apartment in the sky 2007

‘An apartment in the sky – the story of public housing in Singapore’. Rear Vision. 28 October 2007.

Loh Kah Seng: We’re walking along Tiong Bahru Road. In the 1950s this would have been part of a large settlement that grew up filled with unauthorised housing mostly, housing that was made of wood with attap roofs and zinc-roofs, and mostly inhabited by the low income Chinese working-class people. It wasn’t planned, so the fire hazard was fairly substantial. A second fire which happened in 1961 had burned across the road, across the Tiong Bahru Road, the fire, due to the direction of the wind, blew across the road and spread to Bukit Ho Swee here.

Over the course of the next four hours or so, most of the attap houses in Bukit Ho Swee were destroyed.

Annabelle Quince: So how many people altogether were displaced?

Loh Kah Seng: The amount registered fire victims was about 16,000.

Annabelle Quince: So then what happened? Once the fire went through, what happened to those 16,000 people?

Loh Kah Seng: The Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew made a promise that permanent housing would be available for them within nine months. And so the following year the fire victims able to move back. These are the blocks that were built after the fire, and they moved back here.

Annabelle Quince: So how long did it take them to build those blocks?

Loh Kah Seng: The earliest was in 1962, and that was within nine months.

Annabelle Quince: Some historians have argued that these forced relocations had a political motive.

Loh Kah Seng: The PAP government came in 1959. Independence was in 1965 and in this six years, basically the organised base of what would be opposition, political opposition, was destroyed. There was very little opposition after 1965 on an organised basis which you could say Oh, we tried to persuade residents not to move into HDB flats. That was almost non-existent by 1965.

Annabelle Quince: Were there political motives as well. I mean clearly there was a motive to get people into better housing. But where there other motives do you think, by the government to want to get rid of the existing housing and the existing communities?

Loh Kah Seng: I think the government could see that the unauthorised and autonomous settlements were an obstacle to the need to build the nation-state. In that sense I think there’s a political objective to integrate these large communities into the fabric of the new nation-state and the ideology of development that the new government was interested in. So it’s definitely political. Whether it is directly political to destroy opposition, as has been claimed by some scholars it’s hard to say. It is a claim, but it’s not easy to establish that with evidence.

Annabelle Quince: Today we’re in Singapore, one of the most densely populated islands in the world, looking at how they have dealt with the issue of housing affordability.

In 1964 the government introduced the Home Ownership Scheme to encourage Singaporeans to buy their own home. Under the scheme, the Housing Development Board offers flats for sale at below market price. They also provide low interest loans and they maintain and upgrade the estates.

And looking around at the flats we’re looking at now, what percentage of them would be government flats?

Loh Kah Seng: Most of them, except for some condominiums. Almost all of them are purchased flats. Under the home ownership scheme, which has been very successful in terms of response, most of the residents have bought the flats, and the government has continued to maintain and upgrade the flats. In the 1990s many of the flats here were upgraded so you can see that they have this thing that’s sort of attached, and these are the lifts. Where the lift now can go to every floor of the flats. So the upgrading program was very well received, and more than 90% of the residents supported it.

Annabelle Quince: So even though the residents now own the flats, the government will still upgrade the buildings?

Loh Kah Seng: They will. I mean they do it all over Singapore.

Loh Kah Seng: I think it’s helped to integrate the population into the country’s development. Previously a kampong where the people were very much autonomous, you know they had their own forms of life, and they didn’t want to have anything to do with the state if possible, they were afraid of the police, they had their own secret societies in the area. So I think what happened afterwards was ongoing integration and the government desired it, and wanted to integrate them. The people I think, the residents, most of them, desired it when they could see the advantages that you bring them the ability to own a house at a cost which was not much greater than renting a house. When people realised that and they saw the advantages of having safety from fire, access to utilities, water, electricity, they also accepted the kind of housing.

Annabelle Quince: And it’s interesting because if you look down, there’s quite a lot of green areas around all the flats, and the thing that strikes me, they’re not like high rise Housing Commission in Australia or in, say, somewhere like Great Britain or Europe, because they’re incredibly well cared for, aren’t they?

Loh Kah Seng: Yes, I mean it’s well planned, it’s definitely well planned, well maintained. I’m not sure who does this, whether it’s HDB or the Parks Board, but there is a lot of greenery.

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