Homes for a Nation — Public Housing in Singapore

Homes for a Nation — Public Housing in Singapore

To meet the changing needs and aspirations of a more affluent and diverse population, Singapores public housing will have to evolve in significant new directions in the coming decades.

Issue 2, 14 Apr 2007


Singapore’s public housing programme has its roots in the 1960s, when the acute housing shortage called for a low-cost housing model that could meet the people’s accommodation needs in the shortest possible time. Housing designs were kept simple and utilitarian — slab blocks of 1-, 2- and 3-room flats which came with basic amenities such as piped water and electricity. Although spartan by today’s standards, these flats were far better than the slums and rural huts of the past.

Following the first Concept Plan 1 for Singapore in 1971, HDB designed its public housing estates on two basic principles:

  • Optimise scarce land resources to meet long-term housing demands which led to the building of high- rise, high-density public housing.
  • Provide a total living environment with educational, social and community facilities in sustainable and self-contained new towns.

To meet the changing needs and lifestyles of Singaporeans, public housing has evolved over the years from the basic low-cost housing units of the 1960s to the high quality, reasonably priced apartments that are the hallmark of Singapore’s urban landscape today.


When Singapore attained self-government in 1959, only 9% of Singaporeans resided in public housing. Most of the population was living in squatter colonies and city slums in unhygienic and potentially hazardous conditions.


When Singapore attained self-government in 1959, only 9% of Singaporeans resided in public housing. Most of the population was living in squatter colonies and city slums in unhygienic and potentially hazardous conditions.

The priority at that time was to build a large number of flats as quickly as possible. To resolve this housing crisis, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was set up in 1960.

Three features have characterised Singapore’s approach to public housing since Independence:

  • A sole agency in charge of public housing, enabling more effective resource planning and housing allocation. HDB was able to secure land, raw materials and manpower for large-scale construction in a way that optimised resources and achieved economies of scale.
  • An integrated approach to housing from planning and design, through land assembly and construction, to management and maintenance.
  • Strong political and financial commitment from the Government.

There have been vast improvements in the living conditions of Singaporeans over the years. Today, 82% of the population live in 879,000 HDB flats located across 23 towns and estates. More remarkably, about 95% of all HDB residents own the flat they live in.

1970s — Rise of the New Towns

By the late 1960s, HDB adopted a more sophisticated “New Town” approach to residential urban planning: integrating residential areas with a town centre, parks, commercial and industrial areas and communal facilities such as a sports stadium and swimming complex. Developed in the 1960s and 1970s, Toa Payoh was the pioneer New Town, followed by others such as Ang Mo Kio and Bedok. Towns were comprehensively planned, so that each neighbourhood had its own smaller neighbourhood centre with shops, while the whole town was served by a larger town centre which formed the main activity hub. For the newer towns developed in the late 1970s such as Yishun and Bukit Batok, HDB incorporated additional design factors such as scale, street architecture and natural landscaping. Open space guidelines and pedestrian path systems were also introduced.

1980s — Quality Precincts

Rising affluence in the 1980s brought greater social aspirations and higher expectations for public housing. Town planning began to consider factors such as urban form, town structure, and the provision of regional facilities such as parks and open spaces. There was also greater emphasis on streetscape and the building of point-block apartments.

During this time, the “precinct concept” was established to provide a more conducive setting for community interaction. HDB neighbourhoods were sub-divided into several housing precincts, each comprising 400 to 600 dwelling units. A wide variety of recreational facilities for residents — playgrounds, fitness corners, multi-purpose courts and reflexology paths — were located at each precinct centre. To facilitate community interaction, precinct pavilions were also provided. Examples of the precinct planning concept can be found in Bishan and Pasir Ris Towns.

1990s to the Present — Premium Housing

In the 1990s, greater emphasis was placed on creating a quality living environment and building up the identities of precincts, neighbourhoods and towns. Landmark buildings, landscaping, open spaces and special architectural features were incorporated to achieve a strong visual identity for new towns like Choa Chu Kang, Sembawang and Sengkang. To give residents a wider choice and variety of housing, HDB also launched a new range of apartments — Premium Flats — designed with better fixtures, finishes and facilities. New residential concepts such as the “Punggol 21” waterfront town were also developed in response to changing lifestyles and aspirations. In Punggol, intimately scaled estates were developed, each with a common green as a recreational focal point for the community.


Beyond providing physical shelter for Singaporeans, the public housing programme has also served as an important policy instrument in promoting national objectives such as social mobility, rootedness and social integration.


Beyond providing physical shelter for Singaporeans, the public housing programme has also served as an important policy instrument in promoting national objectives such as social mobility, rootedness and social integration.

A hallmark of the public housing programme has been its policy of home ownership. Started in 1964, the Home Ownership for the People Scheme gives home-owning citizens a tangible asset and stake in the country, and promotes rootedness and a sense of belonging among Singaporeans, thus contributing to the overall economic, social and political stability of Singapore. Home ownership also provides Singaporeans with a hedge against inflation and a store of value, which can be monetised during times of need.

Today, a framework of public housing subsidies makes public housing affordable for families buying their first HDB flat, and for second-timers to upgrade to a bigger flat. Together with the Central Provident Fund scheme, healthcare support and Workfare, public housing has become one of the key pillars of Singapore’s social security framework.

