could be dispersed and mixed sufficiently to foster social integration and nation building (Vasoo & Lee, 2001; Phang, 2007; Joo & Wong, 2008).


Singapore serves as a reminder that it is, in fact, possible for governments to deliver on affordable housing and thus challenges the old adage that privatisation would take care of market failures. However, this is not to suggest that such an endeavour is an easily replicable venture.

Singapore’s case study contains a lot of particulars that would make its adaptation in other contexts arguably more challenging. Consider, for example, the very construct of Singapore as an island city-state of near 700 km2, as opposed to a much larger jurisdiction such as New South Wales at nearly 810,000 km2. The HDB could ensure the political support from a single tier of government (which has been dominated for decades by a single political party – the People’s Action Party) as opposed to the multi-tiered, two-party structure seen in Australia. The distinction should highlight the political, regulatory and administrative hurdles that is present in one context and missing in the other. A HDB in New South Wales would have to continually justify projects and investments in one regional area as opposed to another (each presenting their own local challenges), coordinate with various local or state level agencies (when they are willing to cooperate) and anxiously await election cycles as new political parties threaten to cut budgets and disrupt long-term plans (if they haven’t chosen to restructure or dissolve such an agency). In Singapore’s case, stability and simplicity have been large enablers for the HDB’s success.

One of the interesting feats of Singapore’s housing has to be the promotion of ownership among residents as a tool for building a national identity. Asset ownership that requires commitment to regular and routine work motivates citizens towards appreciating their earned asset; thus the HDB was a politically and socially stabilising agency (Joo & Wong, 2008). The investment that residents made in their properties also meant that the government had a vested interest in assuring perpetual stability in the housing market, less they lose public favour and support come the election period.

The CPF was also a key enabler in facilitating the home ownership transition. Overall transaction costs are minimal because the mortgage interest rate is half a percentage point higher than the interest rate paid to the CPF savings and does not involve financial institutions outside of the HDB and the CPF (Chua, 2011). In conjunction, the HDB’s monopoly on the housing market also ensures stable prices and, as had been stated before, the government has a vested interest in ensuring housing affordability for re-election purposes, thereby putting downward pressure on housing prices.

It is important to note that the success in a government’s housing policies cannot be achieved simply through sufficient funding and land alone. Sustainable housing development requires appropriate social and economic strategies that are carefully tailored to meet specific objectives, as well as ensuring the right technical and administrative skills are deployed that match program and project. Under the HDB (and unlike the SIT), the expertise needed for planning, design, development, management and maintenance were all to be found in-house (Joo & Wong, 2008).

Singapore continues to be a curious take on housing policy – one that the rest of the world could take a page from. If such cannot be replicated to a tee, it should at least highlight the components and trends to consider in forging such a path towards successful policy-making. Government involvement does not have to result in a failed system or service.

Little justice can be done in summarising 50+ years of Singapore’s housing history in a short article. Readers are encouraged to pursue the sources below for further reading or follow the links provided for particulars.

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