Public housing in Singapore

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Apartment blocks of varying heights behind a field
HDB residences in Bishan town
An apartment block in cloudy weather
SkyVille@Dawson, a public housing developmentcompleted in 2015

Public housing in Singapore is subsidised housing built and managed by the government in Singapore. Initially built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) from the 1930s in a similar fashion to contemporary British public housing projects, housing for the resettlement of squatters was built from the late 1950s. In the 1960s, under the SIT's successor, the Housing and Development Board (HDB), public housing was constructed as quickly and cheaply as possible at high densities and used for resettlement schemes, consisting of small units with basic amenities. From the late 1960s, housing programmes focused more on quality and a scheme was introduced allowing residents to own their flats with public housing being built in new towns. Through the 1970s and 1980s, more public housing options were provided for the middle class, and efforts were made to increase community cohesion within housing estates. The government began portraying public housing as an asset from the 1990s, introducing large-scale upgrading schemes and loosening regulations on the resale of public housing, while additional housing programmes for the sandwich classes and elderly were introduced. Rising housing prices led to public housing being seen as an investment from the 2000s, while new technologies and eco-friendly features were also incorporated into housing estates.

In Singapore today, public housing is located within new towns, in communities that are intended to be self-contained, with services in proximity to housing blocks, and is either owned by or rented to residents. Owner-occupied public housing is sold on a 99-year lease and can be sold on the private resale market under certain restrictions, while rental housing consists of smaller units and is mainly meant for lower-income households. Housing grants are provided to lower income applicants for flat purchases, while flats with shorter leases and lease monetisation schemes have been implemented for elderly homeowners. Housing estates are managed and maintained by the Town Councils, while older housing estates are improved by the Housing and Development Board under the Estate Renewal Strategy.


Under the Singapore Improvement Trust[edit]

Early forms of private housing built by the SIT in Tiong Bahru in the 1950s.

The first public housing in Singapore was built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1936, and the SIT began focusing more on public housing provision from the late 1940s.[1] The public housing built by the SIT was similar to British public housing projects of the time in terms of density and living space, and housed 9 per cent of Singapore's population by 1959.[2]

Nevertheless, the SIT faced multiple issues in its provision of public housing, with the rents for SIT flats being unaffordable for most of the local population[2] and construction of new flats proceeding too slowly to keep up with demand by 1949.[3] By 1958, the SIT was unable to financially sustain its public housing programme and delays in approval of new housing projects slowed construction even further. Consequently, plans for the replacement of the SIT with a new housing authority were drawn in the late 1950s,[4] and the SIT was replaced by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in February 1960.[5]

Emergency housing and resettlement schemes[edit]

Initially reluctant to build emergency housing, the SIT started constructing emergency housing for displaced kampong dwellers in 1953 as the flats it usually built were proving expensive to construct. However, these houses were poorly received, so the SIT scaled back emergency housing construction in 1955,[6] only resuming in the late 1950s after the Kampong Koo Chye and Kampong Tiong Bahru fires, in which the Singapore government took over the fire sites and instructed the SIT to build flats on them.[7] The SIT also envisioned a resettlement plan in Kampong Tiong Bahru after the fire, acquiring additional land for emergency flats and renting out the flats to the kampong dwellers.[8] Nevertheless, these schemes were also poorly received by the displaced kampong residents.[9]

On the HDB's formation in 1960, besides announcing a five-year housing plan with high aspirations,[5] it continued the SIT's emergency housing programme from November 1960, adopting a strategy of building one-room flats for resettlement schemes. In the aftermath of a subsequent fire in Bukit Ho Swee in May 1961, the government immediately took over the fire site, set aside most of the emergency flats in Kampong Tiong Bahru for the rehousing of displaced kampong dwellers, and developed a housing estate on the site of the kampong, which was completed between 1963 and 1965.[10] This estate, the Bukit Ho Swee estate, was used for the rehousing of other squatters displaced by fires or development schemes, paving the way for further urban renewal and resettlement schemes in the Central Area,[11] and by 1965, more than 50,000 flats were constructed, and 23% of Singapore’s population lived in public housing.[12]

