Ho Ching lists 3 major housing innovations ahead and also asks some HDB questions

By November 4, 2019Current

TL;DR – Some families may have troubles, but a stable home could be key to recover and grow with the rest.

Mdm Ho Ching, wife of our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, shared an article on a very old milestone of HDB on Friday. The article was titled, “HDB begins selling flats under Home Ownership Scheme, 12th Feb 1964”.

What was more interesting was her 1,213-word Facebook post.

Let me walk you through her Facebook post and I’ve also inserted relevant reference materials and links in case you want to understand more about the history and the thinking behind Singapore’s very successful public housing.

In the first part of her post, Mdm Ho Ching had walked us through the history of how public housing  first started for us, how it evolved and how at various points in history, different policy changes were made to solve certain problems or to improve the system.

Essentially Singapore’s first housing scheme was first started to help house the poorest Singaporeans, so the Government had built rental flats, with rates well below the market. This urgent housing need became even more pressing when we had that huge fire at Bukit Ho Swee.

Also, it was a very proud moment for our little red dot as HDB received the United Nations Public Service Award (UNPSA) for its Home Ownership Programme in June 2008. The UNPSA is one of the most prestigious international awards for excellence in public service. Did you know that HDB was the only winner in the Asian region among 12 worldwide?


Shelter is one of basic needs of people, alongside with food and other basic necessities.

Housing (and homes) has evolved from holes and caves, to mudhuts and boat houses, to highrise flats and co-living apartments in modern cities.

Modern SG too went through its own evolution, the most dramatic since HDB was established.

From crammed shared bed cages to high quality public housing for some 80% of the population, HDB also adapted and changed alongside changes in government policies to meet changing needs.

HDB replaced the SIT, and built more homes in 5 years, than the SIT did in the preceding 3 decades.

It first built for rental, with rates well below the market, catering to the urgent needs of the poorest families, and especially after a huge fire swept through a major slum area.

Then came 1964, when the home ownership scheme was launched – again with lots of subsidies for the poorest families.

Purchased flats could not be sold on the open market – they could only be sold back to HDB at the posted price, mostly bcos the flats had been heavily subsidised and meant for stable and sustainable shelter, rather than as an asset.

Then came the next policy innovation. Legislation was passed to allow the use of CPF for home purchase.

Next came another liberalisation – HDB flat owners could sell their flats in the open market after occupying them for a number of years.

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With the most urgent shelter needs met, the HDB housing liberalised further, opening up for PRs to but in 1989, and to singles in 1991, first with age and location restrictions which have since liberalised further.

The home ownership system was recognised in 2008 by the United Nations with a public service award.

The late Lee Kuan Yew viewing the housing models for the Cantonment Road area in the 1960s (via)

In the second part, Mdm Ho touched on the Land Acquisition Act, and how it  effectively helped us stage the “biggest land reform and wealth transfer seen nowhere in the world.”

The Land Acquisition Act (LAA) of 1966 was controversial but necessary, as then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had explained:

When we were confronted with an enormous problem of bad housing, no development, overcrowding, we decided that unless drastic measures were taken to break the law, break the rules, we would never solve it. We therefore took overriding powers to acquire land at low cost, which was in breach of one of the fundamentals of British constitutional law – the sanctity of property. But that had to be overcome, because the sanctity of the society seeking to preserve itself was greater. So we acquired at sub-economic rates. 

The power to acquire land was critical to fulfilling many of Singapore’s early objectives, from the provision of public housing to the development of industrial estates and major public infrastructure projects such as the airport and ports. Because land acquisition was by nature sweeping and contentious, its legal and administrative framework had to be open, fair and transparent. Safeguards as well as an appeal process were put in place to prevent its abuse by the unscrupulous and to ensure that land acquired was clearly needed for a public purpose.

The home ownership scheme could not have succeeded with other policy changes and new laws, such as the use of CPF but also the Land acquisition act.

As one writer had observed recently, the Land Acquisition Act set the stage for one of the biggest land reform and wealth transfer seen anywhere in the world. 

And it could not have happened without the support of land owners. They too felt the call of the nation for survival and for building a country and home for one people, regardless of race, language or religion.

The Land Acquisition Act started off compensating acquired land at below market rates, for public use – housing, roads, schools, etc. As the country grew and accumulated reserves and the means, land acquisition compensation also moved to market rates.

This is the home of Bob Mubarark who has bought this 4-room HDB flat under the Single Singapore Citizen Scheme (via)

As the basic needs of the low and lower income Singaporeans are met and continuously better met, HDB continues to liberalise to meet changing needs. Today, we have 80% of Singaporeans living in HDB flats.

