Chapter 3: From Housing a Nation to Meeting Rising Aspirations: Evolution of Public Housing over the Years
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43 3 From Housing a Nation to Meeting Rising Aspirations: Evolution of Public Housing over the Years Choon-Piew Pow Introduction With over 80 per cent of the Singaporean resident population residing in Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, it is certainly not an overstatement that public housing is and has remained one of the key cornerstones in Singapore’s successful public policy over the last few decades. The collective consumption of the public housing landscape, to be sure, is about more than just securing the proverbial “roof over one’s head”, but has become bound up integrally with dominant state ideologies and evolving statesocietal dynamics that shape Singapore’s changing landscape. Specifically, this chapter will examine how the public housing, or HDB landscape, in Singapore has been used as a spatial planning tool to advance certain national agendas set out by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government. Insofar as landscape is a central organising concept providing us with a theoretical lens to uncover the power that underwrites the production of urban spaces and infrastructure (refer to Chapter 1), this chapter argues that the HDB landscape in Singapore is not merely a symbol of state power but serves as a vital spatial planning tool through which the developmental state’s 03 C-Landscapes.indd 43 7/31/13 11:35:32 AM Choon-Piew Pow 44 social engineering policies and vision of a “good” society are carried out, sometimes with unintended consequences. To substantiate the argument, the chapter will first review the role of the “developmental state” in Singapore to show how political elites through various state agencies such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Housing Development Board (HDB) have harnessed urban planning, including that of housing provision, in the interests of economic development. Following that, the chapter elucidates how other state agendas have been woven into the collective consumption of the public housing landscape over two key periods. The chapter discusses how during the post-independence years after 1965, the immediate challenge faced by HDB was to meet the basic housing needs of the newly formed nation-state whereas since the mid-1990s onwards this approach has shifted towards the renewal of ageing housing stock and also greater differentiation in housing provision to cater to a more affluent population base. The chapter then reflects on recent challenges and problems confronting the HDB landscape as Singapore faces a more socially complex population base, followed by a concluding section. The Developmental State and HDB Landscapes in Singapore Several scholars have argued that the ascent of the PAP government and its enduring power in politics has given birth to a “developmental state” in Singapore, characterised by an overriding emphasis on economic develop­ ment even to the extent of subsuming selective political and social rights for the past 30 years; see also Perry et al. 1997. On the other hand, social policies, such as that relating to housing provision, are mobilised in the service of achieving social stability so as to promote economic growth. Through an extensive package of economic and social policies as well as infrastructure planning and development, the Singaporean leadership has “laboured to transform the city-state into a linchpin of the new global capitalism” (Chua 1993: 105).  The term “social engineering” as it is understood in the Social Sciences literature refers to the attempts by government institutions or corporations to shape and influence the attitudes and behaviours of the masses through various manipulative strategies. Typically, the term is being used with pejorative connotations to highlight how political elites order and “discipline” the society to achieve certain “desirable” (utopian) outcome, often at the expense of individual liberty and freedom (see for example, Wilkinson 1988). 03 C-Landscapes.indd 44 7/31/13 11:35:32 AM From Housing a Nation to Meeting Rising Aspirations 45 With a population size of 5.18 million people (Population in Brief 2011) residing in an area of approximately 700 square kilometres, the densely populated city-state of Singapore has witnessed tremendous physical and social transformations since its independence in the 1960s. Limited land availability has led to high-rise and high-density buildings coming to characterise much of the urban landscape in the country. During the 1960s through to the 1970s and 1980s, the city underwent massive urban redevelopment with the decentralisation of the population away from the crowded city centre to outlying new towns and residential suburbs. This was to be accompanied by the rapid construction of high-rise HDB flats...