Intended to be built as quickly and cheaply as possible, public housing built by the HDB in the 1960s consisted mainly of one and two-room flats[13] and were built at high densities to make the most out of the limited land available for public housing.[5] Moreover, housing estates built during this period had limited amenities[13] and were built at the edge of the Central Area, with residents relying on amenities and services within the Central Area.[14]

Through the development of public housing, the government attempted to change the behaviour of the kampong residents, with prohibitions on modifying or subletting flats, and to have more control over them.[15] Furthermore, the government intended to build harmony between the different racial groups in Singapore, with the new housing estates having no racial distinctions, unlike the settlements that preceded them.[16] Nevertheless, the resettlement schemes were resisted by those affected,[17] and the one-room emergency flats were loathed by many residents.[12] Therefore, the government attempted to provide housing to all people and organisations affected by the schemes[17] and the HDB shifted away from constructing one-room flats from the late 1960s.[12]

The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s[edit]

Several apartment blocks behind a building and a tennis court
Housing blocks in Bukit Ho Swee, a public housing estate built in the 1960s

In 1964, a home ownership scheme was introduced, but as most public housing residents at the time were unable to afford buying flats, it was not well received initially. Applicants were able to use their Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions to pay for their flats from 1968, and by 1984, 62 percent of flats were owned.[18]

The HDB started construction on its first new town in 1965. Located about 5–8 km (3.1–5.0 mi) from the city centre, it contained a town centre with multiple amenities and industrial areas to provide employment to residents.[19] From the late 1960s, the HDB began focusing on the quality of public housing, building larger flats and providing more amenities in housing estates.[20] In addition, the Land Acquisition Act, passed in 1966, gave the government broad powers to take over land and made more land available for public housing.[17]

From the 1970s, public housing was constructed further away from the Central Area, even more amenities were provided within new towns and flat sizes continued to increase.[19] Flat owners were allowed to sell their flats on the resale market from 1971,[21] and from the mid-1970s, the designs of public housing developments became more diverse.[22] In addition, flats were built by the Jurong Town Corporation in Jurong and Sembawang between 1968 and 1982,[23] while to provide flats for the middle class, the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) was set up in 1974. The housing estates built by the HUDC had layouts similar to private condominiums, and were well received initially.[24]

In the late 1970s, in an attempt to build a sense of community within housing estates, Residents' Communities and the precinct concept were introduced.[25] Rising construction costs during this period resulted in designs moving back to being more uniform, and from the early 1980s, housing construction started incorporating more prefabricated sections to reduce costs.[22] The 1980s saw the introduction of larger Executive flats,[26] while the HDB, which took over the HUDC in 1982, stopped construction of HUDC flats, since HUDC prices were approaching those of private property and the middle class was able to purchase HDB flats.[27] Moreover, in light of falling demand for smaller flats, such flats in older housing estates were converted larger ones, while older housing blocks that did not meet the HDB's standards were torn down.[26] Flat modification regulations were also relaxed, while housing estates were upgraded on an ad hoc basis.[25]

To ensure that people of different races were evenly distributed across public housing estates, a limit on Malay residents was introduced for new flats. Nevertheless, this proved insufficient in preventing racial enclave formation, so in 1989, the limits were extended to all races, and also to the resale market.[28]

Upgrading schemes and new housing programmes[edit]

From the 1990s, the Singapore government started portraying public housing as an asset and as useful for safeguarding retirement, and it pursued measures for "upgrading" and "asset enhancement", and loosened restrictions on the public housing resale market.[29] The first of these schemes, a large-scale, S$15 billion upgrading scheme was announced in 1989. Intended as a way to make older housing estates more attractive to younger people, it comprised the creation of differentiated precincts, the provision of more amenities, and upgrades to blocks and flats. Town councils and residents were able to determine the nature and extent of the upgrades to their estates.[30] After a trial on vacant housing blocks, and a demonstration phase on selected blocks, the scheme was initiated in 1993.[31]

