Reflections on housing a nation

Revisiting the Government’s core commitments and discussing their relevance to Singapore today

My earliest childhood memories are of growing up in an attap hut that was part of a kampung somewhere in Hougang. We drew water from a well and ate by the light of a kerosene lamp.

Later, we moved to a small room in a shophouse in Bugis Street, now the site of Bugis Junction, where we slept under – not on – a bed. But at least we had running water and electricity.

Our next move was to an SIT (Singapore Improvement Trust) flat in Kim Keat Avenue with my uncle’s family, sharing one small bathroom, before moving finally to an HDB (Housing and Development Board) flat in Toa Payoh. This last one had a shared bathroom too, but the mercy of a separate toilet.

Today, I live with my family in a house where we have our own attached bathrooms.

I shared my housing story with Parliament earlier this year when debating HDB issues. The remarkable thing about my story is that it is not an uncommon one. It will sound familiar to many Singaporeans, who have gone through the same experience.

From humble beginnings, through hard work and determination, they have moved up to bigger, better, and more comfortable homes – homes that they can call their own.

Housing is one of man’s most basic needs. Yet in many countries, decent housing is beyond the reach of many.

My counterpart ministers who visit Singapore often ask me: How did we do it – house so many of our people in good-quality affordable housing?

As the HDB celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, I agreed to a suggestion by Today to pen a series of fortnightly columns to share my thoughts on public housing.

I will start by revisiting the core commitments that have shaped our public housing system over the last five decades, and discuss their relevance to Singapore today.

Our Core Commitments

– Homes for ownership: First, home ownership has been the hallmark of our public housing system. Today, nine in 10 people staying in public housing own their flats, the highest rate in the world.

Rather than making people pay “dead rent” with no returns for a roof over their heads, the Government decided early on that prudent mortgages can be a “good debt” that allows every citizen, every family, to have a concrete stake in this country.

– Homes for the masses: Second, public housing was designed from the start to cover the majority of Singaporeans, unlike the case in most countries.

Today, 80 per cent of our people stay in HDB flats. Public housing in Singapore is not just about putting roofs over people’s heads, but also about building an inclusive home for all Singaporeans.

– Homes for life: Third, our housing commitment to Singaporeans is a long-term one. HDB not only sells you a flat but comes back to upgrade it from time to time, the budget permitting.

In your golden years, we help you unlock the value of your flat with schemes such as the lease buyback, which allows you to stay in the flat while getting a regular income.

Looking ahead, are these commitments still relevant? I certainly believe so. We can debate the extent of our public housing coverage, or the types of housing to provide. But these core values are important to building a cohesive and stable country with an independent and financially-secure people.

Our Challenges Ahead

While maintaining our core objectives, we need to adjust our policies to suit the changing circumstances and needs of our people. Looking ahead, I see three key challenges:

– Homes for first-timers: Over the last 50 years, we have progressed from a nation of home seekers to home owners.

To maintain our promise of a concrete stake for all Singaporeans, we must focus on helping young couples buy their first flats. Hence, we have refined our policies to give them more priority – be it in terms of housing grants for resale flats, or access to new flats.

However, we must strike a balance.

Yes, we will build enough flats for young home buyers. But, we must also be careful not to over-build and cause values to be depressed, to the detriment of current home owners. Because a flat buyer today becomes a flat owner tomorrow, it is in the long term interest of young home buyers for HDB flats to maintain their value.

– Homes for diverse needs: Building homes for 80 per cent of Singaporeans means having to cater to buyers who have widely different incomes and aspirations.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the HDB built standard flats of a simple design. Today, it offers a greater variety of housing – from standard flats to premium designs like the Pinnacle@Duxton, from Build-to-Order (BTO) to Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) flats and Executive Condominiums – to meet the aspirations of different segments of Singapore society.

However, this greater variety comes with a wider range of prices. Buyers have to exercise their choice carefully, making sure they buy something that is within their means.

– Homes within our budget: Public housing takes up a big chunk of the state Budget – $1.7 billion this year.

While we are committed to providing affordable housing, we also have a responsibility to Singaporeans to ensure that the housing budget is used carefully.

Buyers will prefer higher subsidies so that they pay less. But that means more money for housing at the expense of education, healthcare, defence, and other national needs. Every Singaporean ultimately is a home buyer, a home owner, and a taxpayer. How do we balance the different interests of each of these groups?

Another issue: How do we share our resources such as land and Government subsidies between present and future generations?

There are no easy answers.

Over the coming weeks, I will discuss the various aspects of public housing, such as our approach to supply, pricing, and how we cater to different groups of Singaporeans, including those with lower incomes.

I hope you will join me for these coming articles.

By Mah Bow Tan, Minister for National Development.

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