Building Affordable Homes – Even The UK Learned From Singapore’s HDB Public Housing Programme

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Jan 27 2023
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Last year (2022), more than 20,000 HDB flats were completed – the highest number in the last 5 years. It was a 50% increase as compared to 2021, meaning even during the Covid-19 pandemic, HDB managed to build 10,000 affordable homes. The Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) is targeting to complete another 20,000 flats across 22 housing projects in 2023.


The HDB is prepared to launch up to 100,000 BTO (Build-To-Order) flats in total from 2021 to 2025, which normally takes 3 to 4 years waiting time pre-pandemic. Not only Singapore’s public housing is efficiently designed and built, it was also so affordable and fairly distributed that 80% Singapore residents live in HDB, and nearly 90% of Singapore’s population own their own home.


In fact, the Housing Board was so serious about providing quality and affordable homes for everyone that errant flat owners who did not live in their HDB flats during the 5-year MOP (minimum occupation period) would be punished. In general, flat owners are not allowed to sell or rent out their flat or invest in a private residential property during the MOP, which starts from the day of key collection.

Singapore Colourful HDB Flats - City

The HDB conducts about 500 inspections each month to detect violations of housing rules such as illegal flat rentals. This is to prevent buyers from buying a BTO flat, but not for the purpose of living there. They are greedy owners who buy and sell it as “almost brand new” on the resale market for quick profits. Such owners could see their flats acquired by the board, fined up to S$50,000 or slapped with written warnings.


That’s because HDB flats in Singapore – the world’s most expensive cities to live in together with New York – are heavily subsidized. From time to time, the authorities would conduct spot checks on the physical flat itself, a review of records to prove flat occupation, and interviews with flat owners, property agents, buyers and even neighbours Therefore, only a handful dares to cheat.


Between 2017 and November 2022, 53 errant flat owners who did not live in their HDB flats during the MOP were taken to task – averaging 10 cheating cases per year. But the fact that they got caught anyway means the government takes the violation of house ownership rules very seriously. Its policy is to reinforce public housing as a home for the owners to live in, not to speculate.

Singapore First HDB Flats

However, the HDB flat, commonly referred as “government housing”, is more than just an affordable public housing system. Its primary objective is building cohesive communities to ensure its multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious community co-exist and maintain racial harmony by providing living environments with community spaces for residents to mingle and interact.


So, when neighbouring Malaysia tries to engage experts from Singapore’s HDB to resolve the country’s endless housing issues, opposition Perikatan Nasional quickly spins and twists it into a racial issue. Initially, PAS Islamist party has falsely claimed that Malay reserve land would disappear after Local Government Minister Nga Kor Ming said he plans to consult Singapore HDB to build more affordable homes.


Then, the despicable PAS religious extremists started stirring up racial and religion sentiments among the Malays that their village could disappear. Now, in an attempt to provoke government servants, the racist bigots lied that Mr Nga, a DAP (Democratic Action Party) minister, is bringing experts from Singapore because the Malaysian civil service is inefficient in housing matters.

Local Government Minister Nga Kor Ming

It’s not hard to understand the political motives of PAS extremists in criticizing the Pakatan Harapan-led unity government for the sake of criticizing. It has to keep promoting racist hatred, xenophobia, and all forms of bigotry because that’s the only way PAS can stay relevant. It would rather see Malays remain poor and unable to afford a home than to see HDB flats succeeded in Malaysia.


Yes, it would be disastrous for the Islamist party if Anwar administration, especially DAP, could fix the 60-year-old housing problems by replicating the successful housing model of HDB in the country. The Malays would start asking why the previous Barisan Nasional and Perikatan Nasional governments failed to solve housing problems that DAP Nga Kor Ming could easily fix.


Barisan Nasional, despite ruling for 61 years since independence in 1957, has failed to provide sufficient affordable homes. Perikatan Nasional did not even care about housing during its 33-month rule. According to real estate PropertyGuru, 51% of Malaysians do not qualify for the government’s affordable housing scheme and cannot afford to buy property without financial assistance.

Malaysia Low Cost Flat

Hassan Basri, who shared a 2-bedroom flat in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, with his parents and an aunt since he finished school in 2005, is still living there in 2022. Having to sleep in the living area, the 34-year-old factory bus driver simply does not have enough money to support a family, let alone owning a home of his own. Stories like Hassan’s are aplenty.


Before former Prime Minister Najib Razak lost power in 2018, he proudly announced that his 1Malaysia Peoples’ Housing Scheme (PR1MA) has awarded more than RM15 billion worth of contracts to 574 Bumiputera firms. Overall, the PR1MA had given away a jaw-dropping RM22.4 billion worth of contracts to its business partners – comprising developers, contractors as well as vendors.