Meanwhile, a less extensive interim upgrading programme was carried out in newer estates, while several town councils carried out their own amenity upgrading schemes. In addition, a scheme for the redevelopment of selected housing blocks in older estates, the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme, was introduced in 1995.[32] These upgrading schemes were subsequently used for political ends, with politicians from the ruling People's Action Party stating that estates with higher proportions of votes for the ruling party would be prioritised for upgrading schemes. [33]

Besides the upgrading programmes, additional housing schemes were introduced in the 1990s. These included executive condominiums, with similar amenities to private condominiums, for the sandwich class, along with Design Plus and Design and Build flats, which had higher quality fittings and designs, and were designed with feedback from private architects,[27] while Design and Build flats were also developed by private architects and building contractors.[34] Furthermore, in 1997, studio apartments, which were smaller and fitted out with elderly-friendly features, were introduced for the elderly.[35] Both public and private housing were also built within the same new towns from the 1990s,[36] while from 1995, HUDC estates were privatised, under which residents took over the management and ownership of the estates.[27]

The 2000s, 2010s and 2020s[edit]

Facing a glut of flats in the housing market, the HDB significantly scaled back public housing construction in the early 2000s, and housing schemes were adjusted such that housing was built only when demand was present.[37] The 2000s also saw the incorporation of new technology and eco-friendly features in public housing estates, while the planning of such estates was aided by computer simulations.[38] Moreover, the Design, Build and Sell Scheme, under which the design, construction and sale of flats is handled by private developers, was introduced in 2005.[39]

Additional upgrading programmes, such as the Lift Upgrading and Home Improvement Programmes, regarding direct lift access and flat interiors respectively, were also introduced,[40] while Remaking Our Heartland, an extensive development scheme for existing new towns, was introduced in 2007.[41] In addition, public involvement in public housing provision increased, with public consultations over building community in housing estates held in 2006, and residents being able to give feedback and vote on estate improvements under the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme, introduced in 2007.[42] The proportion of permanent residents in public housing also increased, so to prevent the formation of enclaves, a quota on non-Malaysia permanent residents was introduced in 2010.[43]

The HDB released the Roadmap to Better Living in 2011, setting out its plans for housing in the 2010s, under which it aimed to provide well-connected, unique and sustainable housing estates.[44] Moreover, more public housing was built in response to increased demand.[45] Attempts to increase resident involvement in upgrading schemes were also made under the Building Our Neigbourhood Dreams! programme in 2013, with residents able to make suggestions regarding estate improvements, but the programme was poorly received.[46] In the late 2010s and early 2020s, the HDB made further efforts to make housing estates more unique and sustainable through the introduction of design guides for each new town[47] and the HDB Green Towns Programme respectively.[48] In addition, Community Care Apartments, units for the elderly with care services for residents, were introduced during this period.[49]

Physical organisation[edit]

Apartment blocks laid out in a regular fashion on either side of a railway line
Overview of Bukit Batok, an example of a new town developed by the HDB

Singapore's public housing is constructed within new towns across the island.[50] Intended to function as independent communities, these new towns are planned based on the zoning of land for multiple uses, and are designed to house up to 300,000 residents. Each new town is divided into multiple neighbourhoods, and these neighbourhoods are further subdivided into multiple precincts. Each precinct has about 400 to 800 flats within seven to eight housing blocks.[51] Up to half the land area in the new towns is set aside for amenities. These amenities are provided at multiple levels, ranging from the town centre down to the individual housing block, and according to certain guidelines, allowing for facilities to be located near residents.[52] In addition, different flat types are spread out across new towns so as to avert the concentration of people of a certain income group in any area.[28]


Under the Singapore Improvement Trust, public housing design followed Western architectural styles such as Streamline Moderne and the International Style, while also incorporating features suited to Singapore's tropical weather. Derived from the designs of shophouses, these features included five-foot ways, back lanes and spiral staircases.[53]

