Address by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Gala Dinner for the International Housing Conference on Tuesday, 26 January 2010

26 January 2010

 

Mr James Koh, Chairman, HDB

Distinguished guests

Ladies and Gentlemen


1. It gives me great pleasure to be here this evening for the Gala Dinner of the International Housing Conference, held in conjunction with HDB’s 50th anniversary.  I also extend a warm welcome to the many international delegates who are with us tonight.

2. This Conference commemorates Singapore’s public housing journey over half a century.  It parallels the journey of many Singaporeans, and of modern Singapore.  For our public housing programme did not merely provide physical shelter to the population.  It has contributed critically to the economic, social, and political development of this country.

BIRTH OF HDB

3. Older Singaporeans will recall how different it was 50 years ago.  When we achieved self-government in 1959, less than 10 percent of the 1.6 million people on the island owned a home.  New housing construction could not keep pace with the rapidly growing population.  Many families lived in overcrowded slums and squatter colonies in unsafe and squalid conditions.  For them, home was no more than a bunk bed stacked on top of another bunk bed, or a tiny cubicle in a decrepit shop-house crammed with other occupants.  These slums in and around the city centre housed more than half a million people.  They were serious fire hazards, and became breeding grounds for disease and crime.

4. Responding to this crisis, the newly-elected PAP Government set up a new housing authority, the Housing and Development Board, in February 1960.  Public housing was the first priority for the new Government, and HDB received full financial and legislative support and political backing to carry out its mission.  

5. HDB’s immediate focus was to build as many low-cost housing units as possible, within the shortest time.  It therefore designed basic but functional flats, with adequate living space, and equipped with piped water, electricity and proper sanitation.  Within a month of HDB’s formation, the first pile for the first block of HDB flats was driven into the ground at Stirling Road.  And within five years, HDB built 55,000 flats, more than double what its predecessor, the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), had constructed in 30 years under the colonial government.  The HDB built on this quick start, and by the 1970s Singapore’s severe housing shortage had largely been overcome. 

6. After Singapore became Independent in 1965, we embarked on the difficult task of building a nation.  The Govern¬ment introduced National Service, so that we could raise an army to defend the homeland.  It also decided on a policy of encouraging home ownership, to give Singaporeans a tangible stake in the country and a share in its future.  It reasoned that only when Singaporeans owned their own homes and so had a valuable asset which was theirs, would they be prepared to fight to defend the young nation. 

7. Hence, the Government introduced the Home Ownership Scheme in 1964.  Four years later, in 1968, the Govern¬ment allowed flat buyers to use the savings in their Central Provident Fund to pay for HDB flats. This brought home ownership within the reach of most Singaporeans.  

8. Today, more than 8 in 10 Singaporeans live in HDB flats, and more than 9 in 10 of these own the flat they live in.  No other country in the world has such an extensive public housing system.  Singapore also has one of the highest percentages of home ownership in the world.  

NATION-BUILDING THROUGH PUBLIC HOUSING 

9. As HDB transformed the physical landscape, it also played a pivotal role in our social development. 

10. At the basic level, HDB helped the population to adapt to high-rise, high-density living.  At first, many Singaporeans had reservations about moving into the newly-built flats.  They were used to living in single-storey attap houses in kampungs.  Some resettled residents even brought their pigs and poultry to their new flats!  Many residents also preferred apartments on the lower floors, fearing that they might have to walk up many flights of stairs should the lifts break down.  Today, the converse is true.  Flat buyers are prepared to pay more for higher-floor apartments to get a better view, confident that their lifts are well-maintained and reliable. 

11. Other behaviours are harder to change.  When Singaporeans first moved into high-rise flats, some residents tossed things out of their windows, from food to pots and pans, even bicycles, just as they had done when living in single-storey houses.  Now such behaviour is less common, and we certainly have not seen any flying bicycles for some time.  But unfortunately, even till today we still have not solved the problem of killer litter.

12. Beyond shaping these basic instincts, HDB saw its mission as building new communities in the new townships.  It tried hard to retain the kampung spirit, where people knew their neighbours and looked out for one another.  From the start, HDB estates were designed to promote interaction among residents.  They were developed with facilities such as places of worship, neighbourhood shops, wet markets and hawker centres.  Each precinct and block included flats of varying types and sizes, so that they would house a good mix of residents from different income and social groups.  Common areas and shared facilities, like children’s playgrounds, fitness corners and open spaces, encouraged residents to mix and mingle.  When we introduced Residents’ Committees in 1978, they worked closely with the HDB and Town Councils to improve the facilities and cater to the needs of residents.

