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How Singapore Fixed Its Affordable Housing Problem

A 1965 newsreel looks back at a public-housing initiative led by late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew—one that continues to influence high levels of homeownership today.

By the time Lee Kuan Yew—who passed away Sunday at the age of 91—and his People’s Action Party (PAP) took control of Singapore in 1959, the city was nowhere near solving its persistent affordable housing crisis, nor its increasing racial strife.

Singapore's population grew steadily after World War II, but living conditions for the city's lower and middle classes failed to improve while tension between Chinese and Malay communities plagued the city. (Race riots in 1964 left 36 people dead and over 500 injured.)

Under British colonial rule, Singapore had its first public housing initiative, the Singapore Improvement Trust. Formed in 1927, it ultimately failed to better integrate the city's neighborhoods or put a dent in its housing shortage. Lee, Singapore's first prime minister, and his party replaced SIT with the Housing and Development Board in 1960. With that change came a new goal: 51,031 new housing units built within the program's first five years.

The HDB's first five-year plan is celebrated in the 1965 newsreel above, produced by the broadcast division of Singapore's Ministry of Culture. With footage of new housing projects that would make the heart of any modernist planner sing, the clip boasts of the board's accomplishment in exceeding its own construction goals and re-housing 400,000 Singaporeans—nearly a quarter of the city's 1960 population.

The newsreel also shows a related exhibit, with Yew in attendance, displaying Singapore's next round of ambitions in tiny model form. "This is how the new Singapore will look," the narrator tells us on the same year the city was expelled from Malaysia. "Multistory blocks of apartment houses, commercial houses, restaurants, hotels, theaters, shopping centers, and markets. Roads planned so that traffic can flow smoothly even when the number of cars and lorries has increased fourfold."

Fatal race riots took place once again later that decade, and the HDB determined in 1966 that 250,000 people were still living in squatter settlements in city limits—plus 300,000 in the suburbs. In 1968, Lee introduced a new measure that allowed those living in public housing to tap into their government pensions to buy their residences. According to Statistics Singapore, 90 percent of Singaporeans own their own homes today and more than 80 percent live in government-built residential units. The HDB also has an Ethnic Integration Policy that prevents racial enclaves from forming through the resale of public housing units.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect the correct usage of the prime minister's surname.

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