Still Public Housing in Singapore?Taiwanese politicians have sometimes argued that Singapore’s public housing policy can serve as a model for Taiwan. Historian Loh Kah Seng shows why that might not be advisable
The passing of Lee Kuan Yew last month precipitated glowing local and international accolades of his achievements as long-time prime minister of Singapore, while leaving behind a less satisfactory state of affairs. This assessment appears true in housing, one of the striking success stories of social policy in recent history.
Public housing built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) is an important pillar of national development and the unbroken rule of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government. Over four-fifths of Singaporeans presently live in HDB flats, mostly purchased on 99-year leases, but the quality of flats they can afford depends on their economic position. Through the flats, the PAP is able to embed Singaporeans within the state-planned capitalist economy.
Yet, in recent years, high housing prices, lifted by liberal immigration laws, profit-seeking speculation and inadequate new flats, have increasingly priced younger Singaporeans out of the housing market. Much of the blame is laid at the feet of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government, and even middle class Singaporeans have grown critical of an administration that seems more adept in responding to global trends than to their needs.
The problem raises two basic questions about public housing. One, given the big role of the market, can we still speak of public, rather than semi-private, housing? Second, should Singaporeans continue to look to a public approach to housing? A scrutiny of the last 50 years of public housing provides some insights into these questions.
Global War on Squalor
Most Singaporean commentaries on public housing show a limited grasp of history. In the standard account, the pre-history is a caricature of insanitary slums and squatter areas. The “housing crisis” is, then, vanquished by the HDB’s success in building low-cost housing for the people. This narrative ignores, however, the larger historical context.
Public housing did not begin with the PAP but was shaped by global developments. The HDB’s efforts drew upon ideas of state-planned housing from Britain and the U.S. after the Second World War. To the Western powers, state intervention in housing was crucial to make developing countries safe for decolonization and from communist subversion. The PAP’s 1963 slogan of an all-out assault on the five “ogres” of a “subservient society” — poverty, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness — was lifted out of the pages of the foundational document of the British welfare state, the 1942 Beveridge Report. As the language of squalor made housing an arm of the state, so where one lived became a matter of national policy.
Of course, the PAP did not merely transplant Western development models or serve foreign interests. State-planned housing appealed to authoritarian governments as much as liberal-democratic ones. Like Western urban planners, the PAP valued a national housing system that would promote a sense of citizenship and social stability; by linking welfare benefits (in the form of subsidized housing) to full-time employment, public housing would also mould casual workers into a disciplined labor force. PAP leaders customarily credit themselves for forging a home-owning, stake-holding citizenry, but this idea is not uniquely Singaporean. The link between housing and national development originated with Anglo-American planners in the 1950s and 1960s. They advised the Singapore government on its urban and development plans, particularly the 1958 Master Plan which the PAP implemented upon coming to power.
Bulldozers Breaking Eggs
State-planned housing failed in most developing countries. In the cities of the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, slum dwellers and squatters pushed back by resisting eviction and making political allies. Singapore also experienced a history of social contestation that has since been forgotten. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the public housing program faced both spontaneous and organized resistance from squatters and their allies, namely, secret societies and anti-colonial political groups, including the PAP itself.
That the resistance crumbled was due to two factors. One was the great fires that, as in Hong Kong, ravaged Singapore’s squatter areas in the 1950s and 1960s. After an inferno, the HDB quickly acquired the fire site for emergency housing, which housed not only the fire victims but also other squatters and expedited the clearance of nearby areas. The second factor was the PAP government’s crackdown against the left-wing movement in the early 1960s, including rural associations that had organized squatters against unfair resettlement.
Thereafter, the public housing program was driven forward by a ruthless resolve. State officials involved in clearing slums and squatter areas acquired epithets such as “The Bulldozer.” They justified their work by saying, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
One of the most crucial effects of public housing was the loss of Singaporeans’ social agency. The squatter population of post-war Singapore was a young and dynamic one. Living in an unauthorized wooden house was not merely an act of desperation, but also one buoyed by hope for a better future. When rehoused in HDB flats, these once-free-minded people were quickly socialized into disciplined worker-citizens, dependent on the state for their housing, and much else.