With an emphasis on quantity, public housing built during the HDB's initial years was very basic, consisting of small housing units that were barely fitted out,[20] while housing estates were provided with few amenities.[54] Nevertheless, quality improvements in public housing started in the late 1960s, through the inclusion of landscaping and more amenities, such as open spaces and car parks, within housing estates.[20]

As new towns were built farther away from the Central Area from the 1970s, additional amenities were provided within the new towns, such as retail and industrial areas, to give these areas a degree of self-sufficiency. A prototype new town model, dictating the distribution of services across the new town, was also adopted.[55] Efforts were also made to distinguish neighbourhoods through the use of numbering schemes and different paint schemes for housing blocks.[56] In addition, access corridors in housing blocks were divided into multiple parts for resident privacy,[57] housing block designs were made less uniform and more visually appealing,[20] and the ground floor of housing blocks was left empty and unfinished. Termed as the "void deck", the HDB intended it to be used for a variety of communal activities.[16]

From the 1980s, public housing design was intended to give estates a unique character, through the variation of block heights within estates, and the incorporation of traditional architecture elements into housing block design.[58] Moreover, block layouts in new towns were varied, with a shift in emphasis away from solar orientation,[56] while as part of the precinct concept, groups of blocks within precincts were built closer together and open areas added to foster community interaction in the precincts.[58]

Public housing design in Singapore began to shift away from a modernist style in the 1990s, with elements from multiple architectural styles added to housing blocks through upgrading schemes.[34] In addition, more effort was made to differentiate housing block designs, while higher quality fittings within housing units were also introduced.[36] Multiple types of services were also provided within integrated developments, while additional community spaces were added in housing estates.[35]

In the 2000s, public housing in Singapore began incorporating technology such as pneumatic waste collection and sensor-activated lights, while efforts were also made to add eco-friendly and energy-efficient features. Moreover, housing estates also began to incorporate more greenery, while additional recreation facilities were provided for, such as cycling tracks and natural features.[39] The 2010s brought about an increased focus on estate identity and quality of life, with historical and natural aspects of the locations of housing estates used as inspiration for housing and estate design.[59]

Housing types[edit]

Owner-occupied public housing[edit]

Most public housing in Singapore is owner-occupied. Under Singapore’s housing ownership programme, housing units are sold to applicants who meet certain income, citizenship and property ownership requirements, on a 99-year leasehold. The estate’s land and common areas continue to be owned by the government.[60] Currently, new owner-occupied flats are sold under two programmes, Build-To-Order and Sale of Balance Flats. [61] Moreover, executive condominiums, although considered private housing and constructed and sold by private developers, have similar leases and requirements to owner-occupied public housing.[62] For those in the lower income groups, grants are available from the government to help them pay for their flat purchase. These grants are adjusted based on household income.[63]

While the SIT allocated public housing using a points system from 1947,[64] public housing allocation in the HDB’s initial years was done through a ballot system, under which applicants could state down their preferred flat type and general location, and reject up to two ballots. People who were displaced by resettlement schemes were also given priority. Subsequently, the housing application system was changed such that applicants were able to select flats from flat types and areas where flats were available.[65] In the early 2000s, in light of increasing numbers of unsold flats, the HDB suspended its previous flat allocation system, switching over to the Build-To-Order programme, where flats are only built when demand is present.[66]

From the late 1990s, in light of the increasing number of elderly homeowners, schemes were put in place to enable such homeowners to monetise their flats, starting with reverse mortgages. However, these were poorly received and so were withdrawn.[67] Subsequently, the HDB introduced the Lease Buyback Scheme in 2009, under which the HDB buys a proportion of the housing unit’s lease at current resale prices. In addition, additional schemes were introduced, such as the Silver Housing Bonus, which entails the move of the homeowner to a smaller flat, and the two-room Flexi scheme, consisting of smaller flats with shorter leases.[68]

Resale public housing[edit]

Owner-occupied public housing can be sold to others in a resale market, subject to certain restrictions. Prices within the resale market are not regulated by the government.[62]