13. The shift to public housing in the new townships also helped to promote racial integration.  Prior to this, the various races lived apart in different areas around the island.  But as the Govern¬ment cleared the slums and enclaves, and resettled Singaporeans into flats, HDB administered a balloting system for new flats, to make sure that each block would contain a balanced mix of the various ethnic groups.  Thus the enclaves were broken up, and the races came to live side-by-side with one another.  This was a positive development which enhanced our community relations and inter-racial confidence.

14. However, this situation was not permanent.  Residents who had bought HDB flats could sell their flats after a minimum occupation period, and perhaps buy another one on the resale market.  Gradually the races began to regroup in different estates, and concentrations started forming again.  We decided that we could not afford to go back to the same problem as before, as this time we would have no second chance to reshuffle the deck.  Hence in 1989, the Government implemented the Ethnic Integration Policy, which set limits on the maximum proportions for the respective ethnic groups allowed in each HDB neighbourhood and block.  This drastic move has been effective in preventing the re-formation of racial enclaves, and encouraging the different races to interact and forge links with one another.

15. Over half a century, two generations of Singaporeans have grown up in HDB flats.  Public housing helped to mould our unique national identity and collective experience as Singaporeans.  It created and shaped our commu¬nities, and provided the foundation for our social stability and economic growth.  

KEEPING UP WITH RISING ASPIRATIONS

16. As Singapore developed, our society prospered and Singaporeans came to expect higher quality housing.  HDB hence began to build bigger flats, with better designs and quality of finishes, to meet the aspirations of a younger, more educated generation of home seekers.

17. At the same time, starting from 1989 HDB introduced major upgrading and renewal programmes to ensure that older estates did not decay, but instead were brought up to the standards of the newer ones.  The precincts were spruced up, amenities were improved or added, and barrier-free access was created to cater to an ageing population.  Lifts were revamped to stop on every floor, and improvement works were even carried out within some flats.  These works received generous government subsidies, which was possible only because the economy had been doing well, the Government had been running fiscal surpluses, and we could afford to plough back some of these surpluses to enhance the assets of Singaporeans.
  
18. Now that we have housed the entire population, is there still a role for HDB?  I have no doubt that the answer is ‘Yes’.  While private housing is more readily available today, it caters mostly to higher-income groups.  The HDB still has the responsibility to provide good-quality public housing to the majority of Singaporeans, to foster social integration among diverse groups and to build cohesive communities within our housing estates.

19. But the environment has changed.  Singaporeans’ aspirations have risen sharply.  Finding a roof over our heads is no longer the pressing requirement.  The HDB flat is not just a shelter but also a key investment asset.  People have many considerations in choosing their flats – they want the right flat, in the right locality, at the right time and at the right price.  Such high expect¬ations are understandable, since buying a flat is a major commitment for a young couple setting up a home together.  HDB is committed to providing Singaporeans with high quality public housing, even though it cannot accommodate every preference and meet every expectation.

20. The Govern¬ment is also committed to keeping HDB flat prices affordable to Singa¬poreans.  Indeed HDB prices its new flats such that they are within the means of the vast majority, about 80% of Singaporeans.  It will also build sufficient new flats to cater to demand as our population expands.  However, the Government has less control over housing prices in the resale market.  These resale prices are set by individual households who transact flats on a willing buyer, willing seller basis, and are affected by movements and sentiments in the wider economy, including in the private property market.  Hence, resale prices of HDB flats will fluctuate from year-to-year.  But over the long term, the value of HDB flats depends on the strength of the Singa¬pore economy.  Provided Singapore continues to do well, our flats will maintain their value, and Singaporeans can enjoy an appreciating asset.

CONCLUSION

21. The HDB story is a central part of the Singapore Story.  Over half a century, the HDB has housed a growing population and played an integral part in our nation-building.  This year, capping half a century of accomplishments, HDB will construct its one millionth flat.  

22. On behalf of all Singa¬poreans, I want to thank the dedicated team in HDB who has made all these achievements possible – the planners and architects who laid out the new towns, and designed successive generations of better and better flats; the project implementers who oversaw the ambitious building programmes; the counter staff who handled millions of transactions with the public each year, and did their best to be responsive and helpful; and the estate managers who kept the precincts well-maintained until the Town Councils took over the function.  Many outstanding HDB officers have been recognised individually from time-to-time, but tonight let me commend the entire team – all the management and staff of HDB, both past and present – for your professionalism and hard work, for your constant and steadfast effort, and for the magnificent result that you have delivered.  I urge the HDB to build on your achievements and scale new heights of excellence, to better the lives of Singaporeans.  

23. I wish HDB a very happy 50th anniversary.  Thank you.