By most measures, Singapore is an extremely wealthy country: It ranks third in GDP per capita (PPP), 3.5 percent of its population are Dollar millionaires, and living here for four months has vastly expanded my ability to name supercars on sight. Given this enormous wealth, I was surprised to learn that 82 percent of Singaporeans live in public housing. As part of my exchange program at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, I was given a tour of the Toa Payoh public housing development, one of the earliest and most heavily populated public housing projects in Singapore. During this tour, I learned that housing policy is about much more than providing an affordable place to live, it is an essential building block of Singaporean society.
The Housing and Development Board (HDB), founded 5 years before full independence in 1965, handles public housing on the island with the mandate of providing affordable homes for the masses. The situation was dire in the 1960s; upon independence Singapore had no natural resources to exploit, the unemployment rate was above 10 percent, Indonesia and Malaysia were both hostile neighbours, and people were living in crowded, unsafe, unhygienic, and racially divided slums. The country’s early history was marked with massive racial riots between its three main ethnic groups. While the numbers have fluctuated slightly, an ethnic Chinese majority makes up 74 per cent of the population, along with indigenous Malays (13 per cent) and Indians (9 per cent). As with many newly independent colonies with diverse populations, Singapore lacked a national identity to unite around. In this context, the HDB was tasked not simply with building houses, but with contributing to ethnic integration and giving citizens a stake in the new country through property ownership.
“My primary pre-occupation was to give every citizen a stake in the country and its future. I wanted a home-owning society… I believed this sense of ownership was vital for our new society which had no deep roots in a common historical experience” – Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew
Today, these goals are achieved through a series of steep subsidies and property ownership schemes that make HDB flats affordable not just for the poorest Singaporeans, but also for the vast majority of citizens. Prices for new HDB flats are calculated based on land and construction costs, and are then subsidised by the government. In addition, citizens can use funds from the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the mandatory, employee-matched savings program, to purchase HDB flats.
In order to use the HDB as a tool for cultural integration, the government implemented the Ethnic Integration Policy, which set quotas to ensure a mix of racial groups in each development. This policy was meant to ease ethnic tensions in the long run by having the groups share a physical space. The common sight of doors with wooden crosses hung side by side with pictures of Buddha and the crescent moon paints a picture of racial and ethnic harmony.
The design of the buildings are also meant to create a sense of community among residents. Shops at the ground level are only meant to sell to residents of the development. Common spaces are multi-faith areas that are adapted for use by any community. During my tour, we happened to walk by as the pavilion was being prepped for a Chinese funeral.
The small hallways were apparently also conceived with the intent to create community bonding between neighbors. While I’m not sure how much the hallways contributed, neighbourly trust was definitely on display; homes often extend well into the hallways, with potted plants, shoes, and even furniture in the common areas.
Yet all is not well with public housing on the island. Owners of HDB flats are increasingly renting out their residences to foreigners and recent immigrants, causing consternation among Singaporeans. In 2011, a Chinese immigrant family complained about the smell of curry wafting from the homes of their Indian-Singaporean neighbours, resulting in an official mediation process. In response to what was seen as an attack on the Singaporean national dish, August 21st was declared National Curry Day, on which all residents are encouraged to let the smell of curry waft freely. However, these conflicts aren’t limited to food. The different ways in which people dry their clothes has also caused disagreement among Singaporeans. The sight of bamboo rods, draped with clothes and jutting out of windows is a common sight, but some recent immigrants have not been adhering to the custom of wringing out their garments before hanging them. The resulting drip has become enough of a problem that the National Integration Council includes it in its Guide to Life in Singapore, under ‘Being a Good Neighbour.’
These are small symptoms of a larger problem. In recent years, tensions have been rising in Singapore as many citizens believe that the wave of immigration has led to an erosion of their nascent national identity. This came to a head in the 2011 general election when the People’s Action Party, in power since independence, had its worst showing since 1965, due mainly to public dissatisfaction over immigration. The presence of foreigners in what is literally called the “heartlands” of Singapore, and the reaction of locals to that presence, presents the next nation-building challenge that public housing will need to solve. While the greatest success of Singaporean housing policy has been integrating those who inherited the island, its future will depend on integrating those who adopt it.
Haris Khan is a Master of Public Policy Candidate in the Class of 2017. Very generally, his interests lie in understanding the incentive structures that public policy presents to actors, and how organisations can change them to better to achieve their goals. Haris is currently completing a semester abroad in Singapore, at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.