Initially, owners were only able to sell their housing units back to the HDB, with sale of flats on the private market only allowed in 1971. After that, those who sold their flats on the private market could only sell them to buyers who satisfied the requirements for purchasing new flats, had to have been staying in their flats for a certain period of time, and were prevented from applying for new flats for a certain time period, known as the debarment period. The restriction on new flat purchase was replaced by a resale levy in 1979.[21]

Resale restrictions were loosened from the late 1980s, with the removal of income limits and by allowing permanent residents and property owners to purchase resale flats in 1989, followed by opening up the resale market to singles above 35 in 1991. Subsequently, CPF housing grants for the resale market were introduced in 1994.[69] These measures led to a rapid rise in resale prices by the mid-1990s, so the HDB introduced additional taxes and restrictions in response.[37]

In addition, increasing housing prices and government statements regarding public housing as assets that can be enhanced resulted in public housing being perceived as an investment.[63] With the increasing trend of housing prices in the late 2000s, the government introduced additional measures to reduce investment demand for housing,[63] such as taxes and restrictions.[70] Nevertheless, the government also aims not to dissuade the use of public housing as an investment.[45] Moreover, rising resale prices for public housing in prime areas led to the government placing additional purchase and resale restrictions on newly built public housing in prime areas from 2021.[71]

Rental public housing[edit]

Besides owner-occupied public housing, the HDB also provides public housing for rental. Rental housing consists of smaller units, such as one to two-room flats, and is mainly provided for lower income households, with lower income requirements than owner-occupied public housing, and households waiting for their purchased flats.[62]

Maintenance and renewal[edit]

A housing block with construction work being undertaken on it
A public housing block in Singapore undergoing upgrading works as part of the Lift Upgrading Programme

Maintenance of public housing estates in Singapore is handled by the Town Councils. Divided along political constituency lines, these Councils are headed by a Member of parliament, and have full-time estate management staff that handle the management of the estates.[72] Funding for the Town Councils' maintenance work comes from government grants, and maintenance fees paid by the residents and businesses in the estates.[73]

