Home Truths

Home Truths: How Singapore is leading the way in public housing

In the third in our series of Home Truths articles, Pei Lin Hoe from Truth’s Singapore office looks at the country’s forward-thinking approach to public housing….

A couple of years before Singapore gained its independence a shortage of housing and related problems, such as overcrowding and squatter colonies, had reached alarming levels. The Housing Development Board (HDB) was set up to look into large-scale public housing development.

Unlike council housing in the UK, public flats are mainly privately owned (the HDB’s housing was built by the government and sold to the populace, albeit on 99-year leases). This is a result of the government's conscious effort to promote a sense of nationalism by giving Singaporeans a bigger stake in their country.

Today, approximately 80% of the population lives in public housing. The idea of ‘home’, both in the context of the physical space that we live in as well as the wider country, exhibits some of the features of a welfare state, even though Singapore is generally not regarded as one.

Public housing comprises homogenous-looking, high-density but thoughtfully-built developments in suburban areas and on the city fringes. The majority of estates are provided with not only essential facilities but also various community amenities such as schools, markets and recreational facilities, allowing them to function as self-contained communities. This is in marked contrast to much urban planning in countries such as the US and France.

Inevitably, HDB housing is explicitly linked to government policies. For example, before 1991, singles were not allowed to buy HDB flats on their own, in line with the government's pro-marriage and family stance. This policy influence is also seen in the proportions that are set aside for the various ethnic groups in each HDB block to prevent the formation of racial enclaves. 

Thus the concept of ‘home’ in Singapore is guided by substantially different cultural and political dynamics to those which drive many Western markets. The homogeneity diminishes scope for one’s home to act as a status symbol for the majority of the population, while other things like car ownership and recreational club memberships take on greater significance. 

Generally speaking, the sense of community is stronger in the HDBs than in Singaporean private estates, simply because people share common amenities. From connecting corridors to gardening plots and breathing spaces, neighbours have the opportunity to connect and bond over similar interests. Multi-racialism and communal living is all part of what characterises the Singaporean “kampong” (village) way of life in the HDB estates.

Strong government intervention also means that national initiatives can be rolled out to the mass relatively quickly. HDB recently launched a ‘Greenprint’ pilot, a push for sustainable development and living in public housing. HDB’s Greenprint will introduce energy and water-saving solutions such as the installation of solar panels, sensor-controlled LED lighting for outdoor street lamps and a rainwater harvesting system. To help residents make the switch to a more energy-efficient home, a ‘Green Homes Package’ has been introduced. HDB aims to be the facilitator between the private sector and residents to offer bundled energy-efficient appliances at a discount.

Arguably, Singapore is showing greater advances in sustainability through this strategy than many Western markets, which continue to struggle to find ways to make environmental concerns palatable in challenging economic times.

Panasonic and Philips (lighting) participated in this initiative and brands can play a bigger role in shaping the transformation of sustainable living in Singapore’s public housing in partnership with the government. There is great potential for Singapore to act as a beacon of sustainable living - and community in line with this - and to achieve traction quickly. As this program rolls out it will be fascinating to study the ways in which it does (or does not) affect citizens’ energy consumption behaviour and lifestyle. 

There is, therefore, not just a practical angle to the government’s ability to roll out such a scheme, but beneath the surface a more subtle, psychological element. Through constructing meaningful communities and driving a sense of equality via the HDB schemes, the government fosters a mindset of participation and shared purpose (somewhat in contrast to British ‘my home is my castle’ and NIMBY attitudes). Societal change from the top down takes on a much more grassroots feel.