Social Mobility

Singapore’s home ownership framework has helped to create a large asset-owning population, with a strong work ethic oriented towards upward social mobility. As the value of HDB flats have generally risen over time, many flat owners would realise gains from selling their flats. The asset values of HDB flats are also preserved and enhanced through various estates renewal programmes funded by the Government. These asset values can be unlocked when owners sell their HDB flats on the open market.

Social Integration

Public housing plays a crucial role in maintaining social harmony in multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious Singapore, by providing a living environment where Singaporeans of different races and socio-economic groups have opportunities to mix and interact with one another. This is achieved by providing commercial, educational, recreational, community and social facilities in public housing estates; varying the flat types and sizes within each HDB block; and setting limits on the ethnic proportions within each public housing block and neighbourhood.

Shared Experience

Today, 82% of the population is housed in HDB estates, and the estates (comprising flats and a comprehensive range of facilities) have become a common point of emotional reference for the vast majority of Singaporeans. This “HDB Experience” has played an important role in bonding Singaporeans, in the same way that National Service and the education system have created common experiences among Singaporeans of all races and from all walks of life.


Today, public housing continues to play a central role in nation-building. One of the most important considerations for planning and policy is to ensure that public housing remains responsive to the changing needs, aspirations and circumstances of Singaporeans over time.

While public housing in the 21st century will evolve to encompass a wider spectrum of housing types, the mission of providing Singaporeans with affordable homes in cohesive communities will remain a top priority.

Shifting Demography — Changing Needs

HDB regularly reviews the type of flats and housing forms to be built based on the changing demography and life-cycle housing needs of the population.

With evidence of an ageing population and a widening income disparity in Singapore, more attention is now being paid to meet the housing needs of the elderly and low-income flat buyers. Strategies that HDB have adopted to address these needs include:

More flat types — HDB launched Studio Apartments (SAs) in 1998 to provide the elderly with an alternative housing option. The SAs feature a compact design and elder-friendly safety fittings such as grab bars, bigger switches and an alert alarm system. The units are sold in a move-in condition, with flooring, built-in wardrobes, kitchen cabinets and stoves provided. Located in established towns near existing amenities and transport nodes, SAs maximise convenience for the elderly while allowing for independent living. Where possible, a social support facility run by a voluntary welfare organisation is also provided within each development. To date, seven SA projects have been completed, with another seven currently under or slated for construction.

In recent years, HDB has also re-introduced new 2- and 3-room flats to cater to the housing needs of lower-income groups. Additional subsidies are also given to aid the purchase, ensuring that up to 90% of the population can continue to afford an HDB flat.

Accessibility — To meet accessibility needs, particularly those of our ageing population, HDB has embarked on a three-pronged approach, comprising Lift Upgrading, Universal Design (UD) and Barrier Free Accessibility (BFA). UD was introduced to make all future HDB estates more user-friendly for the elderly, disabled and those with young families. New HDB flats will henceforth be built with step-free interiors and wider corridors to facilitate wheelchair movement. At the precinct level, BFA will be supported through provisions such as ramps, which will provide the elderly and the wheelchair-bound with seamless access to carparks, bus stops and other facilities. HDB is also working with relevant agencies such as the town councils and the Land Transport Authority to expand barrier-free improvements in existing HDB estates, with the objective of making all HDB housing estates barrier-free by 2011, so that residents of all ages will be able to move about easily within the new estates and enjoy all facilities to the fullest.

Private Sector Involvement

To meet the rising aspirations of Singaporeans, HDB has sought to provide more variety in housing forms through partnership with the private sector.

In addition to the Design and Build Scheme, in which HDB engaged private sector consultants to design and build public housing, HDB launched the Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) in 2005. Under DBSS, the private developer is responsible for the entire public housing development process — from bidding for the land, designing the project, overseeing construction to selling the flats directly to eligible buyers.

Estate Renewal and Regeneration

Another key emphasis of public housing in Singapore is estate renewal and rejuvenation. In the 1990s, the Estate Renewal Strategy (ERS) — comprising the Main Upgrading, Interim Upgrading and Lift Upgrading Programmes — was introduced to bring older towns to the standard of newer ones. The Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) was also introduced to enable HDB to acquire older flats for redevelopment. The residents involved are offered new replacement flats nearby so that they can enjoy modern amenities and a fresh lease of 99 years, while retaining communal ties in a familiar neighbourhood.

In the next decade, as the number of HDB flats aged 40 to 50 years grows, the need to upgrade and redevelop the older estates will take on greater urgency. One priority area is lift upgrading. The Government has committed to bring lift upgrading to all eligible HDB blocks by 2014, so that residents of these blocks can enjoy lift access on every floor. HDB is also studying innovative lift solutions to lower upgrading costs so that more HDB blocks can qualify for lift upgrading.

Looking further ahead, HDB will be embarking on a programme to build a new generation of public housing and regenerate existing public housing estates. Among the ideas under study is the concept of “Housing in a Park”, which will complement Singapore’s vision to be a City in a Garden. This will involve the creative integration of greenery and eco-friendly features into public housing. The new generation of HDB estates will also feature more communal spaces within each precinct, and even at the mid-levels of HDB blocks, to facilitate greater community participation and ownership.

The urban regeneration of HDB estates will mark a new milestone in Singapore’s public housing programme. It will constitute an integral part of our vision to build a distinctive city and an endearing home for Singaporeans, while also meeting their life-cycle needs.


Yap Chin Beng is Director of Estate Adminstration & Property at the Housing and Development Board.

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