At independence in 1965, 70 percent of Singapore’s households lived in badly overcrowded conditions, and a third of its people squatted on the city fringes. Unemployment averaged 14 percent, GDP per capita was less than $2,700, and half of the population was illiterate. Falling mortality rates and migration from the Malay Peninsula implied rapid population growth, further increasing the pressure on both housing and employment: 600,000 additional units of housing were needed, and private supply was less than 60,000. An account of this time comes from a contemporary visitor to Singapore.(a)
The undercover walkways are usually taken over by hawker stalls and junk. Laundry hangs from poles thrust out of windows above—just like in old Shanghai. This is Singapore, in the early 1970s. We were all devastated at the time—we who didn’t live here. From 1871 to 1931 the city’s Chinese population rose from 100,000 to 500,000. By 1960 it is estimated that more than 500,000 Chinese were living in slum-like conditions—indoors. Equipped with only one kitchen and one bathroom, the shophouses were designed for two extended families at most. After extensive partitioning many of them housed up to 50 individuals.
Today, less than 40 years later, Singapore’s slums are gone. In their place is one of the cleanest and most welcoming cities in the world. The secret? First, institutional reforms made the government known for its accountability. Then, the government became a major provider of infrastructure and services. The scarcity of land made good planning an imperative. Multiyear plans were produced, implemented, and updated. Finally, the housing authority (HDB) was mandated to undertake a massive program of slum clearance, housing construction, and urban renewal. Public housing has been an integral part of all development plans. At the height of the program, HDB was building a new flat every eight minutes. Of Singapore’s population, 86 percent now lives in publicly built units. Most own their flats, encouraged by special housing funds financed from the Employees Provident Fund, a mandatory retirement scheme. Serviced land was made available. Through the Land Amalgamation act, the government acquired almost one-third of city land. Slum dwellers were relocated to public housing.
For a city-state in a poor region, it is not an exaggeration to assert that eff ective urbanization was responsible for delivering growth rates that averaged 8 percent a year throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It required a combination of market institutions and social service provision, strategic investment in infrastructure, and improved housing for slum dwellers.
Sources: Yuen 2004, Yusuf and Nabeshima 2006.
a. Cockrem 2007.