Improvement works are carried out in older housing estates under the HDB's Estate Renewal Strategy. These improvement works consist of the upgrading of amenities and infrastructure to meet modern standards, and the addition of features and facilities similar to those found in newer housing estates.[74]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fraser, James M. (April 1952). "Town Planning and Housing in Singapore". The Town Planning Review. Liverpool University Press. 23 (1): 8. doi:10.3828/tpr.23.1.v7327214j63750w3. JSTOR 40102143.
  2. ^ a b Lim 1984, p. 319.
  3. ^ "14,000 families in S.I.T queue". The Singapore Free Press. Singapore. 23 August 1949. p. 5. Retrieved 16 October 2021 – via NewspaperSG.
  4. ^ "The Housing Problem". The Straits Times. Singapore. 12 September 1958. p. 8. Retrieved 16 October 2021 – via NewspaperSG.
  5. ^ a b c Lim 1984, p. 320.
  6. ^ Loh 2009, p. 97.
  7. ^ Loh 2009, p. 98–99.
  8. ^ Loh 2009, p. 99–100.
  9. ^ Loh 2009, p. 100.
  10. ^ Loh 2009, p. 100–101.
  11. ^ Loh 2009, p. 102.
  12. ^ a b c Loh 2009, p. 103.
  13. ^ a b Ooi 1992, p. 171.
  14. ^ Ooi 1992, p. 172.
  15. ^ Loh 2009, p. 101.
  16. ^ a b Goh 2001, p. 1590.
  17. ^ a b c Phang & Helble 2016, p. 7.
  18. ^ Lim 1984, p. 326.
  19. ^ a b Ooi 1992, p. 173.
  20. ^ a b c d Teo & Kong 1997, p. 442.
  21. ^ a b Phang & Helble 2016, p. 11.
  22. ^ a b Lim 1984, p. 324.
  23. ^ Kuah 2018, p. 45.
  24. ^ Teo & Kong 1997, p. 446–447.
  25. ^ a b Teo & Kong 1997, p. 442–443.
  26. ^ a b Ooi 1992, p. 173–174.
  27. ^ a b c Teo & Kong 1997, p. 447.
  28. ^ a b Chua 1991, p. 348.
  29. ^ Phang, Sock Yong (August 2015). "Singapore's Housing Policies: Responding to the Challenges of Economic Transitions". Singapore Economic Review. 60 (3): 8. doi:10.1142/S0217590815500368.
  30. ^ Teo & Kong 1997, p. 443–444.
  31. ^ Teo & Kong 1997, p. 445.
  32. ^ Teo & Kong 1997, p. 446.
  33. ^ Teo & Kong 1997, p. 450.
  34. ^ a b Goh 2001, p. 1597.
  35. ^ a b Kuah 2018, p. 48.
  36. ^ a b Goh 2001, p. 1597–1598.
  37. ^ a b Phang & Helble 2016, p. 13.
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  39. ^ a b Kuah 2018, p. 49.
  40. ^ Cheong 2016, p. 106–107.
  41. ^ Cheong 2016, p. 108.
  42. ^ Cho et al. 2017, p. 322.
  43. ^ Phang & Helble 2016, p. 18.
  44. ^ Cheong 2016, p. 112–115.
  45. ^ a b Phang & Helble 2016, p. 17.
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  47. ^ Choo, Cynthia (4 September 2018). "All 24 HDB towns to get unique design guides, first one released for Woodlands". Today. Singapore. Retrieved 17 October 2021.
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  49. ^ Lin, Cheryl (10 December 2021). "New flats for the elderly to be launched in February BTO exercise, with subscription to care services". CNA. Singapore. Retrieved 6 November 2021.
  50. ^ Yuen 2009, p. 6.
  51. ^ Yuen 2009, p. 8–9.
  52. ^ Yuen 2009, p. 8.
  53. ^ "Design of Tiong Bahru Flats". National Heritage Board. Retrieved 30 October 2021.
  54. ^ Ooi 1992, p. 171–172.
  55. ^ Liu, Thai Ker (July 1974). "Reflections on problems and prospects in the second decade of Singapore's public housing". Ekistics. 38 (224): 43. Retrieved 23 October 2021.
  56. ^ a b Ooi 1992, p. 174.
  57. ^ Liu, Thai Ker (July 1974). "Reflections on problems and prospects in the second decade of Singapore's public housing". Ekistics. 38 (224): 44. Retrieved 23 October 2021.
  58. ^ a b Teo & Kong 1997, p. 443.
  59. ^ Cheong, Koon Hean (2018). "Nation-Building, Singapore-Style: Better Living Through Density". CTBUH Journal (Interview). Interviewed by Daniel Safarik. Retrieved 30 October 2021.
  60. ^ Phang 2007, p. 29.
  61. ^ "Modes of Sale". Housing and Development Board. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
  62. ^ a b c Phang 2007, p. 30.
  63. ^ a b c Phang & Helble 2016, p. 14.
  64. ^ Fraser, James M. (April 1952). "Town Planning and Housing in Singapore". The Town Planning Review. Liverpool University Press. 23 (1): 19. doi:10.3828/tpr.23.1.v7327214j63750w3. JSTOR 40102143.
  65. ^ Chua 1991, p. 347.
  66. ^ Phang 2007, p. 27.
  67. ^ Phang & Helble 2016, p. 20.
  68. ^ Phang & Helble 2016, p. 21.
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  70. ^ Phang & Helble 2016, p. 14–15.
  71. ^ Ng, Michelle (27 October 2021). "Subsidy clawback, 10-year MOP for new prime location HDB flats to keep them affordable, inclusive". The Straits Times. Singapore. Retrieved 6 November 2021.
  72. ^ Ooi 1992, p. 175.
  73. ^ Ooi 1992, p. 176.
  74. ^ Kuah 2018, p. 49–50.


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