HDB’s success cannot be duplicated by any other country… here’s why.

All around the world, countries have been studying Singapore’s model of housing. They want to copy the steps taken to provide citizens with good quality public housing. 

Singapore’s land use was crafted under Lee Kuan Yew between 1959 and 1990. From day one, the PAP led government saw the dire shortage of housing. Whatever housing available was plagued by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. In 1957, it was estimated about 500,000 residents needed accommodation, and about 400,000 of those required relocation from the overcrowded city centre.

The previous administration, under the leadership of David Marshall (later, the founder of the Workers Party) managed little success. His administration built only 23,000 public housing flats in its 32 years.

LKY replaced this program in 1960 with the new Housing and Development Board. It was a major success, by the time Lee stepped down in 1990, 88% of Singaporeans owned their own flats. 

The success of the HDB, is not a one-agency success. It owes its efficiency to these things:

  • A strong economy 

To fund and manage the work and this includes planning, development, design, building and maintenance. Building for the masses require intensive resources, but it doesn’t just stop there. There is maintenance to pay for and on top of that, you have to make sure there are enough jobs for your citizens such that they may pay for utilities, amenities and improvements along the way. The government had gone even further to make sure that they strong economy lifts the value of HDB homes and helps it keep up with the rate of inflation. 

  • Strong political will

A government that is free from the influence and highly independent is especially important. The political leadership cannot be subordinate to, or captured by, the interests of social groups, from big business and labour to landowners, property developers or finance. It has to work for the betterment of citizens collectively. 

  • Cooperation of citizens

The early years of development was not all smooth sailing. Some pockets of land belonging to wealthy farmers saw fierce resistance against acquisition. These are in the areas of Hougang where the bitterness against the PAP continues to persist until today. However, by and large citizens were co-operative and worked together with the government – leaving their kampungs where needed, taking on new concepts such as paying for utilities and accepting ethnic integration policies.

Part of the reason why Singaporeans are able to fund the home purchases themselves, is also thanks to the CPF. The forced savings program had allowed for a means to buy property. In many countries, the term “public housing” often refers to a poorly maintained, vandalism ridden and crime infested  apartments. Tax payers money has to be used to build these. This is not the case for Singapore – our public housing is privately funded, made possible by the CPF. This is the reason why Singaporeans take care of their estates with pride.

This sort of policies would not have been possible in many countries. These are moves that would seem paternalistic and citizens would fight against mandatory savings. 

These elements are all fundamental to the success of the HDB. It is inconceivable for many countries to achieve even one of the elements above. Wealthy land owners will be up-in-arms to defend their land against being acquired for public use. People would be fighting for rights of all sorts… there will be no end to it. 

In Hong Kong, only about 36 per cent of households were in public housing and 49 per cent owned their homes. The prices of their apartments have been increasing steeply over the years, so much so that young people are literally unable to afford apartments. This has led to a complete breakdown in their society. 

The factors that has allowed us phenomenal success with housing is not easy, if not impossible, to develop. But we have it. And it is the envy of governments throughout the world.

Where do we go from here? Will we fall into the trap that has entrenched countries in debt, homelessness and weak home ownership? Or will we continue along the trajectory that our forefathers have put into place and take HDB to the next level? 

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