Singapore’s public housing crisis

Editorial, Normal

The public housing crisis has revived the question whether Singapore, with only 700sq km of land, can continue to accommodate the current five million residents, let alone increase it by a further one-third, writes SEAH CHIANG NEE.


HOW is this land-squeezed island coping with housing an enlarged population of five million, including hundreds of thousands of recent foreign arrivals?
The answer gleaned from public comments about the Housing Development Board (HDB), the national icon that builds homes for 80% of the people is: “surprisingly poor”, given its sterling track record.
For 50 years, the HDB has helped to transform this former squatter colony into a global city of fine homes. At early times, it set a world record of building an average of one flat every 45 minutes.
The recent unprecedented intake of foreigners has, however, dealt a blow to its reputation, judging by the widespread complaint of poor anticipation, insufficient flats and spiralling prices.
As a result, resale subsidised apartments, which are still cheaper than private ones, have moved out of reach of many young fresh graduates planning to get married and settle down.
With affluent foreign permanent residents (PRs) joining in the rush – some for profits – resale prices of HDB apartments have increased by some 45% in the last few years. The Government, which usually plans ahead, is finding itself in hot soup for being under-prepared by the demand.
An indication of this: In 2008, HDB built only 3,183 new flats when there were over 90,000 PRs and 20,000 new citizens in the same year, according to official statistics.
Only Singaporeans – not foreigners or PRs – are allowed to buy new government flats, which are generally well designed and planned. Because of the long waiting time, however, many Singaporeans opt to pay more for resale units in the open market, where they run into competition from PR buyers.
Some commentators feel it is unfair just to blame the HDB, since the problem covers a wide range of population, immigration as well as manpower policies that involves the entire government and not just public housing.
The top leadership has drawn up plans and an overall strategy for a 6.5 million population without fixing a time-frame. But with public unhappiness rising over the perceived costs, over-crowdedness, rising prices, the immigration inflow is being slowed down.
“This probably means that if the authorities want to stick to its 6.5 million population, it will have to take a longer time – probably more than 20 years,” one business executive commented.
The public housing crisis has revived a question whether Singapore, with only 700 sq km of land, can continue to accommodate the current five million residents, let alone increase it by a further one-third. The high density may already have affected some quarters overseas.
The Ireland-based International Living magazine recently ranked Singapore, one of Asia’s wealthiest states, a lowly 70th position among top places to live in.
The city scored well on safety and risk, healthcare, leisure and culture, but was penalised for its environment which included considerations of density and population growth.
The demographic change in Singapore has been dramatic.
Twenty years ago, it was a more pleasant city of 3.05 million, some two million fewer people than 4.99 million reached last year. This expansion of 64% (mostly through immigration) in 20 years is a rate matched by few countries in modern history. It succeeded in pushing out Hong Kong as the world’s third densest-populated place.
On average of 7,023 persons live in each square kilometre of this city, compared to 6,349 in Hong Kong. Both are behind Macau (18,534) and Monaco (16,923).
The minister of national development, Mah Bow Tan, one of the staunchest advocates of a bigger population, regularly reassures the people that Singapore has enough land for 6.5 million people.
With a 6.5 million population, Singapore could well become the most densely populated place on earth, with 16,640 persons per sq km.


Seah Chiang Nee is a former newspaper editor and now writes a weekly column for The Star daily in Malaysia.