Heck, the ex-PM actually had promised to build 1-million affordable houses, including 500,000 units of PR1MA houses, after winning the 2013 General Election. Yet, despite his promise to build hundreds of thousands of affordable housing for the people – every year – the fact remains only 11,944 units of PR1MA homes had been completed and sold by November 2017.

Budget 2016 - PR1MA PRIMA Houses Can See But Cannot Own - Najib Razak

Instead, Najib’s best friend – Jamaluddin Jarjis – believed to be the man behind PR1MA scheme became a billionaire. Known as JJ, Mr Jamaluddin’s wealth was exposed after his death in a helicopter crash in 2015, leading to family feud in court for his RM2.1 billion estate. As the chairman of PR1MA, JJ is believed to have had benefitted from the scheme through kickbacks.


According to Bank Negara Malaysia (Central Bank), the reason why Malaysians are unable to afford a home is not due to strict lending rules on housing loan. The real reason is because houses are not affordable to people like Hassan Basri. At the same time, crooks like former PM Najib and his cronies were scamming people and stealing money under the pretext of building affordable houses.


Exactly what PAS religious extremists had done to solve housing problems when they were the governing partner in the backdoor government of Perikatan Nasional for the last 33 months? They had done absolutely nothing except promoting racism and extremism, while talking about women and sex as well as demanding latest Mercedes Benz and marrying younger wives.

Ahmad Yakob – Kelantan Menteri Besar Chief Minister - Mercedes Benz S450L AMG

Even if it’s true that Local Government Minister Nga Kor Ming is seriously seeking the expertise of the Singapore’s Housing and Development Board to build more affordable homes, it’s better than doing nothing like the useless PAS. Besides, tapping the professional advice from the neighbour does not mean surrendering or sacrificing national sovereignty.


Just because the new government of Anwar Ibrahim is serious about building affordable housing, it does not necessarily mean Malaysia can clone Singapore’s housing strategy. Hong Kong has tried to learn – but failed to copy – Singapore’s housing policy. While Hong Kong’s land mass is larger than Singapore by around 400 sq km, each person in Hong Kong has less living space as compared to Singapore.


Essentially, Hong Kong is larger than Singapore by three times, and it has twice as many residents, but yet the residential land area in Hong Kong is much smaller. There’s no solution for Hong Kong’s housing problem primarily because only 44.8% of Hong Kongers live in public housing as compared to 80% Singaporeans. Housing is affordable in Singapore because they are public housing to begin with.

Hong Kong - View

And because private housing typically costs twice as much as public housing, it’s not rocket science why Singapore does not face the same problem as Hong Kong. In Singapore, the government controls the housing. In Hong Kong, property developers control the real estate. The Singapore government’s policies of allowing retirement funds Central Provident Fund (CPF) to be used to purchase houses help tremendously.


Interestingly, before HDB was established in the1960s, its predecessor – Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) – had built 20,907 units of public housing flats in the span of 12 years from 1947 to 1959. This means during British colonial rule, the public housing in Singapore was built in a similar fashion to the British public housing projects called “council housing”.


Yet, 100 years later, the UK social housing policy becomes a major challenge, plagued with problems of affordability and availability. Today, the British want to learn from the “Singapore model”, especially how the HDB housing is cleverly integrated into the existing urban infrastructure, including roads, public transport, schools and health services to produce more upmarket housing.

Singapore Colourful HDB Flats - Corridor

Malaysia has a bigger problem. There were at least 384 abandoned housing projects by the previous governments of Barisan Nasional and Perikatan Nasional. Another 129 “sick projects” have been identified as being delayed more than 30% behind schedule. In total, more than 500 projects worth billions of ringgit are stuck, which in turn affects thousands of house buyers.


The people, especially the Malays, have a choice. They can either continue to live with their parents like Hassan Basri, or they can ignore PAS extremists and bigots and adopt an open mind to the Singapore’s HDB model. There’s nothing wrong to learn from the experts. Nga Kor Ming has nothing to lose. He can easily let the public housing deteriorate, if that’s what the people radicalized by PAS wanted.


More importantly, PAS is afraid that if HDB can be replicated successfully, the government led by Pakatan Harapan could start building a multi-racial community that interacts with each other. It would be harder for the extremists to use “divide-and-rule” strategy for their selfish political gains. The HDB flats could be the game changer that could undermine the Islamist party.

Singapore HDB Flats - Community


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