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Underpinning all these major moves on home ownership is the belief that people will defend their homes if they have a stake, and home ownership will make for a more stable society for the longer term.

HDB homes started as a solution for the low income, and expanded to cover the growing demands of a growing middle and later upper middle income. They peaked at the high 80% of housing in SG at one time, and have since stabilised around 80%.

HDB continues to liberalise and innovate to meet changing needs, such as shorter leases or grants for homes near parents and so on.

Kampung Admiralty, built for all ages (via)

Mdm Ho Ching then described three major innovations ahead and termed them as community, life cycle, and top & tail. She raised quite some very interesting points and asked some questions.

I particularly love the Top&Tail part of her musing. I have long believed that having a stable roof over a kid’s head is important in the process of growing up. Can you imagine having to live your tender young life being moved from home to home, or staying with some relatives whose homes are already very cramped?

This is also why I’m a big supporter of the KidStart programme and am so happy that the Government has decided to keep it and expand it. We need to do more for the underprivileged Singaporeans, especially families with young children so that they have a real chance of moving up. Trampoline, remember?

Food for thought, HDB?

Perhaps 3 major innovations ahead could be described as Community, Life cycle, and Top&Tail.

Community –
Homes are not just shelter – and communities can be supported by design.

Seoul won the best city prize some years ago, with the concept of layers of amenities in growing circles. This is similar to the IB concept of circles of learning, starting with self, family, neighbours, neighbourhood, town, city, country, world.

Seoul did extensive surveys and community engagement in developing their layered concept of amenities – what an immediate neighbourhood of 20-40 families would need, what a larger neighbourhood of 200 families would need, and so on. It then proceeded to study various such neighbourhoods and worked on infill projects to provide such amenities.

Neighbours began to come together and communities began to form. No longer is the home a place where we are cut off from the world. Instead, home remains a sanctuary, where we can also step out conveniently to get something else done and get to know others around us, and build mutual friendship and support around our homes.

Community is not just a town centre, and amenities is not a kids’ playground 100m away from a hawker centre or a row of eateries.

  • Can we redesign our lift and stair area at every floor to be a local neighborhood gathering or service point?
  • Can retired residents read to children, gathering youthful energy from the young, while the young absorbs wisdom and stories of life?
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Life cycle of neighborhoods –
People grow old and new generations grow up and start their own families.

  • Can neighbourhoods be designed for assisted living and nursing facilities integrated along with childcare and respite care all preplanned, preprepared or prepositioned as part of the life cycle needs of a community?
  • Can pre-schools and elder centres be integrated ahead of time?
  • Can sites be preplanned for infills as children grow up and start families of their own?

Top & Tail –
HDB has been successful in catering for a whole range of our families – the lower income to upper middle incomes at the 89th percentile.

But can we look back at the roots of HDB, and think how we can support the needy among our bottom decile to become home owners, and not just renters? Such homes can start with 2-room flats.

If we can help uplift the children of the poor needy families have a stable home, by helping their parents own their own homes, it would be a worthy programme.

Some of these families may have other needs or troubles, but a stable home of their own could be one of the key steps for them to recover and grow with the rest.

And perhaps these homes can be sold in the open market on 2 or more conditions. First is to stay for at least 10 years, or till their youngest child is 10 years old, before they can sell in the open market; second, that the proceeds of the sale is used to upgrade to a larger HDB flat either bcos the family has gotten bigger or the children are growing bigger, and the family needs more space, or the family income has risen so that they can afford to upgrade to a bigger home.

  • Can we also look at the top quintile, and open HDB housing to those who would like to have more affordable homes?
  • For equity purposes, we could perhaps open to this group, on condition that they pay a premium over the subsidised posted price?

In the HK situation, housing is not the solution to their current troubles. But housing would be one key hygiene factor for social equity and stability.

The HDB of today may not be a relevant model for HK, but the evolution of public housing, first rental, then ownership kept separate from the open market (ie cannot resell in the open market) could be part of the social scaffolding that HK can consider adapting to their own needs and circumstances.

SG itself also needs to continue to learn too as our own needs change and evolve.


I’ll leave you with a great video that a Hong Kong media outlet has done on the philosophy, thinking and processes behind Singapore’s public housing scheme. It’s pretty amazing how far ahead the Singapore government plans! If you cannot understand Chinese or Cantonese, Mothership.sg has done some English translation of the video previously.

(Featured image via)


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Qiqi Wong

Author Qiqi Wong

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