Problems with Flats
The ascendancy of public housing brought new social challenges, which are largely forgotten today but were of mounting concern in the 1970s and 1980s. Sociologists worried about the loss of community ties as flat dwellers ignored their neighbors and retreated to a smaller world centered around the family and full-time work. Other studies revealed the financial, psychological and political costs of rehousing, particularly for the elderly and poorest families cramped into one-room flats. Most Singaporeans have since embraced public housing, but there were social casualties incurred in a process that was overwhelmingly imposed from above.
In another significant development, with serious implications today, HDB flats came to be used as income-bearing assets. In the 1980s, citing residents’ aspirations for better quality housing, a new generation of technocrat ministers departed from the socialist model to adopt a market-oriented approach to public housing. They were supported by Lee Kuan Yew, whose influence in the government was then at its peak. The socialist rhetoric of the 1960s was replaced by a discourse exhorting the merits of rugged individualism.
The prices of HDB flats escalated. What started as a price creep in the 1970s, due to industry factors such as building costs, gained official endorsement. The endorsement began in 1979 with the HDB allowing owners to sell their flats on the open market instead of recovering them at original prices. The government’s move to decentralize public housing in the mid-1980s further drove housing prices upward. In 1987, a ministerial committee formed to review public housing, chaired by deputy prime minister Goh Chok Tong, provided the blueprint. It recommended that residents and the private sector be given bigger roles in public housing. The decentralization of public housing accompanied the corporatization of other public services in Singapore in the decade. It mirrored, once again, global developments, namely, the retreat of the state and return of the market in Britain and the U.S.
Thus public housing, while still controlled by the state in vital aspects, transformed into a form of private enterprise. Decentralization did not give HDB residents more control over the prices of their flats. The government reiterated that housing prices must be guided by the market value of land. Prices continued to rise in the 1990s, augmented by the HDB’s physical upgrading programs and private-built housing schemes.
Many Singaporeans came to view housing not as basic shelter but as an investment. Their response was not all motivated by greed, since a large part of their retirement savings had been used to pay for the flat. Yet, the expectation that owners will reap a big dividend upon selling the flat — in effect placing an increasingly heavy tax on buyers — is clearly an unsustainable one.
Putting People back into Public Housing
Three insights may be gleaned from the history of public housing in Singapore. One, it was not the work of the PAP government alone, but was shaped by international trends. Two, housing has come under the control of the state and the market, removed from the influence of the people who reside in it. Three, at the margins of the HDB success story are dissonant narratives of the social costs inflicted on various groups of Singaporeans.
History enables us to better understand the present and explore reforms. For instance, in his fine analysis of Singapore’s public housing problems, economist Donald Low proposes long overdue changes that will accommodate current socio-demographic trends. However, the “new paradigm” he advocates still looks to the government as the nation’s housing planner. The historical evidence suggests that such an approach must at the very least be accompanied by other important changes.
Addressing public housing problems is not simply a question of economics or public administration; it is at its heart a social and political issue. The HDB must be presented with strong incentives to rethink its policies, while Singaporeans must take on a more active role to regain control over their housing. The current options, however, are limited.
In recent elections, unhappiness over housing issues has moved the government to tinker with its policies. But the influence of elections is an imperfect one. Residents need to assume a more direct and organized role in housing matters. For a start, residents’ committees and citizens’ consultative committees, which are in effect the ears and mouthpiece of the state, need to be independent in articulating flat dwellers’ interests. Ultimately, some form of social mobilization will be necessary to bring about the fundamental change.
Loh Kah Seng is a Singaporean historian and assistant professor at the Institute for East Asian Studies, Sogang University in South Korea. The article is based on his book, Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore (NUS Press, 2013).
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